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Government’s use of drones demands more scrutiny

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Posted: Saturday, February 9, 2013 12:00 am

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity." — Albert Einstein

A front-page story in the News-Sentinel this week stated: "Congress abuzz over drones."

The cover of Time magazine this week featured the headline, "Rise of the drones."

What is all the fuss? And should we in Lodi, Calif. really be concerned about these machines, otherwise known as UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles?

We should.

We know our government has developed a fleet of very sophisticated machines that fly, without human pilots, and kill reputed enemies. Those targets have included American citizens.

These drones can fly long distances and stay in the air for many hours — sometimes days

They are aerial warships, operated long-distance from bases in the deserts of Southern California and Nevada.

They have been a weapon of choice under the Obama administration for destroying militants outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, most notably in Pakistan and Yemen. A 2011 drone attack in Yemen killed two Americans, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both suspected of being involved in al-Qaida.

The CIA and U.S. military maintain overlapping "kill lists" of potential targets for drone attacks. But the process of choosing who is to be taken out by drones and the justification for long-distance assassination remains unclear. It appears the director of the CIA can personally authorize drone hits in some cases. In others, it is left to the president.

The excellent investigative reporting site ProPublica searched for answers regarding the military and CIA's use of drones. Their results were sketchy.

We do not, for instance, know how many people have been killed by U.S. drone strikes, though estimates range to 3,000. We don't know how many of those killed were civilians, either.

Even some of those directly targeted are never fully identified, taken out simply because their pattern of behavior convinces federal authorities they are involved in militant or terrorist activities. These are called "signature strikes."

The government has indicated that militants are targeted for death-by-drone when they pose an imminent threat to the U.S. and capture isn't feasible. Yet, according to ProPublica, drone killings seem more common than capture, in part because overseas capture raises a welter of diplomatic and legal uncertainties.

The ascent of the drone has raised the term "asymmetrical dynamic," meaning that drone masters, in climate-controlled spaces, bear little consequence of their actions compared to their targets.

Our increasing use of drones hasn't won many friends in the countries where the menacing machines operate.

A 2012 study by Stanford and New York University, titled "Living Under Drones," reveals how people are afflicted by these weapons. One of the researchers, Jennifer Gibson, wrote an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times.

"People in the United States imagine that drones fly to a target, launch their deadly missile with surgical precision and return to a U.S. base hundreds or thousands of miles away," she writes.

"But drones are a constant presence in the skies above the North Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan, with as many as six hovering over villages at any one time. People hear them day and night. They are an inescapable presence, the looming specter of death from above.

"And that presence is destroying a community ... parents are afraid to send their children to school. Women are afraid to meet in markets. Families are afraid to gather at a funeral for people wrongly killed in earlier strikes."

So it would seem a fair question: Do drones help extinguish terror?

Or do they incite it?

Another question: Does the war with drones reflect a war on terror or a war of terror?

If Pakistan were to launch a fleet of drones to take out perceived enemies in California, would we tolerate it?

This week, President Obama's nominee to be the next CIA director, Paul Brennan, defended the use of drones as an effective and relatively precise weapon against terror. He contends the American people have been misinformed about drones and their use by the current administration.

We beg to differ.

The American people deserve to learn much more about these robotic killing machines, which have been unleashed by masters who remain largely in the shadows.

We have good reason to be skeptical of the administration's reassurance regarding the rise of drones.

They are nimble and deadly and their use may very well have outstripped our humble human ability to fathom the horribly complex damage they do.

The turmoil over drones reminds us of bumper sticker we saw around Lodi a number of years back: "I love my country — but fear my government."

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