With a dramatic trip to Kabul, President Obama announced the beginning of the end of the war in Afghanistan. But while wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, a third war is winding up: a war conducted entirely with drones.
It's a long-distance, video-game kind of war. A CIA agent sits before a computer in Langley, Va., with a joy stick in his hand. On the screen, he's watching video sent from a drone circling over northwest Pakistan. He spots a suspect car, home or gathering. He pushes the button, fires a missile, watches the explosion, then drives home, has a beer, mows the lawn and plays catch with his kids. No dirt, no blood, no guilt. Harmless – unless, of course, you're the victim on the ground in Pakistan.
Those drone strikes are happening more and more often. According to a report released this week by the New America Foundation, there have been 296 American drone strikes in northwest Pakistan since 2004. In three and a half years, President Obama has authorized almost six times as many strikes as George Bush did in eight years. The Obama administration has also initiated drone strikes in Yemen: 23 since May 2011.
Advertisement - story continues below
One problem is that drone strikes, while lethal, are not always accurate. Again, according to the New America Foundation survey, between 1,785 and 2,771 individuals have been killed in Pakistan by remote-controlled drones, of whom between 1,492 and 2,300 were militants. That puts the non-militant, or civilian, deaths at 17 percent. Including, says the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 174 children. Oops!
The use of drones also raises serious legal and moral questions. What legal authority does the United States have to conduct assassinations by air over countries we're not at war with? Does that apply to all nations? What would our response be if North Korea, or Iran, or China developed the same technology? And what is the morality of killing by remote control, without even flying over the country you're bombing?
But don't expect the use of drones to slow down. Expect the opposite. The drone industry is the fastest-growing segment of the defense industry today. As Jefferson Morley of Salon.com reported, an Air Force announcement posted in April anticipates more than quadrupling the size of the global drone war over the next four years. The drone industry's lobby group, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, claims 507 corporate members in 55 countries. And there's even a "Drone Caucus" in the House of Representatives comprised of more than 50 members of Congress.
Soon, thanks to their corporate and political cheerleaders, it won't be just military drones we have to worry about. Drones could be coming to a city or town near you, if they're not already there. A little-known provision of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, signed by President Obama on Feb. 14, directed the FAA to facilitate the use of drones by police and first responders by May 2012 and for commercial use by Sept. 30, 2015. Drones are already being used to patrol the border with Mexico. So far, some 56 federal, state and local government agencies – mainly police departments, public safety agencies and universities – have been authorized to fly drones in U.S. airspace at altitudes of less than 400 feet. And many more agencies will certainly adopt them.
Advertisement - story continues below
Now, to be sure, there are areas where drones could be invaluable: tracking forest fires, for example. For crowd control. Or search-and-rescue operations. You'd never have to call off a search because of darkness or bad weather. For smaller police departments, drones are also far cheaper to operate. Helicopters cost about $1,500 an hour to fly; drones cost less than $50.
But, as with military drones, domestic drones also come with their share of problems. How will the public be notified when and where drones are being used? What happens to the right of privacy when there's always a drone overhead? And will police departments be able to weaponize drones with tear gas? Or tasers? Or worse?
John Brennan, President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, insisted this week the U.S. only conducts drone strikes "in full accordance with the law." But there are no laws governing the use of drones, either militarily or domestically. Maybe we should slow down to consider the legality – and morality – of drones before rushing forward with the technology.
Meanwhile, next time you hear persistent buzzing overhead, look carefully. It may not be a mosquito. It may be a drone.