Death by drone – a moral morass

The Intercept has received a massive ‘data dump’ of documents concerning the USA’s drone program against terrorists, including kill operations.  It’s not only mind-bendingly complex, but to anyone with any sort of morality or conscience it’s a terrifying illustration of what happens when faceless individuals and mindless computers make life-or-death decisions – decisions that have so far killed far more innocent bystanders than they have legitimate targets.

The Intercept’s coverage can be read here.  I urge you to do so, to see what our government is doing in our name, but without our knowledge or consent.  It’s frightening.

As the Telegraph pointed out in its report on the leaked documents;

Almost all of the victims of American drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan during a five-month period were civilians, according to a leaked trove of classified intelligence documents.

. . .

The source said he had chosen to come forward because the public had a right to know about the “assassinations” that are continuing to take place:

“This outrageous explosion of watch listing – of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong,” he said.

“We’re allowing this to happen. And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it.”

The documents show how drone strikes are often based on thin intelligence, and have an incalculable civilian toll. Accidental victims are then labelled “enemies killed in action”, even if there is no immediate evidence of to suggest that they were hostile to the US government.

Details of a special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan, Operation Haymaker, show that between January 2012 and February 2013, drone stikes killed more than 200 people, of which only 35 were intended.

During one five-month period of the operation, the documents show, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.

In Yemen and Somalia, where the US has much more limited intelligence gathering capabilities, those running the drone programme are often unable confirm the identities of the people killed by it.

“Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association,” the source said. When “a drone strike kills more than one person, there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate.”

. . .

US intelligence agents use information from government watch lists and other military agencies to begin tracking potential targets. The leaked documents show that those thought eligible for the kill list are then profiled, with their information then crammed onto a small document “known as a baseball card” according to the source.

More “operational information” is added, before the file goes into a “target information folder” that is passed up the chain of command. The president must then sign off on chosen targets.

The process by which people are considered eligible for a baseball card is a complex and nebulous method.

“You’re relying on the fact that you do have all these very powerful machines, capable of collecting extraordinary amounts of data and information,” sometimes giving personnel “godlike powers” the source said.

Moreover, according to a separate investigative report, many of the people helping compile this information are private contractors, who may not be bound by the same rules or accountability structure as members of the United States military.

There’s more at the link.

This is truly frightening.  The life of human beings is literally being decided by bureaucrats, without a shred of actual evidence being presented to a court of law to decide whether a death sentence is actually justified.  The victims include US citizens.  I’ve no doubt at all that some of them deserved their fate . . . but if the documents are correct, they’re a small minority of those who are still, to this day, being killed in our name, but without our knowledge or sanction.

The next question, of course, is this:  if it’s acceptable for nameless, faceless bureaucrats to do this to people in other countries, what’s to stop them doing the same thing in this country to citizens whom they regard as a threat to their policies or powers?



  1. Which also begs THIS question:
    What if they already ARE killing people in this country who are a threat to their policies?

  2. If one wrote that as a dystopian sci-fi novel it would be a good, if grim read. I rather suspect that as far as the various victims of the drones are concerned, the US is rapidly becoming associated with a capricious, malevolent force. And fighting against such forces is generally regarded as heroic and popular.
    Death from the sky is all very well and good for Greek Tragedies. But I'd rather not be a citizen of Thebes in the plays of Euripides.

  3. Another thoughtless fear campaign against drones; it erodes the very case you're trying to build. Killing innocents is bad, but there is no difference whatsoever between being killed by a bomb dropped from a plane or bomb dropped from a plane. The only difference is where the pilot sits. Even in the article cited one of the cited statistics is for "airstrikes" which is unlikely to differentiate at all between drone and plane, nor should it.

    We should be focusing on the flimsy evidence used to arbitrarily kill people on the ground, and on the lack of surveillance and intel, the lack of accountability on the whole. Instead they (and by extension, you) are trying to spin the story, missing the point entirely.

  4. More oversight would be good and I have concerns about such programs too, but the report is remarkably short on what "unintended targets" means and that is really the crucial question. Consider some possibilities.

    1. "Jihadi Joe" is targeted and the drone kills him at a training camp surrounded by fellow organization members and those being trained. None of the people apart from "Jihadi Joe" was an "intended target".

    2. "Jihadi Joe" gets taken out while meeting with the people who supply him with food, water and ammuniation outside of his training camp. These were not "intended targets" but were his direct business associates that helped keep his operation going.

    3. "Jihadi Joe" keeps his wives and kids at the camp and they are killed in the attack and these are the unintended targets.

    4. "Jihadi Joe" is hit while at home on the weekend. HIs family and neighbours are the unintended targets.

    5. Phyllis's wedding reception is hit by mistake. Obviously everybody here is unintended.

    If the "unintended targets" are from case 1 & 2 i'd have to say I don't really care and good riddance to them. I'd suggest Joe was responsible for his families deaths in #3 for putting them in harms way. #4 is wrong and #5 is a tragic catastrophe.

    Until we get a clear idea of what an "unintended target" is and see it broken down though we can't meaningfully understand the problem.

    It does no good to say "civilians" as even Jihadi Joe is technically a civilian. Saying "US Citizen" doesn't really matter either. If the citizen in question was standing next to Joe, shaking his hand and plotting to use that citizenship to make infiltration and attack easier, well, good riddance to bad rubbish.

    At least in the reporting i've seen "unintended target" is seen as a synonym for "innocent" but that isn't clear and in a lot of cases probably isn't the case.

    If the drone strikes 90% "unintended target" rate was all/mostly cases #4 and #5 then I agree it is a serious problem, if they are all/nearly all cases #1 & #2 then I don't think there is a problem.

    My guess is that the 90% number it taken just by lumping everything together and declaring rare instances to be the norm. I've seen feminists do the same with statistics for "domestic violence". Declaring some horrendous rate of "domestic abuse" and citing a number. When you look at the number you discover that the rate is for a whole laundry list of things that really don't belong together. They start the list with "murders and violent assaults" and end the list with "raising voices and slamming doors", and all of this is rolled up together and fit into one label with the list started with the alarming cases and the trival crap generally hidden in an etc. Then of course you discover the actual problem stuff is incredibly rare and the trivial crap makes up 99% of the number. This may well be the case here.

  5. Such things are tolerable in wartime. Since this administration has stated repeatedly that we are not at wor, then such things should not be done.

  6. It's okay, God will know his own.

    Sounds to me like an inevitable consequence of using military troops for policing; it was a lot simpler back in the 1700s, when you could just grab some Scot with a gun and bang, Jacobite, string him up and off you go.
    Now police are supposed to do all sorts of things – things soldiers aren't, and shouldn't be, trained for.

  7. It sounds sort of like this from the Weekly Standard, only for an overtly deadly purpose:

    According to the ACLU, “China appears to be leveraging all the tools of the information age—electronic purchasing data, social networks, algorithmic sorting—to construct the ultimate tool of social control. It is, as one commentator put it, ‘authoritarianism, gamified.’ ” In the system, everyone is measured by a score ranging from 350 to 950, and that score is linked to a national ID card. In addition to measuring your financial credit, it will also measure political compliance. Expressing the wrong opinion—or merely having friends who express the wrong opinion—will hurt your score. The higher your score, the more privileges the government will grant you.

    By the way,if you own Yahoo stock, you're invested in this Chinese operation. But of course, it can't happen here.

  8. It's not being 'done in your name' Peter. I will happily sign on the dotted line for this and answer for it. I swear, sometimes the differences between a libertarian and a liberal progtard are merely conversational.

    The Constitution is not a suicide pact. The right to freedom of religion does not trump the right to life and if you are in a moral quandary over it – go find a stress free safe place, pour some herbal tea – and DEAL WITH IT.

    I am just peachy killing their women and children and will continue to support doing so until their filthy holy men put a stop to their targeting and killing ours. Hells bells – those animals can't even get along among themselves – every day ISIS or ISIL or whatever those mutts call themselves – are murdering civilians and even beheading toddlers. Europe is drowning in refugees from the nations they ruin.

    And before some turd brain says it – yeah, I've heard that old nickel about trading freedom for security. That one didn't fly in WW1 or WW2 and it doesn't apply here. The people you are pleading for think women are dirt, freedom is an abomination, and that God himself gives them dispensation to murder anyone they want. Spare me the sanctimonious BS.

    It's a WAR, children. It is a war of barbarians against the civilized. Some of you really need to get out off that comfortable couch and actually look at these mutts you are defending. They are not your friends, they will not forgive you, and they hate you as much as they hate me. If you're going to live, try to do it in the real world.

  9. All terrorist are civilian by definition.

    If you are offended, we can go back to saturation bombing of cities like the good old moral days of WWII. I believe faceless military bureaucrats made those decisions as well, base many time on flawed data.

    War is hell.


  10. @Glen Filthie: Clearly you don't subscribe to the Golden Rule.

    "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

    If it's OK for us to do it to others, it's OK for them to do it to us. Does that thought make you comfortable?

  11. So we've fallen back to the McNamara "body count" metric?
    (translation: There has been no credible improvement towards our goal – whatever it was – but these numbers get bigger so we can pretend we're doing our job.)

  12. @DiveMedic… yeah, i remember that last time that the gummint bombed that picnic and got that guy. you remember that? it was… umm. Oh DAMN – that's right, they've Never Done That. Peter, I seriously don't think that kind of crazy shit will ever happen unless armageddon is really in the cards.

    And @Peter, the Golden Rule is in full effect here. Yes, Yes: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

    I believe that's exactly WTF we are doing.

    You're being a half price SJW.

  13. Something just as fundamental in the piece is the unstated question, "Is the concept of 'civilian' still valid?"

  14. This "video game" mentality hearkens back to the Gulf War (early '90s) when we started using remote-controlled weaponry. Mistakes are always possible in any sort of armed conflict, but (IMHO) they increase as people remove themselves from the actual battleground. Advances that safeguard our soldiers inevitably result in more distance from the battlefield, which lead to a higher error rate. In the '90s, Clinton could lob a few SCUDs without placing US troops directly in harm's way, so that became the PC choice. Obama is vehemently opposed to having US troops overseas, but drone strikes are a way to show that we're still engaged in the region.

    Ultimately, in order to be engaged in a region, we need to have boots on the ground … men (& some women) who can gather actionable intelligence, scout out possible allies … none of which can be done from drones.

  15. …the concept of civilians off limits? DOn't be ridiculous. Not really a student of warfare, but it seems to me that's a romantic notion that's been limited to very few wars. Maybe as late as WWI even. Ask the Jews, eh?

    So Really, WTF is wrong with you all? The "video game" mentality is a misbegotten attempt to be nice and minimize "collateral damage". It's all about Good Feelz.

    Well, screw that. Saturation bombing would really REALLY do the trick and eliminate unintended targets, wouldn't it? Yup. They're ALL intended!

    No Nukes. Just Dum Gravity Bomz Away! They're Cheap Too. And to hell with ground engagement. There shouldn't be anybody left on the ground to engage… EVAH!

  16. To all who've misquoted or misrepresented the Golden Rule: No, it doesn't work that way.

    I'm a Christian (albeit not a very good one) and a retired pastor. My default response will always come from that background, and strive to be faithful to it. For those of you who aren't Christian, you'll have to consult your own faith (if any) for how to respond. For me, the default is the Golden Rule. It's not a question of "doing unto others as they have done to us", or "doing unto others what they want to do to us, only doing it first". The original rule may be found at Matthew 7:12. That's what I try to follow.

    (Of course, that doesn't prevent me from defending myself against unjust or illegitimate attack. That's Biblical too. However, the Golden Rule is a first response, not the last!

  17. @Peter "the Golden Rule is a first response, not the last!"

    Precisely. First response has long since been bled.

  18. Japan outlawed firearms because they made the fighting to impersonal and made it easier to kill

    aerial bombs extended this

    drone strikes extend this further

    all of them extend the 'distance' between the person pulling the trigger and the act of killing someone.

    There is also the distance between the person giving the order to pull the trigger and the person dong the pulling. Arguably that was even worse in the past, but it can get pretty bad now with the distance between the analyst deciding something may be a valid target and the politician deciding to authorize attacks.

    As for applying the Golden Rule, if you take that too strictly you never defend yourself. How can you justify exchanging fire with Nazis if you strictly apply the Golden Rule?

    When to stop applying the Golden Rule and start fighting back is a question that there is no clear-cut answer to. Different people will draw the line at different places. I respect those who draw the line so that they wait longer before changing, as long as they do it consistently (i.e. when they are the ones directly affected, not just calling for others to apply it)

    David Lang

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