This article was last modified on April 15, 2010.

Empire Strikes First: Drone Attacks

Picture for a minute, if you will, a busy bank on a Thursday afternoon. Suddenly, the peace becomes disturbed when a robber demands a bag be filled with non-sequential bills, and although the man is not armed, the bank complies because of their policy. Before the robber can escape, the good guys — the police — arrive, and open fire. The robber dies, as do four customers and five bank employees. A job well done?

Any rational person would look at such a scenario and demand compensation for the families, the public firing of the officers and police chief and a discontinuation of such aggressive policies. However, when approaching comparable situations in Pakistan, this is exactly how the military behaves without any Americans batting an eye, let alone demanding a cessation of such wild and unpredictable tactics. This has never been more true than with the use of “drones”, unmanned aircraft that fire upon clusters of people.

The drones are more properly known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), essentially large remote-controlled airplanes operated from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The planes are MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, and fire AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Their use, at least in Pakistan, was started in 2004 under President Bush. President Obama has not only continued the use of drones, but has dramatically increased their usage. As Dave Lindorff, investigative journalist and author of “The Case for Impeachment” informs me, “Since taking office in the White House, President Obama has doubled the use of remote Predator drones in Pakistan, and also has expanded their use to other sovereign nations, including Somalia and Yemen.”

We could cite many statistics showing Obama’s embrace of the drone, but one example should suffice: from January 1 to July 18, 2009 there were more casualties than in all of 2008. The press plays up the “top al-Qaeda operative” kills and plays down the civilian deaths. A total of 44 drone attacks occurred in 2009, but only five of these hit their targets. Of the 708 people killed in the strikes, more than 90 percent of them were civilians. Law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell of Notre Dame conducted a study that found by October 2009, the ratio has been about twenty “leaders” killed for every 750-1000 unintended victims. As noted above, we would not allow the police to fire such random shots in peaceful areas. Why do we allow the military this preferential treatment?

O’Connell also points out that as a byproduct of these attacks, drones are having a counter-productive impact in Pakistan’s attempt to repress insurgency and violence. The Brookings Institution agreed, and suggested the effective answer to eliminating al-Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan would be long-term support of Pakistan’s counterinsurgency efforts. Funding of health care and education is more likely to placate angry citizens than the funding of their family’s murders.

There was predictable criticism of the drones during the Bush regime from the likes of liberal Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, who asserted that the United States was violating international law by carrying out strikes against a country that never attacked the United States. Kucinich has become much more quiet since Obama became Commander-in-Chief, but not everyone is crawling back under the rug. Lindorff is scathing in his polemic, telling me that “while some on the left have decried this tactic [of using drones] — some, like me, identifying it as a war crime in violation of the UN Charter against wars of aggression, as well as a violation of the Geneva Convention ban on the disproportionate killing of civilians — others have remained silent, giving Obama a pass where they would have been howling about the same thing if it were done by the prior president.”

Lindorff’s deferring to the UN is correct, as they have expressed their own worries. The United Nations Human Rights Council has drafted a report that asserted that the US government has not kept track of civilian casualties of the drone attacks. The US representative at UNHRC has argued that the UN investigator for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions does not have jurisdiction over US military actions.
UNHRC investigator Philip Alston disagrees, saying it appears that “the Central Intelligence Agency is running a program that is killing significant numbers of people and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international laws.” If the drone attacks do not qualify as “extrajudicial execution”, the classification is meaningless.

At least one prominent group is on Lindorff’s side. On March 16, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the government demanding to know the legal basis for the drone attacks. They had previously filed a Freedom of Information Act request in January and received no response. The question they raise is simple: if we are not at war with Pakistan, what right do we have sending military craft over the border and killing their citizens? A war can only be declared by Congress, and no such declaration was made. Feel free to contact your representative and ask them if they authorized the attacks, because the answer is no.

Some of our officials have at least given thought to the matter, though they hardly seem upset. Democratic Representative John Tierney of Massachusetts, chair of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, wondered publicly “if the United States uses unmanned weapons systems, does that require an official declaration of war or an authorization for the use of force?” This is an issue that should have been examined prior to proceeding with the first launch.

Harold Koh, the State Department’s legal adviser, maintains that the drones are legal under international law because we are acting in self-defense against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Kenneth Anderson, a conservative-libertarian law professor at American University, supports Koh’s rationale. This is simply preposterous; self-defense entails guarding one’s borders and rejecting a clear threat. It does not include following said threat across multiple borders and using force far greater than first faced. Are we justified to kill someone who slaps or taunts us? No. That is aggression, or to be more blunt, that is terror.

There has been no criticism, to my knowledge, of the non-civilian deaths in Pakistan. What does it take to be a “suspected” terrorist? Is the criteria more stringent than being a suspected Communist?

As any regular reader of this column knows, America is an old professional in killing foreigners in our name. In some circumstances, that killing may be considered justified. In others such as this, where no war has been declared, there are more civilians than combatants killed, and international law is likely being violated, it is a crime and an outrage. We cannot sit back in silence and let our leaders do this: contact your representative, call the ACLU or write a letter to your local paper today.

Gavin Schmitt ( does not think that a Pakistani life has any less value than an American life.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

Leave a Reply