DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Brave New World of Drones

Drones. To supporters, they represent a better, cheaper, safer way to take out targeted enemies. To opponents, they are menacing unaccountable flying robotic death machines. But from the corridors of Congress to the chat rooms of the Middle East, drones and the destruction they cause are definitely a hot topic.

So why have we suddenly become so obsessed with drones, which the United States has been employing with increasing regularity against suspected overseas terrorists?

Benjamin Wittes, a Senior Fellow and Research Director in Public Law at the Brookings Institution, believes he has an answer. "A drone is a weapon that is a little bit mysterious, a little bizarre. It produces a degree of anxiety," Wittes says. "It's a big scary flying robot and that's weird. The closer you get to the Holy Grail of safe targeting, the less it looks like war. It's something that doesn't feel like war any more; it feels more like assassination."

Wittes was one of 4 experts who participated in a panel discussion earlier this week at the Cato Institute entitled Drones and a New Way of War.

The panel concurred that the questions being currently raised have less to do with drones and more to do with the Constitutional questions such as who authorizes such attacks and where and when should they be launched.

"The discussions are really a microcosm of 3 distinct legal conversations that we are not very good at having," said Steve Vladeck, a professor of Law and the Associate Dean for Scholarship at American University Washington College of Law. Those 3 questions are:
  • Exactly whom are we at war with and where is that war occurring? "After 9/11 it was Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but now we are using drones increasingly at the margins (of those groups). This illuminates how unclear we are," Vladeck said.
  • Who should have the power for the drone program? Currently, President Obama and the Executive Branch decide kill targets. "It's a question of oversight for Congress and the Judiciary. Oversight, at least in its current form, is not working," Vladeck contended. "At the very least we should have more transparency."
  • What should be the rules for use? "Right now, we are the only country in the world that can carry out these operations. So what we do is precedent setting. The real question is about the use of force on the territory of a foreign power," he added.
Rosa Brooks, a professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, says the issue is both legal and strategic. "There has been a significant increase in targeted killings with new terrorists in Mali and Somalia. We are now looking at associates of associates of associates. There is a feeling that if it's cheap and low risk, why not do it a little more," Brooks maintained.

"But how much are we gaining and how much are we losing?" Brooks questioned. "Are we creating new terrorists faster than we can kill them? If we decide when there is an armed conflict, it's pretty hard to assume that's not going to come back and bite us."

The panel agreed that much of the drone controversy centers around the uncertainty of any war against terror. Virtually everyone agrees that the rules of war are different than those of peacetime. In the past, for America, that has meant facing large armies of soldiers on clearly defined battlefields. But. of course, that clarity is missing when dealing with transnational terrorism. 

According to Benjamin Friedman, a Research Fellow of Defense and Homeland Security Studies at the Cato Institute, new technology like drones is making it easier to engage in "whimsical wars fought in perfect safety" and choose paths "that erode liberty and may suck us into more wars."

Friedman supported the idea that currently too much power is concentrated in the office of the president. "There's nothing stopping the president from changing the rules tomorrow. We need to define the enemy better. You need to justify to the public on policy," Friedman said

There are 3 main political reasons why until recently Congress hasn't acted on the issues raised by drone use, Friedman believes. One is the increasing partisanship in today's politics. Secondly, lawmakers fear the political consequences of not appearing to be strong on terrorism. Finally, there is the reality that foreign policy rates really low on voters' minds.

Friedman said he fears that drones may be leading us into what he called "iTunes wars."

"If it only costs a dollar why not?" he posed. "Drones could be getting us into wars we don't need. We need to lock in the idea that wars should be hard to start."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
There is no doubt that the issue of drones and their use is exploding in the media. Here are links to 6 articles that just appeared this morning if you want to learn more about the topic.

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