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Pure Onsense

Eyes On the Sky

Scott Zuke

(3/2013) In February The Guardian newspaper reported that a group of academics, advocacy groups, and Nobel laureates has gathered to launch the "Stop the Killer Robots" campaign, to pressure the international community to draft a global treaty against autonomous weapons. These would include drones currently in development that could, without human controllers, identify and strike targeted individuals anywhere in the world. It still sounds a bit like science fiction, but it's a natural outgrowth of the wider public dialogue about rapid advances in drone technology, and whether stricter policy is needed to reign in their increasing use at home and abroad.

In Plato's dialogue, The Republic, a character named Glaucon tells the story of Gyges (GUY-jeez), a young man who found a magic ring and discovered that wearing it made him invisible. As soon as he learned of the power, Gyges immediately succumbed to selfish desires, using it to seduce the king's wife, enlist her help in killing the king, and seizing the crown for himself.

Glaucon fears that the parable reveals an inherent vulnerability in all people: "No one, it seems, would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice, or bring himself to keep away from other people's possessions and not touch them, when he could take whatever he wanted from the marketplace with impunity, go into people's houses and have sex with anyone he wished, kill or release from prison anyone he wished, and do all the other things that would make him like a god among humans…This is strong evidence that no one is just willingly, but only when compelled."

Today, critics of the Obama Administration share the same fear when it comes to the use of drones. Under Presidents Bush and Obama the use of drones in counter-terrorism operations in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia have been a kind of public secret: we know that they are being used frequently, to the extent that stories about which al Qaeda leader was just killed seem to blend into each other day to day, yet the White House has maintained a no comment policy, and many details are still being kept tightly under wraps for security reasons. The public has afforded the government wide latitude in its operations against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups for years, but recently the tide of opinion has shifted towards wondering if the Administration has worn the Ring of Top Secrecy a little too long for comfort.

Rosa Brooks, of Foreign Policy magazine, argues that when used for foreign operations, armed drones effectively lower the financial, political, and human cost of resorting to deadly force, making them an irresistible temptation for an Administration trying to balance the public's war weariness with its demands for prevention of terrorist attacks. They also open risky paths for the Executive Branch to circumvent Congressional approval for lethal strikes, and set a poor example for other countries that aren't all that far behind in developing drone capabilities themselves. "The real question isn't whether U.S. drone strikes are 'legal,'" Brooks writes. "The real question is: Do we really want to live in a world in which the U.S. government's justification for killing is so malleable?"

A recently leaked Department of Justice white paper that explains the legal justification for using drones to conduct targeted killing of U.S. citizens in foreign countries under limited circumstances drew a flurry of criticism from libertarian and civil liberties groups, calling it a violation of Constitutional rights. The Administration has argued fiercely that it follows strict procedures and conducts thorough deliberation before ordering the use of drones in

such situations, but the fear of deadly abuse of power has spurred louder demands for transparency and greater legal regulation of drones in combat.

Those worries have carried over into a developing debate over the domestic use of drones as well. Senator Rand Paul pledged in February to delay the confirmation of John Brennan to head the CIA until he received a promise from the Administration that drones would not be used to kill Americans on U.S. soil. "We’re talking about someone eating at a cafe in Boston, or New York, and a Hellfire missile comes raining in on them," Paul said on Fox News. His concern is comically unfounded and meant more to get attention than anything else, but it does illustrate the lack of a fully fleshed-out legal framework regulating the use of drones in U.S. airspace.

Domestically, drones have mainly been used as cheaper alternatives to helicopters for such things as surveying land, monitoring forest fires or U.S. borders, and providing reconnaissance for police so that they could enter an area safely. According to the crowd of dystopian alarmists, however, we're on the verge of a massive surveillance state, in which all of us will be under the constant eye of a domestic drone network.

Like most conspiracy theories, this fear relies on a belief that government officials are much more interested in average citizens than they really are, and have vastly more capacity to gather, analyze, and act upon data than they actually do, but there are valid privacy issues that remain to be dealt with through legislation and jurisprudence. The FAA is currently working on establishing safety protocols as drones are being incorporated into domestic airspace, and they could potentially be tasked with addressing property and privacy issues as well.

So far the public discussion about drones ranges from debates over ethics and the morality of remote killing, to rhetorical races to the bottom of slippery slopes, where peoples' worst fears are drawn from Hollywood and science fiction. Like the ring of Gyges, drones present us with a new technological capability that could draw us down a dark path. But there is remedy in the law. The law is how we strip away impunity and enforce accountability, and that's why it is important that the president follows through on his promise, made in the State of the Union, to improve transparency in our drone usage and policy.

Read other article by Scott Zuke