The Drone Wars

Text of my remarks (as prepared) for the anti-drone war event sponsored by the BuxMont Chapter of the Coalition for Peace Action:



The Drone Wars
By Patrick G. Eddington


BuxMont Coalition for Peace Action
BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship,
2040 W. Street Road, Warrington PA
September 8, 2013


Thank you, Reverend Moore, for that very kind introduction, and thank you Cathy Leary of the BuxMont Coalition for Peace Action for the opportunity to be a part of this important event today. Before I dive into the topic at hand, let me offer the usual caveat that what I’m about to share with you are my views alone—they do not necessarily represent the views of Rep. Holt or the United States House of Representatives.

Over 20 years ago, Operation Desert Storm unleashed what has become a bipartisan penchant for the use of force as the default setting for our foreign policy, particularly in the Islamic world. It was also in that war that the first practical military drones saw their initial use.

The Pioneer drone was developed in Israel but was produced under license in the United States. By today’s standards, it was pretty small and not terribly impressive: it had a wingspan of 17 feet, was 14 feet long, and was powered by a 26 horsepower snowmobile engine. Its range was about 100 miles and it could stay aloft for about five hours while carrying a number of intelligence sensors but no weapons. It was strictly a short range intelligence-gathering platform.

But of course, the drones didn’t stay small or unarmed for very long.

The RQ-1 Predator first flew in 1995 and had a wingspan of 48 feet, was 27 feet long, and could remain airborne for a solid 24 hours. And we all now know that the later version, the MQ-1, was equipped with Hellfire missiles capable of destroying a tank. Today, the United States Air Force buys more of these unmanned aircraft than it does manned aircraft like the F-22 Lightning.

And drones are big business. Very big business.

The January 4, 2013 edition of the Harvard Business Review noted that the projected domestic drone market for major businesses is expected to be at least a $5 billion affair initially, with that figure likely to double before the current decade is over. And that does not count the already booming military drone business, which is measured in the billions of dollars. 

The drone industry’s trade association, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), has certainly been aggressive in lobbying Congressional Members and staff about the merits of drones. In April 2012, AUVSI hosted a “National Robotics Week” on Capitol Hill, and you can see a brief video of that event that I shot posted on my Vimeo page. In it, you’ll see lots of hardware for lawmakers and staff to “Oooh and Ahhh” over—and lots of drone industry pitchmen (and women) making the case about how drones are job creators.

I certainly don’t disagree about that last point—they clearly are job creators. The question is whether we want those kinds of jobs to exist in our society, particularly if they promote invasive (and possibly warrantless) domestic spying or if they facilitate the remote controlled, due-process-free death of other human beings.

Now I’ve taken a few moments to talk about this history of drones from the Persian Gulf War to the present because it’s directly relevant to the world we’re living in today. The evolution of drone technology, combined with a still-potent Cold War militarism, helped lay the doctrinal and technological foundation for the era of roboticized, remote control killing that many of us have come to call The Drone Wars.

That technological militarism got a major boost in the wake of Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks on our country. President George W. Bush and those around him used the attacks–which only succeeded because of the incompetence and infighting between the CIA, FBI, and NSA–to push through a cowed Congress the most sweeping grant of executive war-making power in American history.

On September 18, 2001, the Congress passed S. J. Res. 23, the so-called authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). Because the AUMF would subsequently be used to justify expanding the war against Al Qaeda to Pakistan, Somalia, Ethiopia and elsewhere around the world, it’s worth quoting the operative section of the law in full: 


(a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Notice how this grants exclusive, non-reviewable authority to the President alone to determine who allegedly attacked us, and that the grant of authority is global in scope and of indefinite duration—the very embodiment of the concept of “endless war”.

At the time of the debate over the 2001 AUMF, many Democrats who served in Congress in 1991 and opposed using force to eject Saddam’s army from Kuwait were still being criticized for that vote. That fact, combined with the direct nature of Al Qaeda’s assaults on New York and Washington, caused every Democrat but Barbara Lee of California to support the 2001 AUMF. This was the strategic political legacy of Desert Storm: Democrats who opposed what was viewed as a “just war” in 1991 could not possibly oppose an AUMF offered in response to the carnage of 9/11, even if that AUMF gave Bush and any president who followed him unfettered power to wage war on a global scale so long as the name “Al Qaeda” could be invoked to justify it.

There is no evidence that the Pakistani Taliban–who effectively did not exist prior to our combat operations in Pakistan–aided bin Laden’s organization, yet that organization has been the target of U.S. military action. The Somali Islamic fundamentalist group Al Shabab did not even exist prior to 9/11–yet the 2001 AUMF is what Bush and Obama have used to justify combat operations against Al Shabab in Somalia. It is the same AUMF that is being cited by Obama administration officials as the source of their authority to use drones to target Al Qaeda elements in Yemen. Congress has not declared war on any of these countries. It didn’t have to–because through the passage of the 2001 AUMF it had given successive presidents the power to do it for them–or so President’s Bush and Obama have asserted.

I am hopeful that the very painful and bloody lessons of the past decade have finally had at least some effect in helping restore our Constitutional checks and balances when it comes to issues of war and peace. The current Congressional backlash against the Obama administration’s push for an AUMF to attack the Assad regime in Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians is a direct result of the over-reaches in Iraq and elsewhere via the 2001 AUMF.

Let me be clear: Assad’s use of chemical agents, if forensically verified, would put him in the same class of despicable tyrants as Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein. But even if his use of chemical agents against his own people is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it does not justify plunging our nation into yet another war in the Arab and Muslim world. Decades ago, our government forfeited the moral high ground on this issue through our own support of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction programs, and more recently, through our relatively indiscriminate use of drones to attack gatherings of “military age males” in a modern version of the Vietnam-era “free fire zone”.

The Desert Storm experience laid the groundwork for all of what has followed over the last two decades. The reaction to the 9/11 attacks radically intensified and accelerated these ominous trends, particularly the global use of armed drones but also the global electronic spying conducted by our government against literally every American citizen with a cellphone, computer, or traditional telephone landline. And as the people of this community have learned, the Drone Wars have landed right here in the BuxMont area with the creation of the Horsham-based drone command center. I am here to tell you that you are not alone in the fight to prevent the spread of these deadly weapons of war across our domestic skies.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to play a part in fighting these developments. In 2012, I helped Rep. Holt secure the first domestic armed drone ban in the House-passed version of the Fiscal Year 2013 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill. At the time we secured unanimous approval of that amendment, we were actually gently ridiculed by the then-ranking Appropriations Committee Democrat, Norm Dicks of Washington state, who jokingly asked whether DHS had any plans to arm its drones. But after the revelations of the FBI’s covert use of drones for domestic surveillance, no one is laughing any more—and this year we once again secured unanimous House approval of the same amendment on the same bill.

There are currently over half a dozen drone-related bills pending in the House and Senate, most designed to rein in the domestic use of drones by the federal government or otherwise apply a strict Fourth Amendment warrant-based requirement for their use. Dozens of states have already either enacted similar legislation or are considering it, which is an extremely encouraging development, the result of hard work done by local activists across the nation.

And although the Drone Wars have temporarily been eclipsed in the headlines by Edward Snowden’s domestic spying revelations and, more recently, by the ongoing debate over whether to wage another “war of choice” in the Middle East, it will prove to be but a transitory absence from the front pages of our papers and news websites. For our political class, drones have become the technological equivalent of a gateway drug—a low-domestic-political-cost weapon of choice for waging endless, neo-imperial wars abroad.

In the Drone Wars, the President of the United States sits in the White House every week with his closest national security advisors, personally deciding who will die by remote control, even if the target is a U.S. citizen entitled to judicial due process under our Constitution.

In the Drone Wars, there are no American flag-draped coffins being unloaded at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Instead, the funerals take place half a world away, and almost inevitably involve the burial of innocent civilians, including children, every one of them a person of color and Muslim. When the taking of a human life becomes little more than a mechanical process, driven by a potent mixture of de facto ethno-religious profiling and questionable intelligence practices, it makes such an act all the more morally insidious and repellant, which is why it shocks our conscience and drives us to speak out against it.

Breaking our political class’s addiction to drones will require raising the political cost of supporting and using drones in this way. And that is why efforts such as yours here in Pennsylvania are so incredibly important. Never has the phrase “Think globally, act locally” been more relevant. You and those like you in other communities from Virginia to California are the driving force of this national anti-drone movement, and I am grateful to you and the many other dedicated local activists around the country for taking on this fight.

Over the past few years, I’ve often struggled to sum up my own fears about the perilous future we seem to be careening towards. In early 2011, after the publication of my CIA memoir Long Strange Journey, I finally hit upon the phrase that captures my current worldview: We may still be living in the United States of America, but we are no longer living in The Republic of The United States of America.

No republic worthy of the name wages endless, futile, and bankrupting imperial wars. No republic worthy of the name suspends habeas corpus, operates offshore penal colonies, spies on its own citizens, or conducts remote-controlled, due-process-free assassinations of other human beings, including some of our own citizens. No republic worthy of the name spends more than the rest of the world combined on the weapons of war while simultaneously permitting its children to go hungry, allowing its homeless veterans to sleep on sidewalks, and forcing its elderly to choose between buying home heating oil to keep warm or buying food to live. A country that creates such inhuman conditions will inevitably face God’s judgment.

In the years ahead, through forums like this and through other venues, I will continue my own efforts to help our fellow citizens understand these truths, and above all, to act on these truths.  I take comfort in the knowledge that those of you who are here with me today are on the same long, strange but very necessary journey, sounding the same call for national repentance and redemption. Our task is a daunting one, but it is also the most important one of our lives–calling forth our best efforts, and bringing out the best in each of us.

My deep thanks to the BuxMont Coalition For Peace Action for allowing me to share my thoughts with you today. I wish you all God’s peace. Thank you.

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