The following op-ed was written by ACLU of Wisconsin’s Executive Director Chris Ahmuty and appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Another View, “Government Needs Rules, Transparency in Drone Use.”
The United States military and Central Intelligence Agency are using armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists, including American citizens. While President Obama’s top security adviser, John Brennan, finally acknowledged this practice in April, these extrajudicial killings are still shrouded in secrecy. It is only possible to say with confidence that in recent months drones have been used to kill individuals who have been “nominated” for and placed on a secret “kill list” often with the personal involvement of President Obama. The United States has used drones for this purpose in Iraq and Afghanistan, where our country has been at war, and in Pakistan and Yemen, where we are not officially at war. American citizens have been among those targeted and among those who are among the collateral damage of such operations.
The American Civil Liberties Union has called for greater transparency from the Obama administration. A good start would be for the Obama administration to release the Justice Department memos related to this secret process, including any that purport to explain the legal authority for the extrajudicial killing of American terrorism suspects.
Drones already come in many sizes and appear to be a technological fix for some difficult operational and political issues in the war on terrorism. Drones can be controlled from great distances, thereby protecting the lives of their operators, if not Afghan or Yemeni noncombatants; a fact Al Qaeda recruiters point out. Drones may be more precise than conventional fighter attacks, thereby offering the opportunity to reduce the loss of innocent lives, but apparently sometimes President Obama makes exceptions to this goal. Chillingly, drones kill and maim but don’t take prisoners, thereby reducing the pressure to examine our government’s policy of indefinite detention of some prisoners in the everlasting war on terrorism.
There are undoubtedly legitimate and legal uses for this technology. But like other technologies, such as “enhanced interrogation methods”, use of global positioning systems to track an individual’s whereabouts 24/7, data mining of financial and other personal records and online activity, or even new full body scanning devices at the airport, drone technology does not absolve leaders in the federal executive branch, from their responsibility of using it in lawful ways that are consistent with our values.
When one examines this issue it is clear that drones have allowed targeted killings to become an important tactic in the war on terrorism without the public’s knowledge of basic information or the checks and balances our constitution requires. Drones may have severely impacted Al Qaeda in the short term, but they may have also made more difficult a long term counterterrorism strategy utilizing America’s great strength – our belief that the rule of law and civil liberties will protect our families’ freedoms from government abuse.
Polls show that Americans as a whole, if not most ACLU members, support the use of drones for targeted killings by a wide margin. The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to allow drones for law enforcement and perhaps military purposes in our country. Hopefully the buzz you hear above your head at a cookout within the next few years will be a mosquito and not a drone.