Last week during a Google+ online town hall with citizens, President Barack Obama made a tacit admission of the CIA’s extensive use of drones to target hostiles. The President was answering a question about the oversight of the drone program and insisted that “drones have not caused a significant number of civilian casualties.” While the program is well-known in Pakistan, where the majority of the unmanned strikes take place, the federal government is hesitant to acknowledge the practice. Yet drone attacks have become an increasingly common implement of the CIA and have become far more frequent under the Obama administration.
President Obama’s comments reflect the growing role of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in combat as well an executive which is increasingly comfortable with this futuristic method of warfare.
Still, the comments did raise some eyebrows and seemed a source of consternation at least for Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Diane Feinstein who complained the next day that “once again this committee has been put in a difficult position of trying to avoid any mention of classified matters when various parts of the executive branch may be doing somewhat the opposite.” White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to downplay the significance of the President’s comments. Yet the admission could be critical. When the ACLU sued for more information on drone killings, the CIA would not confirm the existence or non-existence of any such program. The ACLU countered that CIA Director Leon Panetta had spoken candidly about strikes in Pakistan, but a judge disagreed that the Director had spoken specifically of drone attacks. The President’s own words cast a long shadow on an increasingly untenable CIA position.
It is likely, though, that the President’s response was more deliberate than it seems. Perhaps the Obama administration is preparing for a greater embrace of UAVs and sees in it the policy of the future for both United States intelligence and military. This future is sure to leave a number of people uneasy. Presumably the goal of UAVs is to remove a human element from war and thereby reduce risks. What exactly are the effects of dehumanizing warfare? In this interpretation, of course, the process is only dehumanized for one side. Even so, the battlefield can only be dehumanized so much. New reports seem to show drone pilots suffering from “burnout” and PTSD.
One troubling consequence could be the further obfuscation of responsibilities in bello. Suppose a drone attack struck a large number of civilians. When civilians are wrongfully targeted by traditional forces, there are at least processes, however flawed, for justice to be done. Can such processes exist for drone attacks? Where does blame lie? Is it with the faulty in-country intelligence? Is it the mistake of a engineer or technician half a world away in the Nevada desert? Is it simply a computer error? In the discussion on removing the human element from warfare, we hear plenty about the effects on policy or the ease with which wars can be prosecuted, but little about the legal ramifications. As we further obscure the fog of war, we risk eliminating what little options for recourse innocent civilians have.
A counter-argument could hold that the entire question is moot. Is there truly any justice for the unintended victims of war? There are certainly precedents for military justice, such as the conviction of Second Lieutenant William Calley after the infamous My Lai Massacre in Viet Nam. However, past experience indicates that seeking justice on behalf of civilian casualties of war is seldom straight-forward or easy. Last month, for example, many Iraqis were outraged that the Marine responsible for the Haditha killings of 2005—where 24 civilians including women, children, and a wheelchair-ridden old man, were murdered—was only disciplined with a demotion in rank.
Is drone warfare fundamentally different from conventional warfare? Do we need to treat it differently? The answers to these questions still seem unclear. The complications which accompany the spike in the use of UAVs are many and nuanced. These questions are crucial since it is becoming increasingly clear that drones will continue to shape the future of warfare. Moreover, if the United States presumes its cause to be just in fighting terror worldwide, these are truly important moral considerations.