US Drone Complex Bureaucratizes Murder

US Drone Complex Bureaucratizes MurderUS Drone Complex Bureaucratizes Murder

On April 23, the US government acknowledged killing two western hostages - US citizen Warren Weinstein and Italian citizen Giovanni Lo Porto - by a drone strike during a counterterrorism operation in Pakistan last January.

 The incident demonstrates that US President Barack Obama administration continues to use lethal force based on scant evidence. Some are now asking if the US even knows the identity of those it targets for death. As we wrestle with this question, we must also answer its inverse: who’s doing the killing?

The US may pull the trigger, but its drone program requires the participation and support of an international killing complex, which includes countless state and non-state actors from around the world. This tangled network raises serious moral, legal and political questions, Arjun Sethi and Kevin Schwartz wrote in an article for Al Jazeera.

Foreign partners, private contractors and US government employees provide surveillance and intelligence from the ground. For example, US allies such as the UK, the Netherlands and Australia have helped with intelligence gathering through satellite tracking and electronic interception operations.

From Saudi Arabia and Seychelles to the airfields of Afghanistan and Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier, military contractors and other actors load and help launch drones.

An operations center in Ramstein, Germany serves as a satellite relay station connecting pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and elsewhere in the US to their drones abroad. And finally, drone operators hit the strike button and launch the missiles that kill targets at the request of the US government.

 Drone Casualties

These disparate but connected acts have culminated in thousands of deaths. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University London estimates the total number of people killed by confirmed drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen since 2002 to be between 2,993 and 4,806. At least 16 to 22 percent were civilian casualties.

The greatest peril of the US drone program is its seamless division of labor: A local partner provides intelligence, an ally facilitates collection and distribution of this information, a foreign country rents out an airbase and a military contractor launches a drone armed with a missile.

Each actor carries out individual acts within the spectrum of their own interests and is largely detached from the larger process.

This diffusion and distribution of responsibility lead to a bureaucratization of killing in which the individual participants are unburdened from the moral and legal accountability that governs the final result: death. In 1963, philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt famously warned that this bureaucratization culminates in moral impairment: What one individual would never do alone, many will blindly do together.

 Moral Inconvenience

Individuals are supposed to wrestle with moral questions before using lethal force. The US drone complex has largely eliminated this moral inconvenience: Its victims are mostly faceless and nameless. In fact, western countries have secretly deprived citizenship from some targets of drone strikes, essentially rendering them nationless.

In addition to a dereliction of moral duty, this diffusion of responsibility also creates a legal vacuum in which participants are immune from accountability. Actors who facilitate drone strikes are shielded by a labyrinth of legal intricacies in their home countries leaving drone victims and their families little to no recourse.

Noor Khan, for example, brought suit against the UK government for providing intelligence that led to a drone strike that killed his father and countless others in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region in March 2011. The UK Court of Appeals rebuffed Khan’s petition, claiming that it would not condemn an official for “implementing US policy” and would not sit in judgment of the US. A similar case brought in Germany is likely destined for the same result.

Not to be outdone, the US has blocked attempts at accountability as well. A lawsuit filed by the relatives of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was killed by a drone strike in 2011, was dismissed last year. The court ruled that the US government was authorized to conduct these covert operations and that too much transparency would cause the US irreparable harm.

 Hidden From Public View

The fact that the drone program is hidden from public view and actors in other countries have escaped liability for their individual roles only buttressed the court’s decision. The evidence is clear: Those who facilitate or even authorize drone strikes cannot be questioned and are immune from legal accountability.

In his now famous 1961 farewell address, former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of a growing military-industrial complex, in which US policymakers, the military and arms manufacturers together facilitate perpetual war.  

Drones fit this disturbing pattern. Each participant is incentivized through political favors, monetary compensation and other quid pro quo to execute their role anonymously and efficiently. No single party alone has the ability to kill.

Only together, through cloud like integration, can these disparate and transnational acts culminate in a successful strike. This cloud allows US officials, foreign allies, local partners and military contractors to exterminate human lives seamlessly, often sitting tens of thousands of miles away and with moral and legal impunity.

The drone-killing complex is here. Can it be stopped?