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A drone too far

MQ-9 Reaper in flight

 

The case that drones are no more or no less moral than a SEAL team with orders to blow someone’s head off is, I think, an easy one to make. Bombs or bullets, manned or unmanned, the intent and motivation are the same. But a leaked DoJ document now posted online written with drones in mind could conceivably be used for any kind of force against anyone for any reason, or no reason at all. That’s not a drone issue, that’s a constitutional issue where the implications are chilling:

MSNBC — A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of 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.

The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes.

 

Why anyone would really try to cook up legal excuses for what is clearly about as unconstitutional and illegal an act as can be imagined is a troubling issue in itself. It suggests the administration has targets in mind, US citizens picked out by name and location, perhaps without hard evidence in hand. And it raises the possibility that Americans might have been killed by accident or by mere association already, or are about to be, and the administration is seeking to cover their ass. For our foreign readers, it’s not that we believe Americans are super special, it”s that we’re all covered by the US Constitution. Legal apologetics like this create a crisis, they pose a direct challenged to long established and high regarded rights of US citizenship.

There is no doubt in my mind that Barack Obama isn’t planning on using this to round up and snuff political enemies, I feel the same about George Bush and Dick Cheney for that matter. This deal reportedly went through a Senate committee — although the way that’s worked in the past is that caucus has zero say over the policy, they cannot even mention it outside of the secret meeting on secret stuff. The point, the fear, is a President could use it to intimidate, or in the extreme scenario, assassinate political opponents.

If the infamous torture memos from the last administration, and now this one, were to stand there would be no obstacle to whisking any American off the street anywhere in the world and shipping them off to a third-world shithole torture chamber and summary execution without a warrant, without a trial, without any cause other than the President said so. If that’s legal, then the US Constitution is now null and void.

If there are US citizens engaged in terrorist activities that threaten US lives or the lives of others, I’m no dove or idealist, they are fair game. But it cannot be one of those deals where anyone can be killed under super double secret programs, where it’s so secret that even the reasons its secret are secret. There has to be and there can be a process for dealing with those threats, one with oversight, with multiple branches of government involved — including the opposing party such as they are — and some semblance of review.

I hope we as progressives insist on that, and that we do not waver, simply because we may feel more comfortable with this administration running the operation than we were with Bush and  Cheney.

Comments

  1. eidolon says

    In a related bit, the author Teju Cole has had the brilliant idea of combining the first lines of well-known novels with information about the latest drone strike in tweets.

    “Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.”

    I discovered this on: http://www.badgirlchats.com/

    More examples of these are at: http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/dtake/seven-short-stories-about-drones/

    The Patriot Act and related legislation has done more to shred the Constitution than any external agent ever could. And still we keep on in the war called “Operation Enduring Freedom”

  2. says

    For our foreign readers, it’s not that we believe Americans are super special, it”s that we’re all covered by the US Constitution.

    Not you personally, but unfortunately, many Americans do appear to believe just that. They even have a word for it, and they think it’s a good thing.

  3. StevoR, fallible human being says

    If that’s legal, then the US Constitution is now null and void.

    So does that mean that second amendment right to arm bears thing no longer holds too? So .. Gun control can go ahead unheeded now can it?

  4. kraut says

    Following the British star chamber example after all. About 200 years late

    “Court sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, and no witnesses. Evidence was presented in writing. Over time it evolved into a political weapon, a symbol of the misuse and abuse of power by the English monarchy and courts.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Chamber

  5. says

    Similar drones are being handed out to municipal police departments. Seattle has recently been given several, and I doubt very much we are the only ones. All for “legitimate police work,” of course.

  6. says

    still we keep on in the war called “Operation Enduring Freedom”

    They would have come up with a better name for it, but Orwell’s dead and wasn’t able to contribute one.

  7. says

    Over time it evolved into a political weapon, a symbol of the misuse and abuse of power by the English monarchy and courts.”

    It’s at the point where one political party realizes that they can use the power of the police state to suppress the other that the police state flips into a dictatorship. The US has systematically stripped itself of the safeties intended to reduce the chance of it happening, and now is primed to fall. What will be the trigger? Another major economic collapse and a strong leader with a will to power?

  8. says

    @5:

    No. The drones being used by police departments are nothing like those used by the US military.

    Three big differences:

    1. They are very much smaller (Google News informs me that Seattle PD’s drones have a maximum payload of 1 kg).

    2. They cannot be operated more than 400 ft above the surface (to avoid conflicts with air traffic control), or without line of sight to the operator.

    3. They are unarmed.

    Nobody is handing the cops Reaper drones. Those remain the property of the military and national guard. This problem is already bad enough. Do not pretend it is worse than it is.

  9. says

    Thanks, Steve. This sums up how I feel about these issues really well. I have no trouble believing that some of the people that the Obama administration has targeted for drone strikes are bad people who wish to kill Americans for no better reason than that we are Americans. Despite my contempt for everything associated with the Bush administration, I had no trouble believing the same about some Guantanamo detainees.

    But that’s not the point. It is never enough for one branch of government to assert someone is evil. There must be a fair hearing by an impartial arbitrator. That’s what having a government of laws and not of men means. It is the unique strength of this country. It is the source of the American Exceptionalism that conservatives love to natter about. (And are only too happy to ignore when they are in power.) I hope that you have reposted this on DailyKos.

  10. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    The case that drones are no more or no less moral than a SEAL team with orders to blow someone’s head off is, I think, an easy one to make.

    Bullets don’t necessarily take out everyone within x meters as collateral damage. Missiles tend to.

    This ain’t rocket science.

  11. says

    @Marcus Ranum #7

    The US has systematically stripped itself of the safeties intended to reduce the chance of it happening, and now is primed to fall. What will be the trigger? Another major economic collapse and a strong leader with a will to power?

    I half expect it will be a contested election, given how incredibly polarized this country has become and how ferverently the hard right wing is fanning the flames of civil war.

  12. says

    @johnbrown #9 – Once, high powered military grade assault weapons were in the sole possession of the military too, with municipal police forces given watered down versions. It is all just a matter of time.

  13. says

    @Gregory in Seattle:

    You have no evidence to support an assertion that the police will ever operate anything like Reaper drones.

    High-powered rifles were provided to US police forces after, among other things, the North Hollywood shootout, where the bank robbers had such equipment themselves. Stricter gun control legislation would make the use of higher-powered guns by cops necessary far less often (with the limiting case being something like the UK).

    There is no reason for the police to have Reaper drones, and no one is planning to give them such hardware. Again, the current drones police are using are essentially remote-controlled model helicopters.

    We have a real and sufficiently-serious problem with how the US government uses its military capabilities. Don’t divert that with some hypothetical the-cops-will-be-able-to-kill-at-will dystopian fiction.

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