Saturday, February 2, 2013

Drones and the rule of law.

“In the very near future, the United States Air Force will train more UAV pilots than conventional pilots, and today we talk about “blackening” the sky with such systems.” - Dr. Regina E. Dugan director Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency(DARPA) 2010 written statement to the congressional budgetary committee.


Drones like the Predator, Global Hawk, Solar Eagle, and Reaper are to the War on Terror as the SR-71 and U2 were to the Cold war. They bring to the table a host of new abilities and represent one of the most efficient force multipliers at the militaries disposal. Just as importantly, few other nations possess this technology and even fewer have any means for defending against it.

Drones today provide the military with the ability to spy on or strike anyone, anywhere, in the world without endangering the lives of soldiers. Furthermore,because of a dearth of legal opinions, both nationally and internationally, on the use of drones, coupled with the 2001 authorization for use of military force,  the President believes that he can use drones as a means for targeted assassinations.

The Rule of law has been an integral part of  western democratic society since the  signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 C.E.  The influence of the idea can be traced from medieval Europe to the American constitution’s, Fifth Amendment, right on to the United Nations.

The rule of law’s sphere of influence was expanding to include more than just citizens of one’s nation, however, since the start of the War on Terror that sphere of influence has been steadily eroded. By using drones to selectively assassinate, with no due process, individuals in sovereign nations without legal declarations of war the US drone program flouts the very idea of a rule of law and further erodes decades of international diplomacy.
To date the activity of drones has not been limited to just surveillance, but has included force projection ala the bombing of “Jihadists outposts” and “militant training camps” often with women and children in the vicinity.

Most notably three American citizens, Anwar Al Awlaki, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, and magazine editor Samir Khan were placed on President Obama’s kill list and were targeted for summary execution. These individuals were all born in America and were .with the notable exception of Anwar never tied directly to any acts of aggression against the United States.

These individuals were never charged, tried, or even sentenced. Instead, a secret group, with the president at its head, decided that they were deserving of death. If they can spy on and kill Americans abroad, they can spy on and kill American’s at home. After all, America, as of 2011, is legally considered part of the battlefield in the broader war on terror.

The majority of strikes however,  have targeted foreign nationals and taken place in countries that the US is not legally at war with, a clear violation of international laws governing conflict, and, to most Americans, relatively unknown.

Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and redacted have all had their airspace violated and their citizens have been subjected to extrajudicial summary execution, often with, according to Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian, little or no factual evidence linking them to a crime or terrorist group.

According to data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as of this year, there have been between 418 and 437 US drone strikes in 4 countries killing between three and four thousand people.

While the United States is not officially at war with Pakistan, the majority of strikes took place there and were authorized by the Obama administration. These actions have been taken despite a lack of congressional approval or oversight, something intended by the division of war powers in the constitution, and have not been authorized by either the UN security council or the broader UN body.

According to Brent Emerson, the special rapporteur on counter terrorism and human rights for the United Nations, in the Guardian , “While 51 states possess the technology to use drones, the US is responsible for the vast majority of the world's drone strikes and the practice of targeted killing has become a central component of the Obama administration's efforts to combat al-Qaida. “

These unmanned aircraft enable the US military to strike virtually anywhere on the planet with ease and little to no relative risk to the pilot. These drones are so accurate that in Rise of the Drones on PBS’s Nova, David A Deptula, a retired Lt General in the USAF said, “The weapons that can be used operate with an error distance of 9 feet, you can put a weapon through a window sized opening with ease.”  

Drones have enabled the administration to strike at individuals, often in allied countries, deemed a threat to the nation without having to formally declare war or deal with the judicial system. While some of the targets may be truly threatening to our nation, many of those killed by drones would be deemed collateral damage under normal rules of engagement, are now dubbed militants simply for being  male, over the age of 15, and in the vicinity.

According to a study from the Columbia Law school of Human Rights, “ Media coverage of drone strikes is inconsistent, and it is likely that some deaths and even entire strikes are not captured by tracking organizations, particularly to the extent they rely on English-language media sources. There is no standard definition that the media sources use to categorize a person as militant or a civilian, nor a standardized measure by which the media sources weigh and corroborate their information.” The overly broad definition of a combatant further facilitates this lack of media scrutiny and erodes the sanctity of the rule of law.

In no Western Democracy can a person be executed for simply associating with the wrong crowd, and yet, our military routinely executes individuals who have done nothing more than associate with the “wrong crowd”. It would be like a gang task force in Los Angeles mowing down all of the teenage boys outside a basketball course because one of them was a known Crip.

Despite, or potentially because of, the winding down of traditional troop operations in the Middle East, drone strikes have become the go to tactic of our nations military. According to the outgoing Department of Defense head Leon Panetta, "The reality is its[drones] going to be a continuing tool of national defense in the future".  

This reality can be confirmed by looking at the plans of the Department of Defense to begin construction on a “drone base” in Northern Africa. Militaries don’t build air force bases that they don’t plan on using. Additionally, the Air Force now trains more drone pilots than it trains fighter and bomber pilots combined. If that isn’t an endorsement for the future of drones, nothing is.

Facilitating the intelligence advantages necessary for these drone strikes is a suite of sensors , known as ARUGS-IS(Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System), that can see what you, and everyone else in Corvallis, or a similarly populated region, is wearing from an altitude of over three miles.

According to the then director of DARPA, Regina Dugan, “The ARGUS-IS, is a next-generation airborne capability, providing wide-area, high resolution, color video imaging that enables persistent surveillance of dynamic battle spaces and urban environments.This system is capable of generating a 1.8 billion pixel video stream from 136 sensors, 4 lenses, and two processing computers that can be subdivided into 65+ unique viewing windows.
In practice this means its wide area persistent stare can see the equivalent of 100 predator drones looking at a medium sized city. The system can generate up to 1 million terabytes(5000 hours or 1 billion gigabytes) a day of high definition video and discern people, vehicles, and their relative movements. This system is capable of imaging objects as small as six inches from an altitude of 3.3 miles  and has likely  been in operation, overseas and domestically, since 2009.

The US’s drone program’s continued violation of national sovereignty and process of extrajudicial execution not only flouts the rule of law, it destroys the trust that undergirds international relations. Why negotiate with the United States if they will just ignore your sovereignty and kill your citizens as they choose? Why follow the rules of war, namely of eschewing the targeting of civilian populations, if your enemy isn’t?

Some might argue that “the terrorists don’t follow the rule of law” and therefore are undeserving of its benefits.  To them ask, Don’t the terrorists “win” when we stop being who we were before we engaged? How are you made safer by bombing villages in regions of the world that don’t even have running water or electricity?

The fact is, programs like these produce more terrorists than they kill. The more terrorists produced the less safe America is. The United States didn’t win the cold war with bombs. The Berlin Wall didn't fall down because of superior military might. These things happened because western systems were more attractive, more industrious, more innovative, and more free.