Law in Contemporary Society

Wings of Contention: Unraveling the CIA's Drone Program

-- By JorgeRosario - 21 Apr 2024

Over the last few decades, the United States’ approach to war has been evolving. Unmanned aerial drones have become the new wave in violent conflict and counter-terrorism. They have slowly become the weapon of choice among federal organizations; this being especially true for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Under the Obama administration, the CIA’s paramilitary role was limited through regulations, as other countries began developing their own drone programs in reaction to the United States’ monopoly of the unmanned alternative. However, President Trump wrongfully overturned this decision, removing the regulations and giving the CIA fundamentally ‘free reign’ over these unfeeling, unwavering killing machines. While many departments conduct drone strikes, the Agency has pioneered the use of signature strikes, raising into question the ethicality of these combat strategies and new military humanism rationales that crumble upon closer inspection. It is pivotal to move past the scope of drone essentialism and look beyond the technology itself and towards the targeting protocols that are employed.

After the passage of the AUMF, the U.S drone program has remained largely absolved from harsh regulations. Signature strikes detect patterns of suspicious behavior and engage swiftly to neutralize the identified targets. These types of strikes are almost solely controlled by artificial intelligence and encrypted data, with a human overseer performing only minimal maneuvers. These types of strikes have been legitimized through New military humanism, “a discourse that validates drones as minimizing civilian casualties and a concern to spare the lives of the innocent.” While the U.S drone program, especially the CIA’s signature strikes, are argued to be a more lawful and consistent with humanitarian values method of engaging in warfare, a deeper dive into this military humanism reveals its flaws.

The drones’ coding has shown to regularly fail and misidentify civilians as targets, prompting the human overseer (who does not have full knowledge on what is making the drone indicate a target) to engage in narrative infilling, where the context surrounding a grainy video is unthinkingly filled in. This makes behavioral signatures ambiguous: are the group of men approaching American soldiers holding bombs or simply baskets? These are decisions that need to be made in a split decision. Furthermore, the fragmentation-type explosion not only kills the supposed ‘terrorist’ but also his wife and children, the latter end being considered collateral damage within the CIA reports. This ethical slippage in the usage of drones has allowed their transformation into weapons of terror capable of indiscriminate killing, instead of the pillar of precise and intentional counterterrorism efforts. This is precisely what happened to a 70-year-old Yemenise farmer who was misidentified and targeted while loading fertilizer into the back of his truck.

These fatal mishaps are what prompted the Obama administration to publicly impose the Jus ad bellum principle of “imminent threat” to their drone program, which required drone pilots to believe their targets would produce immediate harm if not neutralized. While these provisions would, in theory, fix the aforementioned ethical concerns associated with drone strikes by limiting the number of non-combatant casualties, it was discovered that Obama signed secret waivers allowing the CIA to continue their signature strikes in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Michael Boyle correctly depicts the reality that “drone strikes corrode the stability and legitimacy of local governments, deepen anti-American sentiment and create new recruits for Islamist networks aiming to overthrow these governments”. As individuals see their neighbors suffer at the hands of the U.S drone program, they become more inclined to support radicalized groups that claim to protect Arabian people from the encroaching West.

In addition to the aforementioned ethical corrosion that signature strikes and the decision to use vague remote targeting on individuals present in the U.S drone program, there are international human rights Laws concerns that cement the idea that these methods of targeting cannot continue to be used in warfare. Other than the indiscriminate taking of non-combatant lives and the incentive it provides terrorist organizations to grow, many signature strikes violate international humanitarian law (IHL). The IHL underscores its view on drone strikes from the principle of distinction, protecting civilians from being the object of attack in armed conflict. While some strikes comply with this principle by attacking individuals engaged in clearly nefarious activities (handling explosives, transporting weapons), many fail to meet this standard as a matter of law or “require evidence from the target the U.S is unlikely to have prior to conducting the strike.” This method of targeting is further condemned by the IHL’s insistence that individuals cannot be arbitrarily deprived of their right to life, which signature strikes are designed to do. Even with clear violations of IHL, the drone targeting program’s path to reform is unclear.

The lack of immense and proportionality in signature strikes presents a clear violation of international law, but raises a dense smokescreen on how the future of warfare should be conducted. The targeting software was created as a state of the art technology, paving the way for advanced warfare and mitigation of non-combatant lives. However, the software's imperfections and the reliance on patterns of behavior rather than confirmed identities have resulted in significant civilian casualties, undermining the very principles of precision and discrimination in warfare. A pathway to the future would likely include more stringent guidelines or heavier oversight from human operators, but it is unlikely to make a massive difference unless perspectives on drone warfare shift. A move from drone essentialism and new military humanitarianism into a holistic and progressive view that encompasses the targeting scheme rather than just the facade of technological innovation would likely shift the way drones are viewed and possibly limit their use.

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r3 - 29 May 2024 - 16:31:20 - JorgeRosario
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