In the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States faced a new kind of war, our leaders said, one fought against a network of terrorists, unrestricted by international borders. The Bush administration sought from Congress the broadest possible authority to pursue and eradicate those responsible for the murder of some 3,000 American citizens.
That authorization gave birth to a war in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida hatched the attacks on 9/11. But the pursuit of al-Qaida and its affiliates -- some of them with no real connection to the original attacks -- has ranged into Pakistan, Yemen, North Africa and beyond. The iconic weapon of America's war on terror has become the armed drone, capable of tracking and killing alleged enemies on one side of the world while its operators sit comfortably at computers on the other.
Drone warfare has rewritten the military playbook, scrambled the international laws of war and left U.S. laws behind. The Bush and Obama administrations have made up rules as they went along, even classifying as top secret the legal justifications for the use of drones.
A Justice Department memo has now surfaced that empowers the government to use drones to strike against a wider range of threats, and with less evidence required, than many in Washington had assumed. It even allows targeted drone assassinations of U.S. citizens.
Some drone attacks are not so finely targeted, notably the "signature strikes," authorized by the CIA, that assume any group of unidentified young men acting like terrorists -- whatever that means -- are legitimate targets. Civilian casualties of such attacks have sparked outrage that undermines the large U.S. goal of winning hearts and minds.
Now the United Nations is investigating U.S. drone warfare, and some members of Congress are belatedly sounding an alarm.
Such attention is long overdue. The use of drones opens up a Pandora's box of complications, including unanswered questions about what happens when other countries acquire these weapons and assume they can deploy them in the same way the U.S. has. Administration secrecy about drone-use policies and legal justifications has prevented the debate America must have over its newest weapons.
That debate deserves more nuance than it's getting. There's a world of difference between targeting Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen leading a terrorist cell in Yemen, and using drones on dissidents here in the U.S. Commanders ordering drone attacks are no more "playing God" than those that sent B-52s to drop their deadly payloads on civilians in America's other wars.
Military and Intelligence officials love drones for their precision and their ability to inflict damage without risking U.S. casualties. Contractors who build and sell drones -- for civilian as well as military use, to other countries as well as the U.S. -- will continue to extend their capabilities and encourage their use.
Page 2 of 2 - It is up to elected officials, with guidance from the people who elected them, to write new rules for new weapons and new wars. Drones aren't going away. Let's figure out the right way to use them.
— MetroWest Daily News