When GTA fails to entertain
Human beings have always embraced the evolution of technology that surpasses even the most vivid imaginations. As we push the boundaries of remarkable advances, the line between what is acceptable and what is not becomes unclear. This uncertainty has led to a fear of the unknown – a fear that has inspired blockbuster movies like I, Robot and Eagle Eye. But while the possibility of artificially intelligent machines rising up against mankind may be detached from the reality we occupy, the world faces an equally controversial threat – superpower-controlled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), better known as ‘Drones’.
These unmanned vehicles are controlled via remote or systems from the ground and carry out tasks that have been considered ‘too risky’ for pilots. They have been developed to gather intelligence with advanced technology that can hack into phone lines and computers, track traffic and even observe public behaviour.
Drone technology has advanced exponentially in recent years. What was once developed for intelligence operations is now being equipped with missiles to ‘exterminate’ targeted suspects as the ‘human sacrifice’ element is eliminated. They are also used to support ground forces. Targeting systems have rapidly evolved to the point that drones are capable of making their own decisions to eradicate human error… or oversight?
Thus far, the United States of America, China and Britain are at the forefront of UAV development. The US has two separate squadrons of armed drones – one run by the US Air Force (USAF) and the other by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA has been using drones to assassinate people who are suspected ‘terrorist leaders’ or ‘militants’.
This ‘drone war’ operates from a network of semi-secret points around the world. One such base is in Djibouti, a tiny African nation, from where many of the strikes on Yemen and Somalia are carried out. Another base is the Nellis and Creech USAF base, outside Las Vegas in Nevada.
Drones are launched by ground crews from these bases. The operation is then handed over to a team of controllers sitting at video screens in specially designed trailers. A single ‘pilot’ flies the drone while another operates and monitors it cameras and sensors. A final person is responsible for maintaining contact with ‘customers’ – ground troops in the war zone.
Reports from the Columbia Law School and the Council on Foreign Relations have questioned the target-picking process of drone strikes. It is alleged that the CIA and military have maintained shared ‘kill lists’ that consist of potential ‘terrorists’ based on confidential criteria.
Many strikes have reportedly targeted ‘militants’ whose identities the US does not know. This has been justified under the term of ‘signature strikes’ where an attack can be carried out on a target based on a ‘pattern of life’ analysis. This seems to be the most controversial aspect of drone attacks, according to The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti, as details surrounding the selection of targets have been shrouded in secrecy. According to the Washington Post, some CIA strikes do not have to acquire a White House sign-off as the director of the CIA can reportedly permit strikes unilaterally in Pakistan.
The debate around how these strikes have bypassed accountability is at the forefront of the drone controversy. It can be argued that the Patriot Act removes many checks and balances, which allows for blatant government overreach.
The Patriot Act is aimed at ‘uniting and strengthening America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism’. It was established in 2001 following the September 11 terrorist attacks and allows the use of tools and surveillance against more ‘crimes of terror’. It gives government agencies the opportunity to share information and also allows the law to be updated to include new technologies and new threats, as well as harsher consequences for those who commit crimes of terror.
However, according to The New York Times and Business Week, critics have argued that the Patriot Act increases government power and ‘strips away crucial checks and balances’. They argue that judicial oversight is subject to ‘gag orders’.
Al Jazeera cited that 81 US county and city law enforcement agencies applied for authorisation to make use of drones. “Police and sheriffs had simply sought acquisition of drones without consulting their communities or proposing any sort of policy framework that would govern the use of such vehicles. In response to this request, states and municipalities drew up legislation to regulate local law enforcement agencies’ uses of drones,” reported Charlotte Silver.
According to Nadia Kayyali of the Bill of Rights Defence Committee, these proposed legislations contained loopholes that infringe on the public’s civil liberties.
The first reported drone strike happened in Yemen in 2002. An item on CNN reported that the attack was the US’s first direct strike on Al-Qaeda, outside of Afghanistan, since the September 11 terrorist attacks. It is alleged that the number of drone strikes have soared under the Obama administration’s fight against terrorism. According to The Long War Journal, there have been an estimated 346 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 and 81 in Yemen since 2002.
In October of 2011, a drone strike was launched on three US citizens in Yemen. Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son and Samir Khan were killed as Awlaki was a suspected Al-Qaeda affiliate. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed numerous lawsuits against the US government that question the legitimacy of this targeted killings and the justification thereof.
In July 2012, the ACLU challenged the government over the drone attack of the three US citizens far from any conflict zones. This violates the Fifth Amendment right that states: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime… without due process of the law.” The lawsuit also sought information about the CIA’s target-killing program. The government refused to confirm that three US citizens were killed by drones or that a killing program even existed.
According to The New York Times, federal judge Colleen McMahon has ruled to uphold the secrecy of a memo that justifies the drone attack. McMahon reportedly wrote, “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”
John Brennan, ex-CIA director, said: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula)…. In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem; they are part of the solution.”
However, retired General Stanley McChrystal contradicted this by telling Reuters that the resentment towards the unmanned strikes is greater than America perceives. “They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.” McChrystal added that the use of drones evokes a ‘perception of American arrogance that says, “Well, we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can”’.
During a speech focusing on drones and counter-terrorism at the National Defence University earlier this year, President Barack Obama said: “From our use of drones to the detention of terror suspects, the decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation and world we leave to our children. What we can do and what we must do is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend… and to define a strategy we have to make decisions not based on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.”
The availability of drones, and the hazy legal regulations surrounding them, has made the possibility of taking a human life easy. It detaches the human controller from the act of murder. Looking at figures on a screen representing people, as if it were a video game, the person pulling the trigger in a van thousands of miles away won’t feel as though they have directly taken a life. Has this piece of advanced technology, devoid of human conscience or feeling, simply made it ‘easier’ to kill?
And what are the implications of the use of drones on society? President Obama is correct in stating that decisions made now will define the type of nation and world that is left to future generations. Could this world that is left to our children be one stripped of accountability and judicial oversight? One where human life is not respected and the basic legal process is overruled by the Patriot Act?
Aubrena Armstrong and Lisa Isaacs