Why President Obama’s drone assassination program must be made accountable
It’s 2020, and unless Mr. Obama has successfully declared himself President-for-life, somebody else is President. Perhaps this time the lesser evil has lost. Thanks to the groundwork laid by President Obama and the boys at DARPA, the new president has the sort of technology that dystopian fiction is based upon.
In 2020 the president has at his disposal the drone technology to surveil anyone, anywhere on earth. The technology has the visual resolution to see disturbed dirt from a mile high in the sky and track footprints, to identify individuals using biometric data, even to “see” through walls and ceilings. Drones will also be outfitted with the means to collect electronic communications, phone calls, texts, gps location data, etc., creating a tool that can track individuals in the physical realm as well as their “footprints” in cyberspace to deliver the information needed for lethal actions
In 2020 the Earth will be surrounded by a triple canopy of drones at various heights to surveil us and deliver sudden death and destruction from above, wherever on earth or space the president desires:
At the lowest tier of this emerging U.S. aerospace shield, within striking distance of Earth in the lower stratosphere, the Pentagon is building an armada of 99 Global Hawk drones equipped with high-resolution cameras capable of surveilling all terrain within a 100-mile radius, electronic sensors to intercept communications, efficient engines for continuous 24-hour flights, and eventually Triple Terminator missiles to destroy targets below.
By late 2011, the Air Force and the CIA had already ringed the Eurasian land mass with a network of 60 bases for drones armed with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs, allowing air strikes against targets just about anywhere in Europe, Africa, or Asia. … If things go according to plan, in this same lower tier at altitudes up to 12 miles unmanned aircraft such as the “Vulture,” with solar panels covering its massive 400-foot wingspan, will be patrolling the globe ceaselessly for up to five years at a time with sensors for “unblinking” surveillance, and possibly missiles for lethal strikes. …
For the next tier above the Earth, in the upper stratosphere, DARPA and the Air Force are collaborating in the development of the Falcon Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle. Flying at an altitude of 20 miles, it is expected to “deliver 12,000 pounds of payload at a distance of 9,000 nautical miles from the continental United States in less than two hours.” …
At the outer level of this triple-tier aerospace canopy, the age of space warfare dawned in April 2010 when the Pentagon quietly launched the X-37B space drone, an unmanned craft just 29 feet long, into an orbit 250 miles above the Earth.
By the time its second prototype landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in June 2012 after a 15-month flight, this classified mission represented a successful test of “robotically controlled reusable spacecraft” and established the viability of unmanned space drones in the exosphere.
This drone technology, which is well on its way now, will vest in the president and his minions a great deal of very concentrated power to breach individual privacy and security. How this power is held will have great implications for its ability to corrupt, or perhaps as Lord Acton would have put it, to corrupt absolutely. Our machines are extensions of ourselves. They implement our will (at least when we write competent programming). The issue is inequality; the machines that belong to the already powerful are so much more effective than the machines of we regular slobs and the potential for expanding the inequality of power that exists between the regular folks and the privileged elites is daunting.
Are we governed by Angels?
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
— Federalist 51
Our current drone program is lacking adequate controls. The Obama administration inherited the drone program from the predecessor Bush administration without appropriate controls and Mr. Obama has expanded on that program while at the same time, fighting off any efforts at accountability.
Even Congress has been cut out of the loop:
Congress has been denied the right to read the legal framework used by the Administration to justify the drone strikes. This means that these strikes are being carried out with virtually no transparency, accountability or judicial review. Victims or targets of the strikes are denied the right to due process. Innocent civilians and American citizens are getting the death penalty without so much as a trial. We do not know what measures, if any, the Joint Special Operations Command or the Central Intelligence Agency have for recognizing harm to civilian populations or to conduct investigations of who was killed.
As the use of drone strikes abroad becomes a permanent feature of our counterterrorism policy, it is more critical than ever that we push for increased transparency and accountability. We must reject the notion that Congress and the American people have to be kept in the dark on U.S. counterterrorism strategies. Simply put, drones must be subject to the same scrutiny and laws that other weapons the United States employs.
Aside from some politically convenient leaks, the Obama administration refuses to even confirm or deny its drone program, much less offer details as to how it operates or what its standards are.
What we do know from leaks and whistleblowers is that Mr. Obama’s standards are “evolving,” so to speak:
The care that Mr. Obama and his counterterrorism chief take in choosing targets, and their reliance on a precision weapon, the drone, reflect his pledge at the outset of his presidency to reject what he called the Bush administration’s “false choice between our safety and our ideals.”
But he has found that war is a messy business, and his actions show that pursuing an enemy unbound by rules has required moral, legal and practical trade-offs that his speeches did not envision.
One early test involved Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. The case was problematic on two fronts, according to interviews with both administration and Pakistani sources.
The C.I.A. worried that Mr. Mehsud, whose group then mainly targeted the Pakistan government, did not meet the Obama administration’s criteria for targeted killing: he was not an imminent threat to the United States. But Pakistani officials wanted him dead, and the American drone program rested on their tacit approval. The issue was resolved after the president and his advisers found that he represented a threat, if not to the homeland, to American personnel in Pakistan.
Then, in August 2009, the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, told Mr. Brennan that the agency had Mr. Mehsud in its sights. But taking out the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mr. Panetta warned, did not meet Mr. Obama’s standard of “near certainty” of no innocents being killed. In fact, a strike would certainly result in such deaths: he was with his wife at his in-laws’ home.
“Many times,” General Jones said, in similar circumstances, “at the 11th hour we waved off a mission simply because the target had people around them and we were able to loiter on station until they didn’t.”
But not this time. Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official.
The information that the above quoted article should be a big, blinking red light that what were once embraced as standards by the Obama administration have been put aside for political considerations. The article also notes:
David Axelrod, the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.
One wonders what place a political adviser has at a meeting where the president sorts his “terrorist baseball cards” and decides who is going to die this week.
Obama administration makes up the rules as they go along
Recently, news reports have demonstrated more starkly that the Obama administration is making up the rules as they go along and that any claims that they have made about process and accountability are malarkey. Recent reports have surfaced about President Obama’s “Disposition Matrix,” an attempt to codify and institutionalize his secret kill list proceedings.
This article, however, demonstrates how ad-hoc the process has been to this point and how politics looms over the entire drone program:
Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials. …
The attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer after news reports on the drone program, started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama, revealed some details of the president’s role in the shifting procedures for compiling “kill lists” and approving strikes. Though national security officials insist that the process is meticulous and lawful, the president and top aides believe it should be institutionalized, a course of action that seemed particularly urgent when it appeared that Mitt Romney might win the presidency.
This account in conjunction with other recent accounts gives damning evidence that far from Eric Holder’s characterization of an orderly sort of program that meets the constitutional requirements of due process, the Obama drone assassination program has no standards other than the whims of President Obama and his administration (to the unknown degree that the president delegates assassination decisions). The picture that is emerging is of an opaque process which relies on the decency and integrity of one man to keep it from going off of the rails. Those in the administration trust themselves and will fight tooth and nail to keep their unaccountable power, but they fear passing that same unaccountable power on to another administration.
Lethal Technology minus Accountability equals Danger
Surely the opacity and lack of controls that President Obama’s drone assassination program embodies is a terrible precedent to set in the face of even more powerful, lethal technologies on the horizon. These technologies will be employed, like their predecessors, with a great degree of secrecy and the increase in effectiveness will be incremental. There will be no klaxons sounding to warn the public that the technology that will reconfigure our notions of privacy and security needs to be accompanied by a commensurately larger degree of transparency and control.
One of our founding documents puts things this way; “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed.” How can the people meaningfully consent to that which is held from them in secret?
The time to fix this problem is yesterday. We cannot afford to let this slide, no matter how nice a man Mr. Obama seems to be.
There is a reason why in America we do not pledge fealty to a monarch, rather, we pledge to uphold the Constitution.