It is time to have a serious discussion about the use of drones — the unmanned weapons directed from far away that the U.S. government calls remotely piloted aircraft.
Concern has heightened over armed drones in the wake of the administration’s announcement April 23 of the deaths of two al-Qaeda hostages, American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto. They were killed in January in a CIA drone attack on a terrorist compound in Pakistan. That same strike killed Ahmed Farouq, an al-Qaeda planning leader who was also an American citizen.
CIA intelligence analysts involved in the attack were unaware that the two hostages were at the location. President Obama publicly apologized to the families and took responsibility for the strike that he said “inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni.”
Another CIA drone strike in January against a suspected al-Qaeda facility in Pakistan killed Adam Gadahn, an American who in 2006 was indicted on treason charges. He helped run al-Qaeda’s propaganda department, calling himself “Azzam the American” in broadcasts. Again, CIA targeters did not know specifically that Gadahn was present.
Disclosure of these strikes, months after they occurred, drew new criticism of the secrecy surrounding these operations.
In contrast, the Combined Joint Task Force running current military operations in Syria and Iraq announced that over a 24-hour period ended last Friday morning, U.S.-led coalition aircraft carried out 11 air strikes in northern Syria using manned and remotely piloted aircraft (drones) against Islamic State terrorists.
Although the Joint Task Force regularly announces its raids, it provides no specifics as to how many are carried out by manned aircraft and how many are done by armed drones. Asked for a breakdown, a spokesman for the Task Force replied, “For reasons of operational security, we do not discuss detailed information about airstrikes.”
On May 3, Reuters reported that a “group monitoring the conflict” said 52 civilians had been killed by those May 1 air strikes, but the U.S. military could not yet confirm the allegation.
Those 11 Syrian strikes in one day were more than double the five CIA drone strikes in Pakistan this year. If confirmed, the 52 alleged civilian deaths in Syria from those manned and unmanned air attacks represent a far larger number of civilian casualties than the two non-combatants reported as killed this year in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, according to the New America Foundation Web site.
No concern appears to have been raised about the use of drones by the Joint Task Force in Syria and Iraq, although there have been some issues raised about their being employed in Yemen and Afghanistan.
Is the underlying concern about drones based on the secrecy that surrounds CIA involvement, or is it the idea that armed drones are unmanned — and that no American is directly in harm’s way as weapons are dropped on a target?
For some it clearly is the former. The New York Times last week published the names of three senior agency officials directing the drone program although their names had previously considered classified. Has the news media sought out the names of military officers to place responsibility for civilian deaths in any drone attacks directed by the Pentagon?
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the January attacks in Pakistan raised doubts about the reliability of the intelligence used to justify drone strikes. Is anyone questioning the intelligence that directs the targeting in Syria or Iraq when civilians are killed or wounded?
There are also some people objecting to the use of unmanned attack aircraft because the pilot or bombardier can be thousands of miles away. Of course, similar questions could be raised about the use of cruise missiles launched from submarines, which have been used to attack al-Qaeda targets, or even manned bombers striking terrorist targets from altitudes of 30,000 feet.
An Associated Press poll released Friday said that 60 percent of Americans support the use of drones to target terrorists, although the number drops to 47 percent if innocent Americans might be killed in the attack. The poll did not include a question that would gauge support if foreign civilian casualties were also possible.
Since the 1950s, the United States has had weapons based in this country designed to hit targets thousands of miles away — nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles — but they are unique because they have not yet been used.
However, now is the time for the Pentagon to prepare the country for more unmanned military weaponry, not just in the air but on land and under the seas. Some are already here, but many more are on the way. And some will potentially select and hit targets independent of any human hand.
More than two years ago, the Defense Department issued a directive entitled “Autonomy in Weapon Systems” that was to apply to the “design, development, acquisition, testing, fielding, and employment of autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems, including guided munitions that can independently select and discriminate targets."
That’s what war is becoming.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.