On June 5, I shared some of the most unsettling details about Obama's drone strikes program. Without any further ado, here are the top 3.
#3. Drone strikes have already killed American citizens
In September 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki became the first American citizen to be killed by drone. Al-Awlaki was a radical Muslim cleric linked to a variety of terrorist plots. However, he was never indicted for any crime and there were doubts about the reach of his influence and his ability to plan or coordinate terrorist attacks. According to Salon writer Glenn Greenwald, al-Awlaki's death means "the due-process-free assassination of U.S. citizens is now a reality."
That strike also killed Samir Khan, an American citizen who was travelling with al-Awlaki at the time. Both men wrote for Inspire, an online magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Khan described his writing as "media jihad:" Inspire featured articles with titles like "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom" and urged readers to attack sandwich shops inside the Beltway (in order to kill government employees). But unlike al-Awlaki, Khan was not on the kill list. So his death was even less justifiable.
However, there has been a third American citizen executed by drone: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar's 16-year-old son. Born in Denver, Abdulrahman was with his 17-year-old Yemeni cousin when they were killed by a drone strike in southeastern Yemen. A senior congressional official spoke to the Washington Post about the United States accidentally killing these teenagers:
If they knew a 16-year-old was there, I think that would be cause for them to say: "Gee, we ought not to hit this guy. That would be considered collateral damage.”
One would hope. But as Greenwald points out, even Abdulrahman was initially labelled a "militant" by mainstream media outlets.
#2. The Constitution is irrelevant
However, there are still supposed to be constitutional safeguards to prevent a power grab by the executive branch. According to former New Jersey Superior Court Judge Andrew Napolitano:
Can the president legally do this? In a word: No.
The president cannot lawfully order the killing of anyone, except according to the Constitution and federal law. Under the Constitution, he can only order killing using the military when the U.S. has been attacked, or when an attack is so imminent and certain that delay would cost innocent American lives, or in pursuit of a congressional declaration of war. Under federal law, he can only order killing using civilians when a person has been sentenced lawfully to death by a federal court and the jury verdict and the death sentence have been upheld on appeal.
But in a speech at Northwestern University, Attorney General Eric Holder bypassed these constitutional limits by redefining due process:
“Due process” and “judicial process” are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.
Writing at Salon, Glenn Greenwald expanded Holder's new definition:
the President and his underlings are your accuser, your judge, your jury and your executioner all wrapped up in one, acting in total secrecy and without your even knowing that he’s accused you and sentenced you to death, and you have no opportunity even to know about, let alone confront and address, his accusations; is that not enough due process for you?
But prominent American dissident Stephen Colbert put it best:
Due process just means there is a process that you do...If we're going to win our never-ending war against terror, there are bound to be casualties, and one of them just happens to be the Constitution.
#1. Drone strikes fuel blowback
So drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, assassinated American citizens, and mocked the presumption of innocence. But at least they're working, right?
Eh, not really.
For the Obama administration, there are two distinct benefits from ordering drone strikes. First, these strikes do destabilize and impede al-Qaeda's operations in the short-term. Second, since this is an election year, it allows Obama to portray himself as tough, manly warrior against the terrorists.
However, there are still enormous operational costs from these strikes. Robin Wright, senior editor at The Atlantic, notes how in the long-run, drones in Yemen have proven to be counterproductive:
Since 2009, when Obama is first known to have authorized drone strikes in Yemen, the number of core AQAP members has more than doubled, growing from around 300 to at least 700. That's not the direction in which the drone strikes were supposed to move the numbers.
A Yemeni human rights worker described the dynamic at play: "The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes."
Take al-Majala. On December 17, 2009, this was the site of the first missile strike launched in Yemen by the Obama administration. That attack killed 44 civilians. Half were children. Now the Washington Post reports, "The area is a haven for militants...'All the residents of the area have joined al-Qaeda.'"
According to Anssaf Ali Mayo, Aden head of al-Islah, Yemen’s most influential Islamist party:
There is more hostility against America because the attacks have not stopped al-Qaeda, but rather they have expanded, and the tribes feel this is a violation of the country’s sovereignty...There is a psychological acceptance of al-Qaeda because of the U.S. strikes.
In other words, these attacks have fostered blowback, i.e. unintended consequences of a covert operation, against the United States. In its war on terror, the United States clearly does not want to increase "psychological acceptance of al-Qaeda" in Yemen. And yet, by continuing to kill civilians, this administration is fueling resentment and vengeance against the United States.
Fortunately, activists all around the world are coordinating opposition to these drone strikes. Yemenis have used social media to report and protest American drones. Salon columnist David Sirota has started an official White House petition urging the president to create a "Do Not Kill list." Like the Do Not Call list for telemarketers, the Do Not Kill list would allow Americans to sign up and avoid being a target on Obama's kill list. If the Do Not Kill list petition tops 25,000 signatures, it will merit an official response from the White House. (And hopefully that response won't be a Hellfire missile.) In addition, 17 Congressmen, including Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Ron Paul (R-TX), and Charles Rangel (D-NY) have signed a letter urging greater transparency and accountability for the U.S. drone program.