How Drones Are Turning Politics in Washington Topsy Turvy

It's become accepted wisdom that Washington has become pathologically polarized and partisan, with every new debate inevitably breaking down along party lines. That's why it was so remarkable last week when Rand Paul's old-fashioned talking filibuster scrambled the even more old-fashioned right-vs.-left way of looking at the world. The Paul-provoked debate on the confirmation of John Brennan to head the CIA in turn provoked a wider and critical debate about the use of drones -- a debate that needs to continue well beyond Brennan's confirmation.

It's an issue Brennan has been heavily involved with. In February, Paul had sent Brennan a letter asking: "Do you believe that the president has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil?"

A few weeks later, Attorney General Holder replied with a letter that stated:

The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no president will ever have to confront. It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.

And so Paul took to the floor to mount the first talking filibuster since 2010, when Bernie Sanders mounted one against the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

"When I asked the president, 'Can you kill an American on American soil,' it should have been an easy answer," said Paul. He continued:

It's an easy question. It should have been a resounding an unequivocal, "No." The president's response? He hasn't killed anyone yet. We're supposed to be comforted by that. The president says, "I haven't killed anyone yet." He goes on to say, "And I have no intention of killing Americans. But I might." Is that enough? Are we satisfied by that?

Democrat Ron Wyden soon joined the filibuster. "The executive branch should not be allowed to conduct such a serious and far-reaching program by themselves without any scrutiny because that's not how American democracy works," said Wyden. "That's not what our system is about."

On the other side of the aisle, Lindsey Graham called the idea of the U.S. using drones to kill American citizens on U.S. soil "ridiculous" and said the controversy was the result of "paranoia between the libertarians and the hard left that is unjustified," while his frequent ally John McCain, went the other way,calling Paul and fellow filibusterers "wacko birds" (which sounds like a good name for a cereal). Right vs. left was suddenly scrambled.

Not surprisingly, the poles of the debate were only partially dislodged from party affiliation, as Wyden was the only Democrat to join Paul -- though Democrats Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley, along with Independent Bernie Sanders, did ultimately vote against Brennan. It's hard to imagine that if an attorney general for President Bush had said the same thing as Holder did that this many Democrats would have remained silent. Nor, of course, did this many Republicans speak out for civil liberties when the president asserting his right to limit them had an (R) by his name.

But even if the terms of the debate on drones were only partially rearranged, it was still a step in the right direction. The scrambling of the debate continued at least to week's end, as I found out when I appeared onReal Time. My old friend Bill Maher agreed that drones were overused, but then went on:

"That's not to say that all drone attacks are bad. I mean, some people do need killing. It's like what I say about the death penalty: 'Let's just kill the right people.'" After I pointed out that, in fact, the analogy doesn't quite hold, since the administration is "killing civilians, again and again," Bill replied:

Yeah, but you know what, if you were president, you'd do the same thing. Once you get to be president, they take you into a little room, they tell you about all the bad guys in the world that you and I don't know about. And that's your chief job, is to protect people. I know it's bad, and we do bad things, but you know it's a bad world.

We need to stop framing the debate as a question of national security vs. human rights. Those in favor of drone strikes have simply assumed for themselves the national security position. From their perspective, it's unquestionable that drones make us safer, so those arguing against them a) don't care about protecting us, and b) must come up with some other -- and softer -- rationale for their opposition. The problem is that this line of reasoning just isn't true.

Yes, there are certainly human rights grounds on which to oppose our current drone policy, but let's leave these aside for the moment and focus on the national security grounds -- i.e. that the use of drones in fact creates more enemies than it eliminates.

So, yes, if I were president (which would be illegal, as I have a small "birther" problem), my paramount concern would be protecting Americans from "the bad guys." And that's why our current policy is so terrible. And that's also why it's important not just to continue the debate from last week but to widen it. Until Paul vs. Holder, the debate was largely about drone use overseas. Bringing the question to the U.S. definitely served to heighten the legal arguments, but the questions we are facing with the use of drones overseas are anything but "hypothetical."

First, there's the right/left-scrambling statistic that President Obama has authorized six times more drone strikes than President Bush -- his 300th was on December 1st of last year. And what kind of national security return are we getting for all those aerial attacks? Since 2004, only 2 percent of those killed have been confirmed as militant leaders.

Even more sobering were numbers from a study by professors from NYU and Stanford last year. Relying on data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, they found that from mid-2004 to mid-2012, between 474 and 881 civilians were killed in Pakistan. This includes 176 children. The study's authors vividly describe life under drones:

Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The U.S. practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. ... Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school.

Robert Greenwald made a powerful video about the study. The result of life under drones, says Stanford professor and study co-author James Caravallo, is "symptoms of psychological disorder, of trauma, of severe anxiety, and dysfunctionality." And while "we may not have declared war on Pakistan, the people living in Northwest Pakistan under drones," might as well be "in a war zone."

And when people feel like war has been declared on them, they tend to mirror the feeling back. "Every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement," former advisor to General David Petraeus David Kilcullen is quoted as saying in the Greenwald video. It is a sentiment echoed by a mental health professional also quoted in the video:

"The biggest concern I have ... is that when children grow up, the kinds of images they will have with them. People who have experienced such things, they don't trust people. They have anger, desire for revenge."

As Caravallo points out, for many of the people living under drones, the strikes are essentially acting as our ambassadors: "one of the things we heard from several people is that they didn't know what America was before drones. And now what they know of America is drones, death and terror."

And sooner or later, it will come back to haunt us. As Greenwald told me:

Blowback can be an abstract concept, but my trip to Pakistan ... brought it home to me. As person after person recounted the killing of their innocent child, mother, or friend, the blowback concept rang loud and clear. People who never had a grudge with the U.S., who barely knew about 9/11, who lived in economically and geographically isolated areas, were now sworn enemies of our country, with the goal of revenge for someone they loved killed by the drones.

Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times last year that "drones have replaced Guantanamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants." According to a Pew Foundation poll, 74 percent of Pakistanis consider the U.S. to be an enemy, and only 17 percent support drone strikes even if they're against extremist leaders and carried out in collaboration with the Pakistani government. "What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world," said retired General Stanley McChrystal in January. "The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes ... is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one."

Visceral-level hate -- not exactly an effective "hearts and minds" strategy. In Iraq, it finally became conventional wisdom -- except by the "wacko bird" dead-enders -- that we couldn't win with a military strategy alone. But this kind of thinking has yet to penetrate the conventional wisdom on drones. We euphemistically call them "targeted strikes" but the collateral damage they inflict is political as well as human.

"It is a faulty policy that is a flagrant display of American hypocrisy in predominantly Muslim countries, where we need public support," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Rohde. "Muslim moderates who yearn for the rule of law are our potential allies. In the end, only they, not U.S. soldiers, have the power to eradicate militancy."

Even more disturbing is how little any of this is understood -- or even acknowledged -- by those whom we're supposed to trust to oversee the strikes.

In June 2011, John Brennan ludicrously claimed that "there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we've been able to develop." He later amended this to say that "due to our discretion and precision, the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq." Unfortunately, that was just as ludicrous.

As Micah Zenko writes:

... there were many public reports -- from Pakistani and Yemeni reporters and anonymous administration officials -- of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes. Either Brennan did not receive the same reports of civilian casualties as other administration officials did (an implausible notion), he lacks Internet access to read these anonymous comments (equally implausible because Brennan closely responds to critics of targeted killings in his following media appearances), or he was lying.

Brennan also claimed that "contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that [drone strikes] are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula]. In fact, we see the opposite."

Wrong again. Replies Zenko:

There is also a strong correlation between targeted killings in Yemen since December 2009 -- primarily conducted by U.S. drones -- and increased anger toward the United States and sympathy or allegiance to AQAP. In 2010, the Obama administration described AQAP as "several hundred al Qaeda members"; two years later, it increased to "more than a thousand members." Now, AQAP has a "few thousand members." After a drone strike reportedly killed 13 civilians in early September, Yemeni activist Nasr Abdullah noted: "I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake."

And Brennan is now in charge of the CIA-led strikes. The denial has been just as strong in Congress. Early last month, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein claimed that civilian deaths "each year typically have been in the single digits." How does she know this? Because, she claimed, "for the past several years, this committee has done significant oversight of the government's conduct of targeted strikes" and done its "utmost to confirm" the claims made by the administration.

And what does "significant oversight" and "utmost" effort look like? Not much. "All monitoring groups report higher than 'single digit' fatalities for most years," writes the Bureau of Investigative Justice. "The Bureau presently estimates that at least 411 civilians have been killed by the CIA in Pakistan since 2004."

And yet, the Bureau continues, "[we] can find no indication that either the House or Senate intelligence committees have sought evidence from beyond the US intelligence community, when following up claims of civilian deaths."

For instance, NYU Professor Sarah Knuckey, co-author of the NYU/Stanford report, says she's never been contacted. "If the commitments are serious," she said to the Bureau, "why haven't officials followed up with the organizations and journalists who investigated strikes and collected information relevant to determining any civilian harm?"

Why, indeed.

President Obama often points to ways in which his feelings for his daughters have informed the way he thinks about an issue. As when he said, after the Travyon Martin shooting, "When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids."

It's too bad he doesn't extend that to the 176 children killed by drone strikes, many of which were personally authorized by him. If it did, the feelings that would arise might help him see how the strategy that led to their deaths is disastrous for national security.

It's great that the conversation has, in a way, come home to America. Last week's debate allowed Americans to put themselves in the position of those living under drones overseas -- imagining, even hypothetically, life under drones. And, not surprisingly, most of us didn't like it.

So do drone strikes make us more safe or less safe? Those in favor of them, especially those ordering them and charged with their oversight, seem to think the answer is so obvious that it needs no justification. Maybe this is because they won't even acknowledge the facts in the first place. And, as we saw in Iraq, the combination of refusing to look at the facts, along with allowing claims of national security to go unquestioned, can be toxic.

Arguing against drone strikes on the basis of their legality is certainly important, but there's no reason to cede the national security card to the pro-droners. Even those who care deeply about civil liberties need to push back against the idea that this is a tradeoff between civil liberties and our safety. The drone debate may have ended on the Senate floor, but let's keep it going everywhere else.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.