Drones are not going away, and that’s a fact. They have proved too useful in the fight against terrorism and they are no more likely to be taken out of commission than are machine guns or washing machines.
But the problems with drones are not going to go away, either. They have radically changed the way wars are fought, magnifying the authority of the president, killing innocent people and, not insignificantly, creating a public relations disaster for the United States.
That’s why it was good earlier this month to see a leading Senate Democrat calling for “more transparency” in the drone program, if for no other reason than to maintain Americans’ support for it. It was a wise observation by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. It recognized that a valuable tool could be compromised if the public comes to believe it is being employed carelessly.
Durbin, the chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was disappointed, and with good reason, that the Obama administration refused to send a witness to the chamber’s first open hearing on the issue.
The first thing to note about the drone program is that it was a response to the nature of the attack launched against this country on Sept. 11, 2001. A fight against terrorists is not the same as a fight against a country occupying a land mass that can be conquered. This is a fight against a loose organization of individuals, bound together by radical ideas. We have no choice but to fight these people on the terms they choose.
And, of course, the president is constitutionally the commander in chief. While, in the past, that gave him a leading role in strategy and the decision on where to attack, today’s drone program also makes him judge, jury and executioner-by-proxy. That calls for a rethinking on how those decisions are made and on what limits, if any, should be placed on that authority if, indeed, the Constitution allows that.
In addition to killing many terrorists, the drone program has also killed many innocent or unintended victims. For example, a recent article published in McClatchy Newspapers showed that at their height in 2010-11, CIA drone strikes killed hundreds of unidentified lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and other militants in Pakistan. Yet the administration insists that it targets only known “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida and associated groups involved in the 9/11 attacks or who are plotting “imminent” violent attacks on the United States. In addition, drone strikes have killed four U.S. citizens in Yemen, three of them accidentally.
And, of course, there is an asterisk there, as well: War always produces unintended casualties. When bombs were dropped from high altitudes in World War II, they didn’t find only their intended targets. It is safe to say that there are far fewer innocent casualties in this fight than in previous wars.
But that doesn’t change the fact that with the drone program, we have stepped into a new age, where a new set of circumstances demands that we pay heed. However careful President Obama may be in approving targets for the drone program, another president may be less so. If support for the use of drones erodes among Americans, it will become more difficult to wage the kind of war that terrorism requires.
That’s why Durbin is right. The program needs to be reviewed, made as transparent as warfare allows and invested with some kind of oversight to protect it from what may otherwise be inevitable decline.