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Droning On

by JOHN FEFFER

Someday soon, you’ll be checking your new Clear Skies app as a routine part of your preparations to go out for the evening. First, you’ll look at your smart gizmo to read your latest email to make sure there hasn’t been any change in plans. A quick glance at Facebook lets you see who’ll be joining your group of friends at the bar. Weather and traffic apps inform you of what to wear and what route to take. Twitter will tell you about any major news developments you should be retweeting to your tweeps to prime the conversational pump over drinks.

And your new Clear Skies app will let you know if any unmanned drones are hovering 12 miles up in the stratosphere with your head in their sights.

Sound like science fiction? Isn’t drone surveillance and remote kills a problem just for people in the undeveloped regions of the world where life is cheap, collateral damage a daily hazard, and violations of national sovereignty the norm rather than the exception?

No doubt, people in the United States felt the same way about nuclear weapons during that brief period after 1945 when only one country in the world possessed the explosive new technology. Then, on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, and Americans no longer felt quite so confident. Indeed, the United States began to experience a pervasive nuclear dread, with children practicing “duck and cover” in the classroom, parents digging out bomb shelters in the backyard, and the thought of fiery apocalypse never far from the thoughts of a bewildered and terrified populace.

Today, the United States maintains a near monopoly on military drone technology, with only Israel and Britain also deploying these systems. But the landscape is rapidly changing. As David Cortright at the University of Notre Dame points out, more than 50 countries are developing or buying drone systems, including China and Iran, and even non-state actors want in on the business. The United States is now using drones to patrol borders and collect information about Mexican narcotraffickers. U.S. law enforcement agencies are also eager to use the technology against criminals on U.S. soil, with Texas sheriffs leading the way. Unmanned drones are already used in Japan, Australia, and other countries for such civilian activities as crop dusting and lifeguarding.

Soon, the skies will be very crowded indeed. And the sound of drones that have become part of everyday life in “areas of concern” will someday become part of everyone’s life, as ubiquitously intrusive as flat-screen TVs and annoying ringtones. Perhaps these unmanned aerial vehicles will simply pick you out of a crowd so that the police department can hit you up for unpaid parking tickets or your spouse’s lawyer can verify adultery and grounds for divorce. But that assumes that drones will be seamlessly integrated into the fabric of legal and social norms, a technology no different from tasers or the Police National Computer.

But what’s happening today in Pakistan is beyond the law. It’s not even subject to the rules of war. The drone wars that the Obama administration has inherited from the Bush years – and expanded dramatically – are conducted by the CIA. The spy agency doesn’t need to abide by the Geneva Conventions or acquire congressional approval for its actions. It doesn’t bother with niceties such as national sovereignty. And, in contrast to other agencies that only dabble in falsehood, breaking the law and not telling the truth are integral to the operations of the CIA.

Here’s but one example. Back in June, Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan announced that drone strikes haven’t resulted in any civilian casualties over the past year. “There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, [the] precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop,” he said. That’s more than 600 militants killed since May 2010 and not a single noncombatant among them.

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Reporting disagrees. It has counted between 109 and 279 non-combatants killed by drones since May 2010 and as many as 780 civilians killed overall, including at least 175 children. “My personal meetings with three drone victims – one of whom lost an eye, one who lost two legs and an eye and a third who was killed three days after I met him — suggest that the U.S. government claim is at the very least, wrong,” Bureau journalist Pratap Chatterjee told me over email. “In my recent trip to Pakistan, I met with some three dozen family members of drone victims and a dozen elders from Waziristan, who reject the U.S. claim that there have been no civilian casualties. It is possible that the U.S. government is misinformed, but it also possible that they are lying.”

The U.S. military is in charge of drone attacks in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The CIA war in Pakistan is in a different category. “The CIA is completely opaque, and no information is available from them even on the existence of the drone war in Pakistan, let alone civilian casualties,” Chatterjee continues. “By contrast, the Pentagon has briefed me and other reporters on how it conducts drone strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq and the legal check-offs necessary before a kill order is issued.”

The drone war in Pakistan is the greatest foreign policy outrage of the Obama administration, and yet it attracts virtually no criticism from Congress. “In Washington, the assumption that drone strikes in Pakistan are necessary to maintain regional security largely goes unchallenged,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Nick Scott in Disaster Times Two in Pakistan. “However, it is not clear that the policy has actually reduced levels of militant violence or that the benefits outweigh the costs in terms of civilian casualties and damage to U.S. prestige in the region.”

The drone war is finally making people in high places in Washington uncomfortable. “The U.S. government simply cannot arrogate the right to wage an endless, global war against anyone it deems a threat to national security,” writes Paul Miller. “The prospect of such a war should trouble anyone who has the least acquaintance with history or political philosophy.” Miller, who was responsible for Afghanistan policy on the National Security council from 2007 to 2009, believes in drones and their efficacy. He’s simply concerned that the administration has committed itself to a war without limits — what used to be called the “global war on terrorism,” a phrase the Obama administration has retired rhetorically but continued in practice.

Over the summer, the debate over drones inside the Obama administration led to specific policy changes, in part because, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, “Many officials at the Pentagon and State Department privately argued the CIA pays too little attention to the diplomatic costs of air strikes that kill large groups of low-level fighters.” As a result, “The State Department won greater sway in strike decisions; Pakistani leaders got advance notice about more operations; and the CIA agreed to suspend operations when Pakistani officials visit the United States.”

These changes, of course, don’t remove the CIA from the assassination business or establish a definitive end date for the drone war. But the logic of drone technology – and its rapid proliferation – will soon prompt a more radical rethink. After all, the Pentagon wanted the United States to abide by the Geneva Conventions not because of a sudden conversion to human rights advocacy, but because of a fear of what other countries might do to U.S. soldiers. And U.S. officials eventually came to understand the usefulness of arms control not out of a commitment to world peace, but because the Soviet Union had acquired a sizable and quite dangerous arsenal of its own.

Today, former Cold Warriors George Shultz and Henry Kissinger support the eradication of nuclear weapons, because proliferation has shifted the balance of power and the United States is less safe in a world full of these weapons of mass destruction. Judging by the rapid adoption of drone technology, it won’t take long before the balance will shift again, and we early adopters will be hoisted by our own petard. The precedent we set today by ignoring international law and taking out whomever we deem guilty will be one day used against us.

So you’d better get ready for a world in which it’s not just people “out there” who must suffer from the omnipresent whir in the sky. We thought that we would always be the hand on the joystick. But even in video games, tables turn, and the hunter becomes the hunted. Perhaps a foreign country doesn’t like your criticisms of its human rights record. Perhaps another country thinks you’re a terrorist. Better watch your head. We will continue to develop technologies to keep ahead of the curve. But drones are a game changer. They herald a democratization of destruction.

And that soon-to-be-developed Clear Skies app won’t protect us, any more than the schoolhouse desk protected earlier generations who got down on their hands and knees to escape the fire from above.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes its regular World Beat column, and will be publishing a book on Islamophobia with City Lights Press in 2012.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.

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