Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Obama's Guantanamo Bay

By: Virginia Reed

Six years ago this month my brother-in-law Jeff came back from serving in Guantanamo Bay as an Army prison guard. My memory of his return is slightly tainted because it was soon followed by widespread media reports condemning Guantanamo Bay. The ethics of holding combatants indefinitely without trial became a focal point of the media, and a political talking point. Closing Guantanamo Bay became a feature of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Despite the honorable service of people like Jeff, the President-Elect labeled Guantanamo Bay as a “sad chapter in American history.” Many social, religious, and political groups agreed.

But when Obama took office a curious thing happened. Guantanamo Bay was downsized, secret CIA detention centers were made illegal, and drone strikes increased significantly.  Some have suggested that downsizing Guantanamo Bay and closing CIA detention centers have led to an increase in drone use to kill enemy combatants. But are drone strikes a moral alternative to holding centers like Guantanamo Bay? Why aren’t more people asking this question? 

Using drones raises moral questions and legal questions about killing innocent people and executing combatants without trial.  But how often do we hear about these questions in the American media? I mean, lots of people know what Guantanamo Bay is, but do you know what a “signature strike” is? How about the “double tap” strategy? These are two common and controversial features of drone warfare. But most Americans don’t even know what they are. This is a problem.

Most drone strikes involve "signature strikes" where the individual identities of the “targets” are not determined. Instead, the strike is based on a subjects’ repeated behavior, or signature. A missile is fired upon a group of unidentified people who appear to be engaging in terrorist signature activities. An example of signature behavior may be satellite information showing a group of militants meeting together at an Al Qaeda compound. These strikes are often followed by a "double tap" strategy. Once the original missile is fired, a second missile is fired as the rescuers converge on the injured victim. 

It is clear that since this drone warfare has increased, innocent people have been killed. According to an article in the UK paper, The Independent, conservative estimates claim that in recent years, 20% of the deaths caused by U.S. drones have been non-militants. Other studies suggest that as much as 98% of the deaths from drone strikes have been non-militants; of the total deaths only 1 in 50 is a true combatant. Gabor Rona, international legal director for Human Rights First, explained the reason for the increase in innocent killings was that drone targets are non-state armed groups, who “do not wear uniforms and are often difficult to distinguish from the civilian population.”  Non-militant civilians in places like Pakistan, where drone strikes have been common, overwhelmingly disfavor the drone strikes. According to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude project, 83% of Pakistani civilians thought drone strikes were bad policy.

Clearly these methods deserve moral scrutiny. There are questions about innocent people being killed, and the ethics of striking those not engaged in combat. As with Guantanamo Bay, the fate of potential combatants is decided without trial. But, for some reason, the American media has generally not raised these questions to the same scale or degree as they did with questions about Guantanamo Bay. 

Admittedly, there have been some reports regarding recently released State Department “White Papers.” The White Papers refer to a CIA memo that describes the criteria for a drone strike against an American citizen. There were some reports about the issue of killing Americans without due process and some suggestion that a tribunal be formed for review of killing American citizens. Compared to the critiques about drone strikes on American citizens, or of Guantanamo Bay, the critique of the overall use of drones have been strikingly subdued in the American media. 

I believe that if people were asked about the morality of drone strikes, most would say they needed more information. But if drone strikes might be immoral, we need to know now. There is no doubt that innocent people have been killed. There is no question that combatants are killed without a trial. The American people need to hold the media to a higher standard of reporting truth. This is particularly important when the truth is strong enough to change policy, like in Guantanamo Bay.


  1. Unfortunately, the public dialogue is focusing on the issue of drone strikes on citizens only, ignoring the larger problem you lay out so well.

  2. You're right, though a few (ahem) have tried to raise awareness. In her blog, Amy Davison wrote about the terrible lack of awareness regarding the use of drones. She claims that under the current policy, we don't even know who combatants are, and that even journalist may be considered targets: