U.S. Officials Defend Drone Attacks in Pakistan Against U.N. Criticism

A U.S. Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile sets off from its hangar at Bagram air base in Afghanistan (Bonny Schoonakker / AFP-Getty Images)

U.S. officials are citing Pakistani officials' acquiescence, if not support, for drone-borne missile strikes on suspected terrorist targets as part of the Obama administration's defense against a United Nations human-rights monitor's warning about possible legal problems with such "targeted killings." In a report that will be presented on Thursday to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Philip Alston, an international-law professor hired by the U.N. to examine extrajudicial and targeted killings, says that recent and growing use by U.S. administrations of drone-borne missiles threatens to undermine international human-rights laws on war and to encourage killings by remote control.

While using drones to attack what amounts to military targets might not be strictly illegal under existing laws of war, Alston says, because such practices "make it easier to kill without risk to a state's forces, policymakers and commanders will be tempted to interpret the legal limitations on who can be killed, and under what circumstances, too expansively." Moreover, Alston says, "because [drone] operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio feed, there is a risk of developing a 'PlayStation' mentality to killing." Alston recommends that if a government carries out a targeted killing on another country's territory, the second state "should publicly indicate whether it gave consent, and on what basis." Alston adds that governments should also make public "the number of civilians collaterally killed in a targeted killing operation, and the measures in place to prevent such casualties."

While the American government's use of drone-borne missile attacks against suspected terrorist targets, particularly in Pakistan, was significantly stepped up in the summer of 2008 by the administration of President George W. Bush, the Obama administration by most accounts has intensified the use of the remotely fired missiles against suspected terror encampments; among the most recent terrorist suspects alleged to have been killed by a U.S. missile strike in Pakistan was the third-ranking leader of Al Qaeda's central command, longtime Osama bin Laden lieutenant Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid. Due to Pakistani government sensitivities and Islamabad's private pleas to officials that its knowledge and tolerance of such attacks should be kept secret, however, missile strikes on Pakistani territory are usually conducted by CIA-operated drones under the auspices of a presidential "covert action" finding, which requires that details of any such operation be kept officially secret.

Publicly, U.S. officials defend the drone-strike policy, but only in elliptical terms. "Without discussing or confirming any specific action, this agency's operations are, of course, designed from the very start to be lawful and are subject to close oversight within our government. Those are facts. The accountability is real, and so is the fidelity to American policy," insisted Paul Gimigliano, a spokesman for the CIA. In a speech earlier this year, Harold Koh, a noted academic expert on international human-rights law who joined the Obama administration as chief lawyer for the State Department, offered a somewhat more explicit defense of drone strikes. It is, Koh said, the "considered view of this administration...that targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war."

Privately, some officials argue that one reason that the drone campaign is legitimate is because whatever they might say about missile strikes publicly, in private Pakistani authorities are essentially America's partners. "If anyone's suggesting that the strikes at terrorists are against the will of the Pakistani government, they're wrong," said one official familiar with the policy, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information. "This is a common fight, not a unilateral one," the official said, adding, "That alone makes absurd the theory, put forward by a small handful of academics, that American officials would somehow be tried for murder in Pakistani courts."

The official continued: "These operations have a precision unsurpassed in the history of warfare. Not even the terrorists can credibly claim—let alone prove—that they cause large numbers of innocent casualties. They don't. What are the options for stopping these killers? The Pakistanis don't want the military fighting on their soil. They've made that clear. That choice is off the table. We have a way to get at dangerous terrorists operating in areas otherwise inaccessible to the central government or to conventional military units. It's effective, exact, and essential. Alston doesn't contradict those points; he's just saying he can't prove them himself."

The official insisted that before any missile strike was launched, extensive intelligence-collection efforts and rigorous target analysis was conducted by personnel. "There's a careful process to the nomination of targets—decisions aren't made in the blink of an eye. It's far cleaner in terms of innocent lives or property damage than the conventional battlefield actions of any military." The Obama administration views the missile attacks as being of such importance that some officials fear that if they were wound down or ended, it could increase civilian deaths. "The end of these counterterrorism operations—lawful, precise, and effective—could, in fact, mean more civilian casualties, either through messier actions in Pakistan with more collateral damage or more victims of successful extremist attacks around the world," the U.S. official maintained, adding, "It's a clear case of self-defense, legitimate under the U.N. charter and international law."