Americans Aren’t Drone Targets. They’re Collateral Damage.

Science, technology, and life.
March 11 2013 8:44 AM

How Drones Kill Americans

They don’t target citizens in the United States. They kill them overseas as collateral damage.

An MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.
An MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan

Photo by Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt/AP

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

For the past week, Washington has been consumed by nutty fantasies about drones. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., waged a 13-hour filibuster, ranting that President Obama might unilaterally send unmanned aircraft to kill innocent Americans in their own country. Other senators, Republican House leaders, conservative pundits, and right-wing demagogues encouraged this lunacy. It’s a complete misunderstanding of how drones work and what we should be asking about them.

If you want to understand drones, tune out the rants. Read well-sourced reports about how the United States government actually prepares, justifies, and executes drone strikes. The best such report in quite a while is Sunday’s 3,600-word investigative story in the New York Times about the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born al-Qaida operative. The story—based, according to the Times, on “interviews with three dozen current and former legal and counterterrorism officials and outside experts”—punctures several myths about the drone program. But it also raises deeper and more difficult questions about how targets are chosen and justified. Here’s what we can learn from it.

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1. Captures are more useful than kills. The paranoid vision of Obama sending drones to terminate U.S. citizens at home assumes the government would rather kill targets than capture them. Granted, the administration has argued—a bit too conveniently—that drone strikes are OK because if we tried to capture our targets instead, our troops might die. But that’s overseas. In this country, we have better options. The Times story details how a terrorist captured here, underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, gave us important information under interrogation, including Awlaki’s role in the bomb plot. Two years ago, even though Awlaki was in Yemen, largely beyond the reach of our government or Yemen’s, Yemeni security forces searched house to house in a village where he was thought to be hiding. They didn’t find him. But the episode suggests we do try to capture targets, even in enemy-infested countries where we can’t easily deploy troops.

2. Drone warfare is an intelligence operation. In the paranoid vision, drones hover above us, targeting defenseless humans. But drones can’t do much by themselves. Even if they weren’t operated by human pilots—which they are—they need humans to feed them intelligence. The Times reports that long after White House lawyers had approved Awlaki for lethal targeting, the U.S. government had no idea where to find him. The CIA, the National Security Agency, the military, and Saudi agents had to hack into computers, monitor cellphones, and recruit spies within al-Qaida and other militant networks. It took the CIA more than a year to get the tip that led to the fatal strike.

When the intelligence is bad, the results are bad. Two weeks after Awlaki died, a second strike killed his son, who was also a U.S. citizen. The kid was 16 years old and had no record of terrorism. The Times says this wasn’t deliberate: The strike was based on erroneous intelligence that an Egyptian al-Qaida operative was at the site. That’s one reason why the CIA, a spy agency, runs the drone warfare program against al-Qaida: The intel is crucial. At his confirmation hearing last month, John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee for CIA director, said the CIA should be less involved in military operations. But it was Brennan, according to the Times, who, as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, put the CIA in charge of hunting down Awlaki.

3. Don’t believe anything you hear from foreign governments about drones. By now, everyone knows the Pakistani government lies about drone strikes in its frontier provinces, even to the point of blaming drones for strikes they had nothing to do with. Now you can add other governments to the list of frauds. According to the Times, Yemen permitted drone strikes “as long as the United States did not acknowledge its role.” Similarly, “Saudi officials had given the CIA permission to build [a drone] base on the condition that the kingdom’s role was masked.”

4. Some of Obama’s secret legal memos are half-baked. For months, members of Congress have asked to see memos from Obama’s Office of Legal Counsel that outline the lawfulness of the administration’s targeting policies. The White House has been stonewalling them. Why? One reason may be that some of the memos are defective early drafts. The Times says that after Obama’s lawyers wrote their first memo, they discovered by reading a blog that they hadn’t taken into account a federal law that seemed to prohibit drone strikes on American citizens abroad. The lawyers had to dig up a court ruling that construed the law in their favor. They addressed the troublesome law and the ruling in a second memo.

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