Using Drones Outside Combat Zones

Armed drones launched the Sept. 30 air strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American radical cleric who tried to recruit Muslims to help al-Qaeda’s terrorist efforts. US officials had considered him one of the most dangerous threats to American security. President Obama said al-Awlaki “repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women, and children to advance a murderous agenda.” The mission, Obama added, showed that Al-Qaeda and its allies will find “no safe haven anywhere in the world.” But some ethicists are raising questions about whether the killing violated international law. University of Notre Dame international law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell released a statement calling the strike an illegal mission. “Derogation from the fundamental right to life is permissible only in battle zones or to save a human life immediately. The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki did not occur in these circumstances,” she said. In an interview with managing editor Kim Lawton earlier this year, O’Connell discussed her ethical concerns about the increased use of drones for targeted killings outside official combat zones. Lawton also talked with retired Lt. General David Deptula, who oversaw the US Air Force’s drone program from 2006 until 2010. He said remotely piloted aircraft allow the US a greater measure of accuracy in the new realities of the war against terror. Watch excerpts from both interviews.


  • Mike Waters

    I totally concur with General Deptula. I think Ms. O’Connell is out of touch with the reality of the modern world.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    Ms. O’Connell is not out of touch with the reality of the modern world, she is very much in touch with it. She troubled by the ethical problems raised by this new form of extending lethal violence in the name of “the American people” into places that are not combat zones, against people we don’t know (some are American citizens), put on a list we haven’t seen by people we don’t know, based on criteria we don’t know, using a process we don’t know. Let’s have a thought exercise: for the sake of argument, suppose someone living in, say Yemen, bought a drone (they’re only about $4.5M, not $3B like a F-22). Now suppose they use Lt. Gen Deptula’s criteria “to get rid of those who would do us harm” and “to get rid of those who kill needlessly” and they use the drone to track down a UAV pilot in Nevada and then launch a missile into his apartment, killing the UAV pilot and some by-standers. They followed our own rules, so would we be cool with that? Of course not.