Building A Better Drone Policy By Keith Ellison


DeM Banter: You Reap What You Sow…Everything that you do has repercussions. It comes back to you one way or another, somewhere around Gal 6:7-9…not to get too biblical. The Congressman’s line…”The heart of the problem is that our technological capability has far surpassed our policy,” sums it up. The United States will not always enjoy a monopoly on sophisticated drone technology…is another thought to ponder…but Congress approving each strike…just might slow everything to a speed of smell. No easy answers, but a deeper dialog is needed.

Washington Post
January 14, 2013
Pg. 13

An unmanned U.S. aerial vehicle — or drone — reportedly killed eight people in rural Pakistan last week, bringing the estimated death toll from drone strikes in Pakistan this year to 35. As the frequency of drone strikes spikes again, some questions must be asked: How many of those targeted were terrorists? Were any children harmed? And what is the standard of evidence to carry out these attacks? The United States has to provide answers, and Congress has a critical role to play.

The heart of the problem is that our technological capability has far surpassed our policy. As things stand, the executive branch exercises unilateral authority over drone strikes against terrorists abroad. In some cases, President Obama approves each strike himself through “kill lists.” While the president should be commended for creating explicit rules for the use of drones, unilateral kill lists are unseemly and fraught with hazards.

When asked about the drone program in October during an interview on the “The Daily Show,” the president said, “One of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in, but any president’s reined in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making.” It’s time to put words into action.

Weaponized drones have produced results. They have eliminated 22 of al-Qaeda’s top 30 leaders and just last week took out a Taliban leader. Critically, they lessen the need to send our troops into harm’s way, reducing the number of U.S. casualties.

Yet the costs of drone strikes have been ignored or inadequately acknowledged. The number of innocent civilian casualties may be greater than people realize. A recent study by human rights experts at Stanford Law School and the New York University School of Law found that the number of innocent civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes is much higher than what the U.S. government has reported: approximately 700 since 2004, including almost 200 children. This is unacceptable.

Another cost is how drone strikes are shaping views of the United States around the world. You might develop a negative attitude toward the United States if your only perception of it is a foreign aircraft buzzing over your house that occasionally fires missiles into your neighborhood. In Pakistan, where 95 percent of U.S. drone strikes have occurred, people familiar with them overwhelmingly express disapproval (97 percent, according to Pew polling from June) and believe they kill too many innocent people (94 percent). Drone strikes may well contribute to the extremism and terrorism the United States seeks to deter.

U.S. drone use has also lowered the threshold for the use of lethal force in foreign countries. Would we fire so many missiles into Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia if doing so required sending U.S. troops into harm’s way? Our drone policy must be guided by more than capability. It must be guided by respect for noncombatants, necessity and urgency.

It is Congress’s responsibility to exercise oversight and craft policies that govern the use of lethal force. Any rules must provide adequate transparency, respect the rule of law, conform with international standards and prudently advance U.S. national security over the long term.

In codifying a legal framework to guide executive action on drone strikes, Congress should consider these steps:

First, we must do more to avoid innocent civilian casualties. The Geneva Conventions, which have governed the rules of war since World War II, distinguish between combatants and noncombatants in the conduct of hostilities and state that civilian casualties are not acceptable except in cases of demonstrated military necessity. This is the standard we must follow.

Second, Congress must require an independent judicial review of any executivebranch “kill list.” The U.S. legal system is based on the principle that one branch of government should not have absolute authority. Congress should object to that concentration of power, especially when it may be used against U.S. citizens. A process of judicial review would diffuse executive power and provide a mechanism for greater oversight.

Third, the United States must collaborate with the international community to develop a widely accepted set of legal standards. No country — not even our allies — accepts the U.S. legal justification for targeted killings. Our justification must rest on the concept of self-defense, which would allow the United States to protect itself against any imminent threat. Any broader criteria would create the opportunity for abuse and set a dangerous standard for other countries to follow, which could harm long-term U.S. security interests.

The United States will not always enjoy a monopoly on sophisticated drone technology. The Iranian-made drone that Hezbollah recently flew over Israel should compel us to think about the far-reaching implications of current policy. A just, internationally accepted protocol on the use of drones in warfare is needed. By creating and abiding by our own set of reasonable standards, the United States will demonstrate to the world that we believe in the rule of law.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Minnesota’s 5th District in the U.S. House and is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

4 Replies to “Building A Better Drone Policy By Keith Ellison”

  1. Hi Bill,

    Just a few quick thoughts here as I ride the train to work this morning. First off, the speed of technology advances on the order of Moore’s law. While the policy piece may lag the development of some technologies, most of the technology the military develops is the result of a planned effort to fill a perceived need that is part of a strategy to advance and maintain an edge. The American way has been to replace boots with technology whenever we can. This is done to preserve our national treasure. There are of course, some second or third order effects that may result from the fielding of some technology. The problem is that once technology is developed, you have to use it to recoup the investment or realize the advantages in the battle space the new capability brings. Failure to do so is to surrender initiative and invite a more agile opponent to use their technology against you.

    These are troubling events that shake up the status quo. For example, some decried the use of JSTARS generated targeting info against the Iraqi army along a certain highway. The aftermath of that was gruesome for sure, but tactical blunders are costly no matter the technology applied. The flip side is using that technology likely shortened the war there and crossed off one of the objectives quickly. Some would say that the quickness was too much, but I ask from what perspective?

    The President is right, a framework is needed. Perhaps he should posit that framework and start the public dialogue. Anything else presents the appearance that the current rules and conditions are what he wants for the nation.



    1. Good points Ben and examples I ponder often… including how to we shorten the loop between technology, tactics and eventually policy. Think of the industrial revolution and what that did to warfare. The mass production of weapons…rifles… once the rifle was developed, how long did it take to get away from line and column tactics? Look at the death toll in the US Civil War. We adjusted…over time and we had trench warfare in WWI… from the massive industrial complex generating massive machinery we see trench warfare move into the air in WWII. Finally nuclear weapons and things seem to de-escalate over time.
      So if we lay that over the information revolution was do we see? Terrorism is a weapon of choice enabled by information…computers now replace human skills in aircraft and navigation… and the dawn of robotic capabilities… as we saw in the nuclear weapons convo as nations came on line a dialog was forced, it would seem the same thing will happen with robots. These robots will not stop in the air… we already have them on and under the sea and on land. How will we utilize these tools? Anyhow… just my thoughts in a nutshell.

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