Drone warfare, once a topic of widespread pubic debate in America, has been placed on the mental backburners of most of the US public. A Pew poll in 2015 found that “Fifty-eight percent of respondents expressed approval of U.S. drone strikes, while only 35 percent disapproved. This included nearly three-fourths of Republicans, slightly more than half of Democrats, and 56 percent of independents.” Perhaps the slow burnout of the public debate around this issue marks a tacit approval.
With the presidential election in full swing and the field narrowed to the final three candidates, it’s worth asking a question that the public isn’t, currently: What will happen to President Obama’s so-called “Kill List,” and to America’s drone warfare policy more generally, once he leaves office?
The short answer is: Well, nothing.
The Intercept, which has reported on Obama’s Kill List extensively, describes Obama’s Kill List thusly:
“U.S. intelligence personnel collect information on potential targets… drawn from government watchlists and the work of intelligence, military, and law enforcement agencies… when someone was destined for the kill list, intelligence analysts created a portrait of a suspect and the threat that person posed, pulling it together ‘in a condensed format known as a ‘baseball card.’ That information was then bundled with operational information and packaged in a ‘target information folder’ to be ‘staffed up to higher echelons’ for action. On average, it took 58 days for the president to sign off on a target… At that point, U.S. forces had 60 days to carry out the strike.”
The program has little-to-no transparency in its decision making apparatus, and has even been called an extra-judicial assassination program, given the lack of due process provided to the targets, who in the past have included U.S. citizens.
There are many controversial aspects of American drone policy, but two in particular stand out: first, “signature strikes,” which according to U.S. authorities, target “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.” The New York Times reported that some in the Obama administration joke that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” they think it is a terrorist training camp.
When the CIA allegedly carried out its first targeted drone killing in February 2002, in Afghanistan, it killed three men near a former mujahedeen base called Zhawar Kili. In the aftermath of the strike, however, authorities appeared not to know who they had killed. A Pentagon spokeswoman stated, “We’re convinced that it was an appropriate target,” but added, “[w]e do not know yet exactly who it was.”
A 2009 study by the Brookings Institute estimates that, along with the 2,000-plus militants killed by drones in Pakistan, perhaps more than 470 non-militants have been killed. More recently, in March of 2016, drones and other warplanes bombed an al-Shabab training camp in Somalia and killed about 150 alleged militants who were gathered at a graduation ceremony. Yet U.S. officials privately acknowledged that they didn’t know the identities of those they killed.
Sense a trend?
It’s made all the more troubling by the administration’s policy of classifying those killed in drone strikes as militants unless there is evidence posthumously produced which proves their innocence. One can only imagine the difficulties of doing so, and how this dramatically decreases the publicly-admitted number of civilian deaths, true or not.
Despite all this, there has been little outcry from the remaining presidential candidates on the matter.
In an April 2016 town hall, Chris Hayes questioned Bernie Sanders about the practice:
“HAYES: The current authorization which you cite in what Miguel just quoted which is the authorization to use military force after 9/11. That has led to the kill list. This President — literally, there is a kill list. There is a list of people that the U.S. government wants to kill, and it goes about doing it. Would you keep the kill list as President of the United States?
SANDERS: Look. Terrorism is a very serious issue. There are people out there who want to kill Americans, who want to attack this country, and I think we have a lot of right to defend ourselves. I think as Miguel said, though, it has to be done in a constitutional, legal way.
HAYES: Do you think what’s being done now is constitutional and legal?
SANDERS: In general I do, yes.”
The other Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, was involved in these sorts of strikes herself and saw them ramp up during her time as secretary of state. In her book Hard Choices, notes that drone strikes are “one of the most effective and controversial elements of the Obama Administration’s strategy against al Qaeda and like-minded terrorists.” She has also pinned herself to Obama this election cycle, painting her candidacy as a continuation of many of his policies, signaling little incentive for her to change our approach to drone strikes now.
Finally, there’s Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has expressed a desire to expand the military and kill innocent people in order to combat terrorism. As Glenn Greenwald notes, these views are not necessarily extreme relative to current U.S. foreign policy under President Obama: The Intercept reported that nearly 90 percent of people killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan over a five-month period “were not the intended targets”.
In 2014 Pew released a global poll that found that majorities in 39 countries disapproved of American drone attacks. The only three countries that showed more than half of respondents supporting the tactic were Israel, Kenya and the U.S.
Nowhere did any level support match the level of opposition found in countries such as Venezuela and Jordan, where disapproval topped 90 percent. Some of the places polled where the majority disapproved of strikes included our allies such as South Korea, Japan, the UK, and France.
Given the negative view of drone attacks aboard, the large number of innocents killed, and the secretive nature of the program driving them, it’s surprising that candidates come under so little scrutiny for supporting the practice — and, perhaps, that they ever supported it in the first place.
Photo: A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper taxis down an Afghanistan runway Nov. 4. The Reaper has flown 49 combat sorties since it first began operating in Afghanistan Sept. 25. It completed its first combat strike Oct. 27, when it fired a Hellfire missile over Deh Rawod, Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson