Unmanned and, Ideally, Unbound

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In November 2002, the United States launched its first strike against Al Qaeda outside of Afghanistan by relying on an unmanned aerial vehicle. The strike encapsulated the assertions of American leaders that a new era of war was dawning – American weapons of war, enhanced by cutting edge technology, would launch surgical strikes against and bring justice to the nation's enemies, no matter how remote. On February 5th, the leaking of a Department of Justice white paper regarding the use of drones has sparked controversy over this new capability. Questions as to the legality, justification, and even constitutionality of the current policy are now at the forefront. On February 15th, the first general charged with overseeing drones, submitted an emphatic defense of unmanned aerial vehicles (remotely piloted vehicles, more accurately) and pointedly reminded critics “War is not about 'fairness;' it's about inflicting damage on your enemy without suffering damage yourself. … The use of RPA has substantially boosted our effectiveness in accomplishing our critical national security objectives.” The general is more correct than he knows – pausing to accommodate the protests of drone critics would prevent the United States from capitalizing on the promise of unmanned technology and harm national security.  The United States should welcome the precision afforded by remotely piloted vehicles and exploit them to the fullest.

The Critics' Concerns Are Noted

The heart of the current controversy is the undated Department of Justice memo entitled "Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qafida or An Associated Force," obtained and posted by NBC News. While the use of drones in counter-terrorist operations dates back to 2002, the current Administration has greatly increased their use.

In September 2011, a drone strike succeeded in killing alleged al-Qaida operatives Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen, but he had never been indicted or charged with any crimes.

This memo, a summary of still-classified legal analyses, elaborates on the basis employed by the Administration for conducting operations against American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” -- even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.

According to this memo, the U.S. Government can kill an American citizen who is "continually planning attacks" for al Qaeda when an "informed, high-ranking" official decides that the target "poses an imminent threat" and capture is "infeasible."

Spencer Ackerman, a national security correspondent with Wired magazine, noted the white paper misappropriates the concept of imminence. "It takes imminence out of the context of something an enemy does, and places it into the context of a policymaker's epistemic limitations. ... It would be one thing if Obama was talking about foreigners who enlist in al-Qaida. But he’s actually talking specifically about American citizens overseas who are “senior operational leader[s] of al-Qaida or its affiliated forces” — people whom the Constitution protects against the loss of life without due process of law."

John Yoo, formerly with the previous Administration's Office of Legal Counsel, is more direct, asserting the memo needlessly introduces law enforcement concepts into the conduct of war. "The Bill of Rights establishes a careful set of rules for police conduct. Officers can use deadly force only when there is probable cause to believe a suspect will imminently cause serious bodily harm. The legal system doesn't generally allow the government to stop the potentially dangerous before they commit crimes. The military's mission is quite the opposite. U.S. armed forces and intelligence agencies exist to pre-empt enemy attacks, not to apprehend the guilty afterward. Troops must have the right to use force against enemy armed forces at any time, not merely at the moment before 'an operational leader' (in the Justice memo's words) seizes a plane or places a bomb."

This critique is rich in that the past decade has been replete with observers repeatedly asserting how the war against terrorists would be different from the war against the Axis Powers, how the enemy would not be readily identifiable, how the enemy’s maneuvers would be hard to detect, how the war would necessitate a blurring of law enforcement and the military.

John Yoo was part of the  Administration that successfully shepherded the Patriot Act into existence and undertook the necessary defenses of presidential prerogatives as commander-in-chief.  The current Administration is only building on this foundation.

Moreover, as Yoo notes, "U.S. citizenship doesn't create a legal force field around Americans who treasonously join the enemy."  The only difference between Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber, and Nathan Bedford Forrest is a uniform. In the current conflict, America cannot count on the enemy donning telltale regalia or undertaking observable deployments. The adversary's murderous intentions will remain undetectable in their brains.  Today’s soldier is indeed closer to the cop on the beat, albeit a more dangerous one, just ask any survivor of Afghan or Iraq IEDs.

As any lawyer prosecuting a hate crime will attest, securing a guilty verdict pertaining to the criminality of an individual's thought is no easy task. Failing to define what is meant by a "senior operational leader" of al-Qaida or its "affiliated forces" is irrelevant – relying almost exclusively on drone strikes, instead of capturing the enemy, means never having to ask or detain in pursuit of what is obvious.

Other critiques decry the infringement of sovereignty. In the aftermath of the deadly September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi , Libya, the administration did not interview a suspect in the attack because the arresting Tunisian authorities did not have a basis in their law for allowing the U.S. to question him about the attack. Opting for drone attacks seems an appropriate alternative.

Similarly, critics worry America's reliance on drones establishes the precedent for other nations.

This is a negative prospect?

Germany is reportedly planning to deploy armed drones; given the nation's declining defense budget and limited support of American forces in Afghanistan, the step should be encouraged. China reportedly explored using a drone strike to eliminate a Myanmar drug lord; China instead opting for a live capture, but the episode highlights how other nations could use the capability to combat the common scourge of illegal narcotics.

“Manned” Capabilities Aren't All That Great Anyway

In light of recent performances by current officials, the president should expand, and Americans should welcome, the increasing reliance on unmanned weapons should be welcomed.

CharlesHagel, the newly sworn in Secretary of Defense, fared terribly at his confirmation hearings. Hagel stumbled on the Administration’s posture vis-à-vis Iran and abandoned a prior position on nuclear force structure. He awkwardly disavowed embarrassing statements and had to acknowledge other belatedly disclosed speeches. He was endorsed by Iran and the Nation of Islam. His nomination survived a filibuster, but Hagel now takes command of DOD amid sequestration, declining budgets, strategic drift, and zero credibility with Congress.

John Brennan, the nominee to be director of central intelligence, delivered at his confirmation hearings what was characterized as a “masterpiece of political maneuvering.”  Amy Zegart, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, commented how Brennan “promised cooperation without promising cooperation on a host of issues… He claimed powerlessness -- saying ‘I am not a lawyer’ and claiming he was not in the CIA chain of command for particular programs -- about unpopular decisions made when he held positions of power.” Brennan reportedly reversed course on his previous confidence in the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, citing the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the matter, even though Zegart reported he angered the staff by never even reading the report summary.

LeonPanetta, the outgoing Secretary of Defense, acknowledged in February 2013 testimony that he had no communication with President Obama after their “pre-scheduled” meeting at 5:00 p.m. EDT on September 11, 2012, even though the attack on the consulate had already been under way for 90 minutes at that time. Moreover, Panetta noted that neither the president nor anyone else from the White House called afterwards to check what was happening, as the matter had been left to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and him. Panetta and Dempsey asserted that the U.S. military "spared no effort to save" the besieged Americans, but later acknowledged no strike aircraft had even been launched. In lamentably familiar fashion, Panetta absolved DOD of responsibility, asserting no specific intelligence was available and that threats to U.S. diplomats and diplomatic facilities are the responsibility of the Department of State. But as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted during her testimony a month earlier, “1.4 million cables come to us each year, all of them addressed to me.”

Contemporary security challenges are simply too complex and fast-moving for decision-makers and America’s security policy apparatus.

After 9/11, the CIA was hindered in its capacity to interrogate suspected terrorists and had to embark on “extraordinary rendition,” outsourcing the task to approximately 50 partner countries.

In the wake of setbacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States tried the indirect approach in sub-Saharan Africa, partnering with local militaries and training them in counter-terrorism and border security. As evidenced by recent crisis in Mali, the strategy has been a failure.  Vicki Huddleston, a former U.S. ambassador to Mali, explained the U.S. government never came to a consensus as to an appropriate approach – DOD preferred direct military action while the State Department was too willing to tolerate al-Qaeda’s presence. Charles Wald, the former U.S. commander of U.S. Africa Command, stated bluntly, “I think we blew it. We've gone backwards, frankly.”

Returning to the tragedy at Benghazi, DOD only decided to deploy a rapid response force less than a week ago. Despite the protests of one Marine Corps official – “This is not a response to Benghazi, but it's a lesson learned” – it is a response and a belated one.

To the Unmanned Future, Boldly and Unrepentantly

In 2000, the United States spent $284 million for an inventory of 200 vehicles; in just the past year, the nation spent $4 billion on a fleet of 7,500. Going forward, the investment in unmanned capabilities should be increased, not reduced

Threats will continue to emerge and multiply and drones constitute a potent asymmetric advantage.

Beyond continued expansion, America should ignore opposition to making drones autonomous and fully realize the potential to shape future warfare on American terms. 

The enemy is already disseminating ways to counter American drones with evasion and concealment techniques. 

Autonomous drones enhanced with artificial intelligence will respond faster, more lethally, and without the encumbrances of judicial reviews or command hesitation.

Unshackled, drones will preserve American security in way the Constitution, elected leaders, or the American military never have.


To invoke Hillary Clinton’s cruelly dismissive response during her January testimony, what difference does this controversy over drone use make?

On September 30th 2011, the United States government killed one American, Anwar Alwaki, for his role as an ideological and operational leader in the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Alwaki will not be missed, but the mystery with the Administration proceeded to examine, conclude, and then end his life without due process should give everyone pause.  

The difference is in the trust Americans should have in its government when it begins exploring how to delicately balance national security and Constitutionally endowed protections.

Confederate soldiers were citizens of the secessionist republic sixty-seven days before the clash at Fort Sumter.  The Nazi saboteurs arrested in America and tried as enemy combatants arrived 202 days after the U.S. Congress declared  war.  Their treason was readily evident and their fates were sealed.  Acknowledged, the 2001 resolution to use military force against Al Qaeda is in place, but nowhere does it sanction arbitrary violation of an American's constitutional rights by unnamed senior government officials.  If the President wants this power, he should be forthright, direct, and clear in requesting it, personally.


On September 11th 2012, four Americans died in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya: Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Information Officer Sean Smith and two embassy security personnel, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, both former Navy SEALs.  To date, 6,664 Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The difference is in the trust Americans should have in its leaders regarding the substantial resources and capabilities placed at their disposal when it comes to defending the lives of Americans in danger.

U.S. conventional forces are without peer and possess facilities around the world.  American intelligence agencies are manned by exceptional professionals and possess cutting edge surveillance technology and equipment.  In total, the United States commits approximately just under $1 trillion a year on national security, including defense, intelligence, and homeland security.  In the wake of a tragedy like that of Benghazi and a decade of war, Americans are entitled to better than unqualified, dissembling, and responsibility-evading leaders.


To condone this inchoate policy would dishonor the memory of Ambassador Stevens and the thousands of men and women who have lost their lives manning the front in this war.