David Cole writes: On March 4, the United States used drones and other aircraft to drop precision bombs on Somalia, a country with which we are not at war, reportedly killing about 150 al-Shabab militants who were said to be preparing for an imminent attack on American and African Union forces. The US government asserted that no civilians were killed, although neither that claim nor the allegation of an imminent attack could be verified. What do we really know about how American officials decide to launch such strikes?
In the last two weeks, the Obama administration has announced that it will for the first time make public a redacted version of the Presidential Policy Guidance outlining the standards for targeted killing and will also provide its own estimates of combatant and civilian deaths in drone attacks dating back to 2009. Yet much about these decisions remains opaque. In Eye in the Sky, a remarkably timely and important new film about a fictional drone strike against al-Shabab, South African director Gavin Hood offers a hypothetical window into such decision-making. The picture it paints is deeply disturbing, and raises fundamental questions about when, if ever, such attacks are justified. It may be the closest those of us on the outside ever get to the internal process behind the drone war.
In the film, Helen Mirren plays Katherine Powell, a steely British colonel charged with tracking terrorists in North Africa. The only travel Powell needs to do, however, is between her home in Surrey and her office in London, where she operates a top-secret drone program, in conjunction with American drone operators in Nevada and African agents in Kenya. As the film opens, Powell wakes to learn that a British woman, who has become a leader of al-Shabab, has been located in Nairobi along with her husband, an American citizen who is also an al-Shabab leader. What follows is a tense minute-by-minute depiction of one of the most daunting ethical and legal decisions a nation’s military and civilian leaders ever have to make—whether to kill a suspected enemy, even if innocent civilians may also die. Without taking sides, the film dramatically illustrates why technology, far from answering such questions, has only made them more difficult. [Continue reading…]