In May of last year, David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus from 2006 to 2008, co-authored a strategic analysis ("Death From Above, Outrage Down Below," New York Times, May 17, 2009). He emphasized that the "public outrage" among Pakistan's civilians caused by our drone attacks "is hardly limited to the region in which they take place."
Extensively reported by the news media, "the persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people's deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government and contributes to Pakistan's instability."
A year later, in Foreign Policy in Focus (fpif.org, May 19), Conn Hallinan, reporting on the increase in drone strikes in Pakistan, notes that the continuing controversy over the actual number of corollary civilian deaths "is a sharply debated issue." Neither President Obama, who authorizes them, nor the CIA, which does the actual killing, directly gives us the numbers. As for the Pakistani government's figures, Hallinan continues:
"The word 'civilian' is a slippery one, because no one knows exactly what criteria the United States uses to distinguish a 'militant' from a civilian. Is someone with a gun a 'militant'? Since large numbers of males in the frontier regions of Pakistan carry guns, that definition would target a huge number of people."
I mentioned this life-ending ambiguity in drone strikes to a person who claims to be concerned with human-rights abuses. Shrugging, she said: "I don't have to worry about that. The drones aren't coming here; and since they're pilotless, there are no American casualties. So I'm all for their use."
But drones are indeed in our skies.
Constitutionalist John Whitehead — who is also a careful master researcher — points out ("Drones Over America: Tyranny at Home," Rutherford.org, June 28), that "unbeknownst to most Americans, remote-controlled pilotless aircraft have been employed domestically for years now. They were first used as a national-security tool for patrolling America's borders, and then as a means of monitoring citizens."
He cites a 2006 news story, moreover, that "one North Carolina county is using (an unmanned aerial vehicle) equipped with low-light and infrared cameras to keep watch on its citizens. The aircraft has been dispatched to monitor gatherings of motorcycle riders at the Gaston County fairgrounds from just a few hundred feet in the air — close enough to identify faces."
As John Whitehead also reports, "Drones (are) a $2 billion cornerstone of the Obama administration's war efforts." And Defense Secretary Robert Gates adds, "The more we have used them, the more we have identified their potential in a broader and broader set of circumstances."
So broad that — and this is Whitehead's core discovery — "the Federal Aviation Administration is facing mounting pressure from state governments and localities to issue flying rights for a range of (unmanned aerial vehicles) to carry out civilian and law-enforcement activities."
You think an unmanned aerial vehicle won't be interested in you, innocent of any conceivable (even by the CIA) terrorist connections? Do not underestimate an all-seeing, suspicious government. "State police," writes Whitehead, "hope to send them up to capture images of speeding cars' license plates." And, in 2007, "insect-like drones were seen hovering over political rallies in New York and Washington, seemingly spying on protesters."
As I was writing about drones watching over us, I found a triumphant breakthrough ("Unmanned Phantom Eye Demonstrator Unveiled," spacedaily.com, July 13): "The Boeing Company has unveiled the hydrogen-powered Phantom Eye unmanned airborne system." Said Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works, at the St. Louis unveiling ceremony:
"Phantom Eye is the first of its kind and could open up a whole new market in collecting data and communications. ... The capabilities in Phantom Eye's design will offer game-changing opportunities for our military, civil and commercial customers."
Will we citizens have any say in whether we want to be part of this continually omnivorous government game? Whitehead gives you the answer: "Unfortunately, to a drone, everyone is a suspect because drone technology makes no distinction between the law-abiding individual and the suspect. Everyone gets monitored, photographed, tracked and targeted."
But not terminally targeted like the innocent civilians during Predator and Reaper strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. However, the Obama administration has made it clear that, like its predecessor, it has decided the battlefield against terrorism can be anywhere — including the United States.
And should there be another Sept. 11 or a successful suicide bomber in New York's Times Square, the government — with its ever-increasing, undeniable evidence of homegrown jihadists (who look just like your neighbors) may use unmanned aerial vehicles not only for surveillance but in the self-defense of us all. Drones have already committed extrajudicial killings outside our borders. Are we immune at home?
Whitehead summons James Madison: "A standing military force with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home." Are the drones to remain beyond the American rule of law? It's past time to begin to find out.
So far, we are told nothing credible of whom we are targeting, and why, in other countries. We should at least be let in on the rules of this grim game as it may affect our own fate. Failing our responsibility as citizens, we have become almost entirely complicit in the extent and depth of our being continually surveilled at home outside the Constitution.
Will drones continue to hover outside the Constitution? Barack Obama knows.