What's the Matter with Drones? How the Experts Get Things Wrong

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 22, 2013 - 10:04:00 AM

This week, like the one that preceded it, has been full of reminiscences about how “we” could have been so wrong about the invasion of Iraq ten years ago. Last week in this space I explored the question of whether what appears in newspapers makes any difference, but the larger and more important question is how the supposed experts got it so wrong, with or without the help of the press. 

Everyone’s favorite naysayer, Paul Krugman (or at least the favorite of people I hang with), called it “an object lesson in the dangers of groupthink” in his Monday column. He compared what happened in March of 2003 to his favorite contemporary hobby-horse, the lemming-like push by politicians and their pet experts around the world to identify deficit as the major financial problem (and to promote austerity as the solution.) And of course the press, as Krugman points out, makes things worse by amplifying the worst hysteria among the pols and their gurus. Case in point in today’s news: the lunatic situation in Cyprus which is rocking world finance. 

Having spent a major percentage of my adult life playing Paul Revere, both in journalism and in politics, it’s tempting to adopt “I told you so” as my mantra. Way back in 1979 I wrote an article, published in Mother Jones magazine under the title “Cigarettes and Sofas” which among other things pointed out that dangerous chemicals were being used in upholstery, recommended by “experts” at the time in an attempt to control fires caused by discarded cigarettes. Thirty-some-odd years later, fire-safe cigarettes are mandated in most states, but those toxic chemicals are still in sofas. It’s again a hot topic in the California legislature and the press, but don’t bet that the “experts” will get it right this time. 

Looking back on the seven years I spent on Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, I see innumerable wasted hours discussing remedies touted by experts as solutions to civic problems which never materialized. Does anyone remember the turtles which were supposed to be added to the restored fountain in Martin Luther King Provo Civic Center Park in honor of native Americans? 

No, I thought not. I believe, but don’t quote me, that somewhere in the depths of City of Berkeley storage resides a quartet of cast brass turtles, hidden monuments to a failed solution to some-problem-or-other. And still the fountain—unrestored— is dry. 

Or how about health advice? To carb or not to carb? Journalist Gary Taubes and Doctors Lustig and Ornish have had profitable careers jousting over whether low-fat-high-carb cures or kills. The fuzzy coverage of the latest study of “the [as poorly defined] Mediterranean Diet” is a good example of how heavy-breathing reporters can cloud the waters in their enthusiasm to talk about something new, aided and abetted by self-described authorities. 

But we’re actually lucky when there are opposing camps of experts purporting to have found the Holy Grail. It’s a lot worse when all the experts rush to one side of the boat, as they’ve done in the prosecution of the various wars in the last decade, and the boat lists badly to one side. 

Recent discussions of the use of drones in these military enterprises illustrate how sometimes even the right people get things somewhat wrong. The latest New York Review of Books has an excellent essay by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, on “What Rules Should Govern US Drone Attacks”.  

At any Berkeley café you can find a passionate proponent of the view that any and all use of drones, by their very nature, is de facto immoral. Roth considers another possible point of view: 

“What does international human rights and humanitarian law require? Not necessarily abolition of the drone program. Yes, there is something disconcerting about drone operators killing their targets from the comfort and safety of their office—making war too easy, as some contend. But discrepancies of power have been inherent in warfare since the advent of the bow and arrow. And from the perspective of avoiding civilian casualties, drones are an advance. Like all weapons, they are only as good as the information available to their operators and their operators’ willingness to abide by legal constraints. But with their pinpoint accuracy and ability to hover for lengthy periods to verify a target and select the most propitious moment for attack, they have the potential to reduce the costs of war to civilians. “
If you’re a full-blown pacificist, of course, this argument is irrelevant or even immoral. But if you concede that sometimes use of force is legitimate, drones can seem to be a better weapon than, say, cluster bombs or land mines or nuclear warheads. One could even imagine wars fought without armies where only the offending national leaders are targeted by drones and citizens are unharmed. 

By focusing too hard on the admittedly creepy aspect of drones as unmanned substitutes for bombers, it’s possible to lose sight of the real problem they share with all other weapons. The major problem with using drones is not with the instrument but with the intent, with the command and control of how the instrument is used. This is where the US drone program seems to have gone badly wrong. It’s been reported that President Obama personally vets some or all drone use with the help of his internal experts, but inevitably presidents, at least in recent years, have been captives to groupthink among their advisers. 

I couldn’t bear to listen to Rand Paul’s anti-drone filibuster, but I think the man may have a point. From what I’ve read, his objection was to decisions on drone use made by John Brennan , who wanted appointment as CIA director. Paul was particularly critical of what looked like summary execution of U.S. citizens without due process to judge guilt or innocence 

The way drone targets have been chosen is a major problem. There are numerous protocols in international law, well-reviewed in Roth’s article, which are supposed to trigger the kind of analysis which the United States should have completed before acting on reports that individuals planned hostile action against this country. 

The standard justification is that such acts were self-defense, but self-defense and pre-emptive strikes are not the same thing. Whether the target is suspected Al Qaeda wannabes in the Arabian Penninsula or Trayvon Martin in Florida, and whether the weapon is bombs dropped by human pilots, remote-controlled drones or assault rifles, killing another human being simply on the basis of suspicion has a strong likelihood of being wrong. 

A promising development on this front is the rumored decision, reported by Daniel KIaidman on The Daily Beast on Wednesday, to transfer responsibility for decisions on drone use to the Department of Defense, which has a much soberer culture that the CIA’s traditional cloak-and-dagger mentality and usually adheres more strictly to established rules of war. . 

Coincidentally or opportunely, this change is exactly what Roth’s piece, which came out a couple of weeks ago, recommends: 

“At the very least, the CIA’s drone program, the source of most of the controversy, should be transferred to the Pentagon, with its stronger tradition of accountability to the law. That should be accompanied by a new policy of transparency about which laws govern drone attacks, and about why people are targeted, as well as prompt investigation whenever there is a credible allegation of civilian casualties or inappropriate targeting. The aim should be to open to independent scrutiny—by Congress, the courts, the press, and the public— many aspects of the drone program that have unjustifiably been kept secret (however open that secret may be) and treat drone attacks like normal military or police operations.”
Shining more sunshine on the recommendations of supposed experts might highlight weaknesses in their advice. But as Berkeleyans we’ve seen that the people in charge in government, both elected and employed, are often allergic to sunshine, so we shouldn’t expect Roth’s sensible advice to be followed any time soon.