Drone Control: Secret Killings Take Center Stage


Since our relaunch last summer, CFR has covered the U.S. drone surveillance/killing issue, with particular concern about the CIA’s seeming indifferent assaults on innocent global citizens.

Drone11111111-156150-165663-166189-167951-640x480In June, we pointed out how international law authorities both condemned drone attacks and questioned their legality. This included Benjamin B. Ferenzc, the Army’s chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders following World War II, who called drone attacks “a crime against humanity.”

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In July, we reported how some in Congress were questioning drone use in the U.S. following a June crash of a Navy drone in Maryland.

In August, former U.S. Associate Attorney General Webb Hubbell, in his CFR column “Hubbell’s Telescope,” listed surveillance drones and targeted killings as two of five alarming policing trends in America.

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In September, CFR‘s staff reported on an NYU/Stanford legal report which criticized U.S. drone killings, citing deaths of innocents and questioning legality of the attacks.

In November, Peculiar Progressive wrote of Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s scheduled Washington briefing to criticize the drone program.

Throughout these months, even with The New York Times publicizing President Obama’s “kill list” for the drones program, Congress as a whole has remained hands-off on criticizing the drones killing policy, has continued to quietly fund it, and has even mutely approved the FAA’s allowing licensing of drone use throughout the United States. Obama has continued to refuse transparency on the deadly drone program, citing security reasons.

Sudden Visibility

Then, just in recent days, the drone issue has visibly surged in the United Nations, in Washington, and even in the progressive city of Seattle.

In late January, the UN launched a legal inquiry into drone killings of innocent civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. We still await an outcome of that investigation. Meanwhile, this past week a UN body monitoring children’s rights reported that hundreds of children have died in the last four years from U.S. military attacks, including air strikes, in Afghanistan.

Also this past week in Washington, the Senate Intelligence Committee held its hearing on Obama’s choice for the new CIA director, John Brennan, mastermind of the White House’s drone program who also ran George W. Bush’s national counter-terrorism center.

John Brennan

Brennan had responded to a pre-hearing questionnaire, and stuck to his views there during his panel interview. Chris McGreal, a reporter for London’s The Guardian newspaper, relayed information on that questionnaire:

In written answers to questions prepared by the Senate intelligence committee, Brennan defended drone strikes as a more humane form of warfare. He said that “extraordinary care” is taken to ensure they conform to the “law of war principles” – a phrase human rights groups say is notable in that it does not claim to actually adhere to international law.

Brennan said drones are better than bombs and artillery. “They dramatically reduce the danger to US personnel and to innocent civilians, especially considered against massive ordnance that can cause injury and death far beyond the intended target,” he said.

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Brennan acknowledged that there have been “instances when, regrettably and despite our best efforts, civilians have been killed.”

But he added: “It is exceedingly rare, and much rarer than many allege”.

Brennan isn’t specific about civilians being killed because it allows him to use general statements, like the last two, which appear to be untrue.

CFR has cited figures from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism regarding civilian deaths, and the NYU/Stanford legal study includes psychological trauma of civilians suffering drone attacks. McGreal’s Guardian article also includes statistics from various sources citing increased attacks and civilian deaths under Obama’s administration. You can see those here.

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Just as disturbing as the deaths and psychological harm on innocent victims: the administration’s attitude that it can be judge, jury and executioner through its drone program. Brennan portrayed that cold-blooded attitude in his remarks. This from The Washington Times, quoting Brennan during the hearing:

The actions that we take on the counterterrorism front, again, are to take actions against individuals where we believe that the intelligence base is so strong and the nature of the threat is so grave and serious, as well as imminent, that we have no recourse except to take this action that may involve a lethal strike.

He is, in fact saying, the White House has a right to take any life without having to consult with Congress, the judiciary, or consideration of international law. The New York Times has reported that the White House itself has said, regarding individuals killed by drone attacks, it “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” But what good is it for you if you’re found to be innocent after you’re dead?

Droneless in Seattle

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Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn

While Congress has approved use of surveillance drones within America’s borders, and agencies are lining up to seek FAA licenses for drones, the mayor of Seattle this past week has balked, according to the Associated Press:

Seattle’s mayor on Thursday ordered the police department to abandon its plan to use drones after residents and privacy advocates protested.

Mayor Mike McGinn said the department will not use two small drones it obtained through a federal grant. The unmanned aerial vehicles will be returned to the vendor, he said.

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Could this be a turning of the tide? Polls have shown that a majority of Americans favor using drones to survey and kill people in other countries, evidently buying the administration’s argument that it saves American lives.

Maybe that attitude will continue to change as drones become increasingly visible at home, which they will. Authorities predict the sky will fill with 30,000 drones worldwide by 2020, 15,000 of those in the U.S.