Coleen Rowley on Drones> NYT Letter to the Editor, with additional comments

From Coleen: [November 30, 2012] the NY Times published my letter criticizing Obama’s reliance on lethal drones!  As luck would have it, my letter was published just under one on the same topic by Suzanne Nossel, the director of Amnesty International.  Nossel’s focused on the unethical and illegal nature of drone warfare while mine focused more on the pragmatic consequences of having opened Pandora’s Box.

I’ve been writing more complete op-eds on “Drone Warfare: Unethical, Illegal and Ineffective” for some of our Minnesota newspapers—most recently for the Brainerd Dispatch—but given the NYT’s short word limits, the two letters to the editor are wonderfully synergistic, together encapsulating most of the main arguments.

America’s Use of Drones: The Legality Issue

Published: November 30, 2012

Brendan Monroe

Election Spurred a Move to Codify U.S. Drone Policy” (front page, Nov. 25) raises the issue of the legality of the United States’ ever-changing drone policy.

As his first term in office draws to a close, and with a vacancy to fill at the top of the Central Intelligence Agency, President Obama has an opportunity to press the reset button on American drone policy.

Over the last four years the use of drones has become ever more permissive. Lethal strikes are no longer restricted to “high-value targets,” Guilt, not innocence, is the apparent presumption.

Administration sources have told the media that in the tribal areas of Pakistan, men of fighting age are assumed to be combatant targets in the absence of intelligence to the contrary. If true, this is both unconscionable and a violation of the laws of war.

This can’t go on. American drones have taken lives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen,Somalia and the Philippines. Meaningful public review of this most secretive of government programs is long overdue. We don’t need a new rule book; we just need the existing rules — international human rights and humanitarian law — to be applied.

Executive Director, Amnesty International USA
New York, Nov. 27, 2012

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Coleen Rowley> To the Editor:

You report that President Obama is finally expressing some “wariness of the powerful temptation drones pose to policy makers. ‘There’s a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems,’ he said.”

What an understatement of the “mess on our hands” given how 76 countries now possess drones, having discovered how cheap and easy they are to develop and use! Whose hands will they fall into? More and more people in foreign countries living under American drone strikes have understandably become radicalized. Didn’t anyone consider how they would make the perfect weapon of asymmetrical warfare?

Pandora’s box has opened wide, adding to our “vexing security problems.” We should never have forgotten what Sir Peter Ustinov is credited as saying: Terrorism is the poor man’s war, and war is terrorism of the rich.

Apple Valley, Minn., Nov. 26, 2012

The writer is the retired F.B.I. agent who exposed intelligence failures before the 9/11 attacks.

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Coleen’s Comments on both letters:  However there are several important points missing from both our LTEs that need to be made about the legality of drone warfare:

Americans often care more about constitutional and domestic law rather than international law.  There is no way the Father of the Constitution James Madison and other Founding Fathers—so wary of the corruptive power of war and King George’s war powers—would condone or even could envision how a statute like the original 2001 “Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF)” in Afghanistan passing only a few weeks after 9/11 could be stretched and stretched and stretched.  The AUMF is now said to authorize a permanent war status—no end in sight—of drone bombing, covert operations and cyber warfare all over the world—at least five countries so far that the US has not declared war on.

No wonder the secret memo or memos justifying the President’s “kill list” procedures for being targeted by drone bombing are so secret and tightly guarded!  In all likelihood, the light of day would expose them as being as shoddily written as the “torture memos”.

Suzanne Nossel cites only the rules of “international human rights and humanitarian law”.  This is probably due to Amnesty International’s claim to not take stances on the right of nation-states to launch wars in the first place.  Jus ad bellum (the right to go to war) is concerned with “Just War Theory”, the Nuremberg Principles (crimes against peace), the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Treaty (outlawing the use of war as a tool of foreign policy for its 81 signatory countries), and even, to some extent, the “Powell Doctrine” (evaluating reasons to go to war)—but its main proposition has been forgotten or ignored, especially since 9-11.

At a bare minimum, wars of aggression (which undoubtedly include the loosely and misleadingly labeled “pre-emptive and/or preventative wars”) were declared “the supreme crime” at Nuremberg because they carry the seeds of and give rise to other blatant violations of the Geneva Conventions and other international jus in bello crimes (committed while conducting war) such as ethnic genocide, torture, human rights abuses, killing of prisoners, and targeting civilian populations.

For whatever reason, Amnesty chooses to join US military lawyers who limit their concerns to the legal rules of how war can be waged “humanitarianly” once it’s started.  One can easily argue, however (and indeed attorneys John Yoo and Robert Delahunty in George W. Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel did in fact argue this in their 2002 legal memorandums that paved the way to cruel and  inhumane abuse and torture) that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to “the terrorists” and other non-uniformed, “non-state actors”.  In a 2005 op-ed, these Bush lawyers reasoned, “The Geneva Convention makes little sense when applied to a terrorist group or a pseudo-state. If we must fight these kinds of enemies, we must create a new set of rules.  In that important respect, the Geneva Convention will become increasingly obsolete.”

Those wanting to simply discard the Geneva Conventions and other humanitarian law of warfare similarly argue that the American Revolutionary War was only won because the proper British redcoats tried to adhere to existing rules governing uniformed soldiers while the American side did not.  In any event, once a war is started, history repeatedly tells us there is always the temptation to take the gloves off to try to win at all costs,  including by cheating in violation of jus in bello, thus committing genocides, wanton destruction, killing civilians and torturing and executing prisoners.  Jus ad bellum has therefore been recognized as the more important of the two sides of the international law of war, sadly borne out by the history of mankind and recognized in the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the Nuremberg Principles.  Ironically, it’s a problem that I’ve brought up before vis a vis Suzanne Nossel (here and here) but have not received an answer.

International law is sometimes called “soft law” because no international police force or international courts exist with wide jurisdiction to enforce the law and administer justice amongst the nations.  Obviously the US “Superpower” continues to refuse to submit itself to any International Criminal Court.  Accordingly the main reason proffered for adhering to principles of international law does not usually involve the worry of being “caught” and/or being punished by an international tribunal but rests almost entirely upon the worry that the flaunting or shredding of such legal principles will allow other nations to do the same to us.

For instance, it was US military lawyers who were most concerned about Delahunty-Yoo’s attempted shredding of the Geneva Conventions because they worried what could happen to US soldiers if/when they got captured if waterboarding and other tortures were “legalized”.  It’s rather amazing then, to realize that US military and other national security strategists were so short-sighted and ignorant of the force of reciprocity in the development and unbridled use of relatively cheap and easy to use drones!  Certainly it’s not the first time the US has opened Pandora’s Box.  We were also first to use nuclear weapons but at least nukes are relatively hard and costly to develop!  Not so with drones.  Besides sacrificing America’s “moral authority” to lead by stupidly and recklessly opening this Pandora’s Box, we can expect these reckless violations of ethics and law to result in pragmatic bad consequences or what the CIA calls “blowback” .

Coleen R.

Coleen Rowley is a member of WAMM.

By Published On: December 2nd, 2012Comments Off on Coleen Rowley on Drones> NYT Letter to the Editor, with additional comments

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