Guest MINDSETTER™ Matt Fecteau: Drones, a Necessary, Justifiable Evil 

Saturday, April 25, 2015


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"We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us." – George Orwell 

In the wake of the recently disclosed killings of two al-Qaeda hostages -- Warren Weinstein, an American, and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto -- it is easy to dismiss the US government’s controversial drone program as ill-advised or even a flawed.

However, with the use of drone strikes, the Obama administration has decimated the ranks of al Qaeda keeping us all safer in the process. 

“History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes”

While the technology is more advanced, we’ve been down this road before.  A drone strike is no different than a bomb dropped in past conflicts with the exception of being far more precise.  

Also, just like in past wars, our intelligence analysts don’t seek to meet certain domestic legal standards -- "probable cause," "beyond a reasonable doubt" or "preponderance of evidence" for example. Intelligence is meant to inform, not to convict someone in a court of law. 

While the bar appears lower, these operations are not taken lightly. Some targeted individuals or compounds can be watched for months on end.  Each strike goes through a methodical process, analyzed by an army of intelligence officials, lawyers, and other personnel to ensure their legality and minimal loss of life.  The strike that took the lives of the two hostages was not specifically targeting any one individual, but was merely targeting an al Qaeda compound in Pakistan. 

While approved by high-ranking-officials, military members and CIA personnel determine actions within the confines of American law, and military doctrine.  Capture is preferable for intelligence, but sometimes the risk outweighs even that. 

A Murky Justification 

The justification for drone strikes is somewhat convoluted.  

Domestically, the President authorizes drone strikes on a seemingly obsolete congressional resolution against terrorists in response to 9/11, entitled the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) Against Terrorists. Sometimes, such as in Syria, the 2003 Iraq war resolution, entitled the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq, is cited. 

In addition, internationally, drone strikes are deemed lawful in accordance with a liberal interpretation of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter which permits preemptive “self-defense.”  In 2001, the United Nations reaffirmed this when it adopted a Security Council Resolution under Chapter VII of its charter. 

Under international and domestic law, even Americans can be targeted with drones if the target is deemed an operational leader, represents an “imminent threat,” and could not be captured.  In 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, met this criteria and was killed in Yemen. 

Sadly, that same year, his 16-year-old son was mistakenly killed during a drone strike while also in Yemen.  While American targets need to meet a higher threshold, Americans can still be unintentional killed if they are in the wrong place, at the wrong time. 

A Political Question

The US District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that, among other things, the drone program remains a political question, and Congress should rein it in if it feels it is not justified.  

Congress does have the ability to investigate the legality of drones such as in 2013 during the Congressional Briefing on drone strikes.

Congress does have oversight as well.  For example, drone footage is viewable by specific members on the intelligence committees and their aides in both the US Senate and House. From this footage, members of Congress can determine whether targeted killings were lawful.  

If Congress deems the strikes inappropriate, they could pass an authorization making it illegal to conduct drone strikes, rescind the existing authorization, or cut funding.  

Fewer Boots 

While drones do have some serious drawbacks, they also have some advantages. While civilians are sadly killed, drone strikes minimize the loss of life, risk fewer American lives, and we no longer have to engage in a messy conventional war.  

While I encourage a rigorous debate, there are people in this world that want to do us profound harm. The drone program is not without fault, but it is the nearest thing possible to ensure American interests are protected without putting American troops at risk.

An Insider’s Account

On the military side, I’ve witnessed a number of strikes. The US government does everything reasonable to ensure there is limited or no collateral damage. As evident by this recent strike, it is impossible to eliminate the risk to civilians.

The loss of life is tragic, and should not be taken lightly, but we are fighting against an atrocious enemy that knows no limits. Unlike the people we are fighting, the US government does its best to prevent the loss of life.  Sadly, as we just witnessed, sometimes that is simply not enough. 

Hopefully, the time will come when drone strikes are no longer needed, but until that time, they will remain a necessary evil in our fight against those who seek to do us harm.  

We should mourn the loss of the hostages, but the blood is not on our hands.  It will remain on the hands of those who use them as shields to wage some distorted, perverted war against our country in the name of god. 

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Matt Fecteau ([email protected]), of Pawtucket, lost to U.S. Rep. David Cicilline in last year’s Democratic primary. He was a White House national security intern and captain in the US Army with two tours to Iraq. Twitter: @MatthewFecteau


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