Attack of the Drones
The Drone program is a relic. Born from the events that occurred after September, 11, 2001, the U.S. Drone Program has allowed the government to monitor, observe, hunt, target, and strike suspected militants under the guise of counterterrorism operations. Since Congress first authorized the Bush administration to use “necessary force against suspected militants,” drone strikes have been conducted in faraway places, such as: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Iraq. However, according to Fox News, C.I.A. director John Brennan (former counter-terrorism advisor to President Obama) claims that “strikes are only used as a last resort against suspects believed to be plotting against America.” Yet, in light of recent media reports regarding drone attacks, just how last resort are they? Are we gaining sufficient intelligence before carrying out strikes, or just enough? The precarious nature of the drone program is, according to Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University Law Professor, “at any time for secret reasons based on secret evidence in a secret process taken by unidentified officials,” the U.S. government “claims the right to kill anyone anywhere on earth at any time.”
According to the New York Times, last year, the White House had given the C.I.A. and the Pentagon “broader authority to carry out drone strikes in Yemen against terrorists who imperil the United States.” The concern the Obama administration has is that al-Qaeda will “bleed us financially by drawing us into long [and] costly wars.” According to the Obama admin, precision strikes and raids are the most effective means to defeat terrorism.
This is the plan, but is it working?
Consider the testimony of Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi, who spoke on Capitol Hill regarding the use of drones in his native country. On April 23, 2013, during the Senates first ever public hearing on the Obama administrations “precision strikes” program, al-Muslimi told the story of when his family’s village was bombed by a U.S. drone strike. “When they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time,” al-Muslimi says of his fellow Yemenis. “What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.” The very same village strike al-Muslimi mentions has become a so-called signature of the Obama administration, conducting drone strikes based on patterns of suspicion, instead of actual identification. But don’t take my word for it. Consider another testimony, this time from an actual U.S. drone pilot who flew missions very similar to those described by al-Muslimi. In an interview with NPR, former sensor operator for the U.S. Air Force Predator program Brandon Bryant discusses his experience conducting “precision strikes” overseas from a dimly lit trailer in the Nevada desert. According to NPR, “on [Bryant’s] very first sortie as a pilot, [he] watched from the drone’s camera as American soldiers got blown up in Afghanistan. [And] there was nothing he could do.” This was Bryant’s first experience flying a drone; simply watching. Later in the interview, Bryant laments on his “first shot,” saying that while he was watching an attack between a group of insurgents and U.S. troops, he was ordered to fire on another group of men that had been standing some distance away from the battle. “The missile hits, and after the smoke clears there’s a crater there and you can see body parts from the people. [There had been a] guy that was running from the rear to front, his left leg had been taken off above the knee, and I watched him bleed out,” Bryant told NPR reporters. The group of men that Bryant was ordered to fire on had been armed, but Bryant said he had no idea what their intent was. In Bryant’s own words, “these guys could have been local people that had to protect themselves.”
Considering the recent debates in the U.S. regarding gun advocacy, could you imagine a group of civilians in places like Montana or Texas being targeted simply because they were armed? Luckily, drone strikes are not allowed on U.S. soil…at least for now. According to Medill News Service, by 2015, hundreds of thousands of drones could be buzzing around U.S. airspace thanks to a little law called, FAA Modernization and Reform Act, with its seven page provision known simply as the Drone Act, which passed just last year. These drones, however, will be not be armed, and “bear little resemblance to the war machines making headlines overseas; the drones [that will eventually be] flown in the United States often look more like toys,” toys with technologically advanced cameras that beg the question of Fourth Amendment violations.
But I digress; let us return to the subject of drone strikes overseas.
According to CNN News reports, the percentage of civilian casualties overseas has dropped significantly since 2008, from a whopping 33% to 11% fatality rate. Yet, these new estimates do not translate that drone strikes have lessened; on the contrary, they have bumped up from 67% to 89%. Osama bin Laden himself, in a memo confiscated during the famous Abbottabad compound raid that resulted in the death of the world’s most notorious terrorist, that U.S. drone strikes were having a devastating effect on his (Taliban) organization in Afghanistan.
So, as we tally the testimonies of those who are being most effected from drone strikes, the civilian collateral, and from testimonies from drone pilots, when we weigh them against the final outcome, are drones worth it? Sure, we’re killing off, without warrant, at least 89% of suspected militants, but what about the other 11%? Do we simply write them off as an acceptable loss in war?
In closing, consider another sordid tale regarding a recent drone strike in Yemen. This story involves Sanaa cleric Sheik Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber and the night he died. In a small Yemeni village, Ali Jaber preached about the evils of al-Qaida, and according to a Fox News report, “warning residents to stay away from the group’s fighters and their hardline ideology.” The local parishioners feared retaliation from the not far off militants living in the mountain strongholds near the remote eastern village of Khashamir. Even the cleric’s own father wanted him to stop before something bad happened. Eventually, al-Qaida militants, in fact, did call out the brash cleric to a night time meeting, hoping perhaps to intimidate Ali Jaber into silence, or worse. The cleric’s brother-in-law, recounting the events of the fateful night to the Associated Press, said that Ali Jaber “felt he had no [other] choice but to meet them.” The night the cleric died, he had shortly arrived to a car where three militants were waiting. No sooner had the cleric closed his door, four missiles hit the car, followed by a passing (familiar) buzz sound. “We know the buzzing sound of the drones overhead,” reported Faysal bin Ali bin Jaber, the clerics brother-in-law. According to Yemeni security officials, three militants, along with the cleric and a cousin, were among the dead. A strike carried out by an American drone.
Did the officials who gave the order to strike, know that cleric Sheik Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber was not a member of al-Qaida? They probably had no clue who the two other men were as they entered the car with the suspected militants; the cleric and his cousin were simply guilty by association. Except we know, through creditable reporting, that the cleric and his cousin were not militants; in fact, the cleric, himself at least, spoke out against Islamic extremism and al-Qaida. But the pilots of the drone didn’t have that information…didn’t need that information to carry out its strike.
Currently, according to the AP, “while the United States acknowledges its drone program in Yemen, it does not confirm individual strikes or release information on how many have been carried out.” Perhaps the time has come for the American public to have those exact numbers of drone strikes we are carrying out overseas. If our policies condone acts of “necessary force” in counter-termism, we should know the costs.