Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone War

April 16, 2015
Mark Urban, BBC Newsnight diplomatic and defence editor, speaks with investigative journalist Chris Woods about his book Sudden Justice.

Mark Urban, BBC Newsnight diplomatic and defence editor, speaks with investigative journalist Chris Woods about his book Sudden Justice.

By Graham Lanktree

Mark Urban, BBC Newsnight diplomatic and defence editor, speaks with investigative journalist Chris Woods about his book Sudden Justice.

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, drones, or as the military prefers to call them “unmanned aerial vehicles,” have winged from an obscure surveillance tool to a central weapon in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.

To explain why, investigative journalist and Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize-winner Chris Woods spoke about his new book Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone War at the Frontline Club on Wednesday 15 April with Mark Urban, diplomatic and defence editor for BBC Two’s Newsnight.

Woods, whose work has followed the development of drone warfare since 2011, described speaking with spies, soldiers, victims, and advocates to understand how these remote weapons have affected not only civilians and conventional battlefields, but the legality of secret assassination.

Today, with one in three RAF strikes against the Islamic State carried out by reaper drones, he looked ahead to how the technology will impact warfare in years to come.

A Brief History of Drones

Drones had been in the works for decades before 9/11. But had the attack not happened, the CIA’s Predator drone would probably have been sent back to the drawing board, said Woods, adding that it turned out to be quite good at two things: surveillance and assassination.

“When I spoke with a lot of elderly generals, they told me that there used to be this huge rift between the war fighting bit of the Air Force and the intelligence gathering Air Force,” he said. “They didn’t want to arm surveillance aircraft.”

But that changed when the CIA began using weaponised drones to strike in Pakistan in 2004. “By 2008 they pretty much destroyed Al Qaeda,” Woods said. But “the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan began being used as cover for a much more conventional drone program across the border [in Afghanistan], much more like the bombing of Laos and Cambodia in Vietnam, but under the name of ‘targeted killing’,” he continued.

The CIA “did things in Pakistan that would not be tolerated on a conventional battlefield,” he said, adding that even under Obama “the CIA was deliberately bombing rescuers and mass funerals attended by hundreds of people.”

Is ‘targeted killing’ with drones legal?

Drones were a heavy presence in the 2014 war in Gaza. However, when it comes to ‘targeted killing’ programs the Israelis, unlike the Americans, have worked out a legal framework that went all the way to their Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court judgment in 2006 was quite interesting and said that assassinations weren’t lawful nor unlawful, each had to be judged on its individual merit,” said Woods.

Watch and listen back:

America, by contrast, has “really blocked the examination of their program at every possible turn,” he said. “And, in fact, the Department of Justice puts ridiculous effort in preventing the U.S. federal courts from engaging on the lawfulness of the American program,” he added, suggesting the assassination program “comes out of that same legal black hole” as Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition.

Under Obama, ‘targeted killing’ becomes “just another plank of American foreign policy,” he said. But “there is still a huge question mark about whether this is somewhere where we want to go,” and, “whether this is somewhere we want other nations to go.”

Where are the drones headed?

In the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, US Central Command claim they are not killing civilians. But this feeds into the “fiction of the perfect war” that drones create, said Woods.

In the past, U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden has said “we can’t give guarantees that we’re not going to kill civilians,” said Woods. “I think that’s honest. That’s a grown up way of dealing with it,” he continued. But “in terms of accountability, can we hold the coalition members to account for what’s happening in Iraq and Syria?” he asked.

Proportionally, drones are killing fewer civilians than weapons 20 years ago, “and a hell of a lot less than we were 50 years ago,” Woods argued. But it’s a challenging question to answer whether this has an impact on radicalisation. “That is the problem, and we just don’t know what the implications of that will be ten years, 20 years down the line,” he said. “We’re telling a lot of people we’re doing the right thing at the moment without really knowing what we’re doing. We may yet reap what we’re sowing.”