Why Drones Are Our Modern Nuclear Bomb

Friday, March 15, 2013

Air Force crew chief Staff Sgt. Robert Stroud pushes back an RQ-1 Predator at Balad Air Base, Iraq, after the completion of one of its sorties over Iraq on Sept. 15, 2004. (Tech. Sgt. Rob Jensen/U.S. Air Force)

The use of the nuclear bomb in World War II fundamentally altered the nature of modern warfare. For the United States, it forever changed the role of the presidency, giving the executive branch the power to unilaterally detonate a stunningly destructive bomb. Today, drones have, arguably, become the modern version of the nuclear bomb, controlled from a computer, with the potential for no loss of American life, no boots on the ground, and a relatively small price tag. 

The use and deployment of drones rests comfortably in the hands of the president. He alone can order the killing of another human being abroad, including an American citizen. To date, three Americans have been killed in Yemen in drone strikes, include Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It's a presidential power that Attorney General Eric Holder has reaffirmed in the face of imminent danger. 

David Cole, professor of constitutional law, national security, and criminal justice at Georgetown University Law Center, says that the administration legally justifies the drone program with two legal documents: First, they can engage in targeted killing on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Pakistan because it's a war. And second, the targeted killings in Yemen and Lebanon — thousands of miles away from any battlefield — are justified because those individuals they are targeting are an imminent threat.

According to Cole, "They have redefined imminence to say that if somebody is involved in one of these groups that’s associated with Al Qaeda and they're an operational leader, then by definition they constantly pose an imminent threat to us."

"In this program, a judge doesn’t decide anything," he says, "because the administration has taken this authority on for itself and asserts that it doesn't have to get any approval from any other branch, whether it be Congress or the judiciary, to kill even an American citizen."


David Cole

Produced by:

Arwa Gunja

Comments [6]

John A

It's nice to hear that the wheels of government grinding forward on this, but does it have to take so long? It may be ten years from start to legislation on this. But then again this was said (follows) by the president himself years ago. It's all correct in sentiment, but today we have what you and others report. Walk the talk, Mr. President!
"We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates.  We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat.  But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability.  For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable -- a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass.  And that's why I took several steps upon taking office to better protect the American people."

Mar. 15 2013 03:57 PM
NABNYC from SoCal

The Obama/Holder rationale for the assassination program is clearly nothing but that: an effort to justify conduct which is not legal, not authorized by existing law. The Church committee in the 1970s condemned U.S. assassination attempts at foreign leaders we considered the enemy. Further, the assassinations are not the same as being in battle on a battlefield. The assassinations are taking place in residential communities throughout the middle east and parts of Africa, against citizens of nations with which we are not at war. The white house is trying to justify this by claiming that we are at war with all enemies of the U.S., but that's not war -- that's just mass, indiscriminate killing.

Further, there are limits to the tactics of war. I'd like to see any legal precedent for assassinations of individuals, directed and ordered by the president, because he thinks the individuals are bad people. I can't find any. War generally consists of taking away resources, land, weapons from an opposing enemy. Not assassinations. And there's no question that there will be blowback, so people need to ask themselves this question: if somebody starts knocking off U.S. politicians and business leaders, is that a legitimate tactic of war? It's certainly unprecedented and the rare occasions on which it is found it has been condemned by all nations.

Finally, any suggestion that Obama has authority to assassinate Americans is delusional. Read the Bill of Rights. If the government believes an American has committed a crime, they can arrest the person and bring them to trial, not send out a mercenary death squad to murder him in his sleep. And by the way: the president is not allowed to use the military (or military weapons) against the citizens. We've got a police force for domestic crimes.

Wait until the next Republican is in office, surrounded by religious fanatics who will draw up their own Kill List. Are people in this country really so pavlovian about defending "their" political party that they cannot see the bosses have two parties and the rest of us have none. They -- the rulers -- are killing us, and they say there's not a thing we can do about it.

Mar. 15 2013 03:20 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

A program is not secret if everybody is talking about it...

The President is not being transparent about Drone Warfare because he doesn't have to be. He is our Commander in Chief. Let him age and get grey hair by doing things that might be morally objectionable by the rest of us. He is hopefully making decisions based on accurate information given to him.
The imminent danger by Terrorists cannot be treated lightly.We have seen what Terrorists can do. The President must take action towards enemies, and hopefully we can trust him to only kill people who are imminent threats.

Mar. 15 2013 12:16 PM
Chrystal in Oak Cliff from Oak Cliff

I don't think the use of drones on US soil is ever going to happen, but I think that giving the power to a committee would be like giving the decision to use CPR to a committee.

If by some freak chance the situation arises, it is a decision that needs to be made within seconds, not months.

Mar. 15 2013 11:25 AM
Angel from Miami, FL

In the future a police commissioner might say drones have saved the lives of countless officers in his press speech following a police drone mission that "surgically" dropped a bomb on a three-story walk-up they believed was the home of a drug-lord. In passing he will mention of the loss of civilians living in that building and the adjacent buildings. Collateral damage. It's the necessary price to pay to save police assets and keep the public safe. Apathy + laziness... the new American way?

Mar. 15 2013 09:27 AM
Sam Kephart from Spearfish, South Dakota USA

Domestic drone usage is ill-conceived, elitist, and end-runs our inherent Constitutional protections.

Here are two (2), very well-produced, videos that anchor my points:

Emmy Award-winning newscaster Shad Olson’s ‘The Great Drone Debate’, featuring US Senator John Thune:


Here’s a mind-blowing, well-done animated short that really captures our collective angst that if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then domestic drones are a superhighway to an Orwellian panoptic gulag.


For national security purposes, Americans are already subject to warrantless wiretaps of calls and emails, the warrantless GPS “tagging” of their vehicles, the domestic use of Predators or other spy-in-the-sky drones, and the Department of Homeland Security’s monitoring of all our behavior through “data fusion centers.” 


America’s promise has always been the power of the many to rule, instead of the one. Ungoverned drone usage, particularly domestically, gives power to the one. 

Mar. 15 2013 08:46 AM

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