No, Michael Hayden–The Case for Drones is Much More Complicated Than That

I don’t really know where to start with Michael Hayden’s piece in the New York Times defending drone strikes. Perhaps with the report last fall from the Intercept that shows that the very data we use to characterize the results of drone strikes is cooked “by categorizing unidentified people killed in a strike as enemies, even if they were not the intended targets.” Drone strikes are automatically effective if you assume they are effective, and you can do that by the casual us versus them analysis that says “If you live in one of these areas, or are walking near particular people, you’re probably a terrorist.” The only (ironic) way in which this might be true is that, if you didn’t hate the United States before indiscriminate drone killings, you’re much more likely to afterwards, when someone you know was killed. Not that the targets are necessarily well-chosen, either. One analyst has described these methods as “completely bullshit.”

But what I want to point out is the argument Hayden makes about the efficacy of drone strikes. He says definitively that, despite the errors (which he acknowledges the existence but not the magnitude of), the program is worth it because it has prevented terror attacks. I’m not sure how we know this definitively. It’s always good to invoke a mushroom cloud when we’re talking about killing people in other countries (see the Iraq war), but these are always questions of probability, not certainty. I get that that’s inherent in intelligence work, but I think it’s probably overstating it to say that we necessarily got X benefit for Y deaths.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is the narrow way in which Hayden’s analysis views the costs and alternatives. Drones might be justified if they are the best option we have, but drone use shouldn’t be compared to doing nothing, but compared to doing something else.  Whether it’s worth it “to America” has to include the long-term damage it is doing to our reputation around the world.  But I’d like to think we should also consider the lives and psychological well-being of innocent people who are being randomly killed.

I guess Hayden’s fundamental cost-benefit analysis is this: extra-judicial killings are “worth it” only because he sees innocent lives as worthless. Perhaps they are to Michael Hayden—after all, these are mostly Muslims living in foreign lands. I don’t see it that way, nor do I see this as being representative of the values of the United States.

Author: W. David Ball

W. David Ball is an Associate Professor at Santa Clara School of Law. He writes and teaches primarily in the fields of criminal law and criminal procedure, with a special focus on sentencing and corrections. He also serves as the Co-Chair of the Corrections Committee of the American Bar Association.

11 thoughts on “No, Michael Hayden–The Case for Drones is Much More Complicated Than That”

  1. "nor do I see this [seeing Muslim lives as worthless] as being representative of the values of the United States."

    Why are only our positive values our values? Why don't the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, the many invasions of foreign nations throughout our history, Jim Crow, lynchings, and the persecution of gay people reflect our values?

    1. Fair point. I should have said "they aren't the values I'm most proud of" or "they don't represent the values of the country I think we should be."

      1. I'm sorry if I'm quibbling too much, but why should we ever be proud (or ashamed) of our country for its actions for which we are not personally responsible? I don't consider our role as voters as making us personally responsible, especially when we vote only for the lesser of two evils.

        1. Jarndyce, I think the answer to your question is revealed in the phrase you ask about: "proud (or ashamed) OF our country." (emphasis mine.)

          I say I'm proud of some of my accomplishments during my career. But I also say I'm proud of my children, both for their accomplishments and for their character. In that sense, I can be proud of my state if it has high standards of literacy and low levels of poverty, and proud of my country for its …etc.

  2. i didn't bother to read that piece once i saw it was by a military guy. (Sorry. Maybe I'll go look at it. Come on, it's not like those folks are allowed to speak freely! I am more interested in what a grunt would say though.)

    I'm very glad though to see you here trying to keep honest the process called "policy analysis." The comparisons we choose are the entire game… much like when we choose how to value something and then call our work "cost benefit analysis." Well it *might* be that… or it might be a pile of nonsense. The details!

    Jaundice: you have a point but still as voting members of an empire, it is our duty to inform ourselves, show up and do our best. We don't get to pretend we live in New Zealand and none of it has anything to do with us. To what extent do we allow these things to happen by our own inaction?

    1. Supererogatory acts are admirable, but not obligatory; we are entitled to live our lives anyway we wish that does not affirmatively hurt others, except when we have taken on a responsibility, such as by having children. Of course, I can't prove that any more than you can prove that we have the duty you describe. I don't understand your reference to New Zealand.

      1. But by not using our power to move US policy in an ethical direction, we *do* hurt others. That is the nature of being part of an empire. A sin of omission is still a sin, especially if one is taking all the benefits of empire.

        New Zealand more or less doesn't oppress too many other societies, since it can't. That was my point. People living there have one less thing to worry about.

  3. I know analysts often quantify the value of human life; imperfect as that process is, it's useful. Do military analysts do this for the lives of persons, innocent or otherwise, in other countries? Do they try and estimate the effect size of the radicalization through collateral damage? How rigorous is military cost-benefit analysis when done well? All real questions.

    1. Those are really good questions, and I don't know. I think the main answer is that we've decided, in our accounting, that anyone killed near a target was necessarily an enemy, so, by definition, any deaths are part of the success. There is no collateral damage, by definition.

      There was a really effective FAIR article on Hayden's piece–much more detailed (and better) than what I wrote. http://fair.org/home/nyt-contributor-has-multiple

    2. Darnit now I might have to read the thing. Do they really assume all kills were of someone who could be called an active terrorist? (Just not liking us would not suffice, I hope.)

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