Unmanned drone strikes and targeted killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have become a cornerstone of American foreign policy. President Bush authorised 52 strikes in five years; President Obama has authorised about 300 in four years.

The morality of drone strikes and targeted assassination is a weighty ethical issue which is flying under the radar in the US presidential election.

In Pakistan, drones are estimated to have killed between 2,562 and 3,325 people, of whom between 474 and 881 were civilian “collateral damage”. An estimated 176 of these were children. The number of strikes and the number and proportion of civilian casualties are declining. But the number of drones and pilots is rocketing up. By 2015, according to the New York Times, the US Air Force will need more than 2,000 drone pilots. It is already training more than 350 a year – more than the number of fighter and bomber pilots combined.

Yet neither the Democrat nor the Republican platforms mentions the use of drones. That is not really surprising, as the US Congress has never debated it since the program began. As Peter W. Singer, of the Brookings Institution (not the Australian ethicist), an expert on modern warfare, pointed out earlier this year, President Obama was hailed as a gutsy warrior-in-chief for authorising the assassination of Osama bin Laden last year. But 300 drone strikes killing 3,000 people have hardly been mentioned in the media.

The President would prefer not to talk about it. In fact he has only publicly acknowledged the existence of drone strikes twice in his entire presidency. But earlier this month, in a televised conversation with CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin, he set out five rules which he uses before authorising a covert drone strike:

1 “It has to be a target that is authorised by our laws.”

2 “It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative.”

3 “It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.”

4 “We’ve got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties.”

5 “That while there is a legal justification for us to try and stop [American citizens] from carrying out plots… they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.”

These criteria ring true, but are the criteria being applied conscientiously, if at all? The American public doesn’t know. The drones program is run largely by the CIA and is classified secret. The casualty figures above are estimates by Western observers gathered from local media, not from official US sources. Voters have only the government’s word that it is acting ethically.

Back in 1986 the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence declared that “The only valid national security reason for classifying information is that a hostile element whose goal is to damage the interests of the United States should not have use of the information.” Since then the goal posts have shifted.

The problem with Obama’s criteria – as with much of his rhetoric – is that it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The most egregious example of this is the deaths of two men. The first to die was Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen born in New Mexico. After being radicalised he became an al-Qaeda recruiter and spokesman. He was killed in a drone strike in Yemen on September 30 last year. Arresting American citizens without reading them their Miranda rights is rough justice; killing them without a trial ought to raise all sorts of questions about due process.

Two weeks later, his 16-year-old son, Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki, also an American citizen, who was not a terrorist, was killed in another drone strike in Yemen, a country with which the US is not at war. A unnamed US government official told Time magazine that the teenager “was in the wrong place at the wrong time”. There was no official comment. If this had happened anywhere else, it would be called murder.

As for the president’s reassuring claim that the targets are carefully screened, this seems improbable. “What I found most striking was his claim that legitimate targets are a ‘threat that is serious and not speculative,’ and engaged in ‘some operational plot against the United States,’ That is simply not true,” Micah Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations, a covert warfare expert told Wired magazine. “The claim that the 3,000+ people killed in roughly 375 non-battlefield targeted killings were all engaged in actual operational plots against the US defies any understanding of the scope of what America has been doing for the past ten years.”

With their economy in crisis and with sharp divisions over health care reform, abortion and same-sex marriage, Americans have little appetite for a debate over a low-cost program. And in fact, the attraction of drones is that they spare American soldiers while targeting their enemies. What could be wrong with that? What is the difference between a sniper’s bullet and a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone, anyway?

However, quite a number of observers have pointed out that even the most precise drones still raise many ethical questions. In the lead-up to the election, they are well-worth pondering.

  • The secrecy surround the drones program in almost unprecedented. How can a democracy allow a war to be conducted in its name in secret?
  • The drone war is so cheap that it could continue indefinitely. Is that in the interests of the US?
  • Some experts contend that using drones lowers the threshold for lethal violence. The US intervened in the recent civil war in Libya without putting a boot on the ground. Its contribution was only air strikes and drone surveillance. Will drones allow the US to intervene at will around the world?
  • Civilians will be killed no matter how “surgical” the strikes are. And what if a terrorist wants to surrender? A drone won’t give him a moment to think about it.
  • If no-risk drones become America’s weapon of choice, will future administrations use them even more liberally? “If we can kill one of the few remaining al-Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas of Pakistan, a leader who represents a declining threat, why not the leader of a Mexican drug cartel, whose organization in 2012 will destroy the lives of far more American children than any al Qaeda leader ever will?” asks ex-CIA counterterrorism official Philip Mudd.
  • And how does the rest of the world regard America’s aggressive defence of its interests far from its borders? “”I have one question for you,” one of Abdulrahman’s friends in Yemen asked the Time reporter. “Who can’t America kill?” A foreign policy built on Caligula’s maxim, oderint dum metuant, let them hate us so long as they fear us, could easily backfire.

In his CNN interview, the President emphasised the hard choices that he had to make: “And so it’s very important for the president and the entire culture of our national security team to continually ask questions about ‘Are we doing the right thing? Are we abiding by the rule of law? Are we abiding by due process?’ And then set up structures and institutional checks so that you avoid any kind of slippery slope into a place where we’re not being true to who we are.”

But if Congress and voters fail to ask the very same questions, no one will ever know if the President is waging a secret war like a video game or with all the moral seriousness that war demands.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.