By Tom O’Connor
WASHINGTON- The sun pours in through the windows of Professor Nathan Vladeck’s office at American University’s Washington College of Law. Students here in D.C. enjoy the beautiful weather, but in some parts of the world, clear skies could mean a death sentence.
“There’s a question about how much we should trust our government,” Vladeck said.
“The one thing in which I’ll agree with President Reagan in is ‘Trust, but verify.’”
The US campaign of drone warfare has focused on four nations – Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia. The great majority of the strikes have occurred in Pakistan and Yemen, two countries that the US has not formally declared war on.
According to the Long War Journal, the United States has conducted 383 drone strikes in Pakistan and 112 in Yemen since 2002. Nearly 8% of casualties have been civilian, while the Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts it at over 9%.
Graphic design company Pitch Interactive put together an online visual data set entitled “Out of Sight, Out Mind” that places the civilian fatality rate between 2004 and 2013 as high as 16.7%.
The data is admittedly difficult to calculate because of the government’s vague definition of who is and is not an enemy operative. In 2012, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration “counts all military-age males as in the strike zone combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them otherwise.”
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that out of anywhere from 2,437-3,940 killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, only 721 have been reported identified at all.
Professor Vladeck specializes in federal law, specifically national security and jurisdiction. He says that federal jurisprudence in regards to drone warfare is rather obscure.
“I don’t think it’s intentional, I do think it’s knowing,” he said. “I think the Supreme Court has increasingly used procedural obstacles as a means of constricting access to rights in ways that go far beyond national security.”
“I think with drones, specifically, the accountability question is a big one,” he continued.
He explains how the courts have taken on the massive task of interpreting what the executive branch and Congress have refused to address directly. Countless litigation has been brought against the government in regards to drone strikes, mainly Freedom of Information Act requests and damages sought by victims and their families.
One such claim was brought by Nasser al-Awlaki, whose son, Anwar al-Awlaki and 16-year old grandson, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki were killed in drone strikes in Yemen in 2011. Anwar al-Awlaki was a suspected al-Qaeda leader, while his son died weeks later in a drone strike whose intended target was not at the location. They were both American citizens.
The question arose as to whether the US government or military could target and kill an American citizen without due process. Thanks to a 2014 ruling by the 2nd US Court of Appeal, the Department of Justice was forced to release the memo that green lighted al-Awlaki’s killing.
The DOJ memo stated that in cases in which an American citizen has joined a terrorist group, “the Constitution would not require the government provide any further process” in targeting him or her as compared to a foreign national. Essentially, any US citizen suspected to have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda or any other recognized terrorist group was fair game.
Al-Awlaki was not the last American citizen to be killed in a drone strike either.
In the past weeks, the debate on drones has reignited after it was revealed that a drone strike killed two Western hostages, one American and one Italian, in rural Pakistan. To the administration’s credit, this information has been made public. They took their time, however, as the strike occurred on January 15th.
“There’s not nearly enough transparency surrounding what we’re doing,” Vladeck said, “And there’s not nearly enough accountability.”
Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the social justice NGO Code Pink: Women for Peace. She’s been advocating against war since the American invasion of Iraq in 2002 and has taken a particularly strong stance against the use of drones as well as the lack of accountability.
“When you have programs that are involved in the most serious issues of life and death and they’re done behind the backs of the American people, that is not good for a democracy,” Benjamin said.
In 2012, Benjamin published Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control and brought her group on a speaking tour of over 200 cities in the US. She then began organizing trips to Pakistan to allow people to see for themselves the consequences of drone warfare abroad.
The year after her book was published, Benjamin attended a speech by President Obama at the National Defense University and called out to the president, briefly interrupting the event. Among the demands she made before being escorted out of the building were those that pertained to the administration’s use of covert drone warfare.
“We feel like drones is part of what keeps us in a state of perpetual war,” she said. “That should not be the norm, we should be in a state of perpetual peace.”
Through her organization, Benjamin has also been a part of coalitions such as Global Drone Watch and, along with organizations such as the National Lawyers Guild and the Institute for Policy Studies, hosted a conference in 2013 entitled “Drones Around the Globe: Proliferation and Resistance.”
In fact, the issue has attracted a number of coalitions comprised of a wide spectrum of groups. In January, groups of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faiths held the Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare in Princeton, New Jersey.
The conference was the result of the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare, based in DC and co-chaired by Nathan Hosler, director of the Office of Public Witness at the Church of the Brethren.
“When we think of Jesus, we think of God coming close to heal,” said Hosler, “and drones are precisely opposite of this.”
Hosler strove to make drones an issue of the Church of the Brethren, which is known as one of the historic peace churches, along with Quakers and Mennonites. Like Benjamin, the church is opposed to all kinds of warfare, yet finds drone warfare particularly problematic.
“It felt as though there was a distinct shift,” Hosler said. “It changed the nature of war and how we go about attacking our enemies as a country.”
With the help of Hosler, the Church of the Brethren released the Resolution Against Drone Warfare in 2013.
As per their mission, the document condemns war in all forms, however it mentions, specifically, that the church is “troubled by the quickly expanding use of armed, unmanned aerial vehicles,” and that “concealment of covert activities generates confusion, results in the deaths of countless targeted people and bystanders, and undermines international law and cooperation.”
Hosler also explains that, while he is theologically and morally opposed to drone warfare, he also believes that there are fundamental flaws in the common narrative we hear on the pragmatic use of drones.
“If the point and the argument for using drones is to increase our security, cut down on the threat of terror and build peace, even by that sort of argument and reasoning, drones very practically haven’t met their objective,” Hosler said.
“Out of Sight, Out of Mind” estimates that less than 2% of the 3,213 victims of drone strike victims in Pakistan were high-profile targets.
After I spoke with Hosler, he told me that he’s got another call. This time it’s with Elizabeth Beavers, Legislative Associate on Militarism and Civil Liberties at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. This is the social advocacy wing of the Quakers.
The FCNL wrote a letter in 2013 to President Obama in which it urged the administration “to follow judicial due process” and for Congress “to exercise oversight to guard against continuing or extending the practice of targeted killings, without charges or trial, of individuals suspected of presenting a threat to the U.S.”
Hosler says he’s trying to keep the momentum going after the conference held earlier this year. The group is continuously trying to establish and coordinate multifaith platforms of discussion on the topic, secure more visits to Capitol Hill and expand their coalition to a wider group of faiths.
In the end, it seems that faith is all we have.
Professor Vladeck says that, while many groups have sprung up advocating for individual causes, no one single group is pushing for “restoring sensible federal remedies.”
“I think that it’s ironically left to people like me, who no one listens to, to write articles and to blog about why we need to have judicial remedies in the national security sphere for government misconduct.”
He believes that if change does come, it could come with next fall’s elections and potential changes in the Supreme Court. With three justices reaching 80 or older, there’s a good chance that the next President of the United States’ judicial appointments will be crucial.
In the meantime, he, like many of us, continues to ponder the complexities of just how much to trust our government in communicating with us openly and honestly on matters of life and death.
“I actually have faith that our government is not systematically engaged in massive violations of domestic and international law in the context of its drone campaign,” Professor Vladeck said.
“But it’s only faith.”