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ACLU Sues Over Legality of "Targeted Killing" By Drones 776

Posted by Soulskill
from the skynet-jokes-are-allowed-and-encouraged dept.
MacAndrew writes "The ACLU has sued the United States Government to enforce a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for 'the release of records relating to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles — commonly known as 'drones' — for the purpose of targeting and killing individuals since September 11, 2001.' (Complaint.) The information sought includes the legal basis for use of the drones, how the program is managed, and the number of civilian deaths in areas of operation such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. The ACLU further claims that 'Recent reports, including public statements from the director of national intelligence, indicate that US citizens have been placed on the list of targets who can be hunted and killed with drones.' Aside from one's view of the wisdom, effectiveness, and morality of these military operations, the inclusion of US citizens suggests that summary remote-control executions are becoming routine. Especially given the difficulty in locating and targeting individuals from aircraft, risks of human and machine error are obvious, and these likely increase as the robots become increasingly autonomous (please no Skynet jokes). This must give pause to anyone who's ever spent time coding or debugging or even driving certain willful late model automobiles, and the US government evidently doesn't want to discuss it."
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ACLU Sues Over Legality of "Targeted Killing" By Drones

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  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @11:46AM (#31509340) Journal
    The defense's response was merely a motion for discovery of the plaintiff's latitude and longitude.
    • It's The Robots versus The Lawyers. Death Rays versus Briefcases. Titanium Alloy versus Brooks Brothers Suits.

      Sounds like an even match across the board...

  • by Brett Buck (811747) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @11:48AM (#31509376)

    I can almost guarantee that the information sought is either classified or at least FOUO (For Official Use Only) which means it's exempt from the FOIA.

    • by Yvanhoe (564877) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:00PM (#31509568) Journal
      The doctrine regarding the use of lethal force against American civilians can be classified ? That sounds like a real problem...
      • by Aeros (668253)
        But why are they thinking the US government is targeting US citizens over there?
        • by rworne (538610) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:10PM (#31509714) Homepage

          Because there are some US citizens that are actively working with the Taliban. If US citizens are working as enemy combatants then they should be eligible as targets as well.

          • by greatgreygreengreasy (706454) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:22PM (#31509912)
            Shouldn't they be arrested, charged, and tried then, rather than summarily executed?
            • by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:26PM (#31509980)

              No. We didn't arrest Confederate combatants in the American Civil War, nor did they set out to arrest Plains and Southwest Indian combatants who left the Reservations and treaty lands during the Indian Wars.

              • by hduff (570443) <hoytduff.gmail@com> on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @01:02PM (#31510782) Homepage Journal
                <quote>No. We didn't arrest Confederate combatants in the American Civil War, nor did they set out to arrest Plains and Southwest Indian combatants who left the Reservations and treaty lands during the Indian Wars.</quote>

                We also sent Americans to concentration camps and performed medical experiments on Americans without their consent. So you position is that if we did or didn't do it before, that's justification and absolution for doing it now? I would think that wrong is wrong, but you must have a much different sense of morality that other people.

                That said, if American citizens are actively engaged in hostilities toward American citizens in war, their citizenship status should not protect them from harm at that time. If they are just sitting around and can be apprehended with minimal risk, then of course arrest, charge and try them. But to put them on a government-sanctioned "hit list" just because you can isn't right. That same government can also put you on that same list for no particular reason. That wouldn't be right either.

                • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                  by Wyatt Earp (1029)

                  Since the article states that the attacks have been carried out in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, I think that apprehending them with minimal risk isn't going to be an option.

                • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                  by Martin Blank (154261)

                  If they are just sitting around and can be apprehended with minimal risk, then of course arrest, charge and try them.

                  The majority of the hits thus far (at least those reported in the media) have been in either Taliban-held territory in Afghanistan or in the autonomous regions of Pakistan, in both cases definite no-go for arrest operations. At that point, military action becomes the only way of getting at them. If they can be captured, so much the better, but sometimes a remote-kill switch is the only way

              • by jwhitener (198343) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @05:15PM (#31515464)

                Prior to 9/11, if I, as a US citizen, had walked into a US embassy somewhere in Africa and started shooting everyone, would I have been called a terrorist and taken to a secret CIA prison, or brought back to the US and charged as a criminal?

                We both know I would have been charged as a criminal in the US, with a lawyer at my side. Post 9/11.. its hard to say.

                The civil war was an officially declared war, with uniforms. This new "war on terror" makes no sense. You can't declare a war on an ideology. You can't have a perpetual war who's members are unknown and replenished with each generation raised on hating xyz about the US or its allies.

                How will we know when we've "won" this war on terror? We can't. There is no end. And if there is no end, no victory condition, it can't be a war. And if it is not a war, attacks against us are of a criminal nature, not military nature. And criminals, by the USA's laws and morals, deserve their day in court.

            • by Rijnzael (1294596) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:31PM (#31510066)
              In the battlefield of the kind US soldiers face in the Middle East, I think it would be a tad cumbersome to verify the combatant down your gun sight isn't a citizen before pulling the trigger. Likewise, if a US citizen defects or otherwise joins the 'enemy' in the fight against US forces, then there is no distinction between the citizen and non-citizens in the target zone. How it differs from an extrajudicial killing is dubious though, I agree.
              • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:47PM (#31510452)

                However, with these drones, they are specifically targeting people.

                So they know "this is john smith of 1390 mockingbird lane, CA and a U.S. citizen." That's the point of the protest-- known U.S. citizens are being targeted for execution.

              • by uncledrax (112438) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @01:22PM (#31511222) Homepage

                If you can justify that they are military combatants of a foreign nation, or political faction of a nation, they would have have their citizenship revoked as per US TITLE 8 > CHAPTER 12 > SUBCHAPTER III > Part III > 1481 [cornell.edu]. Those persons may still have renounced their citizenship based on how you interpret section b... there's to many commas for my simple mind to comprehend.

                Either way, even if they ARE a citizen, and they are pointing a weapon at you and you have reasonable cause to fear for your life, you're covered by Self Defense.

              • this is simple (Score:3, Interesting)

                Look, during hostilities, people get killed. That's what happens. US citizen or not, if they are on the battlefield fighting American troops they will get shot at. But if they are hanging out at the Taliban Tavern drinking a pint of Osama bin Lager with their mates, possibly planning the next 9/11 attack, killing them then is a summary execution rather than an act of war. I think the ACLU has a point that we should investigate, arrest and try them rather than summarily executing them.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by johnlcallaway (165670)
              Yeah .. that's it. We'll just ask for ID cards proving citizenship before we shoot back at someone.

              If they are on US soil, I would agree. A US citizen in a foreign country that is hanging around with enemy combatants that the US military thinks might be doing bad things is fair game. I don't care if they are a news reporter either. Those are the risks one takes in a war zone.

              War sucks ... it's even worse when the enemy doesn't wear uniforms and hides like cowards among the civilian populations, using
          • by characterZer0 (138196) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:25PM (#31509960)

            If US citizens are working as enemy combatants outside of the US, then they should be eligible as military targets as well.

            Just to make it clear that the US military has no business going after US citizens on US soil. We have other agencies for that.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by billcopc (196330)

            If US citizens are working as enemy combatants, killing a few defectors won't solve the underlying problem that the nation is spiraling into madness.

            Terrorism is not a cause, it's a symptom. People get desperate because they feel wronged and powerless. Whether it's due to religious fanaticism or abusive capitalism, the result is the same: angry people who have nothing left to lose.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by dwillden (521345)
          Probably US Citizens like Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn, whom we recently thought had been arrested, but unfortunately was not. He is wanted for treason and has a one million dollar price on his head. He is actively working against the US, has been indicted for treason, the first case since the 50's, and is therefore a viable target.
  • Well then, lets have some untargeted killing then. Thats much better for everyone.
  • by Red Flayer (890720) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @11:52AM (#31509438) Journal
    From the summary, emphasis mine:

    Especially given the difficulty in locating and targeting individuals from aircraft, risks of human and machine error are obvious, and these likely increase as the robots become increasingly autonomous (please no Skynet jokes)

    Resistance is futile. This article will be assimiliated into the collective conscious of slashdot, and will become subject to Skynet jokes whether you like it or not.

    There. A skynet comment and a borg comment rolled into one...

    Bet you didn't see that coming, submitter.

  • US Citizens (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Shakrai (717556) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @11:54AM (#31509466) Journal

    If US Citizens are employed in the service of enemies of this Republic on foreign soil, then what the hell does the ACLU want? The FBI to paradrop into Afghanistan, slap the cuffs on them and read them their Miranda rights? What the hell?

    Next up: ACLU objects to US Military engaging in warfare, suggests borrowing a page from Steven Spielberg and replacing all issued M-16s with walkie-talkies.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bdsesq (515351)

      The ALCU is probably looking for "due process of law".

      Somehow I have trouble generating sympathy for anyone who gets hurt standing next to Osama or Im-a-dinner-jacket when they get taken out.

    • Re:US Citizens (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Angst Badger (8636) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:13PM (#31509778)

      If US Citizens are employed in the service of enemies of this Republic on foreign soil, then what the hell does the ACLU want?

      I don't think the question here is whether it is permissible to attack military enemies, so much as whether it is permissible to engage in the assassination of specific individuals, to say nothing of the accuracy of the intelligence that leads to such assassination missions and the extensive collateral damage that may end up creating more enemies than it destroys. We are, after all, talking about an intelligence community whose failures over the last fifty years would be comical if the consequences weren't so grave.

      The failure of the "let's just trust our leaders" model is what spurred us to form a republic in the first place. To have it come up again in the context of the two biggest military disasters of our nation's history suggests that someone isn't paying attention to the reality on the ground, and it's not the ACLU.

    • Re:US Citizens (Score:4, Informative)

      by TubeSteak (669689) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:17PM (#31509828) Journal

      If US Citizens are employed in the service of enemies of this Republic on foreign soil, then what the hell does the ACLU want? The FBI to paradrop into Afghanistan, slap the cuffs on them and read them their Miranda rights? What the hell?

      Try this article if you're confused about the ACLU's motives
      http://billingsgazette.com/news/opinion/editorial/columnists/nat_hentoff/article_085a3dc4-2725-11df-afa2-001cc4c03286.html [billingsgazette.com]

      Here's the short version of things that are bothering the ACLU:
      1. Lots of foreign civilian casualties
      2. "nonmilitary personnel including CIA agents [and possibly contractors] are making targeting decisions, piloting drones and firing missiles"
      3. we don't know under which American laws and international treaties the President has authorized this program of targeted killings

      No matter how the Pakistani Government feels, bombing Pakistani civilians is only going to piss off and radicalize the locals.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Hatta (162192)

      what the hell does the ACLU want?

      It's right there in the summary:

      The ACLU has sued the United States Government to enforce a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for 'the release of records relating to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles -- commonly known as "drones" -- for the purpose of targeting and killing individuals since September 11, 2001."

      If these records show that we're only killing "US Citizens are employed in the service of enemies of this Republic on foreign soil", that would be wonderfu

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jwhitener (198343)

      "what the hell does the ACLU want? The FBI to paradrop into Afghanistan, slap the cuffs on them and read them their Miranda rights? What the hell?"

      Exactly. Like, if I left the USA because I hated it and decided I believed some foreigner's ideology that the west is Evil, and I choose to fly into Paris and plan and attack an embassy, we should certainly use F16s or drones with hellfire missiles to strike my Paris apartment building.........

      Now you might say, well of course we wouldn't do that in Paris. Too


  •   This must give pause to anyone who's ever spent time coding or debugging or even driving certain willful late model automobiles, and the US government evidently doesn't want to discuss it.

    Do they speak English in What? I don't understand the joke or relevance. Can someone hit me with a clue?

  • by bistromath007 (1253428) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @11:56AM (#31509492)
    UCAVs are not at all autonomous. For the very reasons already mentioned, they basically can't be. They can autonomously fly around and look at things, but firing weapons requires somebody on the ground calling for a strike, and somebody in a shack somewhere actually making it. It's not as though a drone can actually see the face of any people its shooting at; how would it know that it has found somebody on The Dreaded List unless somebody on the ground first said "he's over there?" The legality of killing people with drones is thus basically identical to the legality of doing so from any other aircraft. Good luck stopping that.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Yvanhoe (564877)
      The US military doctrine says that the order to opened fire has to be issued by a human. The only exception is when shooting down unmanned vehicle (eg. incoming missiles) than an autonomous "fire" decision can be taken.

      I am not sure that the main issue is that it is fired from drones. I think the main issue is that it is shooting at US citizen outside of any judicial overseeing and that being done from drones, video records of the operations exist.
  • Really? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by drexlor (1314419)
    UAVs allow operators to make intelligent decisions because they are not in the heat of battle, change shifts every hour, have someone behind them helping them make decisions, and have advanced payloads identifying actual threats versus civilians. There is no comparison to other methods in regards to reducing civilian casualties.
  • Someone always has to ruin the fun :(
  • by RichMan (8097) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:06PM (#31509652)

    There is supposed to be a legal process where one gets found guilty in a court of law, gets to appeal and then get sentenced to execution. Even then most states have recognized the process has a number of flaws.

    Here we apparently have the US government selecting US citizens for death and then carrying out the killing without the involvement of the courts. The ACLU is asking how such operation is valid under the US constitution. Every US citizen should be worried about a process where the government is able to execute citizens without going through the court system. Because the men in black masks might start making local visits.

  • by mukund (163654) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:12PM (#31509738) Homepage

    I have always felt this method of targeting individuals illegal at best. It may be legal to use force when there is a declared war happening and this is among soldiers.

    But such targeted killing of individuals has happened in many countries now, without any trial. In several cases, surrounding civilians also become causalities, even though they may just be passers-by. WTF?

    Before al-Zarqawi was killed in Iraq, nobody wanted him alive. But that bombing which caused his death also killed civilians including children in that building, who may have had no choice but to be there.

    How is a government any better than the terrorists then? Like many say, if such things happen where there is no due process and no care about collateral damage, then the terrorists have already won and there's no difference between us and them.

  • by AP31R0N (723649) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:29PM (#31510026)

    i was a 1N051 with an above TS clearance during the Clinton years. i taught LoAC stuff.

    If a US Citizen is an enemy, they are fair game. Citizenship is a non-issue, enemy combatant trumps citizenship (and rightly so)

    Drones/UAVs are NOT ROBOTS, they do not select targets or pull the trigger. By law they cannot.

    Targeted killing is fine in combat. Popping a cap in Mrs. Merkel's ass right now would be illegal and a bad idea for many reasons. If we were fighting Germany, she'd be fair game because she is leader of enemy forces (civilian or not). Germany's minister of arts or some such would NOT be.

    If the Taliban has a bomb factory (legit target) in a mosque/hospital/kitten orphanage (illegal target) it becomes a legit target, and for good reason. A AAA cannon mounted on the Eiffel Tower would be a legit target.

    Civilian != Innocent - If Bob the Plumber makes a pipebomb he forgoes his protection under GenCon and is now an unlawful combatant.

    i normally cheer for the ACLU, but i think they are defending the wrong people for the wrong reasons. This smells political.

    • by MobyDisk (75490) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @01:17PM (#31511090) Homepage

      I agree with you, but your last sentence is a bit of a stretch.

      i normally cheer for the ACLU, but i think they are defending the wrong people for the wrong reasons. This smells political.

      They aren't defending anyone (yet). They are just asking "what did you mean by that part about US citizens...?"

    • by bishop32x (691667) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @01:33PM (#31511474)
      The ACLU is asking about is the process by which the US government decides that someone is a valid target. I think that pretty much everyone agrees that if someone is an enemy combatant (i.e. carrying weapons or attacking friendly forces) they are fair game. The question becomes what happens when the target is a) not in an area of active operations b)not engaged in armed conflict and c)a US citizen.

      Lets take a hypothetical case of a US citizen operating in Yemen who the US government believes to be funding AQ. Is it legal for the president to order the US military to kill this person? It would pretty clearly be illegal to summarily execute them if they were operating out of New Jersey, but frankly is Yemen any different?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by dkleinsc (563838)

      If a US Citizen is an enemy, they are fair game. Citizenship is a non-issue, enemy combatant trumps citizenship (and rightly so). ... I normally cheer for the ACLU, but i think they are defending the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

      Who decides whether a US citizen is an enemy (and an enemy of what, I might add)? Who decided they were the "wrong" people? Who proved that they were the wrong people, and to whom? That's the core of the ACLU's point: the Constitution is extremely clear that just because the executive branch says that a citizen is a Bad Guy doing Bad Things does not in fact make it legally so until they've proven that beyond a reasonable doubt to the judicial branch. And it's also worth pointing out that military personnel

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by stewbacca (1033764)

      Excellent post, except I think you miss the point of the ACLU's actions. They aren't criticizing or defending anybody or anything--they are merely seeking information to ensure that what you and I as Intel analysts already know is true--we don't indiscriminately kill US citizens. If they get their information, they'll see that's the case and their goal of transparency will be a success.

  • Not This Time! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by b4upoo (166390) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @02:00PM (#31512036)

    Although I usually like causes taken up by the ACLU this cause sounds really dumb. Weapons of war always take innocents along with combatants. Make no mistake there were nursing homes and kindergartens at Hiroshima and just about every other city that we have bombed in our various wars.
                The real question is whether drones will kill of unusual numbers of innocents compared to other weapons of war. I suspect that drones are part of the notion of kinder and gentler warfare.
                  As to targeting American citizens in war zones, well sure, if they are aiding the enemy then they are fair game.
                  And keep in mind that using drones keeps our own soldiers and airmen out of harms way. If we are lucky we may be able to create an entirely robotic military in the future.

  • That's fine (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Fujisawa Sensei (207127) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @02:13PM (#31512332) Journal

    That's fine, we don't have to use the drones for precision attacks, we can keep them in a surveillance only role.

    We can just go back to daisy cutters and carpet bombing once the target has been spotted.

  • Missed Opportunity (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TomRC (231027) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @05:41PM (#31515796)

    I am not weighing in on either the pro- or anti- "killing from drones" question.

    But I would like to point out that drones create an opportunity that is perhaps in a blindspot for many in and out of the military.

    When a soldier goes into a firefight, why must he shoot to kill? Because the other side is shooting to kill him. A remote controlled drone breaks that model. The enemy cannot kill the drone operator, they can only damage the drone - a matter of expense rather than life or death.

    In the sort of "war" we're now in, with enemies who hide amongst their own families and neighbors, the chances are very high that you create one new enemy for every enemy you kill, and several for every civilian. So with drones, the military value equation is strongly tipped toward NOT killing, if you can achieve your objective in other ways.

    Instead of blowing up that car full of insurgent leaders, disable it in the middle of the desert by blowing a hole through the engine block. Develop knock-out gas bombs, or a fragmentation bomb that injects tiny frozen pellets of a knock out drug. THEN send in your troops, or even a drone "paddy wagon". Taze that guy who MAY have a gun, then have the drone roll over and inject him with a sedative.

    Yeah, I know, it sounds all "liberal, peace-nik, kumbaya-ish". But if it does a better job than bullets and bombs, without risking your soldiers - why not? You can always follow up with lethal force if it doesn't work.

  • Well... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Etriaph (16235) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @11:01PM (#31518548) Homepage

    I'm not a US citizen, but I'm pretty certain that Posse Comitatus [wikipedia.org] is violated by such actions on behalf of your government.

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