Author’s Note: this article was originally published on Newsbud.com over a year ago and may contain outdated information. I am posting it here now because it is no longer available on that website (more about that here). I will be posting a couple additional articles that I wrote for Newsbud that are also no longer available there.
America’s Lethal Drone Strike Policies and the Normalization of Killing with Robots
On August 6, 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, announced the long sought release of a redacted version of the Presidential Policy Guide, or PPG, for drone strikes outside of areas of “actual hostilities” as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the ACLU. The ACLU published the document, which has been referred to as “the Playbook,” on their website along with three other related documents that were released.
ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer was quoted in the announcement as saying, “the PPG provides crucial information about policies that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, including hundreds of non-combatants, and about the bureaucracy that the Obama administration has constructed to oversee and implement those policies. The PPG should have been released three years ago, but its release now will inform an ongoing debate about the lawfulness and wisdom of the government’s counterterrorism policies. The release of the PPG and related documents is also a timely reminder of the breadth of powers that will soon be in the hands of another president.”
The PPG itself states that it “establishes the standard operating procedures for when the United States takes direct action, which refers to lethal and non-lethal uses of force, including capture operations, against terrorist targets outside the United States and areas of active hostilities.” It goes on to say that the primary goal is to capture, not kill, any targeted individuals, that “lethal action should be taken in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks against U.S. persons only when capture of an individual is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat.” The PPG adds that lethal action should not be punitive or a “substitute for prosecuting a terrorist suspect.”
The truth is, the PPG has a lot of vague language that allows for an awful lot of leeway that the administration has already demonstrated a willingness to take in the use of drones to target individuals. It talks of “near certainty that the individual being targeted is in fact the lawful target and located at the place where the action will occur,” and that there is “near certainty” that no non-combatants will be harmed in the attacks.
Considering what we already know from The Drone Papers and numerous whistleblowers about how targets are identified, located, and attacked, the pronouncement of any near certainty involved in drone strikes would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so deadly and horrible. Just as the administration’s definition of an “imminent threat” is rather loose, with the Pentagon and CIA having 60 days to strike a target after approval, the definition of near certainty appears to be wide open.
Andrew Walker points out another disturbing truth in his August 10, 2016 Anti-War.com article about the PPG when he writes, “if anyone other than the targeted individual is ultimately engaged with kinetic action (which happens all the time) than the procedures are meaningless. Where is the interagency and legal review for those individuals, even if they are classified as combatants? It doesn’t exist. Consequently, by authorizing kinetic action against certain individuals, the Obama Administration almost guarantees that people that have not been reviewed will end up dead—and many of them turn out to be innocent civilians.”
I wrote several months ago that “it is not a question of whether the entire program of targeted killing through drone strikes is moral, humane, effective, or even truly supported by national and international law. It is a question of whether the laws can be explained in such a way as to make drone strikes legal. To make state-sponsored assassination legal, at least as long as it is called ‘targeted killing’ and is not utilized by enemies of the west.
After all, it is clear that the US and UK have no qualms about violating international law by inventing justifications to invade a sovereign nation. Neither did the US hesitate to create documentation that justified its use of torture.”
The policies are crafted simply to justify and normalize counterterrorism strategies that have already been utilized and embraced by the administration and the military for years. The media announces the release of the policies, giving the administration a pat on the back for transparency. But little time is spent discussing the reality behind these policies, the devastating effects these strategies have on the lives of countless people around the world. Additionally, it moves us further down the road of desensitization to the idea of drone strikes on US soil.
In spite of the PPG’s statement that it sets procedures for strikes outside of the US, CNN casually slid this comment into their August 6, 2016 article about the PPG release: “if the target is a US citizen or someone living in the US…it will be submitted to the President for a decision.” [Emphasis added]. As if to inject the idea of drone strikes on US soil into the national conscience, to make the idea as easily accepted as the idea of US police killing a man with a robot-mounted bomb.
In a July 23, 2016 blog post, Laurie Calhoun, author of the book We Kill Because We Can, writes the following about the Dallas Police Department’s use of a robot with a bomb mounted on it to kill Micah Johnson. “US citizens have grown accustomed to their government killing people abroad, but the decision to kill by remote control in the homeland was extraordinary in that no attempt was made to incapacitate the suspect instead.” She goes on to state, “the precedent set by this action would seem to be yet another step down an ever-more lethal continuum rendered considerably more so by the current US president, Barack Obama, whose policy it is to kill rather than capture suspected terrorists located abroad.”
It seems only a matter of time, with the increasingly alarmist rhetoric about domestic terrorists and self-radicalized lone-wolves, that drone strikes will come home to US soil. Americans have largely ignored the growing reliance on targeted killing with drones in countries far away (along with all the death and destruction caused by them), and we barely blinked when an American was blown up by a robot-delivered bomb in Dallas. Will we remain so apathetic and silent when drone strikes happen here? Will we just accept that it is all part of “the most important policy objective” of protecting American lives, as stated in the PPG? When we see the death firsthand, will we allow these policies, crafted solely by those who seek to justify their illegal strategies, to stand as humane and ethical operating procedure?
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