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The Debate Over Drone Use in U.S. Military and Intelligence Operations

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

What are Drones and How Are We Using Them?

Unmanned aerial vehicleThe use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as “drones,” as a military weapon in order to target and kill specific individuals deemed to present a military or terrorism threat, is viewed as controversial by some people. A prominent example of criticism surrounding the use of UAVs in this way is provided by the The Intercept, an online publication co-founded by Glen Greenwald, who is most famous for assisting former National Security Agency (NSA) Contractor Edward Snowden in leaking massive quantities of classified NSA documents.

In an October 15, 2015 article in The Intercept, as part of a series of articles titled “The Drone Files” that The Intercept’s editors claim to be based on leaks of secret documents on U.S. drone warfare policy, Jeremy Scahill argues that the use of UAVs for assassination of terrorism suspects and other military targets is unethical and counterproductive. Here are some of his key arguments:

  1. The President, who, according to the documents, authorizes at least some of the drone strikes, is given information by the intelligence community designed to convince him that a given target is a legitimate target. In other words, that the intelligence analysts who put together the list of targets have the power of life and death and the power to decide innocence or guilt.
  2. Assassinations are based on unreliable intelligence (such as huge quantities of electronic intelligence data that are crunched by computers thus sometimes leading to false positives) and hurt intelligence-gathering efforts; plus, killing targets hurts intelligence-gathering efforts because such targets could otherwise continue to be tracked to see who their connections are.
  3. Strikes often kill more than just the intended target (i.e., “collateral damage”).
  4. There is inadequate legal control over drone strikes. Some strikes are conducted by the military and authorized under legislation that empowers the military to act in war zones and other strikes are conducted by the CIA.

Scahill makes some valid arguments; yet, whether or not they are based on leaks of real policies and actions behind the scenes, I cannot say. However, as with other complex issues, there are many facets to this debate. Here are some counter-arguments to those put forth by Scahill:

  1. There is no alternative to the intelligence community determining who should be recommended as a target. They are the experts on the activities of individuals who are critical players in terrorist activities and thus constitute a real threat to American soldiers and civilians or to our allies. No one else, not the media, nor the courts, has access to the kind of information that the intelligence community uses. This is not to say that intelligence is infallible, far from it, but that it is the best source of information on this particular issue in comparison to other sources of information. While this does provide intelligence analysts with life and death powers, as they are recommending targets for strikes (and the President is not an expert on the intelligence, even if he has to approve the strike), a soldier with a rifle on the battlefield also has life and death powers over enemy soldiers. There is no trial or other legal process that authorizes a soldier to “execute” an enemy soldier who is shooting at him/her, trying to blow them up with an improvised explosive device or roadside bomb, etc.…that is simply what happens in war. The use of drones is no different, ultimately, than a sniper firing a weapon at a battlefield commander directing enemy troops.
  2. While it may very well be true that America’s massive electronic surveillance systems and computerized analysis may make mistakes (just as human intelligence-gatherers and analysts sometimes do), this, in and of itself, is not an argument for not using drones. The wrongful death of innocent people is a feature of war. It needs to be minimized as much as possible (which means the intelligence community must work, every day, to prevent mistakes of this kind from happening) but that does not justify eliminating this tool. It is important to remember that the key to fighting terrorism is disrupting these organizations ability to carry out operations, especially in cases when particular individuals are extremely important to terrorist organizations (they may be charismatic leaders, talented bomb-makers, particularly apt recruiters, etc.)
  3. Collateral damage is a big problem because wars should not involve the deaths of innocent people. Of course, they always do and the invasion of troops always brings about more loss of innocent lives than the use of tools such as drones. Soldiers put on the ground in life-threatening situations will often make mistakes based on fear, adrenaline, and a lack of time for decision-making. Drone pilots flying drones in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, or Somalia, but these pilots are at U.S.-based Air Force or CIA facilities; hence, they are not under that kind of battlefield pressure. Also, drones can hover at a given location, undetected, for a while, which gives pilots an opportunity to try and ensure that civilian casualties are avoided or minimized…soldiers on the ground do not have that luxury.
  4. There probably is an inadequate legal and approval framework for drone strikes. Legislators often move at glacial paces and UAVs with missiles are a fairly new technology. Nevertheless, there is a fairly clear policy statement on this. According to a White House document, the criteria for drone strikes are:

    First, there must be a legal basis for using lethal force, whether it is against a senior operational leader of a terrorist organization or the forces that organization is using or intends to use to conduct terrorist attacks.

    Second, the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat, the United States will not use lethal force.

    Third, the following criteria must be met before lethal action may be taken:


    1. Near certainty that the terrorist target is present;
    2. Near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed;
    3. An assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation;
    4. An assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. persons; and
    5. An assessment that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat to U.S. persons.

    Finally, whenever the United States uses force in foreign territories, international legal principles, including respect for sovereignty and the law of armed conflict, impose important constraints on the ability of the United States to act unilaterally – and on the way in which the United States can use force. The United States respects national sovereignty and international law.

    While the above criteria are not entirely clear (for example, how do you measure what constitutes “near certainty?”) and it may be hard to prove that the criteria was followed in a complete manner, these measures do provide some limitations to such actions, bearing in mind that in war, most rules of engagement are murky and there are many situations in which individuals have to make decisions without clear legal guidance.

Regardless of the arguments for and against drone use, U.S. military forces and intelligence agencies will continue to utilize UVAs since they are perceived as being reasonably effective in disrupting terrorist networks and keeping U.S. troops out of harm’s way. At the same time, the debate will continue given the issue’s complexity and the arguments surrounding its legality and impact on national safety and reducing terrorism.

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