Are Drones Precision Weapons?

There is actually little evidence to suggest that drone strikes are as accurate as the American military and political establishment claim. But this myth of accuracy, and the numbers often trotted out to confirm this myth, hides two crucial facts: one, that the statistics that ‘confirm’ the accuracy are based on a broad, sweeping definition of who is counted as a ‘militant’, and two, that the target selection process relies heavily on ground intelligence, almost all of which comes from paid informants, spies and collaborators. Yet, the CIA and the US political and military administration consistently repeat the claims about the accuracy and precision of their drone campaigns.

In fact, their precision was one of the central focus in a speech given by John Brennan, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism. The speech, given at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on April 30, 2012, was the first official statement about the government’s drone program, in which Brennan made many claims including that:

Targeted strikes conform to the principle of distinction—the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted.  With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qa’ida terrorist and innocent civilians.

For the same reason, targeted strikes conform to the principle of humanity which requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering.  For all these reasons, I suggest to you that these targeted strikes against al-Qa’ida terrorists are indeed ethical and just.

That is not the case. Brennan referred to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress on September 14, 2001, which ‘permitted’ President Bush ‘to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

But the AUMF is a deeply flawed document and the one that laid the foundations for a perpetual ‘war against terror’, and permitted mass surveillance, indefinite detentions, pre-emptive invasions, use of torture and other questionable and illegal practices. It has been variously challenged, and questioned. In fact, Barbara Lee was the sole lawmaker to vote against the AUMF and has recently argued that:

Over the past [decade], this broad authorization of force has had far-reaching implications which shake the very foundations of our great nation and democracy. It has been used to justify warrantless surveillance and wiretapping activities, indefinite detention practices that fly in the face of our constitutional values, extrajudicial targeted-killing operations, and a policy of borderless and open-ended war that threatens to indefinitely extend US military engagement around the world.

As Gregory Johnson of Buzzfeed pointed out:

Unbound by time and unlimited by geography, the sentence has been stretched and expanded over the past decade, sprouting new meanings and interpretations as two successive administrations have each attempted to keep pace with an evolving threat while simultaneously maintaining the security of the homeland. In the process, what was initially thought to authorize force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has now been used to justify operations in several countries across multiple continents and, at least theoretically, could allow the president — any president — to strike anywhere at anytime. What was written in a few days of fear has now come to govern years of action.

The AUMF – deeply flawed, hysterically worded and colored by fear and paranoia which were the hallmark of a post-9/11 America, has been the principal justification for a whole host of illegal, inhuman and violent actions over the last 13 years since it was drafted. Using a language so vague so as to mean anything, it has been the bedrock of American reasoning for torture, drone strikes, pre-emptive war, extra-judicial killings, indefinite detentions, mass surveillance and more.  John Belligner III, who worked closely with Condoleezza Rice first on the National Security Council and then at the State Department, described it as:

…a Christmas tree. All sorts of things have been hung off of those 60 words.

As far as International Law is concerned, the situation is equally clear. A 2003 UN report authored by the then UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Asma Jahangir, declared drone strikes as illegal and nothing more than extrajudicial killings in nations that are not at war with the USA. As Mary Ellen O’Connell, an international law expert and professor at Notre Dame University, pointed out:

No more reports have been needed since 2003 – just a cessation of international killing through the use of military force beyond armed conflict zones,” said O’Connell, who chaired an inspection of the application of international law in the 2003 UN report. “The bottom line is that US is not involved in armed conflict in either Pakistan or Yemen. The US has no legal right to use military force in either country.”

In addition, despite all the rhetoric on precision and the humanity of drone attacks, the advocates of their use repeatedly rely on some rather imprecision definition of the targets. That is, the ‘enemy’ was variously described as something called ‘al-Qaeda’, or ‘Taliban’ or an ‘individual aiming to harm American interests’ or even that of American allies. Even Brennan in his Woodrow Wilson Center speech kept shifting the lines, at times referring to al-Qaeda, and at other times referring to ‘those who threaten American interests’, whatever the latter may be.

This obfuscatory language is made clear in the way the Americans count the number of ‘militants’ killed in each drone strike – the same numbers that are later reported to news media, and that fill the databases of projects such as The Long War Journal, the US administration uses a sweeping definition of the word ‘militant’. The New York Times reporters Jo Becket and Scott Shane revealed in an article titled Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves A Test Of Obama’s Principles And Will, that the US administration counts all males above the age of 18 as ‘militants’. As they explained, the Obama administration…

… embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect 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.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

It also explains the very high levels of civilian casualties as a result of the drone attacks.

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