The DoJ’s White Paper on Lethal Operations (use of Drones in Foreign Countries)

Pluses & Minuses
of New Technology

They are commonly called ‘drones’, and their accelerating development for civil aviation use is under the control of FAA, as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as UAV’s.

Welcome to a brave new world.

Drones are in the news lately because of their use in the past few years to eliminate terrorist threats in the Middle East. What used to be done with greased Navy Seals sneaking up out of the dark is now done remotely and digitally from thousands of miles away, in what appears to be a fusion of online gaming with the reality of assassination. Today, the online gamer flies the drone, identifies the target, and launches the destruction. The push of a button that would destroy a pretend enemy in a fun interactive game … that button push now kills a real enemy. The button is pushed in Nevada or North Dakota or (?), and the real impact is felt in Afghanistan or Pakistan or (?). Sometimes, innocent bystanders are added to the casualty lists.

Predator firing a missile

Much of the concern about drones centers on the absence of accountability in their use. There is a sense that drone technology, when combined with the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF, as approved by the U.S. Congress immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks) has made it too easy for a President to direct the pushing of too many buttons.

On the domestic front, concern about drones centers on surveillance and privacy. There is a perception that government (or, for that matter, private citizens) might use drones to spy, to invade the lives of selected people. Aerial imagery might show you sunbathing in the nude, or it might show that you are dumping tons of blood into a Texas creek (OK, this also assumes that YOU, as a corporation or slaughterhouse, are very much like a ‘person’). Some surveillance might be valuable, but some might be nothing but invasive.

What’s ‘Good’ about Drones?

Drones are smaller and quieter than regular aircraft, thus can allow for far more efficient use of resources, while also eliminating the noise impact. For example, most U.S. cities have traffic watch services and, everyday, one or more helicopters or small planes are in the air relaying traffic observations for radio broadcast, to aid drivers in their commutes. Thus, thousands of people living along these routes will hear the daily flights, almost like clockwork. Replacing them with a small network of drones would eliminate the noise, and save lots of fuel. Those drones could easily fly at around 1,000′ altitude, high enough to be unobtrusive, yet low enough to be safely under aircraft with real pilots.

Drones are an exceptionally effective platform for doing environmental reconnaissance. They are very non-intrusive (no need to endure all that rotor whine from helicopters) and they are more safely operated (if the helicopter engine fails while at low altitudes, the pilot normally dies; if the drone fails, the remote pilot takes a break and refills his coffee). Drone surveillance can be quite useful, too, identifying violations that constitute real hazards to public health and safety.

And, What’s Bad about Drones (the threat)?

Again, it is that privacy issue. We definitely do not want to see drones used as a weapon for political control. Used as Big Brother’s eyes and ears. Theoretically, we can eventually suppress liberties using drones. We can secretively spot activities, something as fundamental as the assembly of identified ‘dissidents’, and commence controlling activities (send in the troops, send in another drone with teargas – or a fumigant, strategize for the ‘removal’ of the dissident threat, etc.). An ugly picture…

And, while the current DoJ White Paper clearly focuses on the use of drones to deny Due Process to U.S. citizens (by directly assassinating them outside of our country), what happens if in another decade, the line is blurred and we justify drone attacks in Kansas or New Jersey? Another ugly picture…

The Solution: Accountable Drone Usage

Given the considerable benefits that can come from the use of drones, it seems the threat might be fully mitigated, by layering full transparency on drone usage. In other words, let local police, planners and other authorities use drones, but require that all data they produce be posted online, for everyone to see. That Texas creek filled with blood from the slaughterhouse? That event should have been disclosed to the world by the Government officials. The grieving families at the funeral of their 8-year-old daughter? Again, the evidence of this unfortunate tragedy, should have been shared with the world by the Government who knew the rest of the story, including the video record of the drone strike, as well as an explanation of what happened and their sincere regret for the collateral damage. If FAA and DHS are promoting the use of drones by law enforcement officials in my county (Clackamas County, Oregon), then my county sheriff’s office should be required to post a full accounting of when/where/how they used that technology; e.g., a log within seven days of drone usage, and including a link to stream the video collected by the County (and if they want to redact from that video stream, put the burden on the Sheriff to convince a judge that redaction is appropriate).

A copy of the DoJ White Paper (as compiled by aiR)

As a step forward, and within that same spirit of transparency, located a copy of the DoJ White Paper. This is the paper allegedly shared last week with Congress, to show the legal basis for drone strikes to kill U.S. citizens believed to have joined the enemy, with the requirement that the strike happen on foreign soil. It appears that a copy of this DoJ White Paper was provided to NBC News. They then posted it online, but made it less useful by adding excessive watermarks. So, a few hours were spent stripping those watermarks, and here is a full copy of the DoJ White Paper, in HTML, ready for your review. Hopefully, the processing errors in this public record are minimized and insignificant (readers who find errors, please advise, so they can be promptly corrected).

“The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me … I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”

-Judge Colleen McMahon of U.S. District Court
of Southern New York, related to a
FOIA lawsuit (as quoted by NBC News)


The DoJ White Paper is an important public document, one that should be carefully considered and debated by concerned citizens. Such discussion is at the heart of our democratic process.

A few links…