Ethics and Drones Revisited19.03.13

Ethics and Drones Revisited 19.03.13


Howard Adelman

If you skip the bibliographical references, this is not a long blog.

I thought the debate over drones would cool off again after the initial flurry of articles following the leak and publication by NBC News of the Obama memo justifying their use in a confidential Justice Department 16-page memo (on 4 February 2013). That memo concluded that the U.S. government could order the killing of American citizens (Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan) if they were believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaeda (or “an associated force”) even in the absence of intelligence indicating they had been engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S. Between the immediate aftermath of the release of the memo until the publication of my blog on Obama and Drones (Obama 19. Drones: The Normative Debate 27.02.13), the commentary certainly seemed to cover all sides of the issue. This is a sampling that I added to my bibliography on the topic between the release of the memo and my blog:

  • Nick Gillespie, "Do You Agree with White House that Drone Strikes are ‘Legal’, ‘Ethical’ and W’ise’,", 5 February 2013
  • Matt Willstein, "White House Responds To Drones Memo: Strikes are ‘Legal’, ‘Ethical’ and ‘Wise," Media, 5 February 2013
  • Doug Powers, "Jay Carney: Drone Strikes constitutional, ethical, wise, and completely within the province of a Nobel Prize Winner," Michele Malkin, 5 February 2013
  • Maryann Cusimano, "Love White House: Drone Program ‘legal’, ‘ethical’ and ‘wise’. Is it?," The Washington Post, 5 February 2013
  • Adam Clark Estes, "The Future of Drone Warfare is Scary," Atlantic Wire, 6 February 2013
  • Owen Schaefer, "The double standard of objections to drone strikes against US citizens," Practical Ethics, 6 February 2013
  • Robert Murray, "The Ethics of unmanned killer drones still evolving," The Province,7 February 2013
  • Andrew Reddie, "Beyond Ethics: Drones in Realpolitik," Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 8 February 2013
  • Eugene Robinson, "Drones bend the rules of ethics," Tennessean, 10 February 2013
  • "Drone Ethics: The Policy and the Memo," Ethics Alarms, 11 February 2013

· George Clifford, "Drones and targeted killings – Part1," Ethical Musings, 11 February 2013

  • Jane Mayer, Jeff McMahan and Michael Walzer, "The Ethics of Drone Warfare," on Live Chat with Amy Davidson, 14 February 2013
  • David Post, "Drone Attacks Spur Legal Debate on the Definition of ‘Battlefield’," Huffington Post, 14 February
  • Travis Normand, "The war on terror without geographically defined battlefields," Blog response to Post’s article in The Huffington Post
  • Bill Darrow and David Kaiser, "Drones: The Ethics and Strategy," Williams College, 19 February 2013
  • Amy Davison, "Can a President Use Drones Against Journalists?" The New Yorker, 20 February 2013
  • Meghan Topp, "The Secret Drone Wars," RELEVANT Magazine, 21 February 2013

· George Clifford, "Drones and targeted killings – Part 2," Ethical Musings, 21 February 2013

However, in March thus far the debate has continued apace:

," The New York Times, 17 March 2013

  • Shane Newell, "The ethics surrounding drone strikes need more discussion," DAILY49ER, 10 March 2013
  • Michael Walzer, "Is the Military Use of Drones Ethically Defensible?" The Berkley Center, the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program, and the Mortara Center for International Studies, 13 March 2013
  • Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, "Report on the Use of Drones by the United States in Pakistan," Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, Geneva. [The report itself is not available
    but its contents have been widely reported in the media, beginning with a
    breaking news item on CBC and then in published reports in The New York Times and a wide array
    of other news outlets around the world
  • "EC Community discusses the ethics of drone
    strikes," The Leader, 19
    March 2013
  • The Kroc Institute for
    International Peace Studies, Conference:
    Ethical, Strategic & Legal Implications of Drone Warfare," Chicago, 20-21 March
  • Kenneth Roth, "How We Should Control
    Drones," The New York Review of Books, 4 April


Reading this
last one after the issue of the NYRB arrived in the mail yesterday provoked me
to take up the subject once again, but focusing exclusively on the ethical
issues. I suspect that the forthcoming book by Christian Enemark entitled Armed Drones and the Ethics of War: Military
Virtue in a Post-Heroic Age
to be published by Routledge on 31 August 2013
will be out of date before it hits the bookstores. Old fashion book publishing
is just too slow in the modern age of electronic publishing.


Roth is not
opposed to the use of drones, even though they appear to make war and lethal
killing easier because their use reduces the risk to the party which owns the
drones. However, insofar as they increase pinpoint accuracy, can hover over the
target to confirm the individual(s) to be hit and can choose the optimum moment
for a strike, the use of drones has the potential of reducing civilian
casualties. Roth also recognizes the difference between the justifications used
for the use of lethal weaponry for a just cause – self-defence employed after
proper congressional authorization, and ius
in bello

issues such as proportionality and the principle of not targeting


However, Roth
found the leaked memo of 5 February not only to be deliberately ambiguous but
designed to allow plenty of wiggle room while claiming to employ killer drones
strictly within the bounds of international law. Roth launches seven arguments
against the Obama administration's justification for the use of drones.


First, Roth argues
that the range of geographical areas where drones can be used are limited to any
actual battlefield where American troops are engaged. Yemen, Somalia,
Mali and the untamed
territories of Pakistan
lie outside that battlefield. Roth's second argument concerns the
combatant/belligerent status of the targeted individual; the laws of war
prohibit targeting civilians not actively engaged in belligerency – such as
cooks or drivers – there must be direct participation in hostilities. If a
third rationale for targeting individuals is used, namely, the rules of
prevention in a criminal action (rather than a military justification), Roth
argues that such a justification of an immanent threat only applies to war
powers and not to anti-criminal activities; in a criminal situation, the threat
must really be immanent — such as individuals holding a gun to an innocent
civilian's head. Fourth, Roth argues that in non-battlefield situations,
capture is by far the preferable criterion but though the administration
appears to agree, that principle is not applied; capture never seems to be
feasible. Roth's next two arguments concern process. His fifth argument is that
the decisions are too secret and not sufficiently transparent. Sixth, the
decisions are unilateral and not subject to institutional constraints. Finally,
Roth argues that the Pentagon, not the CIA, should be the proper and legal
agency to use drones because the military have a proper chain of command and a
tradition of stronger accountability to the law.     


Though Roth
himself is confusing when he flits back and forth between strategic (is the use
of drones counter-productive in creating more civilian resentment and more
terrorists) and ethical issues, and though he makes his arguments in the form
of a trial brief rather than a legal or ethical analyst weighing the different
sides of the question, nevertheless he offers a fairly concise view of one
school of thought on the ethics and laws of war applied to drones. For
elaborations of that argument, see Nils Melzer (2008) Targeted Killing in International Law (OUP). More succinct versions,
but one more elaborate than the one Roth offers, can be found in the writings
of Mary Ellen O'Connell.


I myself find it
somewhat exasperating to read repetitions of arguments, especially when not
precisely stated, enunciated virtually since the Obama administration took
office without taking into account the arguments made on the other side. I'll
examine each argument in turn.


Does the law of
war restrict belligerency to the battlefield? If it does not, Roth argues that
the US could be allowed to
hit an individual in London.
Functionalists argue that there are no such restrictions in international law
of war. Contrary to Melzer, O'Connell and Roth, the functionalists seem to be
supported by the overwhelming tradition in international law applied to war. The
official US
government view is that fighting follows the belligerents and is not restricted
to battlefields. In ius in bello, hostilities
take place where hostiles are to be
found not where battles take place. The exception is when hostiles are in
neutral territory of a state determined to protect its neutrality.


However, neither
the preponderance of authorities nor the weight of tradition makes an
interpretation correct. Those are simply empirical issues about ethics. They
weigh as precedents and arguments from authority but are insufficient in
themselves to determine the outcome of a debate. Mary Ellen O'Connell offers a
more elaborate argument than merely a confusing reiteration and a throw away
line about the opposite argument leading to killing targets in Paris
and London. I
distil her arguments published in various scholarly articles in books and
journals and legal briefs, largely relying on her Pakistan study and her legal brief
to Congress.


(2004) "Ad
Hoc War," in Krisensicherung and
Humanitärer Schutz – Crisis Management and Humanitarian Protection

"Enhancing the Status of Non-State Actors Through a Global War on
Terror," Journal of Transnational

(2009) "Combatants
and the Combat Zone," University of Richmond Law Review, 43:845

(2010a) "The
Choice of Law Against Terrorism," Journal
of National Security Law

(2010b) "Unlawful
Killing with Combat Drones: A Case Study of Pakistan, 2004-2009," Notre
Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 09-43," republished in Simon Bronit (ed.) Shooting to Kill: The Law Governing Lethal
Force in Context

"Lawful Use of Combat Zones," legal brief to the Subcommittee on
National Security and Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Washington, 28


In the school of
thought on the international law of war to which O'Connell (as well as Roth and
Melzer) subscribe, O'Connell is more precise for she does not make the error of
insisting that belligerency per se is
restricted geographically to battlefields, but rather that drones drop bombs;
bombs may only be used lawfully in areas where armed hostile conflict is taking
place and international law does not recognize the right to kill with battlefield weapons outside an
actual armed conflict. Melzer goes even further and argues that weapons can be
used extra-territorially to a battlefield (257-261) provided the target is a
combatant in the armed conflict and is directly participating in armed
conflict. Thus, Roth has offered the most restrictive argument of all for those
who want to restrict the use of drones very severely.


argument depends on a second premise: militant operations outside of
battlefield conditions are police not military operations. Police actions
require that warnings be issued before lethal force is used. The very nature of
the use of drones dropping explosives depends on surprise, so notice cannot be
given. Since the use of drones does not conform either to a police operation against
criminals nor a battlefield scenario, drones, though lawful for use in
Afghanistan by US forces, are not lawful for use in Somalia, Yemen, Mali or even
Pakistan, though there is more dispute over the last. The reference to London and Paris
are just red herrings.


David Post's 15
February Huffington Post article,
drawing on O'Connell, argued that the break with the law of war began with the
use of a predator drone over Yemen
in Bush's war on terror on 3 November 2002 when six suspected al-Qaeda terrorists
were blown up by a missile shot from a drone over Yemen. However, Post was wrong in
claiming that this was the first use of a battlefield weapon outside a
recognized war zone. The debate over the destruction of the battleship ARA Belgrano
in the Falklands War (Guerre de las Malvinas)
in 1982 hung on whether battlefield weapons were restricted to recognized war
zones or could be used outside the exclusion zone of 200 miles. The United States
has never recognized such a restriction. Nor has the UK. Ironically, in the case of the
Belgrano, evidence recently came to light from the British navy that the
Belgrano was not heading back to port when the missiles hit but in fact had
been ordered to sail towards the exclusion zone. (Thomas Harding, "RAR Belgrano
was heading to the Falklands secret papers
reveal," MercoPress, 26 December
2011) Nevertheless the issue remains – the Belgrano was struck by lethal
weapons and sunk outside the exclusion zone defining the battlefield.


The US
"Authorization for the Use of Military Force" in the war on terror,
subsequently amended by Barack Obama to the war on al-Qaeda and its affiliate,
authorizes the "use of all necessary and appropriate force against those
nations, organizations, or persons he (the President) determines planned,
authored, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September
11, 2001, or harboured such organizations or persons." The authorization
focuses on hostiles, not geographical areas.


This American
official opinion is backed by a number of eminent experts on the international
law of war. [For example, see
Rostow (2011) "Combating
Terrorists: Legal Challenges in the Post-9/11 World
, in Paul A. Pedoza & Daria P. Wollschlaeger (eds.) International Law and the Changing Character
of War.
The same two schools also are divided over who can be detained and
where. Cf.
Curtis A. Bradley & Jack L.
Goldsmith (2005) "Congressional
Authorization and the War on Terrorism," Harvard Law Review 118:2047; Robert Chesney (2011) "Who May Be Held? Military Detention Through
the Habeas Lens, British Columbia
Law Review
52:769] Essentially, subject to the usual constraints of just war theory re proportionality and discrimination, states have an inherent right to use lethal military weapons in a war of self-drefensewherever the enemy is to be found.

But that still leaves open the question whether attacking those six men in the car in Yemen "appropriate" force was used when a battlefield weapon was employed. There are two schools of thought. The English functionalist school (most just war and laws of war scholars and officials in the USA, Canada, the UK) focus on where the alleged enemy is, subject to certain debatable constraints. The human rights school centred in continental Europe, particularly Geneva, which suborn international laws of war as a subset of human rights norms, limit war to wide scale armed conflict in specific geographic zones with specific exceptions by some scholars. Generally, police operations are law enforcement operations applicable outside such areas and these operations are governed only by human rights norms. Reading Roth’s human rights polemic, one would never be aware that another school of thought was in contention or that there were divisions among the adherents to his own school of thought.

Jennifer Paskal, a Fellow at the Center on Law and National Security at the Georgetown University Law Center has written articles trying to overcome the divisions between the two schools. Her paper, "The Geography of the Battlefield: A Framework for Detention and Targeting Outside the ‘Hot’ Conflict Zone," forthcoming in The University of Pennsylvania Law Review 161 specifically deals with this impasse. She offers the argument, repeated by Roth, that focusing on hostiles instead of hot military zones would mean that Russia could go after Chechnyans anywhere in the world, including the U.S.A. This is as big a red herring as the Paris and London or Times Square arguments bandied about, for law permits but does not prescribe. There are other limitations imposed by prudence and not law.

Paskal in her effort ends up on the side of the functionalists for she recognizes both the need and the right of states to deal with enemies wherever they are found, and, therefore, that conflict follows the enemy, but extends that territory beyond hot zones to include territories where the rule of law cannot or is not being imposed. In fact, this merely encapsulates in proposed legal norms actual operating policies based on prudence. She "explicitly recognizes that the set of current rules, developed mostly in response to state-on-state conflicts in a world without drones, fail to adequately address the complicated security and liberty issues presented by conflicts between a state and mobile non-state actors in a world where technological advances allow the state to track and attack the enemy wherever he is found. New rules are needed, she argues. Drawing on evolving state practice, underlying principles of the laws of war, and prudential policy reasons, the paper proposes a set of such rules for conflicts between states and transnational non-state actors – rules designed to both promote the state’s security and legitimacy and protect against the erosion of individual liberty and the rule of law."

As Kenneth Anderson has written, "armed conflict law applied under conditions of hostilities, and although hostilities could and sometimes did follow the participants around to far-flung places, on account of technological limits and related practical reasons, armed conflict tended to have a de facto geographical space. Moreover, if one wanted to invoke the law of armed conflict in some place, the presence of combatants would not by itself suffice; someone would in fact have to undertake hostilities (including initiating them). So the conduct of hostilities, rather than geography as such, was the traditional touchstone – but in fact hostilities for all sorts of practical reasons tended to stick to geographical zones. The hostilities standard also had the virtue of keeping jus ad bellum issues (including sovereignty, neutrality, borders) distinct from the jus in bello issues (irrespective of whether ad bellum law was violated, the law of armed conflict would apply in the conduct of active hostilities)." [See his 2011 essay, "How We Came to Debate
Whether There Is A Legal Geography Of War," and his introductory framework
essay of Lawfare for the Naval
War College
workshop on the legal geography of the battlefield.] The norms guiding the conduct of war are merely catching up with changes in technology and the prevalence of asymmetrical wars against non-state actors.

What about Roth’s argument with respect to those who can be targeted. The authorization for the war against al-Qaeda and affiliates was wide open. The policy tended to focus on high level policy makers and medium level operatives. Roth would further restrict targets to those actually engaged in conflict, in effect, hostiles with a gun. This is far too restrictive and would outlaw capturing or killing bin Laden except by law enforcement authorities. On the other hand, targeting individuals based on patterns of behaviour (signature strikes) rather than individual identification has resulted in costly mistakes where civilians were killed and should be prohibited on the traditional rule of discrimination and minimizing collateral damage.

I will ignore the issue of immanent threat governing the actions of police officials given that I have already accepted that these are military and not civilian police actions. What about Roth’s fourth argument for prioritizing capture. As I indicated above, both schools agree on this preference. The real difference here in not over principle but over practice. In all cases, the authorities argue that capture was not feasible, including some cases – such as the infamous bin Laden case – where it was feasible. This is an argument over practice and not rules of war per se, but perhaps over process rules, the issue of Roth’s fifth and sixth arguments. The issue is not, in my mind, transparency, but the need for a legislative body to provide better worked out procedural guidelines for specific decisions but without setting up a proposed court of review or an equivalent ex ante review before the executive could take action. Legislative oversight could require the executive to set standards of threat and provide criteria for determining when such standards have been met. Legislatures can help provide normative frameworks. This is important and valuable, but legislative bodies should not partner in executive decisions. That legislative body should be empowered to define the constraints within which the policy should be carried out.

Finally, what about the argument that the use of drones should be assigned to the Pentagon and not the CIA because the former has a proper chain of command and a tradition of stronger accountability to the law? This issue is moot since the Obama administration has already announced that it intends to shift the implementation of drone use overwhelmingly to the Pentagon, a policy incidentally that was publicly supported by John Brennan both before and since he became head of the CIA.

Kenneth Roth is the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. He has had enough on his plate defending himself against his former chair and the founder of HRW, Robert Bernstein and the record of bias on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as by Islamic states on his stands in defence of Islamic women. He has also been criticized for being too defensive of American policy in Latin America. My concern is not with any of these. There is a great need, and possibly obligation as well, when presenting a case dealing with normative issues with respect to drones to clarify, analyze and then argue for a position and not simply serve as an advocate ignoring all other counter-evidence and arguments, variations and opponents.


[Tags: drones,
just war, laws of war, geographical restrictions, target restrictions,

Ethics and Drones Revisited19.doc


Obama 18. The Results of the Drone Program 26.02.13

Obama 18. The Results of the Drone Program 26.02.13


Howard Adelman

In my blog today I will quote extensively from the report by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School (Stanford Clinic) and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law (NYU Clinic) called “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan Acknowledgments” (SNYU Report). The Report came out at the end of 2012 and has been the most comprehensive critical report of the Drone Program of the Obama Administration. The critique is summed up as follows:

The central justification for US drone strikes is that they are necessary to make the US safer by disrupting militant activity. Proponents argue that they are an effective, accurate, and precise tool to that end. However, serious questions have been raised about the accuracy and efficacy of strikes, and the publicly available evidence that they have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best. Considerable costs also have been documented. The under-accounted-for harm to civilians–injuries, killings, and broad impacts on daily life, education, and mental health–was analyzed in detail above, and must be factored as a severe cost of the US program. In addition, it is clear that US strikes in Pakistan foster anti-American sentiment and undermine US credibility not only in Pakistan but throughout the region. There is strong evidence to suggest that US drone strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivate attacks against both US military and civilian targets. Further, current US targeted killing and drone strike practices may set dangerous global legal precedents, erode the rule of law, and facilitate recourse to lethal force.

In this blog I will focus on the result of the Drone Program under the following headings:

1. Ratio of Militant:Civilian Deaths

2. Military and Political Results

3. Homeland Security

1. Ratio of Militant:Civilian Deaths

In a speech at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies on "Obama Administration Counterterrorism Strategy," on 29 June 2011, John Brennan, Obama’s point man on counter-terrorism was recorded on C-Span as having claimed that, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop." Such a claim is just not credible. Fortunately, there are a multitude of sources that allow the claim to be checked.

John Brennan in his 2013 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Centre said: "In the course of the war in Afghanistan and the fight against al-Qaida, I think the American people expect us to use advanced technologies, for example, to prevent attacks on U.S. forces and to remove terrorists from the battlefield. We do, and it has saved the lives of our men and women in uniform. What has clearly captured the attention of many, however, is a different practice, beyond hot battlefields like Afghanistan, identifying specific members of al-Qaida and then targeting them with lethal force, often using aircraft remotely operated by pilots who can be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away."

Was the strategy of killing off members of al Qaeda successful? At what cost?

Brian Katulis and Peter Juul of theCenter for American Progress declared that "Destroying Al Qaeda" has been "America’s Greatest National Security Accomplishment in Decades." (I November 2011) "The Al Qaeda network over the past three years suffered its greatest losses since the United States and its allies evicted the terrorist organization from Afghanistan in 2001…Hardly a week goes by without some key figure in the Al Qaeda network and its affiliates being targeted in a range of actions, including drone strikes as well as other actions by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent attacks and degrade the Al Qaeda network. The damage done to Al Qaeda by the Obama administration represents America’s greatest national security success since the fall of the Soviet Union and the peaceful integration of Eastern European countries in the 1990s."

How can the US know that they have killed a targeted al Qaeda militant without an ability to conduct post-strike investigations on the ground? In fact, without such investigations, how can the US know how many civilians have been killed if they claim that the collateral damage has been very limited? How does the Obama administration define a militant and differentiate a civilian from a militant? Before we answer that, I will first examine some fairly reliable reports on the body count.

In the Brookings Institute Afghanistan Index prepared by Ian Livingston and Michael O`Hanlan dated 31 July 2012, on p. 32 there are two charts (Figures 5.3 and 5.4) that show, first the monthly unarmed drone attacks in Pakistan and in the second chart an estimate of the total number of deaths from US drone strikes in Pakistan from 2006 to 24 July 2012. The latter figures are mostly taken from Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Revenge of the Drones,” New America Foundation, 19 October 2009 and a follow-up study, “The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2010,” 24 February 2010. There are no parallel figures for the results of fatalities from attacks by piloted aircraft, either because there were none or because drone attacks were seen to belong to a special category. I reproduce the chart below:

Deaths (low) Deaths (high)

2012 All 162 207
Militant 162 207
2011 All 378 536
Militant 362 500
2010 All 697 993
Militant 581 939
2009 All 368 724
Militant 265 501
2008 All 273 313
Militant 133 164
2004-2007 All 89 112
Militant 81 103
Total All 1,879 2,887
Militant 1,586 2,416

Several observations can be immediately drawn. First, the attacks accelerated in 2008 even before Obama took office with Bush`s orders to use Predator and Reaper drones instead of boots on he ground, and expanded again when Obama took office in 2009, reaching a peak in 2010. Second, if the chart is to be believed, the accuracy greatly improved in killing militants compared to the deaths of non-combatants. In 2008, for every militant killed, another civilian died as collateral damage. In 2012, no civilians were killed. In between, the accuracy of killing militants significantly improved though it was not perfect as Brennan claimed. A third observation: the results look too good. At first glance, they are not credible. Who was counted as a militant? When you send a tomahawk missile raining down on the home of a militant, how is it that no wives or children were killed?

The SNYU Report is even more critical, challenging the US narrative of minimal collateral damage. “The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.” The Brookings top end figures were 2,887 killed. The estimated average killed in the TBIJ report was 2,943, or 60 more than the top figure in the Brookings Report, a 2% difference, well within any margin of error. Civilian deaths in the Brookings report were 529 at the top end versus an average of 664 in the TBIJ Report, or about 25% higher. While the SNYU Report criticized the use of the oversimplified civilian/“militant” binary, it relied on precisely that binary in championing the TBIJ Report figures. I will come back to that binary in the discussion of the legal authority for the use of drones in my next blog.

The SNYU Report stated baldly that the government narrative of accuracy and relatively little collateral damage is false. However, if the figures the SNYU Report cites are to be believed, that depiction is accurate for 2011 and certainly for 2012. While acknowledging the existence of real threats in the Pakistani border areas and the need for defence, “in light of significant evidence of harmful impacts to Pakistani civilians and to US interests,” the Report concluded that “current policies to address terrorism through targeted killings and drone strikes must be carefully re-evaluated.”

Let us re-evaluate the militant/civilian ration of deaths assuming the slightly higher TBIJ figures. Ignoring the significant decline in the number of civilians killed, we are talking about an average of 74 civilians killed per year and 1 civilian killed per 4 militants.

Perhaps one should re-evaluate the use of drones and targeted killings, but hardly on the basis of the SNYU Report of civilians killed as collateral damage. Based on other war zones and comparative rates of civilian deaths to militant deaths, these figures frankly look amazing. One may be justly appalled at the damage on a personal level, but in comparative terms to any other military conflict, these figures are hard to believe, not for how bad they are but for how good they are. In the Korean War, two civilians were killed for every soldier. In WWII, the ratio was 3.2:1. In Vietnam, the ratio was 2:1. In the 1982 Lebanon War, the ratio was at least 4:1. In the series of wars in former Yugoslavia, the best estimated ratio was 1:1. In the militant actions of Palestinians on Israel in the first Intifada, the ratio of civilian to military deaths was 5:1. Only in Gaza did the ratio of militants to civilians killed reach an unprecedented low level of 1 civilian for every 30 militants. However, subsequently in Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza War, in my analysis, the ratio was 1:3 and in the Palestinian estimates, the ratio was reversed using similar totals but categorizing the deaths differently. If the US achieved a 1:4 ratio of civilian to militant deaths, especially if the ratio kept improving over nine years, this should be regarded as a very positive achievement.

Further, if one added to the numbers a large number of "spies" killed by al Qaeda itself to uproot alleged informers, then the number of militants indirectly killed by the program could be further increased. Then why the expression of such outrage by many on the "left"? Drones are a safer way of executing terrorists than employing ground troops according to then White House Counter Terrorism advisor John Brennan, who went on later to confirm that currently civilian causalities are "exceedingly rare". Clare Cullen argued that this was only the case because the CIA’s definition of a “combatant” is so broad that it effectively means anyone killed in a drone strike, as long as they are “military-age males” can be classified as a combatant. (Clare Cullen "Obama’s Drone Wars strain the liberal principles he espoused in 2008" iPolitics, 8 June 2011) If the use of "signature strikes" become more common that target people because they have the profile of a militant rather than because they have been individually identified as such, then the ratio of killing more militants than civilians improves, but only because of re-categorizing those killed.

I have no doubt that living under the threat of drones hovering above until it locates its target is terrorizing “giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities”. I also have no doubt that when Tomahawk or Hellfire missiles reach their targets that the property damage is considerable and that a number of civilians are injured as well. These attacks disrupt lives, livelihoods and cultural patterns. In sum, collateral damage goes well beyond the civilians killed and the property destroyed to disrupt the way of life of the civilian population in the target zone. War is, indeed, hell!

What about the claims of the SNYU Report that repeated efforts to kill high-level targets have killed civilians each time so that, in order to measure the principle of discrimination, the total of civilians killed for an individual target over multiple attempts should be calculated? The answer is straightforward. The risk of collateral damage has to be calculated for each individual action. The overall totals are simply an indicator, and only an indicator, of whether those individual decisions were reasonable. As well they serve as a measure for assessing the overall war effort and whether the actions accord with just war norms.

The real issue does not really arise when one or two individual civilians are killed as collateral damage, but when mistakes are made. This is true of all wars. Thus, the attempt to kill the head of the Pakistani Taliban, resulted not only in his wife being killed, but in dozens of civilian deaths in four earlier failed attempts.

A year earlier, a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, while he was visiting his father-in-law; his wife was vaporized along with him. But the US had already tried four times to assassinate Mehsud with drones, killing dozens of civilians in the failed attempts. One of the missed strikes, according to a human rights group, killed 35 people, including nine civilians, with reports that flying shrapnel killed an eight-year-old boy while he was sleeping. Another blown strike, in June 2009, took out 45 civilians, according to credible press reports. (SNYU Report)

There are three other reasons, however, for distrusting the figures and ratios. Without ground spotters to report on the numbers killed on the ground, how could you possibly have accuracy?

The accuracy of a drone strike fundamentally hinges on the accuracy of the intelligence on which the targeting is premised. That intelligence has often been questioned. An anonymous US official cited by Tom Junod in his August 2012 Esquire article admitted that “[y]ou get information from intelligence channels and you don’t know how reliable it is or who the source was. The intelligence services have criteria, but most of the time the people making the decision have no idea what those criteria are.” (SNYU Report)

Second, given the record of errors in getting the individual targeted, even one where the collateral damage was to American service men killed by "friendly fire" – "In April 2011, for example, US forces used a predator drone to fire upon and kill two American soldiers in Afghanistan who had apparently been mistaken for Taliban fighters." Not all civilian collateral damage belongs to the same group as the enemy. But the main focus is on non-American civilians.

In September 2010, US special forces bombed the convoy of Zabet Amanullah, a candidate in parliamentary elections, killing him along with nine fellow election workers; US forces reportedly mistakenly believed Amanullah to be a member of the Taliban.[11] In both Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been documented cases of opportunistic informants providing false tips to settle scores, advance sectarian or political agendas, or to obtain financial reward.[12] For example, in Guantanamo, a reported 86 percent of those imprisoned were turned over to coalition forces in response to a bounty offered by the US.[13] Pakistani and Afghan villagers reported the bounty amount was “[e]nough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.

When errors are cumulative, the ratio of civilian:militant deaths seems much worse.

Although proclaimed dead in January 2009[20] and again in September 2009,[21] Ilyas Kashmiri, the alleged head of Al Qaeda’s paramilitary operations in Pakistan, gave an interview to a Pakistani journalist in October that same year.[22] Our research team spoke with a survivor of the September 2009 strike in which Kashmiri was initially reported to have died. That survivor, Sadaullah Wazir, who was 15 years old or younger at the time of the strike, lost both his legs and an eye in the strike.[23] Kashmiri was again proclaimed dead in June 2011,[24] but even this account has been contested.[25] Similarly, Abu Yahya Al-Libi, declared to be Al Qaeda’s #2 or #3, was thought killed in a December 2009 drone strike,[26] only to be reportedly killed more than three years later in June 2012.[27] Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone has also traced the multiple US attempts to strike the TTP’s former leader Baitullah Mehsud.

There is also the issue of the number of high level versus low level targets. There can be no question that, by the law of averages, the majority of those killed had to be lower level targets. In a May 2010 article by Adam Entous, he claimed that US spokesman told him that by that time “only 14 top-tier leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other militant groups” had been killed as well as “two dozen high-to-mid-level leaders”; 90% were low-level fighters. Why would anyone expect any better results? If 2500 are killed and 25 (1%) are high-level targets and another 225 (9%) are mid-level targets, that is not abnormal for regular or asymmetrical warfare.

Between 2004 and 2007 only four senior al Qaeda commanders were killed: Nek Mohammed, a senior Taliban commander in South Waziristan in 2004; Abu Hamza Rabia, al Qaeda’s operational commander in 2005 on 1 December; Imam Asad, a Chechen who served as camp commander of bin Laden’s elite personal security force, killed 1 March 2006; Liaquat Hussain, second in command of the Bjour TNSM killed 30 October 2006. In 2008, assassinations picked up noticeably with Bush’s employment of drones; 19 al Qaeda leaders were killed in 2008 alone. More specifically, the high-level al Qaeda targets killed included: Abu Laith al Libi, senior military commander in Afghanistan of al Qaeda’s Shadow Army killed 29 January, except that his death was also declared in December 2009 and then again in June 2012; Abu Sulayman Al Jazairi, an Algerian leader and in charge of the external network of al Qaeda killed on 14 May in Pakistan; Abu Khabab al Masri, al Qaeda’s WMD expert killed in South Waziristan 27 July, though he was previously thought to have been killed in January 2006; Khalid bin Abdul Rehman a local Taliban commander and a rumoured potential successor to second in command Abu Zaid-al-Kuwaiti killed by a Predator drone attack 13 August; Abu Haris a senior al Qaeda military commander from Syria who had just become al Qaeda’s Operations Chief in the Tribal areas was killed 8 September; Khalid Habib commander of the Shadow Army on 13 October; Abu Jihad Al Masri, leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group and head of al Qaeda intelligence, 31 October; Abdullah Azzam Ala Saudi the liaison officer between al Qaeda and the Taliban on 19 November; Abu Zubair Al Masri, an explosive expert killed 21 November. In 2009, 17 more were killed including: Sheik Ahmed Salim Swedan wanted for planning the US Kenyan and Tanzanian embassy bombings killed 1 January; Osama Al Kini, Pakistan operations chief and also a planner of the American Tanzanian and Kenyan embassy bombings, killed on 1 January as well; Abu Musa al Masri, a senior explosives expert and trainer killed 21 October. In the next 3 years and 2 months, an additional 48 top level and middle level al Qaeda were killed. (See The Long War Journal, "Senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004-2013" In the next blog, I will discuss whether the policy of decapitation itself is prudent, legal and ethical.

Alexander Downes argues that the drone program had become an attrition rather than decapitation program since many of the old high level targets have been killed. ("The Truth About Obama’s Drone Campaign: It’s About Attrition, Not Decapitation," Politics, 01.19.13) "Drone strikes are mostly killing low-level Pakistani militants, not al Qaeda leaders. This strategy is unlikely to cause the collapse of al Qaeda or even the Pakistani Taliban and may have counterproductive effects. Obama’s second term may therefore require new thinking on drones." Is the evaluation necessary because of the cost? If the collateral damage has been reduced significantly, what reason is there for stopping the program even if the ratio of lower level militants rises? Does killing of enemy militants increase recruitment?

If killing enemies increases the recruitment of others, then all war efforts are useless except in wars aimed at totally exhausting the human fire power on the other side. Further, there is a difference between aiming to disrupt and weaken an enemy structure and forcing it to disintegrate. There is no indication that Obama has that totalist kind of optimistic goal. Rather, what is envisioned is a long term attrition war until the extreme militants see the futility of their efforts.

The critics who argue either that decapitation is counter-productive because new leadership quickly springs up to replace those killed and/or that the efforts to kill militants only stimulate more anger and resentment, particularly when civilians are killed, and thus attract new recruits to the cause, then have the responsibility to articulate an alternative way of dealing with militants. In the end, it would appear that the alternative is retreat and withdrawal of support from more moderate regimes and allowing those regimes to fight their own battles against extremists. The problem then, if Iran is an example, militancy itself has no bounds and will inevitably clash either in the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, partner Muslim majority countries and areas such as Israel-Palestine or former Yugoslavia. These, however, are larger strategic issues, so I will return to the grounded question of numbers.

If the above figures are accurate, then the Obama regime has figured out how to use drones to watch and wait for their targets over extended periods of time and then use precision-guided missiles to kill the target while, at the same time, minimizing collateral damage. The increasing percentage of Taliban leaders compared to al Qaeda may indicate that the decapitation program has been successful if only in scattering the remnants of al Qaeda. Though the Taliban and al Qaeda do not have the same objectives, and although the Taliban do not target America as America but only as occupiers, the Taliban still host the al Qaeda terrorists.

2. Military and Political Results

What about measurements of other results. Has the threat from al Qaeda been reduced? Has its prime effort in the media war been decimated, especially since al Qaeda`s release of videotapes has all but disappeared from the airwaves? Has the attack on terrorists turned Pakistani public opinion against the United States?

When Pakistan’s Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam visited America in August 2012, he told the then-CIA Director David Petraeus that predator strikes are proving counterproductive, giving a greater incentive to fundamentalist and extremist elements in Pakistan and increasing anti-U.S. sentiments among the people. (Saijad Shaukat "Killing Civilians: Obama’s Drone War in Pakistan: Illegal, Unethical, Violating Sovereignty and the UN Charter," Global Research, 14 December 2012) Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar reiterated the same points after meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on 21 September: following these illegal and counterproductive strikes and when Pakistanis rather than foreigners are killed, public antagonism is aroused against the "U.S. War". President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan made the same point addressing the UN General Assembly on 25 September: if drone attacks provoke the tribal people in North Waziristan against Pakistan’s security forces, if they create the grounds for increased recruitment, then “Drone strikes and civilian casualties on our territory add to the complexity of our battle for hearts and minds through this epic struggle.”

Public opinion polls indicate that anti-US sentiment has risen is Pakistan.

Despite the vast foreign aid the US has invested in Pakistan, a 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude project found that 74% of Pakistanis consider the US an enemy, up from 64% three years ago. Only 45% of Pakistanis felt it important to improve relations with the US, down from 60% the previous year, and fewer support cooperation or even receiving aid from the US.

US drone strikes are extremely unpopular in Pakistan. A 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude project found that only 17% of Pakistanis supported drone strikes. And remarkably, among those who professed to know a lot or a little about drones, 97% considered drone strikes bad policy. As numerous analysts have noted, “[i]f the price of the drone campaign that increasingly kills only low-level Taliban is alienating 180 million Pakistanis–that is too high a price to pay.” (SNYU Report)

The unpopularity of the drone program goes well beyond Pakistan.

In 17 of the 20 countries polled by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the majority of those surveyed disapproved of US drone attacks in countries like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.[82] Widespread opposition spans the globe, from traditional European allies such as France (63% disapproval) and Germany (59% disapproval) to key Middle East states such as Egypt (89% disapproval) and Turkey (81% disapproval).

Pakistani’s highest government officials do not appear to be speaking out of two sides of their mouths, quietly acceding to the drone attacks while vociferously attacking them in public. Why would they take such a tack on American soil? Were they just warning the Americans to be more accurate in their targeting? After all, the drone attacks were taking out increasingly higher numbers of Taliban than of al Qaeda. They certainly seemed much more concerned about the program than its accuracy. Pakistani military had been attacked and 100 military personnel had been killed over the previous two years. Suicide attacks from the tribal areas were increasingly launched in the heart of Pakistan’s major cities. Were the political leaders merely trying to offload the blame for these attacks on the USA and using these to explain why quiet diplomacy and the rapprochement initiative with the Taliban leaders had not worked?

The fragile Pakistani state may have been further weakened by the drone program. Public opinion in Pakistan may have turned even more against America. However, there is also evidence suggesting other problems are much more worrisome to Pakistanis. Certainly, every time another car bomb explodes in Pakistan, increasing numbers of cries arise in shriller and shriller tones that it is America, not al Qaeda, that is to blame. On the other hand, while Shuza Nawaz, the author of the history of the Pakistan military, Crossed Swords, argued that if attacks were diverted from the Tribal areas to Pakistan proper, America would have crossed a red line. However, even though the attack against bin Laden was less than a mile for a large Pakistani military base, the Pakistani response was relatively mute.

Further, there is plenty of evidence of increasing strife between Islamic militants and moderates throughout the region totally independent of the drone strikes. Look at the protests in Shahbag Square in Bangladesh about bringing people to justice for their war crimes while Islamists denounce the protests as anti-Islam. (Syed Zain al-Mahmood, "Bangladesh split as violence escalates over war crimes protests," The Observer, 23 February 2013) Further, evidence suggests that the Pakistani public has become more anti-Taliban than ever. The pro-Taliban parties received only 2% of the vote in the Pakistani elections. Of course the actions of the Taliban in their assassination campaign (Benazir Bhutto), the blowing up of the Marriott Hotel depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, the public flogging of the 17 year old girl, the execution of a young couple for adultery. All these activities provoked much more disgust aimed at the Taliban than any knee-jerk anti-Americanism instigated by American drone attacks in Waziristan.

In the Woodrow Wilson Center talk, Brennan insisted that the threat from al Qaeda had been reduced. “In Pakistan, al-Qaida’s leadership ranks have continued to suffer heavy losses. This includes Ilyas Kashmiri, one of al-Qaida’s top operational planners, killed a month after bin Laden [though he had previously been reported killed in January
2009]. It includes Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, killed when he succeeded Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s deputy leader. It includes Younis al-Mauritani, a planner of attacks against the United States and Europe, until he was captured by Pakistani forces.” Brennan continued. “With its most skilled and experienced commanders being lost so quickly, al-Qaida has had trouble replacing them.” Brennan even quoted bin Laden to support these conclusions: “The rise of lower leaders who are not as experienced and this would lead to the repeat of mistakes.” These results are supported by Daniel Byman (Georgetown University) and his studies of the effects on Hamas and Hezbollah of decapitation programs of the Israeli government. In Byman`s words, "you drive down the age and experience of the leadership." In February of 2008, even Dennis Blair Director of National Intelligence, who emerged as such a strong critic of the drone program, testified to Congress that al Qaeda was having great difficulty replacing the loss of key leaders.

Communication links have been broken. The number of places to train and groom the next generation of operatives has been significantly reduced. Contrary to the contention of the SNYU Report, Brennan, while admitting that new offshoots have been developed in other areas, al Quaeda was “struggling to attract new recruits. Morale is low, with intelligence indicating that some members are giving up and returning home, no doubt aware that this is a fight they will never win. In short, al-Qaida is losing badly.” He then quoted bin Laden again from documents captured in his compound acknowledging “disaster after disaster” and urging his subordinates to flee the tribal regions, and go to places “away from aircraft photography and bombardment.” But go where? Missile killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in Yemen on 30 September 2011; just weeks later, al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, was also killed.

Brennan continued. “It is harder than ever for al-Qaida core in Pakistan to plan and execute large-scale, potentially catastrophic attacks against our homeland. Today, it is increasingly clear that compared to 9/11, the core al-Qaida leadership is a shadow of its former self. Al-Qaida has been left with just a handful of capable leaders and operatives, and with continued pressure is on the path to its destruction. And for the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al-Qaida core is simply no longer relevant.” In contrast to this interpretation on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of drones, former director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, who was fired by Obama, claimed that, “[Al] Qaeda officials who are killed by drones will be replaced. The group’s structure will survive and it will still be able to inspire, finance and train individuals and teams to kill Americans.”

In an article by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann entitled "The Drone War" in the New Republic (3 June 2009) relaying how the drone war had been significantly accelerated since Obama became president, the authors asked whether, even if the drone war succeeded in decapitating many of the leaders and scattering them all over, had not the effort resulted in endangering Pakistan itself thereby both undermining American policy in the region as well only temporarily damaging al Quaeda. This is the BIG question and the one I am unable to answer.

There is one other effect of the drone back which I am now convinced is unstoppable. There is now a drone arms race underway. Further, drone warfare propably increases the readiness to resort to fire arms because of the significantly reduced risks to one’s own soldiers. Drones are a game changer. “There’s something important about putting your own sons and daughters at risk when you choose to wage war as a nation. We risk losing that flesh-and-blood investment if we go too far down this road.” (Administrative System, supra note 98 (“FATA . . . remains under the direct executive authority of the President (Articles 51, 59 and 247).” Quoted in SNYU Report).

“When politicians can avoid the political consequences of the condolence letter—and the impact the military casualties have on voters and on the news media—they no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way…. [drones are] short-circuiting the decision-making process for what used to be the most important choice a democracy could make.” ( Wasseem Ahmed Shah, FCR Reform Process Should Not Stop, Dawn (Aug. 15, 2011), Cited in SNYU)

3. Homeland Security

The most important and uncontentious result is that there have been NO successful attacks against the American homeland OR Europe since the drone program was accelerated and given priority. More importantly, no plots have been uncovered or even disrupted that have been forged in the Tribal areas.

However, attacks on the homeland are not the only consideration. One of the results is not only what happens on the battlefield but how it affects the hearts and minds of the folks back home. If they become disgruntled by a strategy, if they organize an effective vocal opposition, that alone undercuts the strategy because it enhances the morale of America’s enemies and makes them more determined to wait America out. Professor Jack Goldsmith of the Harvard Law School, a former assistant attorney general in the administration of George W. Bush, wrote: “The government needs a way to credibly convey to the public that its decisions about who is being targeted, especially when the target is a U.S. citizen, are sound. First, the government can and should tell us more about the process by which it reaches its high-value targeting decisions. The more the government tells us about the eyeballs on the issue and the robustness of the process, the more credible will be its claims about the accuracy of its factual determinations and the soundness of its legal ones. All of this information can be disclosed in some form without endangering critical intelligence.”

Brennan claimed to have answered that challenge in his Woodrow Wilson Centre speech. Goldsmith at first agreed with him, but on further reconsideration after further leaks, Goldstone opined, " There are actually at least two questions here: (1) Has the USG officially acknowledged CIA drone strikes?; and (2) Even if the USG has not officially acknowledged CIA involvement in the strikes, should it be required to do so in light of its manipulation of the secrecy system through extensive opportunistic leaks? On both issues I find myself increasingly in the ACLU camp." (Empty Wheel, 31 May 2912) Brennan had not shown, as he promised, that the vetting of targets was "painstaking" and "exhaustive".

This goes to the heart of the accountability issue to be discussed in the next blog, but has virtually no impact in determining whether the drone program was effective.

Tomorrow: Obama 19. Drones: The Normative Debate 27.02.13


[Tag Obama,
drones, collateral damage, civilians killed, political fallout]

Obama 18.Results.Drone.Program.26.02.13.doc

Obama 16. Drones and Assassinations.20.02.13. Part I

Obama 16 Drones and Assassinations 20.02.13

Part I: Background


Howard Adelman

I will first set the debate over drones and targeted assassinations within the larger context of the overarching meta-narrative of the way America deals with the wicked, and specifically its foes, of which the movie, Zero Dark Thirty was an example. I will then sum up the historical residue of the first historical instance of American intervention overseas against non-state actors, the Barbary pirates at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I want to then connect this discussion with the movie, Zero Dark Thirty with respectto the decision process, the alternative modes of implementation and the factors considered. Then I will return to the issue of the after debate focus on torture versus an examination of the legal and ethical factors in the decision.

Tomorrow, in Part II, I will discuss the debate over the use of drones and targeted assassinations.

We are not living in the antebellum America of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, of Thoreau and the conversational popular poetry of Walt Whitman. Emerson deposited the core myth of American culture in its literature and defined American exceptionalism and indifference to the old and the rest of the world. Americans are different. Americans have had a different experience and have endured their own unique traumas. The American environment is different. It has a frontier (and when it crosses that frontier, it will always need another).

Contemporary Americans are heirs to the pre-Iraq War literature of Toni Morrison and Ralph Waldo Ellison though always haunted by pre Civil War shadows of Ahab’s fight with Moby Dick, except in the unusual parallel to hunting for Usama bin Laden. Further, Americans have the sense that to live a normal bourgeois life is to choose mere survival (as depicted in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending)rather than the adrenaline rush of true living. Americans, and perhaps many other peoples, love an adrenaline rush.

America’s role as leader of the world is not over. It is about to be reborn and resurrected, not in the stupid and self-destructive ways of George W. Bush and bully boy Dick Cheney who a year ago (12 March 2012) thought Toronto was too dangerous and cancelled a speaking engagement. America is now being reborn and resurrected in terms of the vision of Barack Obama. America will describe the world as Americans see it and remake the world in terms of that image. I am trying to get a handle on that new image and the analysis of domestic policy was the propaedeutic. The vision becomes clearest in the articulation of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

To inspire Americans with a new vision, the president has to embody a set of norms that most Americans will buy into. The only other alternative was to envision secession as the New England states did prior to the Civil War, and as the poet James Russell Lowell advocated in the Atlantic Monthly in the 1850s to free New Englanders from the taint of slavery. Lowell’s sense of an ending was articulated in his essay, "Where Will It End? Except for small groups of Americans, that vision of secession has certainly not been possible after Lincoln. Since the Civil War, Americans have to deke it out (excuse the Canadian hockey metaphor but it is appropriate), though no longer domestically using military means, until there is only one vision of America left as pre-eminent.

Walt Whitman claimed he was the poet that could embrace and speak for all Americans and articulate what it was like to live and experience both the chaos and the grandeur of such a dynamic country. He did not succeed. Instead America got Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War that taught most Americans not to kill each other, at least in a civil war, but also the desirability and necessity of fighting it out politically and symbolically. Barack Obama as a true heir to Whitman is busy selling America on itself in terms of his vision.

One hundred and fifty years later, the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 9/11 was the symbolic equivalent to the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861. The reality, horrific enough, is not nearly as important as its symbolism and its resonance with the iconography of American historiography.


Very soon after its birth, America became an interventionist power thrusting whatever might it had into situations of violence overseas. Michael Oren, the current Israeli ambassador of Israel to the United States and a well-renowned scholar, wrote an influential essay based on his bestselling 2007 book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. The article appeared in the journal, Politics (22 November 2008) "How To Deal With Pirates," in which he argued that the historical lesson was clear: respond aggressively.

At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, pirates, backed by the North African city-states of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, were attacking merchant ships in the Mediterranean. The pirates demanded protection money so the ships of the respective nation would not be attacked. Alternatively , and after the fact, they demanded ransom money for the sailors, ships and cargoes that they did capture. The rationale offered was not greed but the Islamic injunction in the Koran that Muslims had a "right and duty to make war upon whomever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise." In London in 1795 they offered John Adams and Thomas Jefferson assurance that American ships would not be attacked if America paid $1 million, then 10% of the national budget. 20% of American overseas trade went through the Mediterranean. In opposition to John Adams, Jefferson was adamantly opposed to paying protection money. In 1785, Americans paid a ransom of $60,000 to get two ships released, but the costs for protection rose astronomically over the ensuing decade. Ten years later, the USA paid almost $1 million to get back the dey of Algiers and 115 sailors.

Lacking an overseas navy and no longer enjoying the protection of either the British navy or the French navy under their 1778 alliance, the Americans were cornered. Jefferson tried to create a coalition to fight the pirates but failed since most European states found it more expeditious to pay protection money than engage in another war. Initially, so did the USA which, for example, paid a tribute of $80,000 in 1784 but against the advice of Thomas Jefferson. "The object of the convention shall be to compel the piratical States to perpetual peace." (Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson) In the new century he was president.

In 1801, when he refused to pay $225,000 and $25,000 per annum, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States. Contrary to Jefferson’s previous resistance to a standing army or navy, he sent a small squadron of frigates to the Mediterranean. Americans were humiliated with the loss of the frigate, Philadelphia, and the capture of her crew in 1803. By 1805, after a spectacular raid that blew up the captured ship and caused extensive damage to Tripoli, and by sending additional ships and land forces, America largely freed itself from the scourge of pirates and paying annual tributes, a process that took ten further years to complete with naval victories by Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur.

For a short version of this narrative, see Gerald W. Gawalt who is the manuscript specialist for early American history in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, "America and the Barbary Pirates: An International Battle Against an Unconventional War"; it is available online. For fuller versions see the following: Joseph Wheelan (2003) Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801–1805;Frank Lambert (2005) The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World; and Joshua E. London (2005) Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation. For a very livelier, short and more contentious account as indicated by the title, see Christopher Hitchens, "Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates" also available online. It is subtitled: "America’s first confrontation with the Islamic world helped forge a new nation’s character." Hitchens mentions that in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, later excised, he included a condemnation of “the Christian King of Great Britain” for engaging in “this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers.” The war served as a critical factor in the states agreeing to a stronger and more centralized federal system, especially for defence. Further, the culture created by those actions and their rhetorical embellishments inculcated into future generations the Marine Corps anthem with which most of us are familiar, at least with the opening line, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

Honour versus humiliation, self-defence and revenge, freedom of the seas versus ‘surrender’ to terrorism were all in play. Hitchens, Gewalt and others cite Kipling’s poem "Dane-Geld", especially the final two lines explicating why one should never surrender to depradation:

"For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

The Decision Process and Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty makes clear that a decision had been made to close down the operation tasked with finding bin Laden, a task that far pre-dated 9/11. The film suggests several of the possible reasons – the belief that he was either dead or so holed up in a cave in the Tribal Areas of Afghanistan as to be ineffective, the shift in priority to home security, the need to execute two major wars, the lack of any solid intelligence on his location.

A formal announcement that the operation to find bin Laden, code-named Alec Station, had actually been abandoned was made by the CIA on 3 July 2006 and published in The New York Times the next day in a story entitled, "CIA Closes Unit Focused on Capture of bin Laden" even though George W. Bush had vowed after 9/11 in his usual propensity for over-statement that, "The most important thing is for us to find bin Laden," and reaffirmed that, "It is our No. 1 priority and we will not rest until we find him." ("Transcript of Bush press conference," CNN, 13 March 2002 Note that the emphasis had been on his capture. I believe that this was not just for public relations purposes.

However, the issue getting bin Laden was resurrected in the 2008 presidential campaign with Obama replaying the Kennedy democratic tact of showing that a democratic candidate was more militant than the Republican one. In the second McCain-Obama presidential debate on 7 October 2008, mostly spent on domestic economic, education and health policy, one of the questions posed to the candidates on foreign affairs was the following one from Katie Hamm: "Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?" The question was about using Pakistan as a safe place to retreat by Afghani terrorists and whether the candidates favoured hot pursuit.

McCain responded first suggesting he was a metaphorical Canadian in the ilk of Paul Heinbecker and Don Hubert in support of prudent humanitarian intervention, an answer that had nothing to do with a question about hot pursuit and everything to do with McCain trying to counter an image of him as an uncontrollable hawk and to display his experience and cool prudence in contrast to that of Barack Obama. In citing the Canadians, I am here referring to the work on cooperative security undertaken in the last decades of the nineteenth century and its successor, the Canadian doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect that was articulated by Canada under the leadership of Canada’s then Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy and key civil servants such as Don Hubert and Paul Heinbecker, and academics such as Fen Hampson at The Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. (Cf. Rob McRae and Don Hubert (eds.) (2001) Human Security and the New Diplomacy: protecting people, promoting peace, Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, and Fen Hampson (2002) Madness in the Multitude: Human Security and World Disorder, OUP).

By the middle of the first decade, the doctrine had received unanimous support by the United Nations and then virtually no implementable activities in spite of the strenuous efforts to ensure that the doctrine remained narrow and actionable. Libya could be interpreted as the rare exception. (Cf. Fen Hampson (2011) "Libya’s bigger lesson? There are no lessons," iPolitics INSIGHT, 29 August) I believe that civilian protection was offered as one reason for the air protection provided by the West, but I do not believe civilian protection was the main motivation. In any case, as Fen Hampson concluded, it was unlikely to be imitated. The twenty-first century continued as an American century and Canadian cosmopolitanism slipped into the background.

In the presidential debate, Obama responded to the question Katie Hamm raised that was similar to McCain’s only in that he too ignored the query. Instead of discussing hot pursuit, he said, "I don’t understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us." He pushed his refrain that Iraq was a bad war and Afghanistan is a just war because integrally related to the War on Terror. After inserting an aside on American humiliation in the past and that America should not be coddling Pakistan as McCain was suggesting, he added: "if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden (my italics); we will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority." Not capture, not capture or kill, just kill. And he reiterated the point in a follow-up.

On 2 June 2009, seven months after he was elected, President Obama resurrected the hunt for bin Laden. There was no suggestion that this was a result of a lowly CIA gent uncovering new information. Obama directed Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, to have a detailed operational plan for locating and capturing (not killing) bin Laden. When bin Laden’s suspected compound was located in January of 2011, that it was bib Laden’s was far more overwhelming that suggested in the movie. In the film, the evidence is limited to the following:

– Abbottabad was an excellent communications hub

– the compound was .8 miles fro the Pakistan Military Academy implying this would inhibit an American raid, not that the Pakistani military would come to bin Laden’s aid

– the third floor balcony had a 7′ high privacy wall, sufficient to keep the 6’4" bin Laden from being seen

– the compound had no internet or landline telephone.

What was left out, presumably to help the plot and pacing, were the following:

– the compound was at the end of a dirt road

– it was built after 2001 but before 2005

– the compound was huge, eight times larger than the luxurious compounds nearby

– the surrounding wall was extra thick and extra high (12-18′)

– no garbage was ever set out for collection (someone correct me if my memory is incorrect on this one).

The delay in making the decision was not because of heavy doubts about whether the compound belonged to bin Laden but because of the time needed for preparation to ensure the best means were used with the least risk to the troops and America’s reputation. The preparation process had to provide for:

– the time it takes to establish a safe house

– the time to build the replica of the compound and practice (in taking the shortcut of failing to build the wall and only using a chain link fence in the model, the Americans failed to understand the effect of the wall on the downdraft of the helicopter rotors)

– the time to prepare the back up rescue team, in turn requiring a detailed understanding of roads, routes and traffic patterns

Evidence that the compound belonged to Obama was presented with three different options to attack it at a meeting of the National Security Council:

a) bomb the compound using B-2 stealth bombers;

b) send a smaller drone;

c) send in a tactical team by helicopter.

The first option was eventually ruled out for two reasons. A bomb large enough to destroy a possible or suspected underground bunker would blow up at least one adjacent Pakistani house and at least a dozen Pakistani civilians would be killed in addition to the civilians in the compound. Further, Pakistani cooperation would be required for that type of raid and the Americans, especially President Obama, did not trust the Pakistanis with information on a secret mission. Initially, however, Obama was on side with Maya in the film. He favoured the bombing option. Given the implications, at the meeting of the NSC on 29 March, that option was bracketed. The helicopter raid became the option of choice.

Why wasn’t the option of using a drone-fired tactical munition considered further since it was initially favoured by Robert Gates, then Defence Secretary? Because it depended on bin Laden’s habits and they were too irregular to guarantee certainty. At the end of March, orders were given to develop the implementation phase of the raid but without the final go ahead order. Note that all along there is no evidence that consideration was given to civilian deaths of women and children within the compound as a key factor in making the decision. The key factor was the safety of the tactical team and ensuring they got out. On 19 April when Obama gave the ok to the helicopter raid, he qualified the raid by insisting that the team be well enough equipped to fight their way out because he did not trust the plan to obtain Pakistani cooperation once the raid was underway if the military were alerted and initiated action. The final ok came on 29 April.

Yet none of the factors in this deliberation and planning were portrayed in the movie. It was just Maya’s will versus the cats in charge who did not seem to have her gumption. For a very detailed account of the deliberations over options and implementation, see Also read Mike Allen (2011) "Getting Osama bin Laden: How the Mission went down," Politico, 2 May.

As I wrote yesterday, in the movie Maya wanted to send drones or drop a bomb to blow up Usama bin Laden’s compound. The only references to why this option was taken is a reference to risk, risk to America’s reputation since a drone attack was far less risky to American troops than landing Navy Seals within Pakistan with a Pakistan military base less than a mile away. The presumption is that the women and children in the compound mattered, not because if they were killed, it might be offensive to legal and ethical principles under just law norms, but because America would have to deal with the negative fallout from the bad public relations that would follow. Further, a daring-do raid would have the opposite effect.

We never hear anything approaching a rational decisions process that would consider the conditions, the consequential expectations, the norms (these are not even mentioned), whether bin Laden should or should not be captured alive, etc. All we get are hints at such a debate and the implication that any rational process would have squashed an attack on the compound altogether. In the film, it was not Barack Obama’s or his advisors rational considerations that determined the outcome but Maya’s indomitable will and determination. The film did not really get into the difficulties in making the decision or the various factors that weighed on them. But neither did the discussion after the movie. Is a raid to kill bin Laden less reprehensible that if done with a drone?

Why did the film not think the issue of civilian protection in the compound was relevant? Further, why did the chattering classes spend all that word copy on the issue of torture and not debate killing Obama when there was no evidence he offered armed resistance? Why is a raid by Navy Seals on a compound in another country to kill residents therein a matter of enormous curiousity but not a matter of a normative debate when, within weeks of the release of the film, a raucous debate rose up over the use of drones and targeted killings? Yet the killing of bin Laden was the most sensational targeted assassination of any of them. Is it alright to kill the unique albino Moby Dick while enormous energies are spent on determining whether it is right or not to kill various other types of Islamist toothed whales — sperm, narwhal, pilot and beluga whales — and what degree of collateral damage can be tolerated for baleen whales whether they be blues, grays, bowhead, fin, humpback, minke or right whales?

Tomorrow Obama 17 Drones and Assassinations 21.02.13

Part II: Circumstances, Objectives, Anticipated Results and Norms


[Tag Obama, bin
Laden, Barbary Pirates, Zero Dark Thirty, Targeted Assassination]

Obama16.Drones and Assassinations.20.02.13.doc