In August 5th, officials at the Central Intelligence Agency, in Langley, Virginia, watched a live video feed relaying closeup footage of one of the most wanted terrorists in Pakistan. Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, could be seen reclining on the rooftop of his father-in-law’s house, in Zanghara, a hamlet in South Waziristan. It was a hot summer night, and he was joined outside by his wife and his uncle, a medic; at one point, the remarkably crisp images showed that Mehsud, who suffered from diabetes and a kidney ailment, was receiving an intravenous drip.

The video was being captured by the infrared camera of a Predator drone, a remotely controlled, unmanned plane that had been hovering, undetected, two miles or so above the house. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, A. Rehman Malik, told me recently that Mehsud was resting on his back. Malik, using his hands to make a picture frame, explained that the Predator’s targeters could see Mehsud’s entire body, not just the top of his head. “It was a perfect picture,” Malik, who watched the videotape later, said. “We used to see James Bond movies where he talked into his shoe or his watch. We thought it was a fairy tale. But this was fact!” The image remained just as stable when the CIA remotely launched two Hellfire missiles from the Predator. Authorities watched the fiery blast in real time. After the dust cloud dissipated, all that remained of Mehsud was a detached torso. Eleven others died: his wife, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, a lieutenant, and seven bodyguards.

However, at about the same time, there was widespread anger after the Wall Street Journal revealed that during the Bush Administration the CIA had considered setting up hit squads to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives around the world. The furor grew when the Times reported that the CIA had turned to a private contractor to help with this highly sensitive operation: the controversial firm Blackwater, now known as Xe Services. Members of the Senate and House intelligence committees demanded investigations of the programme, which, they said, had been hidden from them. And many legal experts argued that, had the program become fully operational, it would have violated a 1976 executive order, signed by President Gerald R. Ford, banning American intelligence forces from engaging in assassination.

Hina Shamsi, a human-rights lawyer at the New York University School of Law, was struck by the inconsistency of the public’s responses. “We got so upset about a targeted-killing programme that didn’t happen,” she told me. “But the drone programme exists.” She said of the Predator programme, “These are targeted international killings by the state.” The programme, as it happens, also uses private contractors for a variety of tasks, including flying the drones. Employees of Xe Services maintain and load the Hellfire missiles on the aircraft. Vicki Divoll, a former CIA lawyer, who now teaches at the US Naval Academy, in Annapolis, observed, “People are a lot more comfortable with a Predator strike that kills many people than with a throat-slitting that kills one.” But, she added, “mechanized killing is still killing.”

The first two CIA air strikes of the Obama Administration took place on the morning of January 23rd—the President’s third day in office. Within hours, it was clear that the morning’s bombings, in Pakistan, had killed an estimated twenty people. In one strike, four Arabs, all likely affiliated with al-Qaeda, died. But in the second strike a drone targeted the wrong house, hitting the residence of a pro-government tribal leader six miles outside the town of Wana, in South Waziristan. The blast killed the tribal leader’s entire family, including three children, one of them five years old. In keeping with US policy, there was no official acknowledgment of either strike.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of a “push-button” approach to fighting al Qaeda, but the embrace of the Predator programme has occurred with remarkably little public discussion, given that it represents a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force. And, because of the CIA programme’s secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the US is not at war. Should something go wrong in the CIA’s programme – last month, the Air Force lost control of a drone and had to shoot it down over Afghanistan – it’s unclear what the consequences would be.

The drone programme, for all its tactical successes, has stirred deep ethical concerns. Michael Walzer, a political philosopher and the author of the book “Just and Unjust Wars,” says that he is unsettled by the notion of an intelligence agency wielding such lethal power in secret. “Under what code does the CIA operate?” he asks. “I don’t know. The military operates under a legal code, and it has judicial mechanisms.” He said of the CIA’s drone programme, “There should be a limited, finite group of people who are targets, and that list should be publicly defensible and available. Instead, it’s not being publicly defended. People are being killed, and we generally require some public justification when we go about killing people.”

Under international law, in order for the US government to legally target civilian terror suspects abroad it has to define a terrorist group as one engaging in armed conflict, and the use of force must be a “military necessity.” There must be no reasonable alternative to killing, such as capture, and to warrant death the target must be “directly participating in hostilities.” The use of force has to be considered “proportionate” to the threat. Finally, the foreign nation in which such targeted killing takes place has to give its permission.

Defining who is and who is not too tangential for the US to kill can be difficult. John Radsan, a former lawyer in the CIA’s office of general counsel, who is now a professor at William Mitchell College of Law, in St. Paul, Minnesota, says, “You can’t target someone just because he visited an al-Qaeda Web site.” Equally fraught is the question of how many civilian deaths can be justified. “If it’s Osama bin Laden in a house with a four-year-old, most people will say go ahead,” Radsan says. “But if it’s three or four children? Some say that’s too many. And if he’s in a school? Many say don’t do it.” Such judgment calls are being made daily by the CIA, which, Radsan points out, “doesn’t have much experience with killing. Traditionally, the agency that does that is the Department of Defence.”

Predator drones, with their superior surveillance abilities, have a better track record for accuracy than fighter jets, according to intelligence officials. Also, the drone’s smaller Hellfire missiles are said to cause far less collateral damage. Still, the recent campaign to kill Baitullah Mehsud offers a sobering case study of the hazards of robotic warfare. It appears to have taken 16 missile strikes, and 14 months, before the CIA succeeded in killing him. During this hunt, between 207 and 321 additional people were killed, depending on which news accounts you rely upon. It’s all but impossible to get a complete picture of whom the CIA killed during this campaign, which took place largely in Waziristan.

n    Courtesy: The New Yorker