It's taken a few years, but finally Obama's fetish for drones has been outed. It is critical that what follows is an open and transparent debate over the place of these tools of extra-judicial killing, particulary because it seems everyone's getting them.     

Finally drones are up for discussion. Forget that it took another Senate confirmation hearing and another strategically leaked document to get the drone-chat buzzing. The point is that one of the most insidious, clandestine, terrorist-creating developments in America’s so-called ‘War on Terror’ (yes its back in beltway parlance) is up for scrutiny.

Ah, the morality of drone warfare. Big topic.

Are drones any more moral or immoral than dropping large bombs, causing huge collateral (read human) damage, and perhaps missing the intended target?

Is it better to execute suspects  - note ‘suspects’ - and thereby avoid all that pesky paperwork that comes with arrest, trial and detention?

Is there a danger that when the operator who triggers the drone’s kill capability is completely removed from the theatre of the ‘war’, that killing becomes as easy as playing a video game? It is asymmetrical warfare where the bloody horror of war is no longer in play for the aggressor, only for those who live with the constant buzzing of drones above, the menacing shadow and then the lethal force.

The leaked undated, unsigned “white paper” which provides the US political administration with the legal justifications for using drones to kill has really not provided any big surprises in its content, in that Obama was certain to have had legal justifications sorted for the 300 or so drone strikes he’s authorized in his tenure so far. 

It’s pretty disturbing to realise that his legal advice is no less self-serving than that of the Bush administration’s for the water-boarding and other ‘enhanced interrogation‘ methods used at Guantanamo.

Even more disturbing is the foreign policy legacy of the self-professed liberal, humanitarian, equality-loving Obama’s is in danger of becoming that he managed to out-drone all other contenders. Not sure if that’s what the Nobel Peace people had in mind.

The white paper makes it very clear that the “President has authority to respond to the imminent threat posed by al-Qa’ida and its associated forces”; can use drones when “capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible”; and the drone operation is “conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law or war principles” - whatever they may be interpreted to be.

Note there is no requirement for evidence, or even intelligence, that a target is actively involved in a plot against America.  

What has alarmed Americans is that these powers allow the President to kill not just foreigners, but to kill American citizens, should they be suspected of being Al-Qa’ida operatives.

And that’s the bit that gets me.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a problem with the American President killing non-American citizens who MAY be plotting against the US. But kill an American citizen. Surely, some groups cried, Americans should know when their President can order their death.

Well the white paper sets that out for them. If a high level advisor to the President considers a person, even an American citizen, to be posing an imminent threat to the US, it is curtains. Death by bureaucracy as opposed to courts or courts martial has entered the building.

Drone fans argue in favour of the surgical precision vs that of conventional warfare, and that drones save truck-loads in American blood and treasure. Better to lose 5 - 10 family members of a suspected militant than 5 - 10 US troops on the ground. 

There can be no doubt drones are genies well and truly out of the bottle, with about 70 countries now boasting some form of drone technology.

The US is still king of the killer drones, but that won’t last for long. As with all war toys, from rifles to nuclear bombs, it’s all about catch-up.

The UN is so concerned with the threat drones pose to legal and operational structures of war, adherence to international law, human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international refugee law, it has launched an inquiry into US, British and Israeli targeted killings by drone. The ‘theatres‘ of these killings are not conventional war zones, because that’s the thing - drones are a way of killing even when there is no symmetrical war going on. The UN inquiry is investigating drone deaths in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Gaza Strip. No surprise Israel is refusing to co-operate with the inquiry. 

What is dangerous is the US use of drones in areas that are not conventional war zones has become established precedent for others who justify everything in the name of security. No questions permitted.

And that’s the good thing about the leaked white paper.

Finally, the incredibly secretive Obama administration has been outed on its killer drone fetish.

Ideally what should follow is some serious move to introduce oversight of the bureaucracy. Obama may be considered closer to the ‘trust’ end of the spectrum. Presidents to follow may not be. 

At this week’s Congressional hearing for the likely new CIA boss John Brennan, the candidate acknowledged there should have been more transparency surrounding the actual targets of drones, as well as those civilians who have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Brennan also declared he’s more in favour of capturing terrorists alive than obliterating them. My suspicion is he will need to be reminded of that once he’s in the big spy chair.

When he’s there, Brennan is also going to find that America has a big problem on its horizon.

It seems to have no difficulty in executing those it considers a threat to US security.

What will its reaction be when another country, or indeed a non-state actor with drone technology of its own, decides America and its propensity to ignore the sovereign borders of others is actually a major threat itself?

What’s sauce for the goose and all that. Just saying...

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