Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally defended drone strikes before Congress on Monday by saying that all targets were “positively identified.”
“Positive identification” (called “pid”) is achieved by checking off the “rules of engagement” (called “roe”) used to determine a likely enemy.
The problem is that the rules of engagement constantly shift and, in this case, the military won’t say exactly what they are.
McSally’s comment set off immediate criticism, like this tweet from Wired’s Spencer Ackerman:
While ret. Col. McSally says there are robust requirements for positive drone targeting ID, someone coughs “signature strikes.” #dronewars
— attackerman (@attackerman) April 23, 2013</>
New York Times Eric Schmidt and David Sanger described signature strikes as “Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking … American operators [can] strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance … “
The problem with such a shifting definition of positive identification is that it opens the spectrum wide enough to include targeting people who are just minding their own business.
As Jo Jones and Scott Shane wrote in the Times:
[S]ome State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertiliser could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, sceptics argued.
This loose form of positive identification foregoes traditional methods of threat identification, while legitmising unlimited strikes based on a Top Secret threat matrix, a “Chinese menu” of enemy combatant identifiers.
Worse, hits and misses often kill innocent bystanders. On top of it all, the reporting process for such damage is so inadequate that America often hears via local reporters or media on the scene.
“Now, however, when [Yemenis] think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time,” he said, describing the anger he has seen play into the hands of terrorist recruiters.
Faisal Shahzad, the guy who wanted to hit Times Square with a devastating amount of homemade explosives, noted drones specifically:
“Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It’s a war, and in war, they kill people. They’re killing all Muslims . . . ”
Still, the administrators of this policy can fall back on their top secret rules of engagement in order to legitimise every strike — parading high-level officers in front of Congress who can say, without lying, that targets are “positively identified.”
“Right now we have the executive branch making a claim that it has the right to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, for secret reasons, based on secret evidence, in a secret process, undertaken by unidentified officials,” Rosa Brooks, a policy advisor and law professor at Georgetown University, said at the hearings. “That frightens me. I don’t doubt their good faith, but that’s not the rule of law as we know it.”
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