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Lament of the Drones


Frogs in the marsh mud drone their old laments.

— Vergil, Georgics

It is wonderful how a new weapon can rejuvenate a word that has long been something of a dullard.  The reinvigorated word is “drone.”

In days of yore among its more accustomed uses was to refer to a deep humming sound or monotonous speech.  It has now been promoted to one of the most discussed pieces of armament in the modern arsenal.  And a wonderful addition it is.  Its importance was highlighted by Senator Rand Paul (R. Ky.) who, in a refreshing moment of historical significance, engaged in a filibuster of the old fashioned variety.  Instead of saying he was filibustering, he actually filibustered and in so doing brought badly needed attention to the use of drones in modern warfare.

One of the drone’s problems (although this was not addressed by the Senator) is that like the bastard child, it is not always clear to whom it belongs and that may eventually lead to awkward international moments.  The sorts of moments to which I refer were most recently on display following drone strikes that took place in Pakistan in early February. On March 4 a New York Times headline read:  “U.S. Disavows 2 Drone Strikes Over Pakistan.” March 5 the headline was:  “Pakistan Rejects U.S. Disavowal of Drone Strikes.”  Pakistan did not want to take credit for these strikes even though, apparently successful, they killed two senior commanders of Al Qaeda together with seven other people who may have simply been incidental beneficiaries of the strike.

Senior Pakistani officials gave all the credit for the strikes to the United States but in an unusual display of military modesty, the United States declined to take credit.  A spokesman for the United States who spoke anonymously (because the drone program is secret and anonymous speech keeps it secret) insisted on giving all the credit to Pakistan.  The official said:  “We haven’t had any kinetic activity since January.”  (Those words are not meant to suggest that the military is moribund although it is not altogether clear what they do mean.) The Pakistanis were not pleased at being given credit for the strikes. That is because Pakistanis (whom we have favored with 330 drone attacks in the last five years) do not like manna from heaven when delivered by drones.

The United States did not want to take credit for the drone strikes even if it deserves the credit since it is not at war with Pakistan and there is little justification for going around using drones in countries with which it is not at war just because there are people in that country whom we consider enemy combatants whom we hope to kill employing drones.

The Pakistanis said the United States’ modesty about the successful strikes was “a distortion of the facts” and suggested the purpose was to dilute “Pakistan’s stance on drone strikes.”  That stance is officially one of not being appreciative of drone strikes by the U.S., believing that these strikes infringe on their sovereignty and are a violation of human rights.  (There is apparently a way that the United States can launch drone strikes in a country with which it is not at war without violating that country’s sovereignty.  In a discussion of drones that was reported in the New York Times we are informed that lawyers analyzing the legality of drone strikes in friendly countries explained that Yemen has “granted permission for Drone strikes on its soil as long as the United States [does] not acknowledge its role, so such strikes would not violate Yemeni sovereignty.”  Go figure.)

Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster pertained not to the use of drones in foreign countries but in the United States.  Its purpose was to obtain assurance from the administration that it would not use drone strikes to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil even if it considered them enemy combatants.  In the manner of a dentist dealing with a stubborn tooth, he was finally able to extract such an assurance from the attorney general of the United States.

Not everyone is as concerned with drones as Senator Paul.  An editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal observed that the use of drones is limited to “the remotest areas of conflict zones like Pakistan and Yemen” (with neither of which countries are we at war) and went on to conclude that a U.S. citizen designated an enemy combatant could be targeted if found in the United States, presumably, although not articulated in the editorial, by a drone strike.   The writer suggests that if U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, an acknowledged terrorist, killed by a drone strike in Yemen had been living in Virginia, he could have been targeted there.   The writer pointed out that that’s what happened to the Nazis who landed on Long Island during the Second World War.  They were, said the writer, captured and executed.  One minor fact was left out of the editorial.  The Nazis were tried before they were executed.  The Journal obviously considers that a minor fact and its omission from the editorial is of no moment.

It is nice to know that we won’t use drone strikes on American soil.  Perhaps some day we won’t fly drones over countries with which we are not at war.

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney based in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at:


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