Bishops Say Grave Concerns Remain Over Obama Drone War

The president insists the U.S. will use drones in accordance with just-war principles, but Catholic leaders say some moral questions still remain.

A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle in action in Afghanistan.
A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle in action in Afghanistan. (photo: Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON – The United States has entered a new phase in the war against al Qaeda and its allies, drawing down from its large-scale combat operations in Afghanistan and moving to more targeted counterterrorism operations where military attack drones will play a major role.

However, the U.S. bishops are now warning increased U.S. dependence on military attack drones for “targeted killings” pose serious moral questions that President Barack Obama, Congress and the U.S. public must consider.

Bishop Richard Pates, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote a May 17 letter to the White House stating that the military use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or “drones” in certain cases appeared to “violate the law of war, international human-rights law and moral norms.”

Targeted killings of individuals “without specific evidence” of their planning or implementing a specific act of terror, “signature strikes” [strikes against persons that are unknown to the CIA, but who fit the CIA’s militant profile] that classify males of military-age as combatants, and civilian casualties as collateral damage were among the moral concerns raised by Bishop Pates. He also said the administration must address just-war issues of proportionality and probability of success and take the lead in establishing international norms. 

“We recognize the administration’s primary obligation to protect the lives and welfare of our citizens, and we do not underestimate the threat posed by terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda,” Bishop Pates stated in his letter. “We hope that our concerns on the use of UAVs and targeted killings will contribute to the formulation of a more comprehensive, moral and effective policy to resist terrorism.”

The Obama administration has made an open secret of the military and Central Intelligence Agency’s use of military attack drones in counterterrorism operations. Without officially acknowledging the program, the administration has been very reluctant to define the limits or scope of military attack drones as it carries out counterterrorism efforts in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and other nations that are not active theaters of war like Afghanistan.  

On May 23, President Obama delivered a major national-security speech at the National Defense University in Washington that appeared to try to address the concerns raised by the Catholic bishops. The president gave his address a day after the White House informed Congress that four Americans had been killed in drone strikes.

“We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first,” he said. “So this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort and in self-defense.”

The president argued that the use of military attack drones had been effective in decimating al Qaeda’s leadership and operatives, disrupting plots aimed at U.S. and European countries and troops stationed in Afghanistan. However, he recognized that military drone technology invited the temptation for abuse and stated that he has now codified guidelines restricting the use of drones in a Presidential Policy Guidance.

The policy guidelines released to the public by the president indicate the use of military attack drones will have some restrictions now. The policy states that lethal drone strikes will be authorized only if there is “a legal basis for using lethal force” against senior operational leaders and the forces they intend to use to conduct terrorist attacks; when a target “poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons”; “near certainty” that non-combatants will not be injured or killed; “capture is not feasible”; when the relevant government authorities will not or cannot act to address the threat; and “no other reasonable alternatives exist” to protect U.S. persons.

The policy also states that males of military age may also be deemed non-combatants, even when in the vicinity of a drone’s intended target.


A Moral Discussion

Bishop Pates told the Register that the moral and ethical use of military drones is a “relatively new question for everybody.” While he welcomed the president’s decision to further the public conversation, he said it was only the beginning of the discussion.

“The president opened the issue for discussion, but he didn’t touch on all the ramifications [of military attack drones], particularly the international dimension,” he said. “We really feel there should be an international discussion of these issues with other sovereign nations. Because if we use them against others, what’s to say they won’t use them against us?”

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Archbishop Harry Flynn Chair of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., said the United States was long overdue for a discussion about drone warfare. While military attack drones could be used in a just-war setting, Msgr. Swetland expressed his doubts that either the U.S. public or the president were prepared to engage with the issue.

“Quite frankly, America is not equipped to have moral discussions about anything. Americans have rejected a common morality, so we have no framework with which to discuss these kinds of questions,” Msgr. Swetland said.

Msgr. Swetland described the administration’s approach as “pragmatism,” which, he said, had “no moral absolutes.”

Msgr. Swetland — who in a November 2012 Register commentary suggested that drones could be morally acceptable if used appropriately — said the same lack of moral absolutes that left America and President Obama unable to discuss exactly when human life begins is affecting discussion not just about the right to life, but also how to apply moral principles over immigration, let alone the war.

“We don’t hold these truths to be self-evident, so we don’t have the moral framework to have these discussions.”

He pointed out that Americans also need to ask whether military attack drones in counterterror operations are actually succeeding in making them safer or whether they are inflaming people and bringing more into the terrorists’ camp.

“We have to ask ourselves whether we are winning the battle but losing the war.”

A U.S.-educated Yemeni activist and freelance journalist, Farea al-Muslimi, told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee during a subcommittee hearing in April that the terror of drone strikes and the collateral damage of innocent civilian casualties were creating more enemies for the United States than it was killing. He said one drone strike on his native village killed all the goodwill toward America that had been created by his own positive experience in the United States.

“What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant,” he said. “There is now an intense anger against America.”


Just War?

Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, said the bishops have been studying the question for over a year in consultation with the Vatican.

He said a major concern was the issue of applying just-war criteria outside of an established war zone like Afghanistan, “where civilians would not expect to be collateral damage in a police-like action such as counterterrorism.”

“You cannot apply the rules of war to a place that is not a war zone,” Colecchi said. “If there were a terrorist living next door to someone in the United States, we would not consider it a just use of force to go take out that person with civilian casualties as collateral damage.”

Nearly a week after President Obama’s speech, The New York Times reported a CIA-operated drone fired a missile at a house in Pakistan, killing Pakistani Taliban’s deputy leader, Wali ur-Rehman, and four others, two of whom may have been Uzbek militants. But unnamed U.S. officials also told the Times that the president’s new rules do not apply to Pakistan until all U.S. troops have left neighboring Afghanistan.

Sources to the Times also reported that the killing of ur-Rehman had destroyed an opportunity to mediate a peace and would provoke more bloodshed in Pakistan.

Colecchi said that the U.S. also needed to realize that the military response is not enough to end the war on terror and that, ultimately, the U.S. must address the roots of terror.

“The key is to remove those causes — the human-rights violations, the lack of economic opportunities, that sense of marginalization and exploitation — which tend to grow radicalism,” Colecchi said.

“We hope the president’s discussion is the beginning, not the end, of the conversation,” he continued. “There are still outstanding moral questions that need to be answered.”

Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.