Toward a Sustainable Counterterrorism Policy: An Analysis of the United States’ Drone Program

(image by John Loo

by Aaron Albrecht 

The White House finds itself under pressure this month after The Intercept, an independent organization with the mission of undertaking “fearless and adversarial journalism [in order to] bring accountability and transparency to powerful government and corporate institutions,” released a series of reports on October 15.  Based on recently-leaked secret documents, these reports shed light on the “inner workings” of the United States’ drone program. The release of these reports coincided with two important actions:  Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota and the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called for the administration to increase transparency and accountability, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a motion to appeal in a case regarding a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The ACLU requests the release of official documents outlining the legal analysis of when, where, and whom the United States may target and strike by drone, and whether these policies are in accordance with international law. Consider the actions of The Intercept, the ACLU, and Representative Ellison in light of President Obama’s speech to the National Defense University during May 2013, in which he expressed the administration’s desire to increase transparency and accountability regarding the drone program.

These recent developments prompt an examination of the United States’ drone program as it relates to problems of global security and human rights. I believe that the United States has the responsibility to establish a principled ethical, legal, and strategic framework around its drone program so as to create an international norm that may guide the future military use of drones by other nations.

Drone technology per se is not unethical, illegal, or strategically imprudent. Drones offer concrete advantages over other combat aircraft and methods of deploying lethal force. For example, drones have the capability of conducting strikes across national borders and in geographically inaccessible areas, thereby safeguarding drone operators and ground forces. Specific technology allows for drones to loiter, conduct surveillance, and gather intelligence for extended periods of time. Such technologically sophisticated surveillance capability allows for drone operators to identify targets and conduct strikes with precision and, as a result, avoid unintended harm to protected civilians.

Despite the advantages unique to drone technology, concerns regarding the use of drones continue to arise within the public discourse. Some of these concerns derive from the nature of the technology itself. For example, some are concerned with drones being equipped with artificial intelligence so as to become autonomous. Others are concerned that the use of armed drones can lead to a depersonalized, “PlayStation mentality” toward killing. The depersonalization in deploying lethal force is coupled with the concern that drone operators experience psychological distress because of their ability to see in detail the outcomes of their actions. Others fear that by minimizing the political resistance against war that comes from the fear of harm to one’s own forces, by depersonalizing the deployment of lethal force, and by overcoming geographic barriers, the new drone technology lowers the threshold for the use of force by overcoming traditional constraints to the use of force.

There is also the fear that new technology such as this facilitates the use of force outside of legally-defined armed conflicts. Concomitant with that concern is the concern that the United States’ drone program is setting an imprudent precedent by loosely interpreting legal concepts such as imminence, participation in hostilities, the designation of parties to an armed conflict, and the definition of a militant or combatant.

Strategic questions, too, arise regarding the efficacy of targeted killings in fulfilling the overarching mission to suppress terrorist groups and prevent terrorist attacks. Some argue that the use of armed drones is the best way to achieve that goal, while others argue that targeted killings aggravate the problem and suggest nonmilitary methods.

The administration should create an ethical and legal framework securing the values of protection of life and containment of the use of force that could be accepted by a plurality of states to guide the use of armed drones. And I believe the administration should consider alternative, less coercive means of addressing the global security problem of terrorism, means that may address the problem in a more sustainable manner.

Additional citations:

Heyns, Christof. 2015. “Coming to Terms with Drones,” preface to Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict. Cortright, David, Rachel Fairhurst, and Kristen Wall. The University of Chicago Press. 2015.

Aaron Albrecht is a Master’s candidate in Public Policy at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.

Editor’s Note: Comments may be moderated for content. 

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