Drone strikes set off debate about ethics of counterterrorism
By William Choong, Asia News Network
May 7, 2012, 11:34 am TWN
SINGAPORE -- It took a long time coming, but John Brennan, the United States' counterterrorism chief, finally confirmed last Monday what was essentially Washington's worst kept secret — the United States has been using armed drones to kill terrorists.
"Let me say it as simply as I can. Yes, in full accordance with the law, and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives, the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones," he said in a speech at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
U.S. drone strikes were "legal, ethical and wise," he stressed. The U.S. held itself to "rigorous standards and a process of review" when considering strikes against al-Qaida suspects.
Analysts have lauded Brennan's candid comments, which come in the wake of similar clarifications by other senior U.S. officials.
The U.S. has reaped manifold benefits from operating drones in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such armed aircraft are able to stay aloft for hours, and pose little risk as soldiers and pilots are not put in harm's way.
But many analysts question the legality of using armed drones to attack terrorists. Brennan's speech still leaves several questions unanswered.
He side-stepped questions about Washington's increasing dependence on "signature strikes," which allow the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to fire missiles even if it cannot ascertain the identities of those being targeted. His emphasis on the U.S.' preference for capturing terrorists does not gel with the high kill count of such terrorists over the years.
But the bigger problem lies with the CIA, and specifically whether it adheres to the laws of armed conflict (LOAC) when conducting drone attacks.
It is now understood that there are two drone programs — a public one run by the U.S. military, reportedly with CIA participation, and a classified one run by civilians at the CIA. It has been reported that most drone strikes are conducted by the CIA, as it can act more quickly on the intelligence it receives.
It is generally accepted that in conducting drone strikes, the U.S. military adheres to LOAC, which has established principles such as proportionality, necessity and distinction.