Ret. Air Force Colonel Martha McSally

A Senate subcommittee held a much-anticipated hearing on drones and the United States government’s “targeted killing” policies this afternoon. One of the witnesses called to testify was retired US Air Force colonel, Martha McSally.

McSally has a background in “targeting procedures,” drones and “national security expertise.” She also served as Chief of Current Operations at the US Africa Command from July 2007-April 2010. In this position, she “led the planning and execution oversight for targeting operations in Africa.”  She was a leader at an Air Operations Center in Saudi Arabia when the US “first used an MQ-1 Predator for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in Iraq and when it was first employed to conduct a strike with a Hellfire missile in Afghanistan after 9/11.”

She also apparently believes that those who use the word “drone” instead of the more sanitized “remotely piloted aircraft” are fueling an al Qaeda “information operation”—which is commonly known as a phrase for propagand, and Sen. Lindsey Graham requested she be added to the panel of witnesses so she could share this view.

McSally opened her remarks before the Senate subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and human rights with the following:

…I use the term “remotely piloted aircraft,” which is my first point, instead of drones because I think that is part of the challenge. There is an information operations campaign by Al Qaeda going on against us. The word “drone” actually has a connotation that we’ve got these autonomous vehicles flying around and striking at will without a whole lot of oversight and scrutiny to them. So, the military does use the term “remotely piloted aircraft” to explain and to try and paint the picture that it actually takes 200 individuals to keep one of these aircrafts airborne for a 24 hour orbit and that 200 individuals include the operators, the intelligence personnel, the maintenance personnel. the equipment people, the lawyers, and, also, part of the process you have literally hundreds  of other personnel that are involved in the process on the military side when you are actually conducting one of these operations. So, I will be using RPA throughout my testimony and that is certainly one of the points to make…

A section of her witness statement submitted for the record described what she called “asymmetric advantage and enemy information operations.” She cited retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula, who she considers to be “a brilliant national security and military strategist.” He was also “the first general to oversee ISR in the USAF, including RPA/UAV/UAS development.” (One may substitute drones for either or all of those acronyms.)

McSally cited this section, which Deptula wrote in an article for AOL News:

A significant advantage of RPA is that they allow us to project power without projecting vulnerability-something that can’t be done when ground forces are put in harm’s way. This capability provides us with an asymmetric advantage that our adversaries find difficult to counter. Because RPA are so effective, our enemies try to manipulate us to do what they cannot — limit the use of one of our asymmetric advantages — by spreading falsehoods that “drones” cause reckless collateral damage or are somehow not accurate. 

The fact of the matter is that “drones” are one of, if not the most accurate means of employing significant force in our military arsenal. Airpower, in the form of RPA, is the one allied capability that the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen, and around the globe cannot defeat directly. By creating international focus on civilian casualties, and attributing those casualties to “drones” vice the biggest cause of those casualties-themselves, they create political and societal pressure to limit the use of “drones.” Adversary falsehoods regarding inaccuracy and collateral damage divert attention from the fact that the massive intentional damage, intentional killing of civilians, and intentional violations of international law are being conducted by Al Qaeda and the Taliban – not US “drones.” [emphasis added]

Any of the members of the Senate at the subcommittee hearing could have asked if she saw the hearing as feeding into Al Qaeda’s agenda because it was discussing criticisms of drones and even giving a platform to a Yemeni named Farea al-Muslimi, who is from a village that had been struck by a US drone attack that took place days ago. One wonders what she might have said.

It certainly does not seem like McSally differentiates between “falsehoods” put out by al Qaeda and “falsehoods” put out by human rights organizations. She probably would suggest that the “falsehoods” human rights organizations rely upon in their work on drones often come from al Qaeda propaganda.

Of course, it is hard not to hand Al Qaeda and its affiliates propaganda victories when strikes hit villages, destroy structures and blow the human bodies of people, whom the village did not know were targets of the US “war on terrorism,” to unrecognizable smithereens.

Al-Muslimi, in his submitted witness statement, asserted, “Every time an innocent civilian is killed or maimed by a U.S. drone strike or another targeted killing, it is felt by Yemenis across the country. These strikes often cause animosity towards the United States and create a backlash that undermines the national security goals of the United States.” But, it is not clear that McSally thinks there are enough civilian casualties to consider the backlash worth addressing and that is because, to her, Al Qaeda and its affiliates are manipulating people into believing that something malevolent is going on with the US “targeted killing” program.

McSally argues in defense of drones (like other defenders and advocates) that they are the most precise weapon ever. That may be true, but it does not change the fact that individuals being targeted and killed are individuals, who members of villages or cities think are people they never that were not doing anything wrong or criminal. They have no notice and cannot stay clear of those targeted and that inevitably means that there are people who die, whom the US simply writes off as “associates” of that target thus excusing their deaths.

In conclusion, to hear her or anyone like her in the military talk about “targeted killings” with “remotely piloted aircrafts” is to be subjected to a sterile explanation of the procedures followed daily. She is very capable of giving a clinical description of the processes for carrying out state-sanctioned  assassinations. It is clear in her mind if all is done methodically nothing could go wrong. And, the fact that she fixates on that one word, “drone,” and chides those who use it by accusing them of basically enabling al Qaeda—That is indicative of the institutionally-learned callous indifference and even trained ignorance toward the actual impacts of operations on populations where the US is waging drone wars.