WASHINGTON – The lifeline that Congress threw to an Air National Guard unit in Niagara Falls last week may end up being a death sentence someday for terrorists holed up in the hills of Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia.

That’s because some of the men and the women of what’s now the 107th Airlift Wing will soon be piloting drones that, most likely, will spy on or kill American adversaries overseas.

It’s the Air Force’s fastest-growing, most cutting-edge mission – one that’s likely to preserve most, but not all, of the 107th’s 845 jobs, which include those of 580 Guardsmen and women. What’s more, supporters say the move is likely to keep the oft-endangered 107th in business for years or decades to come.

Yet it’s also perhaps the Air Force’s most controversial mission – one that forces airmen to push the “kill” button on suspects who will never get captured, never get interrogated, never get a chance to defend themselves in a court of law.

Not surprisingly, then, a raging debate is about to come to Western New York: one between those who think targeted drone strikes are the best way to eliminate the terrorist threat without putting U.S. troops in harm’s way, and those who decry targeted killings by robot aircraft as a new and immoral form of warfare – especially when it claims the life of innocent civilians and U.S. citizens.

It’s a debate between the likes of Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Hamburg, and Charles Bowman, interim director of the Western New York Peace Center.

Through the use of drones, “we can identify with incredible precision our actual enemies, the terrorists,” said Hochul, who led the fight to find a new mission for the 107th once the Air Force proposed shutting down the unit early this year. “This is not a perfect way to do it, but it is an effective way that we can accomplish our goal with, I believe, less loss of life.”

Bowman could not see things much differently.

“These are executions,” he said of the targeted killing of terror suspects, which has escalated dramatically under the Obama administration. “This is not a way of fostering world peace.”

The use of drones is, however, the way of the future.

The Air Force says it trained 350 drone pilots last year, and that by 2015, it will need 2,000 of them. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told the New York Times this summer that it’s “conceivable” that the Air Force one day will have more pilots flying drones than manned aircraft.

That being the case, Hochul identified a drone mission, along with others in reconnaissance and cyber security, as her top targets for a new role for the 107th.

“I wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to be getting something old-school – obsolete even,” said Hochul, who relentlessly lobbied Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and the Air Force for a new role for the 107th. “I knew that the generals were asking for this. It has a more likely chance of being here long term.”

Already, U.S. Predator drones and their faster, heavier cousins, the Reapers, patrol the skies over the world’s trouble spots, gathering intelligence and firing missiles at suspected terrorists.

As a result, drone strikes have claimed the lives of several prominent terrorist leaders, including Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti – al-Qaida’s second-in-command – and Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American Muslim cleric who was believed to have influenced Fort Hood shootings suspect Nidal Malik Hasan. And long before that, a missile fired from a Predator drone killed Kamal Derwish, an American citizen who greatly influenced the “Lackawanna Six” terror suspects.

Collateral damage

Government officials have had little to say about those targeted killings, but John Brennan, President Obama’s top anti-terrorism adviser, did offer some details in an April speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

“Yes, in full accordance with the law – and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives – the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones,” Brennan said.

There’s no doubt those drone strikes have been effective, but according to a report by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, they also have caused a lot of collateral damage – in the form of innocent lives lost.

In Pakistan, for example, the U.S. has launched 354 drone strikes in the past eight years, some 302 of them during the Obama administration. Those strikes have claimed between 2,597 and 3,398 lives – including 176 children.

Noting that the Times has reported that Obama selects many of those terror targets based on the intelligence information provided to him, Bowman, of the Peace Center, asked: “Do you think those children are any different than the children of Newtown?”

Defenders of drones say that the U.S. takes strong steps to try to protect civilians.

“We only authorize a strike if we have a high degree of confidence that innocent civilians will not be injured or killed, except in the rarest of circumstances,” Brennan said.

Yet there are other moral questions attendant to the use of drones, said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at the Columbia University Law School.

“Drones don’t provide any opportunity for persons targeted to surrender,” she said. “There’s no way to interrogate them. At Guantanamo Bay and [prisons] in Afghanistan, at least we had the opportunity to find out who these people were. Here we’re killing people before finding out who they are.”

Defending ourselves

U.S. government officials insist, though, that they have a high rate of success in terms of targeting people who could prove to be a danger to the U.S. And if that means violating Pakistani territory to do it, so be it, said Panetta.

“We have made clear to the Pakistanis that the United States of America is going to defend ourselves against those who attack us,” Panetta said while on a trip to India this summer. “This is not just about protecting the United States. It’s also about protecting Pakistan. And we have made it very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves.”

Civil libertarians are concerned, though, that U.S. citizens are among those being targeted. For that reason, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed two lawsuits against the government – one of which has already been dismissed – arguing that the government cannot legally kill U.S. citizens in drone strikes far from any battlefield.

In court papers, the government justifies the killing of civilians by saying it’s a matter of national defense.

“Under these criteria, though, this [a targeted killing] could happen to any American citizen,” which is why the government’s argument should be seen as “scary,” said Brett Max Kaufman, national security fellow at the ACLU.

Hochul, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, acknowledged that many serious questions surround the use of drones. But she said their use can be easily justified, on moral grounds, in more than one way.

For one thing, and most importantly, “this is the only we have to address those threats before they come to our shores,” she said.

Hochul also argued that the use of drones actually minimizes civilian casualties, because the targeting of their missile strikes has become so precise.

Beyond that, she said: “This is also about our men and women in uniform,” who more rarely have to go to war zones now but instead pilot drone strikes from thousands of miles away. “This saves their lives. That’s an important priority of mine, protecting our men and women in uniform.”

Adapting to switch

Flying drones is a very different mission for the men and women of the 107th, who now fly cargo planes, but Hochul said the members of the unit will have no problem with the change. In fact, she said she’s received emails and calls from members of the unit, thanking her for helping save it.

“I have every confidence that the men and women at that base will adapt,” Hochul said. “This is a better long-term opportunity for us, because there’s going to be more investment in drones.”

And when that investment comes to Niagara Falls, the Peace Center will be ready, Bowman said.

The Peace Center has sent protesters to Hancock Field in Syracuse, site of a similar Air Force drone operation to the one expected to start in Niagara, “and when and if this happens in Niagara, we will be out there protesting, too,” he said.