Neil Macdonald: How serious is Obama about curbing the drone surge?

In a key speech this week, the U.S. president set out a host of supposed new safeguards for America's controversial practice of remote-controlled rough justice. But as Neil Macdonald writes, the underlying rationale for drone use has not fundamentally changed.

Policy speech this week would set new restrictions but underlying rationale unchanged

Members of the group Grandmothers Against War protest against U.S. drone strikes in New York in April 2013. Court challenges have also been brought against Washington's drone use. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

There is a man at large right now who, according to declassified U.S. government documents, is believed by both the CIA and the FBI to have been involved in bombing a passenger jet.

U.S. investigators traced the planting of the bombs, which killed 78 people, to employees of this man. A CIA document that has been public for some time quotes this man as having declared, a few days before the incident: "We are going to hit an …airliner."

Almost without question, this man qualifies for the treatment that has been meted out to so many other people considered terrorists by the United States — a missile, fired down from a drone, putting an end to his continued defiant existence.

Unfortunately, Luis Posada Carriles lives in Florida at the moment.

The forbearance of U.S. authorities likely has something to do with the fact that the passenger jet was Cuban, it was bombed during the Cold War in 1978, and Carriles was at the time working on and off for the CIA.

Cuba, of course, would love to get its hands on Carriles, but it's uncertain the Cubans have drones capable of reaching Miami.

And even if they did, one suspects the U.S. would take a dim view of other countries aping its remote-controlled rough justice.

(The Cubans can't even get rid of the military detention centre the Americans run in Guantanamo on the eastern end of their country — and nor can Barack Obama — but that's another story.)

The point here is that America, unlike most other countries, operates under a doctrine known as "extraterritoriality," meaning its military and intelligence agencies, if they feel it necessary, do things in other countries that Americans would view as acts of war if they were carried out in U.S. airspace or on U.S. soil.

Since the attacks of 9/11, U.S. agents have kidnapped people off the streets of other countries and packed them off to regimes that practice torture or to "black" CIA prisons operated in other countries and, therefore, like Guantanamo, out of the inconvenient jurisdiction of American courts of law.

They have also dispatched special forces hit teams to dispatch people like Osama bin Laden and unknown numbers of his fellow extremists.

But mostly, they've expanded their most beloved tool, the drones, operated all over the world by men and women sitting in front of computers here in the U.S.

Other countries have squawked from time to time, but the Global War On Terror begun under George W. Bush has trumped almost all these concerns.

Besides, oppressive regimes worldwide welcomed this whole idea of extrajudicial executions. If the democratic U.S. can dispatch its enemies in such a manner, why can't they?

Morality and drones

Lately, though, certain groups in this country have been demanding answers.

Human rights advocates have spoken out, and the American Civil Liberties Union has gone to court, trying to pry information on the drone assassinations from the government, which for years wouldn't even admit it existed.

That stonewalling, however, now appears to be changing — to an extent. [Column continues below graphic.]

This week, in what was billed as a policy-setting speech on counterterrorism, President Barack Obama stood at a podium and finally, formally acknowledged the drone program.

He defended their use as legal, both under American and international law.

He characterized them as just another efficient war-fighting weapon that entail fewer adverse consequences than sending in troops.

And he argued that he only signs off on a drone assassination when capture is impossible and there is "near-certainty" that no civilians will be killed or injured.

(Obama said he is "haunted" by the many civilians the strikes have killed, but didn't mention the fact that U.S. intelligence agencies have from time to time grabbed up the wrong people — such as Canada's Maher Arar and Germany's Khalid El-Masri — and subjected them to nightmares in foreign dungeons.)

In any event, Obama allowed: "To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.

President Obama outlines a new drone policy during a counterterrorism speech at the National Defence University at Fort McNair in Washington on Thursday. (Larry Downing / Reuters)

"This new technology raises profound questions about who is targeted and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality."

So, he announced, he is transferring the drone program to the American military, which in principle operates under more transparent constraints than the CIA.

Further, he said, he has signed new rules providing for more oversight and clarity on targeting, including what some are calling special "kill courts" to vet the lethal strikes in the first place.

Obama also talked about eventually winding it all down: "This war, like all wars, must end. That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands."

Not specifically targeted

Still, much remains unexplained. Obama, for example, acknowledged the CIA has killed four American citizens abroad with drone-mounted missiles.

Three, said the president, were not specifically targeted. No explanation was given.

At least one of the four, Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki, was obliterated in 2011 as he gathered with other men one evening in Yemen. His father was a radical al-Qaeda cleric the CIA also tracked and killed in a separate strike two weeks earlier, but there has been no mention in any reports that the son had been considered a terrorist.

The strike on the younger al-Awlaki has been widely described as a mistake (Obama, reportedly, was angry when he was told of it), but killing one of your own citizens on an erroneous presumption is pretty serious.

And that's to say nothing of all the other drone killings of non-U.S. citizens that were based on bad intelligence or mistakes.

For years, the American public has, by and large, been just fine with these tactics. Out of sight, out of mind and all that; plus, innocent casualties are an unfortunate byproduct of war, so sorry, nothing can be done.

It's also true, without question, that the drone strikes have done away with some pretty evil individuals who were indeed planning or attempting to kill Americans.

Most experts here take a nuanced view. Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, welcomed Obama's new guidelines: "I think every time you use a drone, or a commando, or any other kind of state-sponsored assassination, whether it is a new technology or not, you have to have extremely good reasons and go through multiple rounds of reasoning.

"But when you are at war, you also have to kill people who are trying to kill you."

Consider, though, that given the awesome, worldwide reach of the American intelligence machine, why has it taken so many years to put these new guidelines in place? And are even more needed?

As Obama put it, "For the families of these [dead] civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss."

Consider also that Obama fully intends to keep up the drone assassinations whenever he deems it necessary. (As a sop to concerned conservatives, he tossed a line into the speech saying "No president should ever deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.")

The rest of the world is left to take whatever comfort it can find from that.

Canadians who take a fairly forgiving view of American excesses, meanwhile, might want to remember the name Maher Arar.

The U.S. has never apologized, and never justified sending him off to suffer the tender mercies of jailers in Damascus.

"Extraterritoriality," in other words, could happen to any of us, in its many different guises.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.