The debate surrounding the legality and use of drones is similar to the debate now going on between football players, young and old (old, of course, if they are lucky). On the football field the damage to the brain by the impacts of skilled and determined men of great size is serious, and it might in time be proven definitively that the hits to the heads dramatically shorten players' lives. New studies on the impact of football on players' brains have raised the question, "should we eliminate the sport as we know it?"
What questions have the debate around the legality and use of drones sparked?
Broadly, the drone issue is whether the death penalty should be delivered from the sky, without trial; often in countries were the U.S. is not legally at war. Over the past few days, the debate has focused narrowly on Obama's nomination of John Brennan, considered an architect of America's drone policy, for CIA chief. The administration released a 50-page memo to the Senate Intelligence Committee detailing its legal justification for the strikes in order to take the pressure off Brennan. While the memo is not public, a 16-page white paper prepared by the justice department on the same subject was leaked by an NBC News reporter on Monday. This document only highlighted the lax standards that the administration uses for determining whether a person is a threat to national security and the weak explanation that the administration uses to justify the killing of Americans. The white paper asserts that the administration is using an expanded definition of "imminent threat," arguing that a person need not have specific plans to kill Americans in order to pose such a threat. The white paper also argues that American citizens are fair targets for assassination when suspected to be terrorists. The targeted killing of American citizens abroad is already underway. Infamously, Obama's drones killed a 16-year-old American boy whose father -- also an American killed by drones -- was a suspected al Qaeda member. While the revelations in the memo are disturbing, they are only a piece of what is wrong with Obama's drone wars.
The violations of national sovereignty in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and now Mali are bound to spark resentment. And, indeed, evidence is that the strikes are breeding anti-American sentiment and are used as a recruiting devise for al Qaeda. This should come as no surprise to the president, who once commented, "There's no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders." Imagine this scenario; Canadian forces today announced they killed two threats to Canadian national security in a town outside of Portsmouth, Maine. Or that Mexico today announced that a Mexican drone north of Houston, Texas killed the largest cartel leader in Mexico. Then add the Chinese hitting Tibet with drones to kill their national threat or Russians hitting the Chechens to kill the leading terrorist. Let your mind go to your favorite dictator and the fun he would have with drones. That is the future and America is paving the way.
Like with the football head injuries, it will probably be years, even decades, before we see the most negative effects of these policies. The precedent that the Obama administration is setting should concern everyone. Torture hangs on the Bush administration as if it is now in the DNA of it. Rightly so. But no one, not one torturer is in jail except for a few lower rank soldiers who were not smart enough to know their superiors would burn them. Many of the Bush era's worst human rights violations have remained or worsened under Obama. Since 9/11, habeas corpus is a ship the CIA has sunk. American forces still hold prisoners without charges for years; they kill without judicial review regularly; they ship people around the world to get others to torture the prisoners while keeping the pretense that American forces do not torture. When serious questions are asked about either torture or drones, one gets a Barry Bonds, a Bernie Madoff, a Lance Armstrong, a major looking for a job with Boeing and a bishop with felonious priests. They lie and protect their own.
The level of secrecy that surrounds the drones should also be of concern. One secret is that the CIA and others of its ilk were, and are, not prepared for the Muslim world. The intelligence folks have lost many key people. Replacements with talent, language and history are very hard to find. The army has few Arabic speakers and, thus, when American soldiers enter a village it can often end in disaster, because no one understands one another. Firing from a drone makes all this weakness less visible. In this way, drones are used by agencies that failed to properly train their people for the future.
The United States is leading the world in a terrible direction by the use of these drones. "The drones sound cheap and easy and save our soldiers live." "They are our eyes in the skies." "We have beheaded some of our worst foes." All this may or may not be true, but like football, the future is grim and diabolical.
Junior Seau told us and warned us about football by his suicide. Will the recent leak of the white paper be enough to warn us about the drones?