Obama Drone Policy Makes American Citizens Vulnerable, Undermines National Security
Just hours after the re-election of US President Barack Obama, a US drone strike was launched just outside of Yemen’s capital. Evidence suggests that the attack was by an American drone, not Yemeni. But much like every other drone strike, we have little information and numerous unanswered questions. Who authorized the drone strike? Were there high-level targets in the area? Who were those targets? How many civilians were killed? Was the strike successful in killing the intended targets?
The mainstream media has been mute and the White House refuses to comment. The lack of information surrounding the attack on Yemen signals an urgent need for political accountability. Obama’s re-election marks a critical point in time in which Americans can participate in a national dialogue about the utility of automated weapons. It is an opportunity to demand greater disclosure about the unchecked drone program; and a chance to examine the scope of presidential power.
Since Obama took office, there has been an unprecedented rise in extrajudicial killings abroad. The covert drone program, which was sporadically used by the Bush administration, has now been expanded into a quiet killing campaign by the commander-in-chief. Countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia are routinely on the receiving end of drone strikes. Fear and anxiety have become a way of life for the residents of northwest Pakistan, where missile strikes are commonplace. In his first term in office, Obama “has already authorized 283 strikes in Pakistan, six times more than the number during President George W. Bush’s eight years in office.”
Obama is setting a dangerous precedent in which he will be handing over a “loaded gun” to his eventual successor. The legacy empowers the next president to continue a behind-the-scenes drone war with no accountability to the American people. The veil of secrecy under which Obama operates leaves the majority of the American public unable to assess the issue for purposes of elections and general policy concerns.
Drones undoubtedly must be considered in certain, limited instances of conflict as part of a comprehensive national defense strategy. However, the current rate at which the administration routinely strikes regions in which there is only a remote, speculative and unverifiable threat is indefensible. Such strikes tamper with American civil liberties, undermine national security as they fuel anti-US sentiment overseas and ultimately empower al Qaeda into garnering new recruits.
Before 9/11, the US routinely condemned Israel’s use of targeted killing against Palestinian terrorists asserting that “the United States government is very clearly on record as against targeted assassination … they are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.” Now the president insists that targeted killings are a vital component of the counter-terrorism strategy but assures us that drones aren’t being used “willy-nilly.” Instead, Obama maintains that we must be “very judicious in how we use drones” and ensure that we only engage in “precision strikes against [a]l Qaeda and their affiliates.”
The problem is: the drone program is anything but judicious. Obama engages in precisely the conduct he promised he would refrain from when running for office four years ago when he pledged that America would set an example to the rest of the world that the “law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, that justice is not arbitrary.”
Under the current scheme, Obama has designated himself as the final arbitrator of who gets killed overseas. The parameters of his power are undefined and may be expanded and reduced on a whim. There is no judicial oversight, no accountability and no stringent guidelines to which the president must adhere. Even American citizens, including minors, can be killed abroad with no charges, no formal investigation, no trial, no attempted apprehension and a complete disregard for their due process rights as guaranteed by the US Constitution. Under the guise of national security, the president has “become the judge, the jury and the executioner.”
It is to be expected that in a complex conflict between the US and independent terror groups, the president will likely be presented with unique situations in which he will have to act quickly and methodically in the interest of national security. It is foreseeable that in extremely limited and urgent circumstances, the president may have to order the killing of an American citizen when that citizen poses an imminent threat to the US. It then follows that the killing would violate the American citizen’s constitutional guarantee against the deprivation of life without due process.
We trust, however, that in such an instance the president will undertake the most extensive effort to balance the rights of the American citizen with the interest of national security. We trust that stripping an American citizen of a basic constitutional guarantee will require a thorough determination of the gravity of the impending threat. We trust that there will be a rigorous — albeit swift — cost-benefit analysis of the risks and possibility of apprehension.
So in cases such as Anwar al-Awlaqi, an American citizen and Muslim cleric who routinely advocated violent jihad against Americans, we can understand, even if we believe he should have been afforded due process, why the president chose to order the extrajudicial killing. Al-Awlaqi had left the US for Yemen to join al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — a multitude of factors suggested that he had gone “operational.” The very narrative supporting the drone policy accounts for precisely this sort of situation where traditional conflict rules blur and there is mounting evidence of an increasing threat. So in the very least, we can piece together morsels of information and conclude that Obama, as commander-in-chief, made a justifiable decision.
But killing sixteen-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaqi — the son of Anwar al-Awlaqi — when there was not a shred of evidence that he was connected to his father’s extremist ideology, adds an entirely new dimension of inadequacy to Obama’s drone program. To treat Abdulrahman as anything other than innocent is to attach an unwarranted presumption of guilt both deplorable and insupportable within the framework of our justice system, as legal journalist Tom Junood points out:
Abdulrahman al-Awlaki [sic] wasn’t on an American kill list. Nor was he a member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusla. Nor was he “an inspiration,” as his father styled himself, for those determined to draw American blood; nor had he gone “operational,” as American authorities said his father had, in drawing up plots against Americans and American interests. He was a boy who hadn’t seen his father in two years, since his father had gone into hiding. He was a boy who knew his father was on an American kill list and who snuck out of his family’s home in the early morning hours of September 4, 2011, to try to find him. He was a boy who was still searching for his father when his father was killed, and who, on the night he himself was killed, was saying goodbye to the second cousin with whom he’d lived while on his search, and the friends he’d made. He was a boy among boys, then; a boy among boys eating dinner by an open fire along the side of a road when an American drone came out of the sky and fired the missiles that killed them all.
Abdulrahman’s death sparked no outrage or national debate. Obama has never officially acknowledged Abdulrahman’s death let alone offered an explanation. The official silence is an insulting reminder of the administration’s apathetic dehumanization of Abdulrahman’s story who deserved to be mourned no less than any other American boy wrongfully killed by a government agent. To be fair, most people are unaware of Abdulrahman’s existence — let alone the circumstances of his death — which seems to be a tragedy in its own right. Even those who have been demanding answers, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have been unsuccessful as the Obama administration fervently insists the circumstance of Abdulrahman’s death is classified information.
Abdulrahman’s death has alarming implications for American civil liberties. The incident highlights the ease with which the Obama administration can selectively disregard the US Constitution for some citizens — innocent citizens, no less. The fact that the president can order US citizens to be killed without any judicial oversight and no accountability creates an inherent vulnerability for Americans everywhere. It codifies a system in which constitutional guarantees can be ignored at the whim of the president.
Aside from the other deeply troubling aspects of the drone policy, sporadic drone strikes create systematic terror that alienate those who survive and ultimately harbor deep-rooted anger against the US. To subject populations to live in constant fear of being obliterated from the sky is to torment them with a unique cruelty:
For months the drones had been a terrifying presence. Remotely piloted, propeller-driven airplanes, they could easily be heard as they circled overhead for hours. To the naked eye, they were small dots in the sky. But their missiles had a range of several miles. We knew we could be immolated without warning.
In northwest Pakistan, drones hover over communities for twenty-four hours a day. Men, women and children live in perpetual terror knowing that a missile could strike at any moment and destroy homes, vehicles and other public spaces without warning.
People are afraid to walk in the street in fear that they might be walking next to a suspected terrorist and will be targeted as a consequence. Some have resorted to spending very little time with their families because, from up above, it might look like a suspicious congregation. Obama’s logic is simple: “[P]eople in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top al Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” The insulting standard for a human life is “probably.” Essentially, if one is in the proximity of a known militant, one can be considered a target. There is no additional attempt to ascertain whether or not there is actually a threat to the US. The methodology lends itself to a liberal-handed drone policy that habitually kills people, destroys communities, maims innocent bystanders and obliterates the surrounding infrastructure.
A recently published report by New York University and Stanford titled “Living Under Drones” recounts how the immediate aftermath of a drone strike is complete chaos. Scorching hellfire surrounds the site, corpses are burned beyond recognition and smoking rubble often traps victims:
[The missiles] kill or injure in several ways, including through incineration, shrapnel, and the release of powerful blast waves capable of crushing internal organs. Those who do survive drone strikes often suffer disfiguring burns and shrapnel wounds, limb amputations, as well as vision and hearing loss.
Even more so, victims cannot even reasonably expect to be rescued or have dignified funerals because of Obama’s use of the “double tap” strike. A “double-tap strike [is] where a drone fires one missile — and then a second as rescuers try to drag victims from the rubble.” A survivor of the Obama administration’s first strike in north Waziristan reported that, often times, “when a drone strikes and people die, nobody comes near the bodies for half an hour because they fear another missile will strike.”
Mental health professionals warn us that victims of drone strikes often suffer deep psychological effects that can manifest themselves in a desire for revenge against the US. Numerous cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been reported in survivors and those who witnessed drone strikes. “People who have experienced such things don’t trust people; they have anger, desire for revenge . . . So when you have these young boys and girls growing up with these impressions, it causes permanent scarring and damage.” “Every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge.” To echo Yemeni lawyer, Haykal Bafana’s sentiment: “[W]hen a US drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with al Qaeda.”
Additionally, according to the Pew Research Center, public opinion of the US has consistently declined since 2009 in Pakistan. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an article titled “Losing Yemeni Hearts and Minds” detailing how the Yemeni youth is becoming increasingly angered by the drone strikes in the region. Letta Tayler wrote: “[T]o win Yemenis’ confidence, the U.S. should transfer command of all drone strikes from the CIA to the U.S. military and provide a detailed rationale of why its targeted killings in Yemen are legal under international law.”
The Obama administration, however, would like us to believe that drone strikes have nothing to do with the dwindling American image abroad — that no anger is brewing in those whose families have been killed and entire communities have been destroyed. So the administration will clutch tightly to the notion of “national security” and simply forge on with the senseless murder campaign and hope that the anger towards the US just dissipates.
Thus, it would seem that the war on terror seems to leave Americans with fewer liberties, more enemies, less transparency and a highly secretive killing campaign funded by their tax dollars — all to promote the illusion that Americans are now safer. Now, more than ever, it is imperative to demand basic guidelines regarding the drone program and evidence that drone strikes are reducing terror threats abroad. It is also critical for American citizens to clearly and unequivocally condemn the mass murder being carried out in their name. For every drone strike that kills an individual, another is empowered with a personal vendetta against the US. If drones were part of a clearer “endgame,” perhaps their utility would be more apparent. But, as it stands, the drones aren’t going anywhere and neither are al Qaeda sympathizers — old and new.
Samar Warsi is an ISPU Legal Fellow and a Senior Volunteer Attorney for the Muslim Civil Liberties Union. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from McMaster University and graduated with a J.D. from the Oklahoma City University School of Law. She is admitted to practice in the state bar of Texas.
This article was published by JURIST on November 13, 2012. Read it here.