Drones – technically, most drones are actually remotely piloted vehicles in contrast to true drones that fly preplanned missions and operate without real time human guidance – have become the weapon of choice in the continuing U.S. fight against terrorists, the Taliban, foreign drug lords, and other foes.
The Predator, flown by the U.S. military, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and some U.S. allies, is the drone that has received the greatest media attention. Several, more advanced drones are also operational, e.g., the Reaper. All of these drones can transmit live video; many can also launch one or more missiles (such as the Hellfire air to ground missile that often has a 150-pound warhead) at a remotely designated target.
In addition to less controversial surveillance and reconnaissance missions that may entail ethical issues (e.g., transgressing national sovereignty, invasion of privacy, and violations of Congressional mandates requiring notification of Congress about missions and assigning certain intelligence responsibilities to particular agencies), the Bush and Obama administrations have employed drones for targeted killings. In a targeted killing, the CIA or U.S. military identifies the person or persons as a high value target and the appropriate government authority then authorizes a drone launched missile strike.
Among the important ethical issues that targeted killings raise are:
1. Who (or what court, committee, or other entity) should authorize including a person on a list approved for targeted killing? Under current U.S. policy, authorization may come from a military field commander, from the Secretary of Defense, the President, the Vice President, and perhaps several others, depending upon the list is the one kept by the CIA, the military's Joint Special Operations Command, Central Command, etc. What check(s) should the process incorporate to avoid abuses?
2. What standard of proof should be required for an approval authority to authorize including a person on a list for targeted killing? Does the collected evidence meet that standard? Is the evidence current and reliable? What are the best definitions for "current" and "reliable"?
3. Once included on an approved list for targeted killing, who should authorize an actual strike, and of what type, against an individual(s)? Other means have included cruise missiles, ordnance from crewed aircraft, and use of ground troops and special forces.
4. How much collateral damage will the strike probably cause? Is that anticipated collateral damage proportional to the potential benefits of killing the target? What are the consequences if the attack fails?
5. Should one standard apply in case of U.S. citizens and another for non-U.S. citizens? What moral justification exists for that double standard, especially from a Christian perspective in which God loves all people equally and regards all people as worthy of equal respect and dignity, and, therefore by implication, as having equal rights?
6. Prima facie, targeted killing appears to deprive U.S. citizens of their Constitutional rights to counsel, fair trial, due process, and so forth. Previous suspensions of Constitutional rights in the name of national security (e.g., Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and the WWII internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent) proved unjustifiable, failing to make the nation more secure. What evidence exists to justify violating the Constitutional rights of citizens approved for targeted killings? Why not attempt apprehension and adjudication?
7. More broadly, international law represents an attempt to curtail violence across national borders, one nation unilaterally taking action in another nation's territory. Do target killings represent an unintended step toward lawlessness, inviting other nations to take similar steps against real or perceived foes in third countries? For example, what if China conducted a targeted killing of a Chinese dissident living in the U.S. and who is a Chinese citizen? How do alternatives to targeted killing compare ethically?
8. If targeted killing constitutes an act of warfighting, does targeted killing of terrorists implicitly confer the status of warrior upon terrorists? Does the practice of targeted killing implicitly lend international legal sanction to reprisals against U.S. armed forces at home and abroad by tacitly acknowledging that a state of war exists between the U.S. and its enemies?
Future Ethical Musings posts will address some of these specific issues. In general, I'm deeply concerned about the lack of checks, oversight, and openness that surround current practices. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Furthermore, I want to live under the rule of law in a democratic society, two precepts that prima facie seem incompatible with targeted killings. History has repeatedly demonstrated that justifying otherwise morally suspect practices in the name of national security produces often unintended but adverse consequences. I see no reason to believe that this will not hold true for targeted killings as currently conducted.