Editor’s Note: President Barack Obama has taken some pride in having expanded George W. Bush’s use of “predator drones” to kill suspected terrorists in various countries (even using the phrase as a punch line of a joke at the White House Correspondents Dinner).

But a new United Nations human rights report underscored some of the legal, moral and practical problems from this form of extrajudicial killing, as Sherwood Ross notes in this guest essay:

The investigator, Philip Alston, issued a 29-page report last week that the New York Times termed “highly critical” of such attacks by the United States and, says the Associated Press, “called on countries to lay out rules and safeguards for carrying out the strikes.”

By going after terrorist networks, Alston warned, the U.S. example “could quickly lead to a situation in which dozens of countries carry out ‘competing drone attacks’ outside their borders against people ‘labeled as terrorists by one group or another,’” Charlie Savage reported for the Times.

“I’m particularly concerned that the United States seems oblivious to this fact when it asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe,” Alston is quoted as saying. “This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defense goes a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the U.N. Charter.”

Alston can demand restraint all he likes but the administration of President Barack Obama, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient, is not apt to listen. Obama has dramatically stepped up such attacks by the CIA over the occasional sorties resorted to by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Washington’s thinking appears to be: Why should U.S. troops risk storming some alleged terrorist hideout when a CIA operator in far-off Langley, Virginia, needs only to manipulate a computer screen to have a drone wipe them out?

Reasons against using the drones include the possibility there may be innocent persons in the same building as the alleged terrorists. Only a week ago the military conceded its own drone operators called in an airstrike in February that killed 23 Afghan civilians, including women and children.

Another argument against drones is that the alleged terrorists have no opportunity to surrender or to get a jury trial. The U.N.’s Alston warned that for CIA operators thousands of miles from the point of attack “there is a risk of developing a ‘PlayStation’ mentality to killing.”

Yet another argument against the drones is that the survivors of those killed regard such attacks as cowardly and each successful (from the CIA’s viewpoint) air strike only increases the public’s resolve to resist the U.S. occupation. Friends and relatives of the slain innocents turn bitterly against the U.S.

This dilemma, by the way, is nothing new. U.S. and British air attacks on German facilities in occupied France during World War II were frequently so off target that the French Resistance pleaded with the U.S. to stop the bombing and to let them take out the Nazi targets from the ground, even at great risk to themselves.

Sadly, 70,000 French civilians were killed by Allied aerial bombardments gone awry.

“So far,” said international legal authority Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois at Champaign, “all CIA drone attacks have been murders, assassinations, and extrajudicial executions - -a grave violation of international human rights law, the laws of the countries where the attacks took place, and of U.S. domestic law.”

 “All CIA drone strikes in Pakistan are criminal and a grave violation of international human rights law,” Boyle added.

While the laws of war apply to insurgents engaged in armed combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, Boyle said, they do not apply “when they are sleeping at their homes with their families.”

Moreover, “it appears that the Pentagon's use of drones has serious problems of discriminating between civilians and insurgents engaged in armed combat, (resulting in a seriously disproportional ratio between allegedly dead insurgents and civilian casualties) which raises the issue of war crimes accountability.”

In roughly his first 10 months in office, President Obama okayed at least 41 drone strikes in Pakistan that killed between 326 and 538 people, many of them “innocent bystanders, including children,” according to a study by the non-profit New America Foundation of Washington, D.C. 

Example: on his third day in the White House, Obama sanctioned two strikes, the second of which mistakenly struck the home of a pro-government tribal leader that killed his entire family, including three children, one as young as five.

“The point is,” Louise Doswald-Beck, a professor of international law at the Geneva Graduate Institute in Switzerland, told the AP, “innocent people have been killed, this has been proved over and over again.”

Civilian casualties raise the issue of whether remote-controlled drones “can ever be used in a manner consistent with the laws of war in actual war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan,” Boyle said.

“I suspect that…the Pentagon has consigned this ‘wet-work’ to the CIA,” Boyle added, because “they have a long history of doing it, especially in Operation Phoenix during the Vietnam War. The CIA is an organized and ongoing criminal conspiracy under international law and U.S. domestic law.

“Does the Pentagon want to or intend to become the same?”

The CIA’s key role in carrying out what academic critics call international crime, raises troubling questions about who actually is running the United States of America.

On April 16, 2009, Obama – less than three months in office – wrote a letter to the CIA stating that “it is a core American value that we are a Nation of laws, and the CIA protects and upholds that principle under extraordinarily difficult circumstances every day.”

However, Obama has declined to prosecute CIA operatives for torture (in violation of U.S. law). And no legal action has been taken against other CIA personnel who destroyed video recordings of the torture sessions.

By contrast, U.S. military prison guards who abused Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison were subjected to courts martial and imprisoned (in part, because photographic evidence of their crimes were made public, prompting a political firestorm).

However, CIA officials appear to be above the law – or at least the American political leadership doesn’t have the courage to apply the law to them.

The bottom line today is that CIA officials seated at computers in CIA headquarters at Langley can decide who lives or dies almost anywhere on the planet without regard for international law or fear of prosecution from Obama’s Justice Department. 

(President Obama even has shown a casual disregard for the suffering caused by these attacks. At this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, Obama pointed out the Jonas Brothers boy band in attendance, noted that his daughters Sasha and Malia are “huge fans,” and joked: "Boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming." )

Sherwood Ross is a Miami-based writer and author of Gruening of Alaska.” His articles have been published by The New York Herald-Tribune, The Washington Post and the U.S. Information Agency, among other media outlets. Reach him at sherwoodross10@gmail.com).  

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