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Drones, Debates, and Deadly Consequences

by Pardiss Kebriaei, Senior Attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights

When you see politicians on television cheering each other on about the use of drones, it is all made to seem so abstract and clean. The reality is quite a different story and raises some fundamental questions that are being glossed over: Is it lawful or wise for the Executive to be sending missiles and drones into other countries, outside of places where the U.S. is engaged in active combat, to kill people, including American citizens, that it suspects of involvement in terrorism? Haven’t we seen unchecked power lead to enormous life and death mistakes over the past decade? And doesn’t this set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world?

These lethal strikes, through the CIA and secret military forces, are now routinely being carried out not only in Afghanistan, where the United States is involved in a recognized armed conflict, but also in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, with the exact outer boundaries of how far the United States thinks it can go alarmingly unclear.

The phrase “targeted killing” suggests a limited policy of surgical precision to these strikes that is far from an accurate description. The Obama administration won’t say how many it has killed, who they were, or how many were bystanders, but others have been filling in the information void.  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalists, for example, the United States has carried out nearly 350 lethal strikes in Pakistan since 2004, killing between 2,500 and 3,400 people. Nearly 300 of the strikes occurred under this administration.  In Yemen, the numbers have gone from one reported U.S. strike in 2002 to at least 43 lethal operations and counting since then, resulting in the deaths of at least 358 people; at the high end, over 1,000 have been killed.

The administration insists that its practice has resulted in few bystander casualties, but with statements by senior officials indicating that any military-age male in a strike zone is presumed to be a fair target, it’s not hard to see how the administration comes up with such a small number.  The administration’s claims are particularly hard to stomach when you consider strikes like one that occurred in Yemen just last month, when missiles struck a minibus, killing 11 people and injuring three others.  The dead included a 10-year-old girl and her mother.  Yemeni authorities called it an “error.”  As usual, the United States remained silent.

Targets are determined in one of two ways.  Their names are debated behind closed doors by the president and his advisors and, for the unlucky, put on “kill lists.”  Or they are unknown, unnamed “militants” who are killed after someone monitoring the drones hovering above them deems their behavior to appear suspicious.

While the United States has carried out these strikes outside of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002, the number has skyrocketed over the past few years.  The United States’ “targeted killing” program is continuing and escalating without any meaningful check.  According to members of Congress themselves, there isn’t adequate Congressional oversight of the program, and so far there has been no judicial review.  Without those checks or any official public accounting of those killed, the whole program boils down to the Executive saying “trust us.”  That isn’t enough.  And it isn’t abstract, and it isn’t clean. And it certainly isn’t lawful.

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