What the U.S. Won’t Discuss

Authors: James Cavallaro and Sarah Knuckey

Publish Date: September 26, 2012

Publication Title: The New York Times Room For Debate

Format: Op-Ed or Opinion Piece

Citation: James Cavallaro and Sarah Knuckey, What the U.S. Won't Discuss, The New York Times Room For Debate, September 26, 2012.

Full Opinion Piece

U.S. Tries to Drown Out the Downsides of Drone Strikes

[via The New York Times] In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a “surgically precise” and effective tool that makes the U.S. safer by enabling “targeted killings” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral damage. This narrative is false.

After nine months of research, two investigations in Pakistan, and more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, journalists, humanitarian workers and medical doctors, we found significant evidence of harmful civilian impacts of drone policies.

It is almost impossible to have an informed debate, because the government tries to shield its program from democratic accountability.

First, there are civilian deaths and injuries; 474 to 881 civilians have been killed by drones in Pakistan since 2004, according to the most reliable available estimates.

Second, U.S. drone strikes cause considerable harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians. Civilians face the constant worry that a strike may be fired at any moment – at someone’s home or car, or at a school, mosque or market. Civilians and even humanitarian workers are afraid to assist victims for fear they may be killed in a second strike.

Third, publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the U.S. safer is ambiguous at best: they have certainly killed alleged combatants, but the number of “high-level” targets killed is estimated at just 2 percent, and there is evidence that strikes have motivated further attacks.

Fourth, U.S. practices undermine respect for the rule of law and international legal protections, and may set dangerous precedents for other governments. Do we want a world in which governments are permitted to track down their enemies in any other nation, and target and kill them, with no real oversight or accountability? Even a brief thought experiment along those lines becomes very frightening, very quickly.

What should be done? The U.S. should conduct a fundamental re-evaluation of current targeted killings practices, taking into account all available evidence, the concerns of all relevant stakeholders, and the short- and long-term costs and benefits. These stakeholders must include the Pakistani civilians directly affected by drones.

Today, it is almost impossible to have an informed public debate about U.S. policies on drone warfare – primarily because of efforts by the government to shield its targeted killings program from democratic accountability. The U.S. should release Department of Justice memorandums outlining the legal basis for targeted killings, make public critical information about U.S. policies, ensure independent investigations into drone strike deaths (with prosecutions, as appropriate) and establish compensation programs for affected civilians.