Drone Strikes, Con

In the follow-up to my last post about the positives of drone strikes, I would like to focus on a specific type of drone strike: the signature strike. This type of strike should be useful in illustrating the potential negative side of drone strikes.

Signature strikes select targets based on their lifestyle, specifically on whether that person or group bears certain signatures typically associated with terrorist activity. Such strikes have become more and more popular in recent years. One study showed that signature strikes outnumber strikes in which there is specific intelligence proving that targets are involved in terrorist activities two to one. This has troubling implications, for that study showed that of the 500 militants killed between 2008 and 2010, the identities of only 8 percent of targets could have been known prior to the strike.

Now, when I first heard about signature strikes, I was perturbed. Choosing targets of drone strikes based on lifestyle, rather than concrete proof of terrorist activity, seems too much like guilt by association. If the CIA and JSOC look primarily at pattern of life in picking targets, I fear that many innocents, such as the family members of terrorists, could be falsely labeled and killed. There is a presumption of guilt involved in such strikes which set a precedent that is troubling at best, and highly unethical at worst.

However, even about signature strikes, there are empirical questions difficult to answer: Do they, in fact, target non-terrorists? If so, how often? Do signature strikes do so often enough to outweigh the potential benefits they might have in the fight against terrorism?

As stated in the previous blog post: as a civilian, I do not have any hard answers to these empirical questions. Many of the sources which report on the effect of drone strikes, whether they be about civilian casualties or effects on terrorist recruitment, are unverified or possibly even propaganda. So rather than focus on such questions, I would like to point out a few potential systemic issues posed by drone strikes.

The biggest problem with drone strikes is their lack of accountability. Both the CIA and JSOC have little to no oversight, due in part to the nature of the organizations themselves, but also to the blanket permission Congress has given them to carry out drone strikes without any limit placed by geographical boundaries. Additionally, authorization for drone strikes is not currently overseen by court nor congressional authority, and there have been no binding transparency requirements placed on them. This lack of accountability creates massive potential for abuses of the drone strike apparatus, a possibility recognized by many.

One damning example of this lack of accountability is apparent in the definition of militant currently used by the CIA and JSOC. Militants are vaguely defined as military-aged able-bodied males, and any persons killed in drone strikes who fit this description are considered to be terrorists until proven otherwise. This metric seems obviously flawed, as it skews data on civilian casualties and the effectiveness on strikes by assuming the guilt of targets killed in drone strikes, even when the CIA itself has admitted that it often does not know their identities.

For example, the death of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, son of U.S. citizen and al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, is particularly damning. Abdulrahman, a 16-year-old kid, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Government sources immediately justified the strike, claiming that he, a U.S. citizen, was a 21-year-old al-Qaeda fighter. However, this claim that was disproven days later by his mother, who came forward with his birth certificate. The fact that the U.S. government would make such public assertions without evidence does not sit well.

Now, it could be argued that signature strikes are limited by the Obama era requirements that targets must pose imminent threats, that their capture must be infeasible, and there must exist a near certainty that no civilian casualties will occur. However, in recent days, President Trump has dismantled these restrictions on the use of drone strikes. Specifically, Trump has thrown out the requirements that targets pose an imminent threat and that civilians must not be harmed. This is a troubling development which creates further potential for the abuse of drone strikes, especially due to the lack of accountability of JSOC and the CIA.

All in all, it is hard to argue with the idea that drone strikes save American lives, insofar as they reduce the number of boots on the ground. Additionally, it is certainly true drone strikes have taken out key terrorist leaders and specialists, from bomb makers to propagandists.

However, as I have stated multiple times, very little about the efficacy of drone strikes can be verified by the public. In fact, due to the independence of the CIA and JSOC, much cannot be verified even by U.S. Senators or the courts. Even if we trust the military about the effectiveness of drone strikes, I worry that there still exists a potential for abuse, due to these systemic questions I have outlined above. The current policy of these organizations: “trust, but don’t verify” is not enough.

Thus, my (admittedly tentative) conclusion is that in a world where the efficacy of drone strikes is unclear and the CIA itself admits it often doesn’t who it is killing, the setting of the institutional precedents I have outlined above seems unwise. In other words, although there are certainly situations in which drone strikes backed by extensive intelligence gathering and targeting high-level operatives are useful, signature strikes carry enough negatives that they ought not be used. Additionally, oversight over the CIA and JSOC should be increased so that these organizations can be held accountable.