Up close and personal — that describes targeting individuals in wartime, even when impersonal drone aircraft and electronics are employed.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 63-34 to confirm John Brennan to head the CIA, but only after intensive Intelligence Committee debate over use of drone strikes and a filibuster by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
In 2011, the killing in Yemen of al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki, his young son Abdulrahman and associate Samir Khan by U.S. drones sparked controversy. They were American citizens, and critics argue they were denied essential due process.
On these grounds, such critics are wrong. Our common-law tradition assumes that all people have basic human rights. American citizens here do not have special rights.
That principle led to defeats of the Bush administration by a largely conservative U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the fallacious argument that accused terrorists held at Guantanamo had no rights because they were neither civilians nor uniformed military. The court decreed some form of orderly due process is essential, and the Bush White House complied, albeit grudgingly.
Beyond this point, war is uncivilized and unfit for customary civilian due process, though our country has been a leader in developing rules limiting armed conflict. Particularly notable is President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts during the Civil War, in collaboration with professor Francis Lieber of Columbia Law School in New York.
Targeting individuals in war can be defensible. Early in World War II, a special U.S. intelligence force was given the mission of locating and killing Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, brilliant architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. In early 1943, he was confirmed flying near New Guinea, a special squadron of fighter planes was dispatched and his aircraft shot down.
During the initial part of the war, the British had a program to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Later, British and American planners abandoned the effort, not for any reasons of morality, but because Hitler’s mental deterioration was judged so serious that he was probably more useful to the Allied effort alive than dead.
The Vietnam War included the Phoenix program, focused on neutralizing individuals on the other side through various means, including killing. Publicity about this program fueled steadily growing hostility to the war in the United States, as well as elsewhere in the world. Corrupt aspects, including South Vietnamese officers seeking to eliminate professional or personal rivals, added to controversy about Phoenix.
Yet after North Vietnam’s military victory in 1975, knowledgeable individuals confirmed assessments of the CIA’s William Colby, who directed Phoenix, that approximately 60,000 enemy troops had been eliminated. Senior Viet Cong leader Madame Nguyen Thi Dinh told historian Stanley Karnow that the program was “very dangerous” and extremely effective.
Americans prefer technological means, yet those reinforce radical Islamic arguments that invaders from the West are truly alien. When possible, terrorists should be captured rather than killed. That eases moral ambiguities and provides the opportunity for interrogation.
Additionally, drones cannot duplicate the flexible, subtle information-gathering skills of talented human operatives. This last point is especially important because Islamic extremists are among the diverse factions in popular uprisings in Arab nations. Drone killings can be a catalyst to increase their support.
Brennan acknowledges ambiguities surrounding intelligence and is firmly opposed to torture. He appears to be a good choice to head the CIA.
Congress, however, is right to keep reviewing the employment of lethal force.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War.” Email email@example.com.