Military Watches
Find us on Facebook


Printer Friendly VersionPrinter Friendly VersionSend to a FriendSend to a Friend

The Debate Rages On
By Harold Hutchison

UAVs had played a major role in the War on Terror, including scoring at least two high-value kills: Anwar al-Awlaki on 30 September, 2011, and Abu Ali al-Harithi, one of the masterminds of the USS Cole bombing, on 3 November, 2002.

That said, the drones have become the focal point of controversy, despite – or maybe because of – their successes on the battlefield. The ability to take out a suspected terrorist with a Hellfire missile is good. But in both of the strikes, American citizens were killed – al-Awlaki was an intended target, while Kamal Derwish was killed during the strike on al-Harithi.

The controversy becomes even more complicated as it cuts across political lines. Figures on both the left and right have raised concerns about the drone policy. To make it even more confusing, on the right, there are two major schools of thought criticizing the use of drones. The drone controversy hit a high-water mark publicly when Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) launched a filibuster lasting just under 13 hours on 6 March.

Perhaps the most consistent critic of the use of drones on the left has been Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald was also highly critical of George W. Bush’s administration’s conduct of the War on Terror, but reserved particular criticism for Obama.

“In sum, we have had four straight years of a president who has wielded what is literally the most extreme and tyrannical power a government can claim – to execute anyone the leader wants, even his own citizens, in total secrecy and without a whiff of due process – and who has resisted all efforts to impose a framework of limits or even transparency,” Greenwald wrote in a column that appeared on 26 November.

Greenwald even went so far as to describe the killing of Awlaki as “due-process free” at Salon.com. He even went so far as to challenge liberals by saying, “For you good progressives out there justifying this, I would ask this: how would the power to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process look to you in the hands of, say, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann?”

Many of the critics of the Bush Administration, though, have been very silent. The Center for Constitutional Rights did sue the Obama Administration over the “capture or kill” order for al-Awlaki, and the ACLU also supported that suit. But a number of the attorneys who eagerly provided pro bono services for detainees at Guantanamo Bay or other detainees like Johnny Walker Lindh, went to work for the Obama Justice Department.

“President Obama was recently convinced that some limits and a real legal framework might be needed to govern the exercise of this assassination power. What was it that prompted Obama finally to reach this conclusion? It was the fear that he might lose the election, which meant that a Big, Bad Republican would wield these powers, rather than a benevolent, trustworthy, noble Democrat,” Greenwald added.

The double-standard on the left, however, pales in comparison to what appears to be a genuine split on the right about what is wrong with the drone policy. In short, the opposition to the drone campaign is split between conservatives and libertarians on the right

On the right side of the political spectrum – there is arguably a three-way split. Some conservatives are okay with the drone campaign. At Breitbart.com, Aaron Goldenberg wrote, “Drones save lives! Let me repeat that. Drones save lives! Drones allow the military to attack targets deep in enemy territory without risking the lives of our soldiers and airmen.”

Paul’s filibuster also drew intensely personal criticism from Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who derided Paul as a “wacko bird.” The Wall Street Journal also took a dim view of Paul’s filibuster, saying, “The U.S. government cannot randomly target American citizens on U.S. soil or anywhere else. What it can do under the laws of war is target an "enemy combatant" anywhere at any time, including on U.S. soil. This includes a U.S. citizen who is also an enemy combatant. The President can designate such a combatant if he belongs to an entity—a government, say, or a terrorist network like al Qaeda—that has taken up arms against the United States as part of an internationally recognized armed conflict.” The editorial then went on to say, “The U.S. killed him in Yemen before he could kill more Americans. But under the law Awlaki was no different than the Nazis who came ashore on Long Island in World War II, were captured and executed.”

Echoing that view was syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, who wrote, “Once you take up arms against the United States, you become an enemy combatant, thereby forfeiting the privileges of citizenship and the protections of the Constitution, including due process. You retain only the protection of the laws of war — no more and no less than those of your foreign comrades-in-arms.”

Others on the right view the use of drones to kill high-ranking terrorists like al-Awlaki as a poor substitute for capturing and interrogating them. One of the foremost proponents of this argument is former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Theissen. Theissen, who wrote the speech in which Bush publicly acknowledged the CIA interrogation program and its use of enhanced interrogation techniques, felt that the reliance on drones is meant to cover up a failure to get new sources of intelligence.

“When we kill high-value terrorists, we vaporize all the intelligence they possess — information we cannot get anywhere else about Al Qaeda’s operations, recruits, safe houses, communications and plans for new attacks. We need this intelligence to save lives,” Theissen wrote in the New York Times shortly after Barack Obama won re-election.

Theissen, who wrote the book Courting Disaster, which criticized Obama’s terrorism policies, pointed out that without a fresh supply of high-level detainees, “We are no longer replenishing the information we have about Al Qaeda’s inner workings because we are no longer capturing and detaining the terrorist leaders who could provide us with new intelligence. We cannot defeat Al Qaeda and stop new attacks with drones alone. We need to question live terrorists who can tell us their plots and plans.”

“There is no question that killing an American citizen under arms in the course of battlefield combat is easily within the bounds of acceptable national-defense action. But that is not the question before us. Instead, we are faced with an arrangement by which the president may designate any American, at home or abroad, as an ‘enemy combatant,’ and place him on a list of people to be killed — not in the course of combat, but in targeted operations indistinguishable from assassinations,” Kevin D. Williamson wrote at NationalReview.com in support of Rand Paul’s filibuster. He concluded his article by writing, “If your government can put you to death without trial — not on the field of battle, but at breakfast — then you are not a citizen at all: You are a subject. And Americans were not born to be subjects.”

At AmericanThinker.com, Johnathan Moseley wrote, “Supporters of missile drones see no difference between a Nazi general who stops for a moment to have dinner or go home for the weekend and a terrorist caught in bed, eating dinner, or traveling in a car. The U.S. has every right to kill those who are engaged in warfare against us. Even way back in World War II, just because a Nazi soldier stopped to take a smoking break didn't mean we lost the authority to kill him. In fact, we often targeted the red glow of the cigarette.”

Senator Paul himself described his position as opposing what he called the “John Yoo faction” of the Republican Party in a review with National Review’s Robert Costa. However, that is disputed by some other conservatives.

Moseley himself noted the counter-point. “Our government did kill a family of U.S. citizens in their own home at Ruby Ridge. The Weavers were breaking several laws and should have been arrested. But they were never given the chance to surrender before snipers killed their mother holding an infant in her arms.”

The fact is, beyond the wild hypotheticals – like “Could Jane Fonda have been targeted in that North Vietnamese ack-ack guns?” – the presence UAVs have over the battlefield is here to stay.

The entire controversy and fuss could have been avoided. Senator Paul and others were asking legitimate questions, and Obama and Eric Holder were blowing them off. Ultimately, Rand Paul simply wanted answers to his questions, and the chain of events revealed that the Obama Administration hadn’t really thought things over. If there is a legitimate concern surrounding the drones, it is that the Obama Administration seems to be making things up on the fly, rather than having a comprehensive plan. Fail to plan, plan to fail.