Drone advocates fight back on legality and ethics

John Brennan, White House Terrorism Adviser

Over the past week there has been what looks like the beginning of a concerted effort by advocates of drones to put their case to the public.

On Monday, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan gave a widely reported speech defending  the use of drone strikes.  Brennan stated that “in full accordance with the law—and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives—the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa’ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.”  He argued that the targeted drone strikes on known individuals (he didn’t talk about or even mention the other sort of targeted drone strikes – so called ‘signature strikes’)  were not only “legal” and “ethical” but also “wise”.  (see full transcript of speech here)

Others much more knowledgeable about the intricacies of international law and targeted killing have already critiqued  the speech.  See for example ‘Thoughts on Brennan’s Speech’ by Human Rights First,  and Further Reflections About John Brennan’s Targeted Killing Speech on the ACLU blog.

Although Brennan’s speech received the most coverage, his was not the sole instance of drone supporters making their case this week.

Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal –  seen by many as a kind of unofficial media outlet for those conducting ‘the war on terror’ –  made a rare TV appearance on the US cable news network, C-Span.  Several time Roggio made the point that not speaking about the drones strikes was a “public relations nightmare” and that  “the American public really should have an understanding of what we are doing”.  He argued that the US administration needed to “be more open” and  “we should be making the case as to why we are conducting this program.”

In addition it was reported this week that during a seminar organised by US think tank The Stimson Center, US Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, went on the offensive  in regard to the ethical questions that surround the use of drones.  As National Defense magazine, put it Schwartz insisted that ethics were ‘not a relevant question’:

“Is it more honorable for us to engage a target from an F-16 or an F-15 [manned fighter] than it is from an MQ-9 [remotely piloted aircraft]? Is that somehow more ethical? .. Oh come on,”  “We have very explicit criteria, rules of engagement, legal standards to engage a whole variety of targets.”   The issue is not whether this is ethical, he said. If a weapon is intended to strike a legitimate target that poses a threat to U.S. forces or allies, “I would argue that the manner in which you engage that target — in close combat or not — is not a terribly relevant question. … If what we’re doing is righteous, and I believe it is, the exact modality is less relevant.”

Of course none of these arguments are new.  But what is interesting is the sudden desire of those advocating or supporting drone strikes to be speaking about the issue in public.  Perhaps there is a feeling they are beginning to losing the argument? Whether this is true or not, those of us challenging the rise of the drone need to respond loudly and clearly.  Speaking of which…..

3 thoughts on “Drone advocates fight back on legality and ethics

  • Rather than dismissing the points, why not try to deal with them?

    Does it make any difference whether a weapon is fired by the man in the cockpit, or by the man in the control centre?

    Is it ethical to insist a man be sent in harms way if a drone could be sent instead?

    What purpose is served if our troops are in contact with the enemy and some are killed because the drone orbiting overhead is unarmed rather than armed and therefore unable to support them?

    There are ethical questions that can be asked about the way drones are being employed for targetting of intelligence targets in foreign countries, but are those questions any different than if that targetting was carried out by special forces on the ground?

    In the end, the ethical issues over the use of drones are little different than the ethical issues over the use of any other weapon.

    • David.

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t think I was dismissing or ignoring the points, rather I have dealt with them many times before.
      Framing the question ‘is it more ethical for a someone to be put in harms way’ misses the point of what we are trying to say. (To answer the question no, I don’t think it is, but others I know would argue differently).

      The problem is that the ‘risk free’ nature of unmanned systems seems to (or at the very least could) make war /armed attacks more likely. That is the ethical issue – not that soldiers ‘should’ be taking risks with their lives. Concrete evidence that drones make war more likely is difficult to find this early in the drone era, but it should be noted that the US engaged in armed conflict in six different countries in 2011 by using drones (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia). It is hard to believe this would have happened without the use of unmanned drones.

      Another ethical aspect of this is the ‘video game’ nature of drone warfare. Again its hard to argue this ‘cos detailed information about how drones are being used is kept secret (that’s why we want more info released). However an enquiry into the deaths of Afghan civilians found that the drone operators had “a propensity towards kinetic attack” as the report put – see details here – would urge you to read it.

      Chris Cole

  • If anything were to ever cause me to hate the USA… drones covertly killing “unknown numbers” of civilians in my country would probably do it. Are drones really going to prevent terrorist attitudes? I really doubt it! Surely a more diplomatic approach would be more effective… and moral.
    It is also super dodgy that you hardly hear about these drones unless you look for the information. If it is so ethical and effective where is the information?

    Imagine this were happening in a Western country… it would never be allowed to happen to white or folk.

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