Graphic by Alejandra Pinto/The Gazelle

Critical eye necessary for US drone use

As many in our school community already know, security concerns over intercepted threats from Yemen led to unprecedented closures of U.S. embassies on ...

Aug 19, 2013

Graphic by Alejandra Pinto/The Gazelle
As many in our school community already know, security concerns over intercepted threats from Yemen led to unprecedented closures of U.S. embassies on August 4. These covered a huge region, from Madagascar to Bangladesh, and even the U.S. consulate in Dubai.       
I certainly have been warned before by the U.S. government not to travel. Emails from concerned family members cite travel warnings for Americans in Beirut, Cairo and Islamabad. I never really took my heed, as my worn and stamped passport will testify.
Yet, this time the threat had struck a more personal chord. For the first time I felt doubts over my security upon returning to Abu Dhabi for my final year in university. These were not predicated on my experience in the gulf, nor sentiments shared from friends, professors or anybody on site in the UAE. I grew up in and around embassies, and I had never had one close in the place I was living except for once on 9/11.
I was living in Ottawa, Canada, in September of 2001. An assembly was called in the school I was attending, and the news was shared. My mother arrived that morning to take me home from school, where I watched the twin towers fall on the television. In contrast to my experience, my friends in Washington D.C., attending Taylor Elementary School in Northern Virginia — located about five minutes from the Pentagon, one of the buildings attacked on 9/11 — were hustled into the lunchroom and told nothing. For many of my peers in Washington, their parents were at work that day, some in the Pentagon, the White House or the U.S. Congress. As a result, the post 9/11 political climate saw increases in surveillance, restricted personal freedoms and international conflict both hot and cold.
In a marker of how far the U.S. has come since the post 9/11 mentality, its intelligence operations have come under political fire. There are hearings in the U.S. Congress over transparency at the National Security Agency. Edward Snowden’s comments on the same agency have provoked backlash from the European Union. We have finally begun to have debates in the U.S. Congress over predator drone use, electronic surveillance and other issues. The Senate houses a majority of members more or less willing to probe, while in the House of Representatives, debate over NSA surveillance has formed odd coalitions, uniting the far left and the far right against electronic monitoring. Such coalitions are rare in the U.S. Congress and might seem to signal a shift in policy.
One the other hand, recently intercepted terrorist schemes, not to mention Eid bombings in Iraq and Pakistan, would seem to suggest otherwise. Security concerns may have again risen as a shield for these contested policies on drone warfare.
The information leading to the embassy closures ultimately instigated a new round of drone strikes in Yemen. These strikes in turn flouted the Obama administration’s more restrictive targeting guidelines for drone use, citing an “increase in threat.” As described by Rep. Pete King, a congressional leader on intelligence and security, the intercepted threat served as a "wake up call" to the fact that  “al-Qaeda is stronger than it was before 9-11.”
Words like these make the ground clear for more, not less, clandestine activity. Many congressional leaders seemed convinced of the efficacy and necessity of things like drone attacks. Chuck Schumer, a lead senator on defense strategy, described drones as indispensable in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. He called it a program that put Al-Qaeda "on the run" to “lawless nations” where they can hide — nations such as Yemen. Senator Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently criticized Obama over handling the potential repatriation of Yemenis prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, an issue that has slowed the closing of the facility. Senator Chambliss also described the reports gathered by the intelligence community that led to the embassy closings as "very reminiscent of those we saw prior to the September 11 attacks.”
One anonymous official said the revived Yemenis drone campaign was "to buy time” for more intelligence gathering and an avoidance of the potential threat. It may have had just that effect — to stabilize or provide more intelligence — but anger may be the only certainty. Nobody likes to have the U.S. government hovering over homes, places of worship or businesses, be it with a drone or electronic surveillance. Drone use in Pakistan killed many innocent bystanders and drove moderates to extremism. In 2013, according to the South Asian Terrorist Portal, in conjunction with the Institute for Conflict Management,  2178 civilians died in terrorist related incidents in Pakistan, more than both security personnel deaths (496) and terrorist deaths (1344) combined. Drone strikes have a history of politically wounding U.S. relationships. Take Nov. 28, 2011 as an example, when missed airstrikes killed 24 members of the Pakistani Military and resulted in international non-cooperation on North Atlantic Treaty Organization supply lines to Afghanistan.
There are an infinite number of “lawless” locations where terrorists can hide. Should the United States always be able to engage them at the expense of legitimate relations with the recognizable political entities therein? The international community has bristled at NSA monitoring activity. Half of the U.S.  Congress continues to back NSA surveillance. Talk of deploying drones in North Africa and the Maghreb floats around the press.
After 9/11, my parents took me to the U.S. embassy in Ottawa. Laid out on the long, high fences and barricades in front the embassy were thousands of flowers, candles, notes and commiserations. The world was behind us, in heart and in hand. Time passed, and George Bush’s administration continued to escalate intelligence and military efforts, banking off fear as the great political motivator that it is. By the time my family left Canada in 2003, U.S. marines were standing by in the car park just in case anti-US sentiments, expressed at a G20 Leaders’ Summit meeting, boiled over into conflict.
All in all, its not the embassy closures or travel warnings that leave me concerned. I’m scared by how the U.S. chooses to react to the threats that originated them.
Despite an outpouring of public pronouncements by the politicians and agencies whose interests are at stake, a critical eye must be cast on U.S. intelligence programs. President Obama has taken a correct step, but only a step, in promising increased transparency at the NSA. Examining and criticizing intelligence programs keeps them at their most effective potential, and may reduce the need to infringe on personal freedoms at home and abroad to the long-term benefit of all.
James Hunt is a contributing writer. Email him at 
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