Drone technology is a hot topic on college campuses, and Penn is no exception.
Last Monday, NBC News published a confidential Department of Defense white paper outlining the circumstances in which the U.S. government can order the killing of any member of Al Qaeda’s leadership abroad.
Particularly controversial was the memo’s conclusion that United States citizens who were part of Al Qaeda’s leadership could be targeted and killed.
The memo provoked a variety of reactions among several Penn faculty whose research interests relate to drone warfare.
“The constitution guarantees American citizens the right to trial, the right to confront their accusers, to defend themselves, jury if that is what they wish, habeas corpus,” History professor Arthur Waldron said. “The rights of people accused of crimes are very, very carefully spelled out and I don’t think any executive action or even congressional action can suspend that.”
Penn has seen protests from local groups such as Philly Against War about doing drone research, and professors have spoken out against drones in the past.
At Penn, Engineering professor Vijay Kumar’s GRASP lab makes autonomous robots, which unlike the Airforce drones do not even required a remote pilot. Called quadrotors, these robots will one day search for survivors after a natural disaster.
Up until this point, there were no documents available to the public that revealed the executive’s claimed authority to order the killings of U.S. citizens who are Al Qaeda combatants.
Claire Finkelstein, a law and philosophy professor who has co-written a book about the legal and moral basis of using drones, commented on the litigation regarding the extrajudicial targeted killings of United States citizens abroad.
“The idea that citizens have no place to go to vindicate due process rights or claim due process … and have those evaluated is very, very disturbing,” said Finkelstein.
In a D.C. circuit court decision regarding the targeting of U.S. citizens and Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, the judge decided that the case was not reviewable under the political question doctrine. In other words, issues of due process of law and the targeting killings of U.S. citizens is under the jurisdiction of the president. Therefore, ordinary citizens cannot challenge targeted killings in court.
However, according to Finkelstein, litigation regarding targeted killings continues, as organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union try to gain access to government documents about target killings and related policies.
“It’s litigation on two sides,” explained Finkelstein. “On the one side it is the government’s control of information and on the other side [it’s] about what it is permissible to do where American citizens are involved.”
Finkelstein believes that if the government does not have to release these documents, the decisions regarding the use of targeted killings will remain largely unchallenged.
“You can’t challenge what you don’t know about,” she said. “So I can’t stress enough the importance of the litigation around classification.”
The professors also discussed how drone technology and targeted killings change the realities of war.
History and Sociology of Science professor M. Susan Lindee, the associate dean for Social Sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences, addressed how the use of drones change warfare.
“The issue with drones is that they create a situation of profound asymmetrical risk — one person is hidden away in command center around the world, at no risk at all,” she said. “They do what many high-tech creations do, in that they concentrate power.”
The drones give the United States an ability to carry out targeted killings at a larger scale and with little risk to soldiers.
“The only thing that the technology really adds is that it allows these actions to take place at a very long distance … We can just send in drones from a distance rather than putting boots on the ground,” she said.
Waldron, however, questioned the efficiency of using drone technology and targeted killings.
“I see drones as another quick fix. It’s another example of the search for a technological solution to a far larger problem,” he said “You cannot just solve political problems by technological means.”
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