The CIA and the military use drones to drop bombs on our suspected enemies and no one denies that innocent people have been killed in the process. The only debate is how many.
It is hard to know how many civilians have been killed, in part because we don’t always know who we are killing. The CIA conducts certain strikes called ‘signature strikes’ in which an individual is targeted based on ‘defining characteristics.’ Even more troubling, our government defines ‘any male of fighting age’ as a combatant in order to gain more latitude in whom it can target for such strikes.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the United States has killed as many as 1,105 innocent civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia alone. This includes as many as 213 children. According to The New York Times, the United Nations will establish a unit to investigate American drone strikes next year.
The current Administration’s response to questions about this program has been ‘trust us.’ The White House claims that the strikes are legal, but refuses to provide the memos which it uses as its legal framework. In addition to Congress’ responsibility to provide checks and balances, Congress has a responsibility to defend our national security.
A recent article in The New York Times revealed that there is no clear set of rules determining the use of targeted killings – the attacks are left to the judgment of the President and his advisors – and that this current Administration agrees that whether the attacks are appropriate is a matter of trust.
According to this article in the Times the Administration rushed to create a legal framework before the new year out of fear that a different administration might be in charge. The Times quotes one official explaining, ‘There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands.’
The reality is that such rules already exist under the laws of war and international law. The United States conducts attacks in foreign countries that we are not at war with and in which innocent civilians are killed.
How long can a democracy last with a foreign policy based on assassination without oversight?
Thus far, it’s been about ten years.