Friday, April 2, 2010

Droning on..

In an interesting Oct. '09 New Yorker article (The mag with the top-hat wearin' monocle wielding sophisticate as its banner), Jane Mayer discusses the increased reliance on drone killings in our war against AQ, noting some moral and legal questions that arise. Some excerpts with thoughts:

The drone program, for all its tactical successes, has stirred deep ethical concerns. Michael Walzer, a political philosopher and the author of the book “Just and Unjust Wars,” says that he is unsettled by the notion of an intelligence agency wielding such lethal power in secret. “Under what code does the C.I.A. operate?” he asks. “I don’t know. The military operates under a legal code, and it has judicial mechanisms.” He said of the C.I.A.’s drone program, “There should be a limited, finite group of people who are targets, and that list should be publicly defensible and available. Instead, it’s not being publicly defended. People are being killed, and we generally require some public justification when we go about killing people.”

Parsing this, the claims seem to boil down to:

1, The CIA strikes are carried out in 'secret'.

2. They are carried out by an intelligence agency, not a military organization.

3. There is no public argument justifying the attacks, either before or after the attacks.

4. There is no oversight.

5. There is no legal code used to justify the attacks.

6. Drone attacks should be used only against leadership level enemy.

Taking these from the top:

By "in secret" he means to say that the strikes are not publicized until afterwards. This is obviously the case, not only with drone strikes, but in conventional military operations, and special operations as well. Why is this particular case of secrecy so morally problematic for Walzer?

That would seem to lead us to look further down the list. So, howz about # (2)? The CIA consists of civilian employees, and it makes use of civilian contractors. It is also an organization that must maintain a high level of operational secrecy in order to serve its function. Once again, this is not unique to the CIA, but is essential to conventional military success as well. Perhaps the worry is that civilians are not covered by laws that would punish misuses of force, or by codes of honor or conduct. CIA employees do swear to defend the Constitution, just as military personnel do. They are covered by law as well. It may not be the UCMJ, but they are covered by domestic law at least, treaty most likely. All of this provides strictures on conduct, which presumably should comfort Walzer's concerns.

So, I'm still not all to clear about what the uniquely problematic thing is here. Well, OK, that brings us to (3):

There can be no robust and open public discussion of the targets nor the reasoning behind choice of targets because that would, well, tip 'em off, wouldn't it? Once again, this is not something unique to CIA drone-based missile deliveries. The robust discussions of such strikes, and battles and strategies of war inevitably happen afterwards. Once again, where's the problem? So, how about #(4)? Is it the nub?

No oversight? Does Walzer mean Congressional oversight? If so, how does he know there is none? (To be fair he says he 'doesn't know.') Still, he should ask himself a question: with the track record of legal challenges to CIA, does it seem more likely, or less likely that there is a robust though secret process that includes Congressional input?

As we have seen in the EIT case, contrary to much of the overheated rhetoric, there is probably such oversight. We cannot know for certain without compromising the secrecy, and thus the effectiveness. What is more, knowing they will eventually declassify, the CIA no doubt has an eye toward passing a more public justification when that time comes. Moral philosophers will just have to wait.

But, once again, this isn't even that peculiar to the CIA. Military operations often fit this description. Why is this particular action, by this particular agency seen as prima-facie more problematic?

How about (5)? On its face, it is simply false. The justifications for use of drone attacks I contend, are the same as, indeed identical to our justifications for self defense, and cover or morally ground both military and covert actions taken either unilaterally or with allies.

Which leads to a final point about these claims, vis (6): What is the argument that drone attacks should only target "some" of our enemy? (I assume Walzer intends to nominate the leadership of AQ). There is an argument for the contrary of this position:

Due to the highly successful use of surprise, the very low non-combatant to combatant fatality ratio, the considerably lower rate of risk and casualty for U.S. military personnel, and the low yield and precision nature of the armaments used, there should be increased use of CIA and military drone attacks when fighting with all levels of groups like AQ. This will also have the effect of hurrying the demise of our enemies in this way: The attacks more broadly conceived, not only decapitate, but also eliminate those that would replace the decapitated before they can take vacated positions. There should be no limitation of targeting only to the leadership.

And now on to next bit of this story that piqued interest, with responses:

Since 2004, Philip Alston, an Australian human-rights lawyer who has served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, has repeatedly tried, but failed, to get a response to basic questions about the C.I.A.’s program—first from the Bush Administration, and now from Obama’s. When he asked, in formal correspondence, for the C.I.A.’s legal justifications for targeted killings, he says, “they blew me off.” (A C.I.A. spokesperson told me that the agency “uses lawful, highly accurate, and effective tools and tactics to take the fight to Al Qaeda and its violent allies. That careful, precise approach has brought major success against a very dangerous and deadly enemy.”) Alston then presented a critical report on the drone program to the U.N. Human Rights Council, but, he says, the U.S. representatives ignored his concerns.

Alston describes the C.I.A. program as operating in “an accountability void,” adding, “It’s a lot like the torture issue. You start by saying we’ll just go after the handful of 9/11 masterminds. But, once you’ve put the regimen for waterboarding and other techniques in place, you use it much more indiscriminately. It becomes standard operating procedure. It becomes all too easy. Planners start saying, ‘Let’s use drones in a broader context.’ Once you use targeting less stringently, it can become indiscriminate.”

One wonders on what empirical basis does Alston's "critical report" stand if he was unable to extract information from either administration. Also, on what basis does he say that there is an "accountability void"? No doubt his organization has not been given the privilege of providing accountability, but does it follow that there is no accountability at all? Look, the Detroit Lions never submit their draft picks for my critique and approval before they make their picks, but it does not follow from that fact that there is no critique and accountability in the Detroit Lions organization...er...wait, perhaps not the best analogy to make..Strike that.

As for the slippery slope argument proffered in the last bit of that paragraph, as we now know, water boarding never went down that slip n' slide as the Special Rapporteur for the Cliched Argument contends. Exactly three people were water boarded, all AQ leadership. There was also extensive oversight of the program.

And, even if it were the case that utilization of EIT is morally wrong, and is prone to slippin' and a slidin', it does not follow that use of drone attacks is either morally wrong or prone to that same slippin' and a slidin'.

Friday funnies; An army of one?


From a friend in the Marine Corp.


I will not make any disparaging comments due to my flabby (but not rotund) civilian desk jockey physique. I will not open myself up to tu coque counter-attacks.


No doubt this will be put in the bank for Army Navy week 2010.

What brought on this viscous inter-service attack? This story from the Great White North, brought to you courtesy of Wired's Danger Room:

A Medal for Canada’s Frontline Donut-Vendors?