Former Pentagon official defends U.S. use of drones

04/11/13 Janelle Irwin
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A former Pentagon official is defending the United States’ use of drones. During a lecture Thursday at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Michael James Barton blamed criticism of the unmanned aircraft on media that sensationalize perceived future threats associated with using new technology.

“The Spartans were really, really upset that the Athenians used arrows because how dare they, we can’t even see the enemy, they’re coming from afar. You don’t face your enemy with courage and they thought this new technology was just terrible.”

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that as many as 3,500 civilians have been killed by drones in Pakistan alone since 2004. When asked about what can be done to minimize civilian casualties, Barton said the blood isn’t on the U.S.’s hands.

“Civilians are often now used as human shields precisely because it generates the outrage in the international community when civilians are killed. They will use them as human shields, hostages if you will, and so when the targets are attacked and the Al Qaeda folks are killed they’re surrounded by women and children who they put there.”

Barton, a former deputy director in the Pentagon, also lumped civilian casualties into the cost of war.

“Civilians are always affected. More civilians died in World War II than uniformed military personnel. Unfortunately, it’s been that way since the beginning. There’s nothing different using drones or any other mode of warfare.”

A report this week by McClatchy contradicted statements by President Barack Obama and other White House staff that only top level Al Qaeda terrorists were being targeted by drones. Instead the report indicated that many of the victims were lower level Al Qaeda and some were only suspected terrorists. But Barton contends, that doesn’t matter.

“We don’t go out there and say, ‘well, this guy’s just a private we’re not going to shoot at him, this guy’s a general we’ll shoot at him.’ If you’re taking up arms against the United States anywhere in the world, you’re an enemy of the U.S. and we have every right under the authorization to use military force – that was passed by Congress after 9/11 – to engage in warfare. The fact that you’re a low level driver or cook doesn’t make you any less of a target than a driver or a cook of the German army was in World War II.”

But Barton did have some criticism of U.S. tactics. He criticized the court system for interfering with the executive branch’s authority to capture perceived terrorists who might have information crucial to domestic defense.

“We do the logical thing – we just kill them on the field. We leave the intelligence value that we might get to stop a terrorist attack on the table and we just kill them because if you kill them then you don’t have detainee problems. No one’s upset that you’re holding them in Gitmo. No one’s upset extraordinary rendition. They’re dead, they’re gone so, you know, problem solved.”

About 100 law students and professors listened through a twenty minute defense of drone use. Many of them grimaced at Barton’s presentation. Law student Lane Cryer argued that Barton’s statements were over-simplifying a complicated issue.

“Aren’t there additional concerns, particularly on the domestic front, American citizens being granted no deprivation of life without adequate due process and so when you’re talking about targeted killings based on drone with this lack of transparency about how they did it – aren’t you denying a fundamental constitutional right?”

Cryer was referring to Barton’s claims that the President has the authority to kill anyone who presents a terrorist threat to the United States. But Barton fired back that it is absolutely constitutional to take someone’s life if they are a terrorist.

“[You’re] out in the café, out here and you’re having a coffee and you’re wondering why you ever went to law school because you don’t like your tax law something and a hell fire or a tomahawk missile comes off a Navy destroyer and pinpoints you and destroys you – the President doesn’t have the authority to do that, you’re not a terrorist. So, whether it’s a missile or a drone or a bomb, it’s irrelevant.”

The law student followed up by calling America’s method of classifying someone as a terrorist, arbitrary. The use of drones is also growing domestically. Many law enforcement agencies, including the Miami-Dade Sheriff’s Office, have permission to use them for surveillance. In some states law enforcement use them for border patrol and they can even be deployed for agricultural purposes. This week, the Hernando County Commission voted to seek FAA approval to be one of the agency’s six testing sites. Peace activist Brian Moore spoke against that measure during their meeting. Moore said he’s worried the unmanned aircraft would be a safety hazard if they were being tested at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.

“Drones are still in the development stage and the military has experienced a multitude of accidents around the country.”

Barton said the FAA has some of the toughest safety regulations he knows of and doubts there would be any threat to airplanes around areas where they fly. Meanwhile, the Florida Senate unanimously passed a bill yesterday limiting law enforcement use of drones to preventing imminent danger to life or serious damage to property. It would also require police to get a search warrant before using a drone to collect evidence.

Here's our previous coverage of drones

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