US drone killings: 'a secret war governed by secret law'?

A task force of former top Pentagon officials concludes that US 'heavy reliance' on targeted killings for counterterrorism 'risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts.'

Few modern US national security developments have been as controversial as the growing government reliance on drones, which, “used foolishly,” have the potential to dramatically endanger American interests, cautions a group of former top Pentagon officials in a new report released Thursday.

Among the chief concerns of critics – and even some supporters – of the program is that the “largely covert campaign of targeted killing” has created a “secret war governed by secret law,” says the Task Force on US Drone Policy, co-chaired by retired Gen. John Abizaid, former head of US Central Command, the US military entity responsible for running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

The task force is composed of a number of former administration insiders, including the former legal adviser to the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, who issue a stark warning. “We are concerned that the Obama administration’s heavy reliance on targeted killings as a pillar of US counterterrorism strategy rests on questionable assumptions, and risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts.”

The report wrestles with the same concerns that were raised earlier this week when a federal court released the Justice Department memorandum justifying the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, in Yemen. “There is no precedent directly addressing the question in circumstances such as those present here,” then-acting chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, David Barron, wrote in the July 16, 2010, memo.

It was a memo that itself set a dangerous precedent, critics of US drone strategy argue, when it reasoned that killing Mr. Awalaki without an arrest or trial was justified because he posed an “imminent threat” to the US.

Indeed, the American government takes the view that it has a legal right to use force in foreign sovereign states when these states are “unwilling or unable” to take what the US considers to be “appropriate action” to eliminate “imminent threats,” reports the Stimson Center, which convened the panel.

But this argument has created a troubling “slippery slope,” since “inevitably, assessments of what constitutes an imminent threat to the United States and what would constitute appropriate action are somewhat subjective in nature,” the report adds.

True, most US military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are not weaponized, and only “a tiny fraction” of US government drone missions involve lethal strikes outside of traditionally defined battlefields such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the report’s authors note. 

That said, UAVs are “a technology, not a strategy,” Janine Davidson, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for plans from 2009 to 2012, said in a briefing to introduce the report Thursday morning.

US policy to date could cause serious problems in global stability going forward, leading to “continual or wider wars,” the authors add. ”The seemingly low-risk and low-cost missions enabled by UAV technologies may encourage the United States to fly such missions more often, pursuing targets with UAVs that would be deemed not worth pursuing if manned aircraft or special operations forces had to be put at risk.”

The US, after all, does not have a monopoly on these technologies, they note. “Adversarial states may be quicker to use force against American UAVs than against US manned aircraft or military personnel.” For this reason “UAVs also create an escalation risk insofar as they may lower the bar to enter a conflict,” the report concludes, “without increasing the likelihood of a satisfactory outcome.” 

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