What Makes a Drone Strike "Legitimate"?

The Brookings Institution's Lawfare blog (tag line "hard national security decisions", to show they are super-serious about accepting nearly any justification for state murder the US government comes up with) has taken offense to a presentation on drone strikes in Pakistan put out by Pitch Interactive, a data visualization company.  The post in question, written by Ritika Singh, concludes that "the presentation of the data set is deeply flawed", presumably due to the fact it relied on data unpleasant to the usual foreign policy consensus, and didn't give enough weight to the charges of 'militant' and 'combatant'.

How casually we speak of murder.

Though the post also questions the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's data, Singh's primary point of contention is what Pitch does with the victims whose identities are contended.  These are the vast majority of the kills (that alone should raise a red flag), and Pitch groups them together under the label "other":

The category of victims we call “OTHER” is classified differently depending on the source. The Obama administration classifies any able-bodied male a military combatant unless evidence is brought forward to prove otherwise. This is a very grey area for us. These could be neighbors of a target killed. They may all be militants and a threat. What we do know for sure is that they are targeted without being given any representation or voice to defend themselves.

Despite this mostly-reasonable explanation, Singh claims the "other" category is "almost surely composed overwhelmingly of legitimate targets."  How much faith must one have in US intelligence in order to believe that incredible statement?  Taking into account history - even recent history - this can only be seen as wholly irrational.  The intelligence relied on for major foreign policy decisions ends up being wrong, time and time again.  Though, to be fair, the primary function of the intelligence agencies is not actually to provide information in order to shape and influence policy decisions.  They are instead designed to manufacture evidence to support actions which leaders are already intent on carrying out.  Any "need" for America's exponentially expanding national security apparatus can be attributed more to influencing public opinion than to gathering information on enemies.  The Iraq War was a picture-perfect example of that.

But, not only does the intelligence stem from this type of confirmation bias, the agencies themselves contain within an active incentive to produce 'terrorists'.  This is not at all a wild concept.  Just think about it.  Who gets promoted at the CIA, FBI, etc: those who find 'terrorists', or those who do not? The consensus is that there are lots and lots of Bad Guys out there, and they must be found and dealt with before they commit Evil Deeds.  So, that's what gets accomplished.  It's nothing new.  Once upon a time, they were Reds; today, they're terrorists.  The entire industry (and indeed the entire idea behind it) is set up specifically to search out and identify enemies.  It's an irredeemably broken system for anyone who aims for peace.

Summing the drone presentation up, Singh is even more blunt, and again focused on what victims people will perceive as being legitimate: "Put simply, the visualization is implying that of 3,105 drone-strike casualties, only 47 are known to be legitimate kills. And that is nonsense."

The 47 are those "high profile targets" - basically, the few targets the government actually has been willing to give names.  And again the argument seems to be along the same lines as that surrounding intelligence: "Trust us."  But how are we to do so in good conscience, when time and time again they claim to have killed suspected terrorists who turn up alive the next month, not to mention exaggerate the retinue of nearly every target (to the point where it has become a joke whenever someone mentions the "#2 guy in al-Qaeda")?

Despite this, and the fact that Singh was so unhappy over the use of the BIJ data, no qualms are expressed over the authenticity of those 47 deaths and how they were counted.  Could this be because the source of the data - the New America Foundation - tends to cater more to Lawfare's brand of foreign policy 'realism'?  That is, even though they've exposed that only 2% of drone strikes in Pakistan killed so-called terrorist leaders, they can still be trusted to send the right message?  Something like 'While there is some need to cut down on civilian casualties and improve precision, the drone program is nonetheless absolutely essential to our national security', perhaps?

Putting aside that most of the reports of these high profile strikes are identical to the others - in that, when you read through them, you notice they're filled with the usual terminology: alleged, supposedly, likely, potentially, etc. - there is the larger question completely ignored in this dialogue.  What makes killing even known disaffected persons in Pakistan (or in any other country) a legitimate function of national security?

If you pose this question to most foreign policy writers, the justification you get is based on the targets being imminent threats.  Now, historically, imminent has been taken to mean something akin to when someone is point a gun at you and threatening to shoot.  That seems like a fairly reasonable scenario, and we would be hard pressed to not give someone the right to self-defense within it.  Though, there is something to be said for attempting to disable the person rather than shooting to kill.  Taking a life should always be our last resort.

Today, in order to justify the entirety of American foreign policy post-9/11, it has become essential to redefine imminent to mean something wholly different.  Imminent now is said to mean - more or less - a potential occurrence any time in the future.  Clearly neither Iraq or Afghanistan was on the cusp of acquiring technology capable of attacking the United States, nor had any intention of doing so in the near future, but we were warned that if left alone, they would attack us.  Clearly a local fighter halfway across the world - who has trouble even attacking with any success his own government - is not an imminent threat to the United States or any of its people, and yet they (often alongside their families) are blown to pieces on a regular basis.

Like everyone else, I'm willing to accept that people, no matter where they currently reside, could potentially be a threat to my existence.  However, I'm more concerned over both why they have chosen the path they have, and why the US government seems to think they're deserving of death, rather than one of the many other alternatives we use in our lives to counter threats of any kind.  Why kill them rather than attempt to understand what has made them so upset that they would aim to terrorize others in response?

Is there something that sort of question might reveal about the nature of America which causes people to recoil from even attempting to answer it?

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