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GlobalPost Commentary

New US reliance on drones creates problems

Commentary: Drone use should get same scrutiny as other methods of warfare.
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A Pakistani protester holds a burning US flag at a protest against US drone attacks in Multan on February 9, 2012. (S.S. Mirza /AFP/Getty Images)

Disclosure: L. Thomas Galloway is the president of the Galloway Family Foundation which supports GlobalPost in investigative and in-depth reporting projects.

WASHINGTON — On March 20, a Pakistani parliamentary commission demanded an end to US drone attacks inside the country. This decision runs directly against the Obama administration’s policy, under which the United States has begun to rely heavily on drone strikes in its campaign against Al Qaeda elements and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

Drones — remotely controlled, pilot-less aerial armed vehicles — are appealing to American leaders wary of putting U.S. troops into risky areas. But Pakistan’s decision highlights a number of problems with the use of drones — problems that Americans should understand before they make drones a permanent part of the US arsenal.

For one thing, there is an astounding lack of transparency surrounding drones, from the kill list to the execution to kill order. Only in mid-February 2011 did the public find out how drones are launched, and the answers are not very comforting. John Rizzo, the CIA’s acting general counsel, told Newsweek that President Barack Obama does not review the list of individuals targeted for killing. Instead, someone inside the CIA signs off. “It’s basically a hit list,” he said. In other words, an unelected, anonymous official inside the American national security bureaucracy, not someone accountable to the public, decides whom the United States of America will kill.

If that isn’t alarming enough, consider that the people who carry out most of the CIA’s drone strikes do not even know the individuals they are targeting. Targets are believed to be men associated with terrorist groups — but their individual identities are not always known. “There were individuals we were searching for, and we thought, it’s better now to neutralize that threat,” a State Department official said.

In addition, the collateral damage resulting from drones appears to be extensive. Simply put, drones have killed many innocent civilians. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit organization based at City University in London, released a report in August that examined the casualties of drones since 2004. It found that nearly 400 civilians, including 175 children, were killed alongside the more than 2,000 others. The New America Foundation, a Washington-based nonpartisan public policy institute, believes 20 percent of those killed by drones have been civilians. How many innocent civilians are the worth the targeting of an alleged terrorist? Who should be permitted to make such a decision, if not Obama?

Whatever the exact number is, it is a far cry from the claims of Obama’s senior counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, who said with a straight face in a question and answer session at Johns Hopkins University in June 2011: “For almost a year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

Brennan’s claim is provably false. Others, such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, have concluded that the Obama Administration has drastically understated the number of drone casualties. And that suggests a final reason for concern about the use of drones. They are still largely secretive, making them and the individuals who employ them unaccountable to the general public. With the power to kill and maim, it is essential that robotic weapons have oversight from other branches of government. At the very least, the government should be releasing information about its use of drones, so that the public may examine and debate their use. Critics from both the left and the right have called for greater transparency on the issue. Among them are Democrats like John Harman and former Bush administration lawyer John Bellinger. With no other method of warfare is the executive branch permitted such unilateral authority.

Though they have been around for a long time, only recently have drones become one of the key weapons of the United States. It may be understandable that standards regulating their use have not been developed. But as they become evermore central to military strategy, both in the United States and in other countries, drones need to be subject to the same scrutiny that is given to every other method of warfare.

L. Thomas Galloway is the president of the Galloway Family Foundation, whose focus is on international journalism and human rights and funds the Center for International Journalism. 

Jordan Smith is a writer at the Center for International Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous publications across the country, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe.

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