Today I’m going to focus on a topic that I’ve been researching for several years: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as “drones.” Last week I came across an article on Gawker (purveyor of both celebrity gossip and genuinely important investigations, among other things) titled “Leaked Documents: Bystanders Killed by Drones Automatically Become ‘Enemies.’” My first thought on reading this headline as I sat in the airport was…“duh?”
The Gawker article references a group of classified documents leaked by “a source within the intelligence community” and now posted, with commentary, by The Intercept. You can read a thoughtful intro to the documents and the de-facto policy of assassination adopted by the U.S. government here.
To recap, the drone program has been targeting and killing individuals in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia for years; it started under the Bush administration and has expanded dramatically under Obama’s tenure. The detail that the original article found so distressing is the revelation that when individuals who are not the specific target of the strike are killed, they are labeled EKIA or “enemy killed in action.” In other words, anytime we kill someone who is not the specific target of a drone strike, we are classifying that person as an “enemy,” i.e., not a civilian (if appropriate), regardless of that person’s actual identity. The documents also suggest that the number of “EKIA” vastly exceeds the number of actual targets killed by these missions during a specific period in 2012.
For the most part, this is not new information. In 2012 the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was counting “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” (And such intelligence is probably difficult to obtain after a strike that kills an individual and his or her close associates, nor does it seem likely that there are strong incentives to make the effort.) The Intercept claims that it is posting the documents because it believes the American public has a right to know what its government is doing. This suggests that transparency about the drone program might make Americans sit up and take notice of all the bad practices the United States has adopted and raise their voices in outcry.
That is unlikely. We already have more than enough information to conclude that the drone program is killing innocent people and probably creating more enemies than it is destroying. Most Americans simply don’t care. Drones are attractive precisely because they are cheap in human and monetary terms; no longer do we have to risk the life of a pilot or the crash of an expensive aircraft to attack individuals in foreign countries. There are many ethically dubious practices embedded in the drone program, but we have known about these for years, just as we have known about the abuses at Guantanamo for years (a major focus of Obama’s foreign policy platform when he ran for President the first time).
Even if a hundred whistleblowers came forward, they would be unable to change this basic calculation: cheapness + visible anti-terror effort for the Administration + public apathy = drones are here to stay. The only part of this equation that seems open to manipulation is the way in which the drone campaign is perceived by the President and his or her team. We’ll have to wait until at least 2017 to see if it can yield a different result.