Death from above: Drone use raises questions

By ANDREW PAXTON

MQ-1 PredatorThe Obama administration’s drone program is receiving growing scrutiny lately, especially as the use of Unmanned Arial Vehicles over America continues to grow.

Many question the legality and morality of the government’s surveillance and targeted assassination programs.

Thousands across the globe have been killed, and countless more have been negatively affected by America’s drone program.

Voices criticizing the program range from Amnesty International and Code Pink to the United Nations and some U.S. senators.

GOVERNMENT POLICY

Most questions stem from the release of a so-called “white paper” that details the government’s position on drone strikes, and from the confirmation hearings of John Brennan, the “architect” of the drone program and Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA.

Members of Congress asked Brennan under what conditions the government believes it may kill American citizens without a trial or conviction.

The possibility of “secret courts” being created to hear evidence and determine who can be targeted was also raised. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, argued for a new court, saying the president should not be “prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner.”

Detractors argued that such courts would be unfeasible operationally and constitutionally, diluting the powers of the commander in chief. Some argue that courts have no business deciding matters of military operations or national intelligence.

A TUCSON CONNECTION

Talk of drones and executions may seem far away from Arizona, but a closer look reveals many elements of the debate center around the Desert Southwest.

Raytheon, Tucson’s largest private employer, provides thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to the economy. The company creates weapon technology, including a missile that may someday be used on drones.

During Brennan’s confirmation hearing, protestors with Code Pink interrupted proceedings and held a banner that read, “Raytheon’s drones create enemies.”

Also, with demand for border security being tied to immigration reform, expect increased surveillance along the Mexican-American frontier. This will undoubtedly mean drones buzzing over Nogales, Douglas and perhaps all the way to Tucson.

The Federal Aviation Administration has set a 2015 deadline for guidelines to permit up to 10,000 drones over American skies. Their sound will become as familiar to Americans as it is to people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen.

Drones are already being used over American skies. During a recent hostage situation in Alabama, UAVs provided 24-hour coverage. Los Angeles police claimed using drones would have greatly assisted in their recent manhunt for an accused cop-killer.

Homeland Security is exploring the use of drones to track drug smugglers and human traffickers. The agency already owns several, including Hellfire missile-equipped Predators.

CROSSING A LINE

Drones can clearly be used for hunting criminals or fighting fires. But when is the Orwellian line crossed? When does all-seeing Big Brother infringe upon John Q. Public?

As technology grows, advances bring new questions.

Do aircraft armed with giga-pixel cameras capable of viewing an entire city make the population safer, or rob the public of privacy?

A shroud of secrecy surrounds even basic elements.

How can the public debate an issue as important as extrajudicial executions if the details aren’t known? This is not the way America is supposed to work.

The government refused to even acknowledge the existence of its targeted assassination program until last year, and details remain scant.

With their secret out, the Obama administration, which once prided itself on openness and culpability, has said it will not release any more details about the secret assassination program.

Government watchdogs believe the criteria for killing Americans must be publicized.

KILLING U.S. CITIZENS

The targeting of American citizens should not be taken lightly.

Even in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, an accused terrorist mastermind, the facts are not clear. He supposedly directed the failed Christmas Day bombing in Detroit, as well as the Fort Hood shooting and other attacks.

While al-Awlaki was accused of formulating and directing numerous plots against America, he was never charged with any crime, let alone convicted in a court of law. He was executed in Yemen in the fall of 2011, along with his 16-year-old son, also an American.

Why not charge and convict him, in absentia if necessary? That way, the evidence would be heard in court, and a judge could decide his fate. Novel idea, isn’t it? Sounds like the way America used to work.

A recent survey by Farleigh Dickinson University indicates that a majority of Americans do not approve of the use of drones on American citizens. However, most approve of strikes against “terrorists” because they are told it makes them safer.

UNINTENDED EFFECT

The CIA drops missiles on people who may or may not be terrorists without ever presenting evidence of their alleged crimes. They ask few questions. When questions are asked, answers are hard to come by, due to the clandestine nature of the strikes.

Opponents believe that targeted assassinations rally extremists, and often turn those who once supported America toward the militants. Many leaders in Pakistan and other countries express doubt regarding their effectiveness.

With Brennan virtually guaranteed confirmation, expect the number of drone strikes to increase, despite mounting criticism and protests. Although he denounced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, he has little problem with executing Americans without trial.

Questions regarding extrajudicial assassinations and 24-hour surveillance need to be answered, before our skies are filled with killer robots constantly watching us.

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