Friday, March 29, 2013

Greta Garbo and the drones

“I want to be let alone,” said Greta Garbo, speaking for all of us who oppose government intervention in our private affairs. This impulse has had implications for a matter affecting the wider Middle East, namely the excessive reliance by the United States on unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to find and kill its enemies. 

The Obama administration has used drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, and for many observers this has become a troubling substitute for diplomacy and political commitment. Recently, details of the drone war came to light during the approval process for the new CIA director, John Brennan. And what it showed was that Americans are uneasy with a method of warfare mandating systematic assassination without judicial oversight.

Yet America officials would reject this characterization. After 9/11, the United States declared a “war on terror,” and drone attacks were placed squarely within this context. Because America was engaged in a war, explained Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, this “meant that members of al-Qaida would be treated as belligerents. U.S. forces could shoot them on sight, just as they could drop bombs on German military formations during World War II.”

However, the discussion took a sharp turn in September 2011, when the United States used a drone to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen in Yemen who had joined Al-Qaeda, followed two weeks later by his 16-year-old son, who was born in Denver. A memorandum prepared by the Justice Department set guidelines for drone strikes against Americans. The fact that an “informed high-level” U.S. official alone could order a hit alarmed many people, since it denied potential targets the constitutional protections of due process.

The three conditions imposed were that such an official had to believe an individual posed an imminent threat of violent attack; that capture was unfeasible; and that the operation complied with the laws of war.

Senator Rand Paul, who represents the libertarian side of the Republican Party, announced that he would filibuster approval of Brennan for the CIA post, after he had received a letter from the attorney general Eric Holder, that did not rule out the use of drone strikes within the United States under “extraordinary circumstances,” such as the September 11, 2001, attacks. For Paul, this represented a flagrant violation of due process and his filibuster, though symbolic, garnered enough attention to cast a pall over the drone program.

However, it could be issues of privacy that end up shaping the views of many Americans on drone use. That is because law enforcement in the United States has started using drones to patrol neighborhoods from the sky. Not surprisingly, quite a few people are disturbed with being under the perpetual eye of the police. Drones produce video images and heat maps, and most individuals do not want to the cops to keep tabs on them in the sanctity of their own property.

The link between an assassination weapon deployed overseas and domestic privacy in the United States is not immediately evident. And yet both have been conflated thanks to the ubiquitous expansion of American state power during the so-called “war on terror.” In their book Top Secret America, Dana Priest and William Arkin describe the metastatic expansion of intelligence bodies and programs following the 9/11 attacks, which created so vast a labyrinth of overlapping efforts that no one has a clear grasp of the whole picture.

Constitutional principles have historically been undermined by the recourse to national security arguments. This permissiveness has spread throughout the federal and state levels. When law enforcement employs drones, it’s not to fight terrorists. Rather, it is a direct replication of the federal government’s ignoring the right to privacy when this clashes with the security priorities of the state.

Everywhere red lines are being routinely crossed on privacy, often affecting domains that have nothing to do with American security concerns. Indeed, in one case, the imposition of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, the safety of Americans could be compromised, as America obliges foreign financial institutions to spy on their American clients’ financial affairs for American tax purposes.

And yet there does remain a profound mistrust of government abuse within the United States. As Gene Healy, the vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, has written for the Reason website, citing law professor Ryan Calo, the “dystopian images that drones evoke could spur much-needed reforms to American privacy law.” If so, that would be welcome, because the most fundamental barrier to the totalitarian state is the right to privacy, the freedom to keep the dimensions of one’s life outside the realm of state scrutiny.

America’s tendency to overreach in the name of national security has also raised questions about the sovereignty of other states. Drones may be efficient, but as William Astore has pointed out, as weapons they are neither cheap, nor surgical, nor decisive. The reality is that innocent people are frequently killed in drone attacks, and most of the time they happen to be the citizens of foreign countries.

Should we be surprised? If individual privacy as an extension of personal freedom is something that Americans have to fight for these days, then how much worse it must be for those who do not benefit from American constitutional protections.

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