Drones are unmanned air-crafts, piloted through remote-controls by pilots 6,000 miles away, usually in Nevada and California. First used for surveillance, the Predator Drone has become far more sophisticated and armed in the last decade; the military now shoots 33 drone strikes per month in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, drones have been used to monitor weather patterns; most recently, the FBI used a drone to monitor a hostage standoff involving a 5-year-old boy in Alabama.
More controversially, the CIA operates drones that shoot down terrorists in countries the U.S. is not at war with. There have been more than 400 drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia and the U.S. is now planning a drone base in North Africa to combat the rising threat of extremists in the area.
The CIA’s program is the most criticized and shrouded part of the U.S.’s counter-terrorism strategy. The agency's use of drones is a key part of an institutional shift, as the ACLU’s National Security Director Hina Shamsi explained to msnbc.com: “the CIA has been morphing into a paramilitary killing operation instead of focusing on its core role of foreign intelligence.”
A Justice Department white paper released by NBC News on Monday revealed that the government has declared it legal to use drone strikes to kill targets that it deems a threat, or associates of al-Qaeda even if there is no evidence of an active plot. Attorney General Eric Holder has maintained that internal deliberations with the CIA and president satisfy the needs of due process in selecting whom to attack.
Critics slam the program for killing civilians, setting shaky legal precedent, and creating anti-American sentiment all over the world. The government has denied these things occur and maintains that all those killed by terrorists represent ‘imminent’ threats.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the drone program are signature strikes, where military-aged males are targeted based on profiling, though the government doesn’t know their identities.
In 2011, two American citizens were killed by drone strikes. The first, Anwar al-Awlaki, had renounced his citizenship and was a top al-Qaeda operative, according to reports, but two weeks later the man’s 16-year-old American son, who had never been alleged to be a terrorist, was killed by a drone strike in Yemen. The boy had not seen his father for two years and was living with cousins. An Obama spokesman on the campaign trail said only that the boy should have had a "far more responsible father."
Drones have killed a number of top commanders, including al-Qaeda’s then-No. 2 man, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was killed in 2011. The president has lauded drones for keeping U.S. troops out of harm’s way and keeping America out of future wars.
But despite Obama’s assertions, drones have also taken down hundreds of civilians. A recent report by the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism, concluded that at least 392 civilians were killed by drones (including 175 children) and more than a thousand civilian injuries since 2004.
John Brennan was the chief architect of the program’s expansion. Together with the president, he authors its “kill lists.”
Together, they a developed a "playbook," a set of evolving rules adopted by the Obama Administration as a guide on how to fight a high-tech global war prominently featuring drone attacks. Neither Congress nor the public has ever been told how, or who, the government decides to attack.
In the shake-up before Brennan's hearing, the president agreed to release the government's legal memos on drone strikes. They had not yet been released at the time of writing.