Andreas Whittam Smith: Death by drone is swift and efficient – it's also murder

We need to start worrying about drone proliferation. More than 40 countries now have the technology. It’s not as if you can flee from drones


I took the Letters page of this newspaper to confirm my instinctive reaction when I heard that the US government had assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki, a leading figure in al-Qa'ida, in Yemen. The Americans had sent two Predator drones to the area. They fired Hellfire missiles at a vehicle containing Awlaki and three other suspected al-Qa'ida members. The drone operator was probably working at an air force base in the US, most likely in Nevada. I picture him or her later driving home after a busy day in the office.

On our Letters page, Patricia Sheerin wrote that she searched our coverage in vain for just a few words condemning "yet another cowardly assassination". Roger Jones lamented that "when we see the President of the United States calling a press conference for the second time in a matter of weeks to boast about having committed murder, it's hard not to wonder whether the words moral compass still have any meaning at all in his unhappy country". In fact the media as a whole was largely silent on the moral issues. Why was this?

Perhaps because the US has been conducting drone strikes on individuals since 2004. Reported drone strikes in north-west Pakistan by the US, for instance, including 60 so far in 2011 alone, have killed thousands of individuals in seven years, of whom many, but not all, were described as militants. The New America Foundation in Washington has collated these figures. But north-west Pakistan is akin to a war zone because of its porous frontier with Afghanistan, whereas Yemen is not. So a second reason for the lack of adverse comment must be that Awlaki was, by all accounts, a bad man.

He was an American citizen born in New Mexico in 1971. As a Muslim cleric, he openly endorsed violence. In 2006 the Yemeni authorities detained him on charges of plotting to kidnap a US military attaché. He seems to have inspired many Islamist terrorists. President Obama first authorised the CIA to kill him in 2009. The following year, the US Treasury designated the cleric "a specially designated global terrorist", blocked his assets and made it a crime for Americans to do business with him. Later in 2010, British intelligence named him – and only him – in an assessment of major threats.

Mr Jones raised a second, pertinent question in his letter: "If America has the right to murder at will anyone they just don't like the look of, does it not follow that other countries have the same right? Are international relations now to be governed solely by the Predator drone and the poison-tipped umbrella?"

We do indeed need to start worrying about drone proliferation. In the US more drone operators are trained each year than traditional pilots. The American aerospace industry is doing much more work on drones than on manned aircraft. And according to the UN, more than 40 countries now have such technology. Some, including Israel, Russia, Turkey, China, India, Iran, the UK and France either have or are seeking drones with the capability to shoot laser-guided missiles weighing up to 100lb.

It is not as if you can flee from drones hanging around overhead. Awlaki and his companions, suddenly realising that a drone attack was imminent, ran from their vehicle. That would have made very little difference to the outcome, for these drones can see. Their high-powered video cameras will have allowed the operator in Nevada to watch every movement and adjust aim. Then press the button. Job done.

So was this legal or not? Jack L Goldsmith, a former assistant attorney general in the George W Bush administration, argued in The New York Times that it certainly was legal under domestic law. Mr Goldsmith wrote that the US government claimed the power to kill Awlaki because he was an operational leader of an al-Qa'ida affiliate that had been involved in terrorist plots on American soil and because he was hiding in a country (Yemen) that lacked the capacity to arrest him and bring him to justice. And he added that while no court approved the killing of Awlaki, it is not accurate to say that he was targeted without due process.

Mr Goldsmith went on to describe this due process that takes place behind closed doors. I reproduce his words in full: "Before someone like Mr Awlaki is targeted, multiple intelligence sources support the conclusion that he is a dangerous threat, top lawyers from many agencies scrutinise the action, policy-makers at the highest levels of government approve the action after assessing its legal and political risks, and the Congressional intelligence committees are informed about the intelligence community's role in the operations."

While I don't doubt that this activity was conducted conscientiously, it cannot rise to the level of due process as conducted in a court of law. For it lacks challenge. Probably none of the officials in Washington who engaged in this exercise had ever met Awlaki. They weren't able to hear what he would have had to say about the charges. US intelligence officials haven't interrogated him since 2006 when two FBI agents questioned him about the 9/11 attacks and other subjects while he was detained in Yemen – so much for Mr Goldsmith's assertion that Awlaki was hiding in a country that lacked the capacity to arrest him and bring him to justice. It has already shown that it can do just that.

We must also remember the bureaucratic setting in which this "due process" was conducted. It will have been hierarchical. Junior officials will not readily have challenged their seniors. The result desired by the Administration will have been understood. The US government could have appointed a legal team specifically to represent Awlaki during the internal procedures, working in secret as it would have had to do and even though Awlaki would have known nothing about it. A procedure like this would have been a good deal better than nothing. But as we haven't been told that precautions of this type were taken we can assume that they were not.

Had Awlaki been tried in a US court of law he might well have deserved the death penalty in those states that provide for it. And if not the death penalty, then imprisonment for life. I make no excuses for the man himself. But this was murder.

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