Drones have dangerously loose restrictions

Our government has no right to kill or monitor civilians

  The United States has, over the past six years, increased its use of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to spy, surveil or even attack the Middle East. Most recently they have been bombing Pakistan, and Ben Emmerson, a U.N. special reporter on human rights and counter terrorism, took a “secret research trip” that was almost immediately leaked.

   In one of his interviews, he commented, “The Pakistani government made clear to me that it does not consent to the strikes.”

How could they? The Pakistani government also said that “… eight out of 10 people killed in U.S. drone strikes are civilians.” In that case, how could they consent to the killing of innocents to eliminate the other two out of 10 Taliban or Al-qaeda renegades?

President Obama is reluctant to talk about how he uses drones to kill suspected militants. Explanations about who gets picked for death-by-drone and who does the picking are not clearly stated. Just a few days ago, for example, Obama blew off a local Cincinnati television reporter who asked the president about his “kill list.” He did, however release which “criteria” qualify. Obama said, “1: It has to be a target that is authorised by our laws. 2: It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative. 3: It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States. 4: We’ve got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties. 5: That while there is a legal justification for us to try and stop [American citizens] from carrying out plots … they are subject to the protections of the Constitution and due process.”

Evan Fairbanks cartoon

At least two of those five points appear to be half-truths at best. In both Yemen and Pakistan, our government allows the CIA to launch a strike based on the target’s signature, whether he appears to act or look like a terrorist. “Intelligence analysts don’t even have to know the target’s name, let alone whether he’s planning to attack the U.S. In some cases, merely being a military-aged male at the wrong place at the wrong time is enough to justify your death,” said Micah Zenko, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

I want to elaborate on number four from Obama’s qualification list. The president said that they are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties, but it is said that eight out of 10 people killed in drone attacks are civilians. In total, it is estimated that between 2008 and now, drones have killed or injured up to 2,243 civilians, some American.

When Jessica Yellin, an American television journalist,  pressed further, asking Obama if he himself made the ultimate decisions about who should live and who should die. Obama contravened, saying, “I’ve got to be careful here. These are classified issues … I can’t get too deeply into how these things work.” Obama and his administration are trying their hardest to keep the idea that the drones are only killing the targets they are focusing on blurred and hidden. U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon of New York, ruling in lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times, said she “… is caught in a ‘paradoxical situation’ of allowing the administration to claim it was legal to kill enemies outside traditional combat zones while keeping the legal rational secret.” She later added, “… this court is constrained by law, and under the law, I can only conclude that the government has not violated FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) by refusing to turn over the documents sought in the FOIA requests, and, therefore, the government cannot be compelled by this court of law to explain in detail the reasons why its actions do not violate the Constitution and laws of the United States.

The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me, but after careful and extensive consideration, I find myself stuck in a paradoxical situation in which I cannot solve a problem because of contradictory constraints and rules — a veritable catch-22. I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret,” U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon said. Yet again the United States is allowed to shroud the public from a taboo subject.

A man named Andrew Sullivan defended the public when he spoke to the Supreme Court. “I’ve defended the drone program as the least worst way of fighting a real enemy, as long as it is restrained and takes extraordinary pains to avoid civilian casualties, but I can see no rationale for the citizenry to be forbidden from knowing the terms on which the president can assassinate one of them. One would think that is a pretty basic principle for the American polity,” Sullivan said. “Was this country founded on resistance to a monarch only to give the

power to assassinate an American citizen to one person – with no transparency at all?”

Mr. Sullivan is correct, in my opinion, that we as a people should be as involved in this kind of politic. Wasn’t the country based on a democratic system where the people were supposed to have a good amount of leverage of say in the dealings of the government?

A scary prospect is that the U.S. government has the authority to use deadly force against U.S. citizens. A “white paper,” written by unidentified lawyers and other officials state, “Targeting a member of an enemy force who poses an imminent threat of violent attack to the United States is not unlawful. It is a lawful act of national self-defence.”

People in the Obama administration justify these targeted killings on post-9/11 laws. A congressional law, called The Authorization for Use of Military Force 2001 states, “The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” That has been further expanded to any terrorist group or persons the government deems dangerous, based on the set of criteria focused on earlier.

The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, brought a serious issue to public. Although the Constitution doesn’t directly state any “Right to Privacy,” it has been a taboo subject of phenomenal weight.  “You can’t keep the tides from coming in,” Bloomberg remarked when asked about drones on his weekly radio show. “We’re going to have more visibility and less privacy. I just don’t see how you could stop that.”

By his reckoning, “it’s scary.” “What’s the difference if a drone is up in the air or on a building (surveillance camera)?” he asked. “I mean, intellectually, I have trouble making a distinction, and you know you’re going to have face recognition software. People are working on that.”

It’s similar to the new T.V. show, Person of Interest, where the Fed has cameras set up and watching you for crime at all times, regardless of your history or threat level. Bloomberg put the timeframe for an all-seeing-eye society at about five years, when he estimated, “… there’ll be cameras every place.” Using the same logic, Bloomberg urged Albany to approve speed cameras to catch motorists going too fast on city streets. “The argument against using automation, or cameras, it’s this hysteria … oh, it’s Big Brother. Get used to it. When there’s a murder, a shooting, a robbery of something, the first thing the police do is go to every single building in the neighborhood and say, ‘Let’s see your security camera,’” he said. By this logic, you lose all privacy outside of your home.

Right now, the only thing standing between the “testing” of UAVs is the FAA. Amie Stepanovich, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, commented on this. “Currently, the only barrier to the routine use of drones for persistent surveillance are the procedural requirements imposed by the FAA for the issuance of certificates,” Stepanovich said. Jay Stanley of ACLU said, “Unfortunately, nothing in the bill would address the very serious privacy issues raised by drone aircraft. This bill would push the nation toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected. We don’t want to wonder if every time we step out our front door some eye in the sky is watching our every move,” Stanley said.

“The bottom line is: domestic drones are potentially extremely powerful surveillance tools, and that power — like all government powers — needs to be subject to checks and balances,” Stanley concluded. “We hope that Congress will carefully consider the privacy implications that this technology can lead to.”

Do you want to be watched in a Casey’s bathroom in case some anonymous person comes in to attack you? This is a serious matter of personal privacy. From what we know about drones now, and no doubt there is more that the American people don’t know, it is apparent that the government is willing to use drones on both American citizens for surveillance and foreign countries to spy or kill suspected terrorists.

If this great and powerful nation should fall into the cold grip of paranoia and resort to the constant surveillance of Americans, who knows what rash decisions may come next. This subject needs to be fully disclosed and be open to public scrutiny. If the government makes it overwhelmingly obvious that the use of such drones, whether against suspected terrorist leaders or American citizens, is a program that causes a majority of good, then hold an election. If that is done, then the American people can rest easy knowing that what the founding fathers have set in place is working.

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