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Editorial: The Missing debate over U.S. use of drones

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moonlit night in this file photo. (Jan. 31, 2010) Credit: AP

The seductive appeal of using drones to kill America's enemies is that they are lethal for those on the ground, but safe for those who guide them through the skies. They are also far cheaper than bombers and fighter planes.

The destructive drone downside is that using these weapons seems cost-free -- for Americans. And that's making it far too easy to launch this surgical-strike version of warfare.

That raises the question: If drone war isn't killing Americans, why not keep waging it? The answer: They may be safe for Americans today, but they pose a real risk for the future -- and maybe for right now.

Just this month, a drone strike killed women and girls gathering firewood in Afghanistan. The drones have killed people seen as real threats, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. But they've also killed innocent civilians, including wedding parties.

Though supporters of the drones portray them as precise, someone on the ground has to help drone operators find terrorists. And intelligence can be tragically wrong. Whether a wedding party is wiped out totally by accident, or because a real terrorist was among the guests and someone decided to accept the "collateral damage" to get a kill, today's survivors can become our nation's enemies tomorrow.

In fact, one theory about the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is that it was in retaliation for the drone strike that killed a top al-Qaida operative, Abu Yahya al-Libi, this year in the Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan.

The drones are already endangering the health, though not the lives, of those who "fly" them from computer consoles in this country. Some drone operators, at locations such as Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, experience something like post-traumatic stress disorder from the jarring contrasts in their everyday lives. At the end of their shifts, guiding drone-based missiles to kill people on the other side of the world, they go home to have supper with their families and help their kids with homework.

But the overwhelming fact remains: No Americans are likely to die while remotely guiding drones to their targets in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. When planning military operations in the pre-drone world, generals always had to consider the cost in casualties among their own troops. In drone warfare, that's not relevant.

So, given the zero cost in American lives and the high casualty rate for terrorist leaders, it's no wonder some national polls have shown that most Americans support the drone strikes. The poll respondents seem to value so highly what the drones offer that they're willing to accept the deaths of innocent civilians -- killed either because they happened to be near the actual target or because the intelligence guiding the drones was just wrong.

But that support grew up without anything resembling a real debate on the use of these new tools of modern warfare. The questions are many:

Do the drones violate long-held U.S. policy, embraced by presidents of both parties, against assassination? Is the use of drones a violation of international law -- even a war crime? Should the president of the United States be acting as judge and jury, deciding who lives and who dies, in secret meetings with a tight circle of aides? Is our nation's widespread use of the drones creating a global anything-goes-with-drones ethic that will someday make a nation or a terrorist group feel fully entitled to use them in the skies over America? In the long run, are the drones creating more enemies than they're killing?

The biggest obstacle to that debate right now is the lack of transparency from the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA about the extent of drone use and the number of civilians killed. But it's a debate our nation has to have. What better time for it than during a presidential election?

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