Human Rights

9 Myths About Obama’s Drone Killings Debunked [Video]

As the Obama admin's overseas drone killings spike, new video project featuring some of America's top human rights lawyers rebut govt. justifications.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ TheBlackRhino

The Obama administration has launched more drone strikes in recent weeks than any time since 2009, according to human rights lawyers and overseas media reports. Attacks in Yemen killed more than 37 people, Reuters reported. Nearly all of their identities remain unknown.

The killings are a bleak reminder that Syria is not the only war President Obama is pushing. Despite the president's recent pledges to make the drone program more transparent to the public, it remains not only secretive and unaccountable, but also at odds with U.S. and international law. What is known is that the White House appears to permit extrajudicial executions, in violation of international human rights law, virtually anywhere in the world, and the victims from these strikes include many innocent civilians, including children.

The administration’s refusal to discuss and debate the legality and morality of the drone program prompted Director Robert Greenwald and his team of  filmmakers at Brave New Foundation to create an onscreen, virtual debate in which many of the country’s top human and civil rights lawyers respond to statements made by Obama administration spokespeople about the program.

The lawyers’ rebuttals to the government’s assertions make it clear the official rhetoric does not match the reality of the attacks. They show that the White House’s policies treat the world as a battlefield and disregard the human lives at stake.

preview of the debate was released this week, and the full-length version will be available in October free of charge. The arguments question the legality of using deadly military drones to attack people in countries where no political violence has been directed against the U.S., America has not declared official war, and more moderate diplomatic efforts could still be employed were American lives or interests really at risk.

The filmmakers interviewed drone victims in Pakistan, and their personal stories are included in the documentary. The following are arguments excerpted from the documentary, featuring six legal experts as they break down the arguments of the president and his administration to reveal the way rampant logical fallacies are used to justify drone warfare.

Read the myths below the video preview:

Myth #1: Drone killings are few, focused and vetted.

In January 2012, President Obama confirmed and defended the use of drone strikes. He said the attacks were “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases … for the most part, they have been very precise.” The President added, “this thing is kept on a very tight leash.” 

“Mr. President, the argument that this is a short list, and that it’s on a short leash, and that we can trust you to make the right decisions because these are threats to Americans, is a disingenuous argument,” countered Morris Davis, retired Air Force Colonel, Chief Prosecutor Guantanamo Bay. “In some cases, the targets you’ve hit have been Americans, where they have been denied due process, their day in court. If you want to evict Anwar al-Awlaki from his house, you have to give him notice and his day in court to contest it. But you’re saying that you have the right alone to put him on a list and designate him for assassination without trial. That’s a pretty broad leap for a president to make.”

Myth #2: Drones legally protect against imminent threats.

“First, the strikes are legal,” John Brennan, assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said in April 2012. “As a matter of domestic law the Constitution empowers the president to protect the nation from any imminent threat of attack.”

“The problem is the administration’s definition of imminence and feasibility of capture is so vague and elastic that it’s robbed of its plain meaning,” replied Hina Shamsi, director of theNational Security Project for the ACLU.

“For imminence, for example, the administration does not need to have evidence of an actual plot that’s about to take place,” Shamsi continued. “And that’s from the leaked white paper, which applies only to U.S. citizens. We’re left guessing what the standards are for non-citizens, who are the vast majority of people who have been killed.”

Myth #3: Due process doesn’t mean a day in court.

“Due process and judicial process are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a May 2012 speech. “The Constitution guarantees due process. It does not guarantee judicial process.”    

His slippery legal argument attempted to justify a new legal process that would disregard longstanding constitutional precedent that a person has right to appear in court and defend themself.

“I don’t know what kind of due process you’re talking about here,” replied Daphne Eviatar from Human Rights First. “Whatever due process means, it cannot mean a determination based on secret evidence presented only to the executive branch behind closed doors. It’s hard to see how that one-sided decision making can lead to a high degree of confidence about anything.”  

Myth #4: Drone killings don’t violate international law.

Leon Panetta, CIA director from 2009 to 2011, said the drone attacks were permitted by international law. “We have a responsibility to defend this country and that’s what we are doing,” he said. “And anyone who suggest that somehow we are employing other tactics here that somehow violate international law are dead wrong.”

Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, replied: “Of course, the administration has a duty to protect the United States from serious threats: that’s its responsibility. But, simply stating that doesn’t mean that anything goes. There are still rules that govern self-defense, and if you’re going to use lethal force you’ve got to be shooting either at a combatant in a recognized war, or you have to be meeting an imminent lethal threat.”

Myth #5: Drone killings are ethical and wise.

This February, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “These strikes are legal. They are ethical. They are wise.”

Pardiss Kebriaei, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, replied: “That assurance doesn’t hold up against what we know about this program. Let’s take one example. In December of 2009, the U.S. fired missiles at a Bedouin village in Yemen killing 41 members of two families, including 21 children.”

Myth #6: The President isn’t just doing whatever he wants.

President Obama answered a question about the drone program in a Google-sponsored online chat in February by saying, “I am not somebody who believes that the president has the authority to do whatever he wants, or whatever she wants, whenever they want, just under the guise of counter-terrorism.” 

But Naureen Shah, former associate director, Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project, Columbia Law School, doesn’t buy it.

“The president believes in checks and balances, but that can’t happen when the public and the courts are out of the loop,” she said. “Congress doesn’t have an incentive to act, because all of this is happening outside the public eye. If this were a troop deployment to another combat zone, we’d see Congress really pushing the administration and pushing it publically. But that’s not the dynamic here, because drones are a black hole in terms of accountability.”      

Myth #7: The White House has been transparent about drones.

Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, pointed out that such has not been the case. “The hallmarks of the rule of law are transparency and accountability,” she said, “And although the Obama administration has promised meaningful transparency, it has failed to provide it.”

Human Rights First’s Daphne Eviatar added: “Especially when we are using lethal force to kill people, the president can’t expect support from the American people if he fails to provide even the most basic information about who the United States is killing in our name and for what reason.”

Myth #8: Drones are not a new kind of warfare.

Columbia Law’s Shah disagreed, saying the White House was setting very dangerous precedents. “The Obama administration is sending the world a signal,” she said. “It’s started a new kind of warmaking. It’s a warmaking that in the past we’ve condemned. We’ve said that we don’t condone assassination."

Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth said, “Killing should not be a first resort. There should be a responsibility to capture, if you can, as a way of minimizing the risks to the rights of us all, through this amorphous global battlefield.”

Myth #9: The President can be trusted on drones.

The lawyers all said that the lack of legal standards, transparency and accountability did not convince them—or the public—to trust the White House when it comes to overseas drone killings.

As Kebriaei from the Center for Constitutional Right put it, “We have been told nothing more than effectively than trust us, and that isn’t enough for any administration, regardless of the person in power.”

The six experts featured in the film ask specific, logical questions to expose the legal gray area in which drone attacks are operating and show that the official policies break international and humanitarian law. Their critiques raise key questions. Where is due process? Where is congressional oversight? If the administration has nothing to hide and insists our drone policy is entirely legal, why not create an open and transparent process for drone use?

Answering those questions would bring the legal debate out of the shadows. But because the Obama administration insists on keeping its drone program mostly secret, the filmmakers at Brave New Foundation have produced an upcoming virtual debate documentary to fill that void.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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