by Janet Weil, CODEPINK Staffer
In a New York Times op-ed published on February 21, former CIA director, Air Force general, and “Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror” author Michael Hayden advocated for the continuing use of drone warfare. He urges the public and implicitly, the next U.S. president, to “embrace” this policy for the desired result of “keeping America safe.” After over a decade of the CIA’s and USAF’s unilateral use of this sinister weapons system, a well-documented record of their unintended consequences confronts us, if we have the courage to face it.
Killer drones have been and continue to be sold to the American people on the basis of lies, including these that Hayden, who has directed drone strikes and personally seen the killing of civilians, repeats in his advocacy piece.
Lie #1: That the policy of using drones to kill people in other countries is “warfare” and serves as a legitimate means to protect the United States.
It’s not, and it doesn’t. Warfare is reciprocal violence, or at least contains the possibility of defensive action (such as anti-aircraft guns) against violence such as that caused by either the Hellfire missiles or GBU-12 bombs named in Hayden’s novelistic portrayal of a pre-strike conversation between an operator and his commander. The U.S. government uses Reaper and Predator drones, loaded with these devastating munitions, as its remotely piloted, high-tech tools in a policy of assassination in at least 7 countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
This policy was started by Bush in 2002 in Yemen and has been vastly expanded by Obama since 2009. While “warfare” is used frequently as a sort of shorthand for various military actions, often in countries that the U.S. has never declared war on, Hayden’s use of the word in this op-ed is sloppy and misleading. Drone “warfare” would mean that other countries could use drone strikes against the United States, or U.S. troops, either first or in retaliation - a total impossibility.
The carnage by remote control, with no way for those attacked to fight back (as with torture), generates hatred against the United States. On Democracy Now!, four whistleblowers who operated drones in the Air Force made their case that drones are “also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantánamo Bay.”
The drone killings are counter-productive to longer-term U.S. security and to our tattered reputation internationally.
Lie #2: “Critics assert that a high percentage of the people killed in drone strikes are civilians — a claim totally at odds with the intelligence I have reviewed…”
The high percentage of civilians killed by drone strikes is not just the assertion of (unnamed) critics. It comes out of statistical analysis and anecdotal reports of drone strikes based on:
--studies by the human rights group Reprieve and other organizations
--mainstream news accounts - including by Fox News and the New York Times
--on-the-ground interviews with survivors
--testimony by Pakistani child survivors to members of Congress
--military documents from 2011-2013 leaked by a military whistleblower to The Intercept.
The percentage of civilian deaths, including of children, varies by country, but peaked at 90 percent of fatalities by drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2015. Killings by drone at weddings and funerals are notorious worldwide. Drone strikes are known to have killed at least 4 U.S. citizens, including 16-year-old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki.
President Obama (and his administration) block a clearer understanding of the number and percentage of civilian deaths by his use of the word “militant”, a vague term without legal meaning, as journalist Glenn Greenwald explains: “Obama himself simply expanded the definition of a 'militant' to ensure that it includes virtually everyone killed by his drone strikes.”
Professor Michael Boyle, a former adviser in the Obama campaign's counterterrorism experts group, summed up the killer drone program in a Mother Jones article in 2013: "’The consequences can be seen in the targeting of mosques or funeral processions that kill non-combatants and tear at the social fabric of the regions where they occur.’ No one, he added, "really knows the number of deaths caused by drones in these distant, sometimes ungoverned, lands.’"
Lie #3: Hayden defends signature strikes. “Critics said these so-called signature strikes were indiscriminate. They were not. Intelligence for signature strikes always had multiple threads and deep history. The data was near encyclopedic.”
This “encyclopedic” data did/does not even contain the names of those targeted. The targeting locks onto “military-age males” (from approximately 16 - 45 or 50) and is often based on tracking cell phone SIM cards for geolocation, so that those who know they are being tracked mix up their SIM cards with others’, or simply trade cell phones with friends and family members.
Nothing could be more indiscriminate than condemning to death without due process, and then assassinating people based on their proximity to members of a targeted group, their age, their traditional dress, or other “guilt by association” factors. A 2012 New York Times article explored the (lack of) ethics of the killing-by-profile policy: “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the [anonymous] official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
If Hayden's position is accepted and carried out by the next president, and left unchallenged by another apathetic Congress, we can expect more drone killings and trauma, in more countries, paid for with more of our tax dollars, resulting in more PTSD for drones operators, and more hatred directed at the United States.
CODEPINK has opposed the U.S. killer drone program since 2009, when we first went to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada to stand in solidarity with Catholic peaceworkers arrested there, and to take part in the first of many vigils and nonviolent direct actions to block the gates of Creech. With our allies Veterans for Peace, Voices for Creative Nonviolence and Nevada Desert Experience, CODEPINK is organizing the second mass mobilization to Shut Down Creech, March 27 - April 2.
Hayden may want the US to embrace the drone program, but we at CODEPINK embrace the vision of a world where our country prioritizes human rights and dignity for all and grounds the killer drones. Join us!
Janet Weil helped organize the first CODEPINK actions at Creech AFB in July 2009, and has returned there several times with various groups and individuals, most recently during the Shut Down Creech 2015 mass mobilization.