The Drone Strike Controversy

January 13, 2010

Two student readings explore the controversy over the use of remotely-piloted aircraft to drop bombs in the Afghanistan/Pakistan war. Discussion questions, a fish bowl activity and a writing assignment follow.

To the Teacher:

Bombs from remotely-piloted "drone" aircraft have become the U.S.'s weapon of choice in the Afghanistan/Pakistan war. The first student reading below describes how drones have killed suspected terrorists holed up in remote areas—and have also killed an unknown number of Pakistani civilians.The reading begins with reporter Jane Mayer's graphic description of a missile attack on a leading terrorist, Baitullah Mehsud.

The second student presents sharply competing views of these attacks and their consequences: CIA. chief Leon Panetta calls them "very effective" in the effort "to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership," while Tom Englehardt and Nick Turse argue that the U.S. has"become the world's leading state assassins — a judge, jury, and executioner."

Discussion questions, a fish bowl activity to examine the controversy in detail, and a writing assignment on the drone strikes follow.


Student Reading 1:

Long-range killing and its consequences

The death of Baitullah Mehsud

It was a hot summer night on August 5, 2009, in Zanghara, a village in South Waziristan, Pakistan,. Baitullah Mehsud was lying on a rooftop receiving an intravenous drip for a kidney ailment and diabetes.

Both the Pakistan and US governments regarded Mehsud as a leading terrorist. Pakistan thought him responsible for the assassination of its former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and the killing of at least 50 people in the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in its capital, Islamabad, in September 2008. US officials considered him the mastermind behind cross-border attacks against American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Jane Mayer reported that on that August night thousands of miles away in Langley, Virginia, CIA officials were watching Mehsud "on a live video feed relaying closeup footage...The video was being captured by the infrared camera of a Predator drone, a remotely controlled, unmanned plane that had been hovering, undetected, two miles or so above the house. Pakistan's Interior Minister, A. Rehman Malik told me recently that Mehsud was resting on his back [and]...that the Predator's targeters could see Mehsud's entire body, not just the top of his head.

"...the CIA remotely launched two Hellfire missiles from the Predator. Authorities watched the fiery blast in real time. After the dust cloud dissipated, all that remained of Mehsud was a detached torso. Eleven others died: his wife, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, a lieutenant, and seven bodyguards." ( "The Predator War," The New Yorker, 10/26/09)

A commuter job in Nevada

In July, CNN's Nic Robertson reported that "remote-controlled drones, such as the Predator, are proving increasingly popular with the US military." They can be directed from bases such as al-Udeid in Qatar on the Persian Gulf. Or they can be guided by military personnel stationed in the Nevada desert, an hour away from the Las Vegas casinos.

"US Air Force fighter pilot Major Morgan Andrews...kisses his wife goodbye, drives to Creech, a tiny desert air force base in Nevada, and within minutes could be killing insurgents on the other side of the world. Andrews fights not from the seat of the F16 he joined the air force to fly but from a darkened ground control station. He pilots a remote-controlled Predator..."

Andrews says, "You see the imagery, you know what's going on, you see what you're looking at. It's very easy when something like that is happening to project yourself there and feel a part of the battle." And "there" might be a village in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or anywhere else. ("How robot drones revolutionized the face of warfare,", 7/26/09)

Drone strikes "as accurate as the intelligence"

But as Jane Mayer reported, the "campaign to kill Baitullah Mehsud offers a sobering case study of the hazards of robotic warfare. It appears to have taken sixteen missile strikes and fourteen months before the CIA succeeded in killing him. During this hunt, between 207 and 321 additional people were killed, depending on which news accounts you rely upon."

Another hazard is revenge. On December 30, 2009, Humam al-Balawi, a Jordanian double agent who had gained the trust of CIA agents at an outpost in Khost, Afghanistan, for drone attacks, killed seven of those agents and others in a suicide bombing. In a taped video that became public later, al-Balawi is explicit about his motivation—revenge for the drone killing of Baitullah Mehsud.

A Pakistani newspaper claimed that dozens of drone attacks have killed "687 innocent Pakistani civilians." (, 4/10/09) The New American Foundation, a policy group in Washington, studied press reports and estimated that since 2006 at least 500 militants and 250 civilians had been killed in the drone strikes. A separate count, by the blog The Long War Journal, found 885 militants' deaths and 94 civilians'." (Scott Shane, "CIA Expanding Drone Assaults Inside Pakistan, New York Times, 12/4/09)

From 2006 to early 2009, drone strikes killed more civilians than militants, former Pentagon advisor David Kilcullen testified before a congressional committee. (The Nation, 1/4/10)

US military sources are likely to emphasize the number of militants killed, not the number of civilians. But the people of Pakistan, where most of the drone attacks have occurred, resent the attacks deeply because they kill civilians. The Pakistani government condemns the drone strikes officially, but has approved them unofficially and quietly.

Drones can hover over a target for as long as 40 hours before refueling and missile strikes usually occur in remote areas, so reporters aren't usually around to make an unbiased check of casualties. "But," as Mayer commented, "the strikes are only as accurate as the intelligence that goes into them."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Is the US at war with Pakistan? If not, why have most US drone attacks struck in Pakistan?

3. Does Pakistan support cross-border militants like Mehsud? If so, why isn't the US at war with Pakistan? If not, what has Pakistan done to stop cross-border attacks? If you don't know, how might you find out?

4. Why do the Pakistani people condemn the drone strikes?

5. Can killing civilians in drone attacks be avoided? If so, how? If not, why not?

6. How would you explain the widely varying statistics on civilian deaths from drone attacks?

7. How do you explain the attitude of the Pakistani government toward drone strikes on its territory by a country with which it is not at war?


Student Reading 2:

Competing views of drone strikes


9/11 as an act of war, not a crime

"The political consensus in support of the drone program, its antiseptic, high-tech appeal and its secrecy, have obscured just how radical it is," wrote New York Times reporter Scott Shane. "For the first time in history, a civilian intelligence agency is using robots to carry out a military mission, selecting people for killing in a country where the United States is not officially at war."

An executive order banning American intelligence forces from assassinations was signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

But 9/11 changed everything. Soon afterward, President George W. Bush signed a secret memorandum "giving the CIA the right to kill members of Al Qaeda and their confederates virtually anywhere in the world. Congress endorsed this policy..." Defining 9/11 as an act of war, rather than as a crime, enabled the Bush administration to deny due process rights to suspected terrorists. The first Predator missile strike in November 2002 killed a suspect in the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole along with five other passengers in a car driving on a road in Yemen.

But there were few drone strikes until the summer of 2008, when US began targeting militants that had been using Pakistan's mountainous border region as a safe haven in cross border attacks in Afghanistan. President Obama has ordered still more strikes during his first year in office.

International law, civilian casualties, and video intercepts

International law requires the US to define a terrorist group as one engaged in armed conflict. The use of force must be a "military necessity" "proportionate" to the threat. Targets for death must be "directly participating in hostilities." Permission for targeted killings must come from the foreign nation where they will take place.

CIA Director Leon Panetta has called US airstrikes in Pakistan "very effective" in killing al Qaeda leaders. "Very frankly, it's the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership." He said that each attack is "very precise and is very limited in terms of collateral damage." ("US Airstrikes in Pakistan Called 'Very Effective,'", 5/18/09)

A CIA spokesperson said that the agency "uses lawful, highly accurate, and effective tools and tactics to take the fight to Al Qaeda and its violent allies. That careful, precise approach has brought major success against a very dangerous and deadly enemy."

Ex-CIA officer and Obama administration advisor Bruce Riedel said, "The only pressure currently being put on Pakistan and Afghanistan is the drones. It's really all we've got to disrupt Al Qaeda. The reason the Administration continues to use it is obvious: it doesn't really have anything else." (two preceding quotes included in Jane Mayer's New Yorker article, 10/26/09)

Drones: killing or assassinating?

Among those raising questions and objections to the use of drones is Philip Alston, an Australian human rights lawyer and reporter to the United Nations on extrajudicial or arbitrary executions. The CIA drone program operates in "an accountability void. It's a lot like the torture issue. You start by saying we'll just go after the handful of 9/11 masterminds. But once you've put the regimen for waterboarding and other techniques in place, you use it much more indiscriminately. It becomes standard operating procedure." He complained repeatedly that he could not get basic questions about the CIA drone program answered from the Bush administration and cannot now from Obama's. (quoted by Jane Mayer, New Yorker)

A government official estimates drone attack casualties at 400 enemy fighters killed and civilian casualties as "just over 20." But Amnesty International's policy director for counterterrorism, Tom Parker, responded that such an estimate was "unlikely," that civilian deaths in past wars have usually been undercounted. Amnesty, he said, was uneasy about drone attacks anyway. "Anything that dehumanizes the process makes it easier to pull the trigger." (Quoted by Scott Shane, New York Times)

"If there's one thing to keep your eye on in the coming year, it might be the unmanned aerial vehicles — drones..." wrote Tom Englehardt and Nick Turse of the website TomDispatch. "As the first robot terminators of our age, they symbolize the loosing of American war-making powers from the oversight of Congress and the American people. In principle, they have made borders (hence national sovereignty) increasingly insignificant as assassination attacks can be launched 24/7 against those we deem our enemies, on the basis of unknown intelligence or evidence.

"With our drones, there is little price to be paid if, as has regularly enough been the case, those enemies turn out not to be in the right place at the right time and others die in their stead. Globally, we have become the world's leading state assassins — a judge, jury, and executioner beyond the bounds of all accountability. In essence, those pilotless planes turn us into a law of war unto ourselves. It's a chilling development. Watch for it to spread in 2010, and keep an eye out for which countries, fielding their own drones, follow down the path we're pioneering, for in our age all war-making developments invariably proliferate — and fast. (Tom Englehardt and Nick Turse, "The Year of the Assassin,", 1/3/10)

Political philosopher Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars, asked, "Under what code does the CIA operate? I don't know." On the drone program, he said, "There should be a limited finite group of people who are targets, and that list should be publicly defensible and available. Instead, it's not been publicly defended. People are being killed, and we generally require some public justification when we go about killing people." (Quoted by Jane Mayer, New Yorker)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What are the pros and cons of drone attacks?

3. CIA Director Leon Panetta said that each drone attack is "very precise and is very limited in terms of collateral damage." What did he mean by "collateral damage"? Why did he use that term? What did he mean by calling the drone strike "the only game in town"?

4. What made Riedel think the Obama administration uses drone strikes against suspected terrorists because "it doesn't really have anything else"? The US has an army. Why isn't it being used instead of drone strikes?


Fish bowl discussion

The drone attack controversy is likely to produce very different responses from students. This makes it a good subject for a fish bowl discussion, in which a group of five to seven students, sitting in a circle, speak to such questions as those that follow while the other students form a larger circle around them and listen before having a chance to replace someone in the inner circle. See "Engaging Your Class Through Groupwork" for details in the "Ideas and Resources" section of TeachableMoment.

1. What legal difference does it make whether the US defines a terrorist attack as an act of war or a crime?

2. On Christmas Day, 2009, a Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to set off an explosive device on a Northeast flight headed to Detroit with nearly 300 people aboard. After he was seized and arrested, should he have been read his Miranda rights? Why or why not?

3. In 1995 a US citizen, Timothy McVeigh, bombed a government office building in Oklahoma City, killing 195 people. Should he have been seized as a terrorist at war with the US and denied trial in a civilian court? If so, why? If not, why not?

4. If Osama bin Laden were to be captured by the US, should he be treated as a terrorist at war with the US or as a criminal responsible for 9/11? Why? Should his treatment be different from McVeigh's? Why or why not?

5. The US military personnel who targeted Mehsud (the suspected terrorist who was killed by a drone) knew that people around him whom they had no reason to kill would be killed by the drone targeting Mehsud. Should they have decided against the strike? Why or why not?

6. The UN official Philip Alston complains that he cannot get answers to his questions about the drone strikes from the US government. What questions do you think he has in mind?

7. Should Congress oversee the drone strike program? Why or why not?

8. Have we American citizens become "the world's leading state assassins"? Have we become "judge, jury and executioner beyond the bounds of all accountability"? Why or why not?


For writing

In a well-developed essay, discuss the drone strike issue. Include in this discussion your response to these questions:

  • Why does the US government regard drone strikes as essential and effective in killing terrorists?
  • Why do those opposed to the current policy on drones think there should be more oversight of the strikes? Why do they believe these attacks inevitably result in the deaths of innocent civilians?
  • Do you support or oppose the use of drone strikes? Why?



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: