On April 23, the U.S. government acknowledged killing two Western hostages — U.S. citizen Warren Weinstein and Italian citizen Giovanni Lo Porto — in a drone strike during a counterterrorism operation in Pakistan in January.
The incident demonstrates that Barack Obama’s administration continues to use lethal force on the basis of scant evidence. Some are now asking if the U.S. 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 U.S. may pull the trigger, but its drone program requires the participation and support of an international killing complex, which includes countless state and nonstate actors from around the world. This tangled network raises serious moral, legal and political questions.
Foreign partners, private contractors and U.S. government employees provide surveillance and intelligence from the ground. For example, U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom, 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 U.S. to their drones abroad. And finally, drone operators hit the strike button and launch the missiles that kill targets at the request of the U.S. government.
These disparate but connected acts have culminated in thousands of deaths. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University London estimates the number of people killed by confirmed drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen since 2002 at 2,993 to 4,806, with 16 to 22 percent of them civilian casualties.
The greatest peril of the U.S. 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 air base, and a military contractor launches a drone armed with a missile. The actors carry out individual acts within the spectrum of their interests and are 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 result, death. In 1963 the philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt famously warned that this bureaucratization culminates in moral impairment: What one person would never do alone, many will blindly do together.
Individuals are supposed to wrestle with moral questions before using lethal force. The U.S. drone complex has largely eliminated this moral inconvenience. Its victims are mostly faceless and nameless. In fact, Western countries have secretly deprived some drone strike targets of citizenship, essentially rendering them nationless.
In addition to a dereliction of moral duty, this diffusion of responsibility 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 U.K. 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 U.K. Court of Appeal rebuffed Khan’s petition, claiming that it would not condemn an official for “implementing U.S. policy” and would not sit “in judgment of the U.S.” A similar case brought in Germany is likely destined for the same result.
Not to be outdone, the U.S. 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 U.S. government was authorized to conduct these covert operations and that too much transparency would cause the U.S. irreparable harm. 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, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of a growing military-industrial complex, in which U.S. policymakers, the military and arms manufacturers together facilitate perpetual war.
Drones fit this disturbing pattern. Each participant is given incentives through political favors, monetary compensation and quid pro quo to execute his or her role anonymously and efficiently. No single party alone has the ability to kill. Only together, through cloudlike integration, can these disparate and transnational acts culminate in a successful strike. This cloud allows U.S. 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?