Moral Hazard in the Drone War

I missed Tom Junod's original article on targeted killing, but his response to Andrew Sullivan's defense of the Obama Administration is terrific:

I did not -- and do not -- condone the use of torture any more than Sullivan does. But the moral risk of torture is not so different from the moral risk of targeted killing. Indeed, the moral risk of torture provides a template for the moral risk of targeted killing. What was introduced as an option of last resort becomes the option of first resort, then the only option. Sullivan always understood that torture was a temptation, and that the day would come when it was applied not in emergency, "ticking-clock" situations, but as a matter of routine. Well, that day has come, only now with targeted killing, where the option of first resort meets the court of no appeal.

Yes, killing is a part of war, and torture isn't. But what if the the kind of militant who was captured and tortured under Bush is the kind of militant who is simply being killed under President Obama? The Obama Administration vigorously denies this, just as it vigorously denies that it is combating terrorism by practicing a policy of extermination against terrorists. But the numbers -- the thousands killed by drone and raid against the single high-value asset captured and interrogated outside the theater of war in Afghanistan -- tell a story that can't simply be shrugged off. Interrogation has been replaced by assassination.

Moreover, I talked to a source familiar with the targeting process who told me that the people involved in the life-or-death decisions of the Obama administration often do not know the credibility of intelligence sources. This was a highly informed and involved source who, when asked the most essential question -- "how good is the intelligence?" -- paused and finally couldn't answer. In fact, when I raised the question of whether those who were once captured are now being killed, the source suggested that it was the wrong question:

"It's not at all clear that we'd be sending our people into Yemen to capture the people we're targeting. But it's not at all clear that we'd be targeting them if the technology wasn't so advanced. What's happening is that we're using the technology to target people we never would have bothered to capture."

Unfortunately, I think targeting killing is here to stay, by the "only Nixon could go to China" logic.  By having a Democrat start this policy, it has avoided a lot of critique from the usual defenders of humanity against arbitrary power, for the simple reason that many of these folks consider Obama to be "on their team."  Just look at Andrew Sullivan, for God sakes, defending the practice.   The Left spent more time criticizing Bush over looting at the Bagdad museum than it has over Obama's targeted killing (Glen Greenwald being a notable exception).  Having set the precedent under Obama, there will be no going back under either party in the future.


  1. Jim Collins:

    So what's the difference between smoking a bad guy with a smart bomb from an F-16 or smoking the same bad guy with a missile from a drone?

  2. LarryG:

    well... what is the difference between a "targeted" killing and sending troops to kill people without a declaration of war and Congressional approval of it?

    If the POTUS can send a seal team to take out a bad guy in some country what is the difference between that and sending a drone instead?

    It's not the method of killing - it's who has that authority to kill - and choosing from an array of weaponry to carry it out.

    is sending a clandestine seal team much different than sending a drone?

  3. ErisGuy:

    The world changes. I would prefer--mostly--a world without war where, as a Maori told me, we settle our differences with lawyers. But if disputes are to be settled by violence, I prefer drone bombings and terrorism to mass armies and massive bombing campaigns; that is, to WW1/2/3.

  4. blokeinfrance:

    Once UBL was identified, a drone strike could have ended his life. But the need for certainty meant the US took a greater risk by sending in the seals.

    The corollary is that drone strikes are less risky and less certain of the target, and sometimes you say "well shit we got it wrong that time, sorry 'bout that innocent wedding party, we thought it was a blogger..."

  5. Rick C:

    "By having a Democrat start this policy, it has avoided a lot of critique from the usual defenders of humanity against arbitrary power"

    HA! As if, when a Republican is President again, it won't go back to being beyond the pale.

  6. MingoV:

    @blokeinfrance: Anyone who paid attention to the evidence realizes that Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants almost certainly were killed in 2002 or early 2003 when the US Army was using missiles to destroy Taliban and al Qaeda headquarter caverns in Afghanistan. The Army did not excavate the caverns and recover the bodies, so no definitive proof was obtained. The Bush administration did not want to turn Osama bin Laden into a martyr by announcing his death, so they didn't care about evidence. Also, the uncertainty (was he dead or not?) meant that al Qaeda was unable to choose a new leader. The secondary effect of those headquarters strikes is that the terrorists have been unable to use the billions of dollars that were in Osama bin Laden's bank accounts.

    The Hollywood-production SEAL raid into Pakistan almost certainly killed one of Osama bin Laden's relatives. Osama bin Laden has scores of brothers, half-brothers, and first cousins who would be a match for the two bin Laden family member DNA samples the US government had obtained. (They did not have a DNA sample from Osama bin Laden.) I believe that Obama knew it wasn't Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and he ordered the SEALs to kill the relative by shooting him in the face (to make photo ID difficult), prohibited a forensic autopsy, and ordered the body to be dumped at sea so no recovery would be possible.

  7. IGotBupkis, Serial AGW Denier and Bon Vivant:

    >>> well… what is the difference between a “targeted” killing and sending troops to kill people without a declaration of war and Congressional approval of it?

    **Sigh** Larry, STFU, all the legal requirements for doing everything that was done were done. And much more so than in Libya, which is a far more egregious misuse of executive military force. But of course, you and your libtard ilk had nothing to say about that whatso-ephing-ever.

    The Precious One got no authorization to use military force in Libya, virtually no US interest was involved in our being there, and he totally thumbed his nose at the LEGAL REQUIREMENT that after a certain time frame he was REQUIRED to obtain Congressional approval to continue action. So eph off, unless you can point us to somewhere showing you chastising this FAR MORE blatant abuse of executive military power.

  8. IGotBupkis, Serial AGW Denier and Bon Vivant:

    Rick, you beat me to it.

    "Rules for thee, but not for me" -- it's not just Democratic policy, it's a Democratic bulwark.

  9. LarryG:

    Virtually ALL the Presidents, Dem and GOP have sent forces into other countries to go after bad guys. Remember Panama? Remember Iran Contra? Ya'll seem to have selective memories here. The bottom line is that all Presidents regardless of party have signed off on clandestine activities so how about YOU STFU fella?

  10. Thomas:

    LarryG, so since both sides do it, it's justified is a decent morale rational.

    If so all Americans are in such trouble.

  11. jackie:

    Andrew Sullivan is nothing but a shill for Obama. Anything the Administration does is fine by Sully. As to drone attacks, wait until they are commonplace here with your local Barney Fife in charge. This country is turning into a police state nightmare. Time to leave before they close the gates.

  12. IGotBupkis, Serial AGW Denier and Bon Vivant:

    LOL, I'm with you, Mingo -- if you look at the rhetoric being distributed in OBL's name before the time you cite vs. after, one reads like a religious zealot certain of his cause's righteousness. Afterwords, they sounded like they were written by Michael Moore -- whiney and pretty close to exactly what the Dems thought of as the motivation of terrorists -- that they wanted revenge on Amerikkkkkkkkka.

    If you went back to archival postings you'd see how often in the 2004-2005 range I stated exactly the same as you did regarding the caves and stuff.

    He was better dead, but unobviously so than as a martyr to the cause.

  13. IGotBupkis, Serial AGW Denier and Bon Vivant:

    Larry, none of THEM violated the war powers act that Congress passed in the 70s, or did you SOMEHOW not manage to hear about that part?

    And if you're going to whine about it, then you need to at least be intellectually honest and complain about it when "your" guy does it, too. and I'll lay huge odds you're a total two-bit hypocrite.

    I'M not the one initiating complaints about the actions, excepting to note the hypocrisy -- you're the one complaining about "illegal wars"... but ONLY when they're supposedly (not true, but beside the point) conducted by Republicans.

  14. molly heiss:

    It's called Total War.

    It worked for Cortez against the Aztecs, it worked for Truman against the Japanese, and it's the Right Thing for Dear Leader to do. Obviously. Or else he would never consider it.


  15. Mark Alger:

    This was entirely predictable from the moment Teddy Kennedy began to (tendentiously) inveigh against waterboarding. The people we are fighting are terrorists, pirates, unlawful combatants. As such, they are subject, under the Geneva Conventions, to summary execution on the battlefield. If their value as intelligence assets is obviated by the moaning of soi-disant do-gooders, then there's no point in wasting resources on capturing them and holding them prisoner for interrogation. Kill them all. Let $DEITY sort it out.


  16. MingoV:

    @IGotBupkis, Serial AGW Denier and Bon Vivant: "... If you went back to archival postings you’d see how often in the 2004-2005 range I stated exactly the same as you did regarding the caves and stuff."

    I remember your posts. I was surprised that so few people recognized that OBL was either dead (most likely) or incapacitated. The audio tapes and then the video tape ascribed to OBL were laughably poor forgeries. Do you remember that CIA spokespersons refused to comment on their validity? The CIA didn't call them forgeries because the Bush government wanted the terrorists and terrorist wannabes to remain uncertain about OBL.

  17. me:

    Actually, the guy who invented "Total War" and many of the maneuvers (and, incidentally, justifications) used in the US today was called Adolf and used to be chancellor of Germany once upon a time. (Yeah, yeah, Godwin's law and all that. Then again, what used to be an almost guaranteed overblown comparison back in the days when that term was coined, unfortunately, isn't anymore)

  18. elambend:

    I am not opposed to assassination as a wary tactic, but through new technology we have now invested our executive branch and civilian secret agencies with a killing and war-making power that is much greater than they had had before and with very little debate. We are also likely over using this particular tactic in a lazy and morally ambiguous manner that is probably killing more innocents than need be and achieving dubious gains. We have moved from attacking those who were attacking us from relative safety in Afghanistan to playing whack-a-mole with every Mahdi wannabe across SW Asia. The use of the drones seems to come so lightly now and hearing that the President reviews a kill list is not comforting.
    I fear this technology, ensconced in the most secret part of our government, will prove great temptation to weak men.

  19. Patric:

    Arbitrary power (through wars or congress or Presidents) without checks and balances are EXACTLY what America's Constitution was created to avoid, and prevent.

    how are we doing 400 years later?