National Security

FAQ: Why does the ACLU care about drones in Afghanistan? Or does it?

12.29.12

Sometimes myths travel faster than the truth—for years the ACLU has dealt with emails and letters claiming we are attempting to stop Marines from praying or removing crosses from headstones at federal cemeteries. Both of these claims are completely false. This time, stories have begun circulating across the country that are critical of the ACLU’s inquiry into the legality of the unmanned drone attacks conducted by the U.S. Military in Yemen and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Below, we try and answer some FAQs regarding the ACLU’s involvement in this issue.

What action has the ACLU taken on the government’s unmanned drone program?

On January 13, 2010, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to ascertain when, where and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and how the United States ensures compliance with international laws relating to extrajudicial killings. The ACLU seeks this information so the public can make an informed judgment about the use of these tactics.

Why is the ACLU involved in an issue happening in another country? Is this outside of its mission?

Dissemination of information to the public is a critical and substantial component of the ACLU’s mission and work. Without FOIA requests filed by the ACLU, the American people would have never learned the full extent of the government’s illegal use of torture, use of extraordinary rendition to circumvent the justice system or illegal wiretapping operations used to spy on innocent Americans. While the attacks have occurred in other countries, they are still bring coordinated by the American government.

Is the ACLU more concerned with protecting suspected terrorists instead of Americans?

No. Terrorism is a real threat to American safety, and we as a people expect our government to defend us from threats both at home and abroad. However, the American people have a right to know how their government defends them, and whether that defense is conducted morally and in compliance with U.S., foreign and international law. In the case of the drone program, none of these questions have been answered. Perhaps we will learn that the targeted killings performed by unmanned drones are fully consistent with the law and exercised with the utmost care to prevent avoidable civilian casualties. But unless we ask the question, we will never receive the answer.

What are the ACLU’s concerns regarding the legality of the program?

One concerning aspect of the drone program is the reported involvement of civilian CIA contractors. If lethal force is placed in the hands of individuals who are not in the military chain of command, are not subject to the rules of military discipline and do not operate under any other public system of accountability or oversight, then the American public needs to know about it. We are also in the dark when it comes to who selects targets for assassination and why. News reports have suggested that drones are not only used to target members of al Qaeda or Taliban, but also Afghan drug lords, Pakistani insurgents, and others identified as enemies of the Pakistani government. The use of targeted killings may be appropriate for military targets, but raise grave concerns when they are expanded to include criminal suspects and political enemies. Finally, though collateral damage is an unfortunate and unavoidable reality of warfare, there is widespread concern that the civilian casualties incurred in drone strikes far exceed the acceptable level. The reported civilian casualties vary widely, and it is unclear what their proportion is in relation to targeted individuals. Avoidable killing of non-combatants is prohibited under the Geneva Convention, morally reprehensible and in direct opposition to American values. By incurring excessive civilian casualties, we may also be jeopardizing our safety in the long run by fueling anger against the United States and legitimizing extremists who mean us harm.

This was co-written by Micah McCoy, Communications Specialist at the ACLU of New Mexico and Mike Brickner, Communications Director at the ACLU of Ohio.