Actually, drones worry Europe more than spying
July 17th, 2013
10:31 AM ET

Actually, drones worry Europe more than spying

By Anthony Dworkin, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Anthony Dworkin is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are his own.

Relations between the United States and Europe hit a low point following revelations that Washington was spying on European Union buildings and harvesting foreign email messages.

Behind the scenes, though, it is not data protection and surveillance that produces the most complications for the transatlantic intelligence relationship, but rather America's use of armed drones to kill terrorist suspects away from the battlefield. Incidents such as the recent killing of at least 17 people in Pakistan are therefore only likely to heighten European unease.

In public, European governments have displayed a curiously passive approach to American drone strikes, even as their number has escalated under Barack Obama’s presidency. Many Europeans believe that the majority of these strikes are unlawful, but their governments have maintained an uneasy silence on the issue. This is partly because of the uncomfortable fact that information provided by European intelligence services may have been used to identify some targets. It is also because of a reluctance to accuse a close ally of having violated international law. And it is partly because European countries have not worked out exactly what they think about the use of drones and how far they agree within the European Union on the question. Now, however, Europe’s muted stance on drone strikes looks likely to change.

Why? For one thing, many European countries are now trying to acquire armed drones themselves, and this gives them an incentive to spell out clearer rules for their use. More importantly, perhaps, Europeans have noticed that drones are proliferating rapidly, and that countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia are soon likely to possess them. There is a clear European interest in trying to establish some restrictive standards on drone use before it is too late. For all these reasons, many European countries are now conducting internal reviews of their policy on drones, and discussions are also likely to start at a pan-European level.

More from GPS: Obama nails it on drones

But as Europeans begin to articulate their policy on the use of drones, a bigger question looms. Can Europe and the United States come together to agree on when drone strikes are permissible? Until now, that would have seemed impossible. Since the September 11 attacks, the United States has based its counterterrorism operations on the claim that it is engaged in a worldwide armed conflict with al Qaeda and associated forces — an idea that President Obama inherited from President George W. Bush and has been kept as the basis for an expanded drone strike campaign. European countries have generally rejected this claim.

However, the changes to American policy that President Obama announced in May could open the way to at least the possibility of a dialogue. Obama suggested that he anticipated a time in the not-too-distant future when the armed conflict against al Qaeda might come to an end. More substantially, he made clear that his administration was in the process of switching its policy so that, outside zones of hostilities, it would only use drone strikes against individuals who posed a continuing and imminent threat to the U.S. That is a more restrictive standard than the claim that any member of al Qaeda or an associated force could lawfully be killed with a drone strike at any time.

European countries might be more willing to accept an approach based on this kind of “self-defense” idea. However, there remain some big stumbling blocks.

First, a good deal about Obama’s new standards is still unclear. How does he define a “zone of hostilities,” where the new rules will not apply? And what is his understanding of an “imminent” threat? European countries are likely to interpret these key terms in a much narrower way than the United States.

Second, Obama’s new approach only applies as a policy choice. His more expansive legal claims remain in the background so that he is free to return to them if he wishes.

But if the United States is serious about working toward international standards on drone strikes, as Obama and his officials have sometimes suggested, then Europe is the obvious place to start. And there are a number of steps the administration could take to make an agreement with European countries more likely.

For a start, it should cut back the number of drone strikes and be much more open about the reasons for the attacks it conducts and the process for reviewing them after the fact. It should also elaborate its criteria for determining who poses an imminent threat in a way that keeps attacks within tight limits. And, as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, it should keep in mind the possibility of declaring the war against al Qaeda to be over.

All this said, Europe also has some tough decisions to make, and it is unclear whether European countries are ready to take a hard look at their views about drone strikes, addressing any weaknesses or inconsistencies in their own position. If they are, the next few years could offer a breakthrough in developing international standards for the use of this new kind of weapon, before the regular use of drones spreads across the globe.

Post by:
Topics: Conflict • Europe • Terrorism • United States

soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. Alex279

    The latest incident with Presiden Morales plane, as well as various microsccandals about secret CIA prisons in eastent Europe proves only one thing: Europ vorries about NOTHING. Forget Snowden. Forget prisons. Forget prisions. An forget drones as well. Some European politicians express outage in public just because is is too embarrassing to not express as a given moment. Some opposition politicians raise the issue because it can potentially give them and extra 5% of votes. But in all cases this is no more than a public relations stunt: whenever Joe Biden makes a call, Europe does exactly what he thells them to do - timely, without questioning or second guessing.

    July 17, 2013 at 11:21 am | Reply
    • Alex279

      ...and meanwhile RT reports a QF-4 drone crash in Florida near a freeway. There is no report on CNN yet as of 12:15pm Eastern time, so lets see... It reminds that American People should start worry about drones more that they thought. Just about possible accudents. Hopefully nobody got injured.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Reply
      • ThePoint

        You realize, possibly, that the Drone actually crashed at the end of the runway on a military base. It didn't even leave the base.

        Also, the 'drone' is not what you would really call a drone. It is an F4 Phantom that is converted to be a target device. Flying remotely while they target it with weapons. This is a full-size fighter jet being remotely piloted so that it simulates enemy aircraft movements & then they simulate attacking it.

        The nearby freeway closure was a desire to find the in-plane self destruct device and remove it from being a threat. A crash can, possibly, cause that device to be thrown from the crash site.

        July 18, 2013 at 9:03 am |
    • Cartimo

      Are you saying that Madrid, London, Berlin and Paris are not the least concerned with al Qaeda. If you care to look drones have been used in areas were local authorities have no control over and the insertion of troops could result in unnecessary loses. Yes "civilian" casualties happen, however, in these areas "civilians" are either supports or conveniently ignoring these terrorist.

      July 18, 2013 at 9:08 am | Reply
      • Michael

        So if a drone strike kills and e terrorist, I think no one in the EU or US really cares. How about the innocent civilians who are killed because they happen to live near to where a terrorist is based. These are often poor with very few options in life, and because they are not American, they have no right to due process or justice. The logic that they are guilty by association is ridiculous. Its like saying that because there is a drug dealler in your street, you are guilty as well. What it gets down to, is that foreign lives are not worth the same as American lives to the US government, so the collateral damage is not important to American.

        I would pose a question though. If you didn't support these terroists and an drone flies over, shoots a missile that kills a terrorist or two, and maybe your wife, or child and other members of your community,what would you do?

        Would you love all things American, or would you pick up a gun and get even.

        The US government might want to fight this war on the cheap, but in my opinion it is creating a new generation of enemies as well as loosing the moral high ground in the war on terror.

        July 18, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  2. Joseph McCarthy

    If any of these current European leaders today had any moral backbone, they'd condemn the use of our ungodly drones of ours which slaughter people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, not to mention any other countries not reported by these ignominious attacks with righteous indignation. Unfortunately, none of these people have any sense of morality. In other words, the only thing that counts with them is the will of Washington D.C. and this sorely needs to change!

    July 17, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Reply
    • Rabiya

      Hello sir i really love all your comments you seem really smart educated person, we need a leader like you in your country. Seem like you feel our everyday pain

      July 17, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Thank you, Rabiya. I only wish that more of my fellow Americans did the same. Unfortunately, most Americans are currently caught up in that right-wing lynch mob mentality and let their government do their thinking for them!

        July 17, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • ThePoint

      I think that it is a bad thing for collateral damage, yes. But, part of the whole process with the right-wing slant you are missing is this – the left wing folks have not stopped or even slowed down the process. Therefore I lack the understanding of why you think this is a right-wing agenda item. In reality it would probably be more regarded as a average american agenda. If the average american said that this was a bad thing, it would stop. Since a majority are not actually saying that – and the left wing in charge see's an advantage in doing it – it is being done. I think having a left-wing president in power for 5 years is long enough for him to have changed the policy if he cared to make that moral stand.

      And as for the politics of Pakistan. That is a total mess and they cannot even regulate their own country to the standards of a second-world country. If you had been fighting enemies in Afghan that regularly fled across a border to return at a later date and sniper/blow you up (remind anyone of Cambodia?) you would understand maybe a little about the airspace intrusions and drone attacks. Those are done to facilitate the objective, with the least chance of collateral damage of the populace and the least impact on the intruded governments political face.

      If you think sending in combat teams to take these guys out versus a drone attack would save more lives after it is done literally dozens and dozens of times, you are mistaken. In some instances that may be so – but then it becomes a chase as there are no combat teams and transportation available in the 10-15min you see the average target as available to be struck.

      Look at Libya, how long did that attack response take to put together? Multiply that by a hundred. You would rarely get to the location in anything near a useful time to do a surgical strike. Instead, it becomes a search & destroy mission as you try to track them down using the last known location as a starting point.

      Think that won't create casualties?

      July 18, 2013 at 8:53 am | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        In the first place ThePoint, Barack Obama has swung to the right( if he ever was a left-winger to begin with) upon assuming the Presidency as he continued Bush's obscene foreign policies as evidence of this. In the second place, since these obscene was are being fought halfway around the world, the majority of Americans look upon these wars as sporting events like hockey and basketball with our soldiers being the "good" guys and the other side being the "bad" guys. These people need to quit entertaining this fairy tale and see these wars for what they really are with the civilians bearing the brunt of our obscene drone attacks!

        July 18, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Guy

      Dellusional Tirades by Internet intellectuals who believe the info they get from their media outlets and blogs have any barring on whats actually happening. You people dont seem to understand what is actually happening or understand the great lengths the goverment/military goes to to protect innocent civilians in pakistan/yemen. Which is understandable due to the fact you live in the dark.

      July 18, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Tell me Guy, how does one go about "protecting" innocent civilians by dropping 500 lb. bombs on them with those cursed drones of ours as we do in Pakistan? Do you honestly believe all that right-wing propaganda coming out of Washington D.C. about their killing "militants" only ? I don't!

        July 18, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
  3. Rabiya

    Sorry I meant in our country pakistan

    July 17, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  4. Josh

    Europeans have been tacit observers, who have never voiced any serious objection to use of drones because Muslim Terrorists continue to terrorize several European countries.
    – Beheading in London by Muslim Terrorists.
    – Shooting of Jews in France by Muslim Terrorists.
    – Madrid bombing by Muslim Terrorists.
    – London subway bombing by Muslim Terrorists.
    Drones are not unlawful. Actually, the laws are outdated. Europeans need to get their own drones and update their laws to deal with Muslim Terrorists. Drones are a very effective tools to save precious human lives from Muslim Terrorists.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Reply
  5. b2ux

    As they should be worried if the criminal obama is so keen on using them on americans on american soil they should be worried very worried ...

    July 17, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  6. G-man

    Drone strikes should be limited to battlefields. Case closed. Drones can be used to monitor movement but to take tactical measures that could harm non combatants away from the theater of operation I believe goes beyound our responsibilities. We can't expect to continue to fly over other countries borders and take out a small community just because we think Joe talibad is there. We'll just have to wait till we can get him. Before long everyone will have drones and they will be flying over borders and crossing boundaries then what we'll have to by anti drones devices. Seems to me that defense contractors continue to make money while the American taxpayer continues to pay.

    July 17, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Reply
    • Josh

      Exactly right - Drone strikes should be limited to battlefields. This is the War on Terror. Any land that harbors terrorists is a legitimate battlefield. Use the drones on terrorists. Case closed. Terrorist and their hosts should understand this and stop whining.

      July 17, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  7. EU_Billy

    That's odd .. that's not what the European News Agency reports, they report daily about Snowden and the NSA spying .. There is little talk here about the drones at all ???????????

    July 18, 2013 at 8:10 am | Reply
  8. Henk

    Drones should be used but only in places where no serious government is in place to deal with those targets themselves. US drones have no business in most places. Especially not over European soil. Even in the US they are trying to get drones in the air to watch US citizens. Even US citizens should stand up before the military and spy systems take control over all their lives. With the increasing use of drones by European forces they should also be careful not to make the same mistakes. But it seems European citizens are more eager to defend their rights.

    July 18, 2013 at 8:50 am | Reply
    • Rebecca

      Trying to get? Congress has already authorized drones in U.S. airspace and they are already in operation. Of course, Congress has demanded 30,000 of them by 09/2015. Now what is Congress expecting to happen that had the Dems and Repubs agree so easily on this?

      July 21, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  9. Henk

    @EU_Billy, i agree completely. It seems pro US channel CNN is trying to shift this damaging topic. Again! Anything damaging to the US is rather not so interesting to discuss by them. Anything damaging to Europe or China or other countries is really interesting for CNN. Especially those representatives or reporters or people at a think tank who have something negatively to say about China or Europe or something positively to say about the US. These comments are most sought after by CNN as you can see from who they interview. And how they push interviews in certain directions. Even by Amanpour. It`s disgusting to watch.

    July 18, 2013 at 8:56 am | Reply
  10. akka69

    The main problem with drone strikes is that it erases any distinction between the military, namely people on the battlefield, and the civilians.

    Today drones are operated by the military from within a civilian area, far away from the battlefield.
    Tomorrow, since there is no physical danger for the operators, it could be operated 7/7 24/24 by a civilian working private sector firm, who goes home every day after work.

    If this happens, any civilian target will be legally speaking, a legitimate target for any army or fighting group.
    All the treaties who regulate war practices, based on a distinction between the civilians and the soldiers

    July 18, 2013 at 8:59 am | Reply
  11. j. von hettlingen

    Europe is closer to many of the world's hot spots: the Middle East, Sub-Sahara, the Caucasus etc. than the US and faces more risk of bearing the brunt of turmoil. Should the use of drones be more a rule than an exception, then rogues and terrorists would be able to afford these weapons. Their heinous acts would target civilians to achieve political goals.

    July 18, 2013 at 9:04 am | Reply
  12. Marc

    Perhaps there are some people in this world that need killing–an opinion that may be shared by both the United States and some of its European allies.

    That may be why they provide the intelligence on such persons, and why they look the other way when "unlawful" drone strikes follow up on that intelligence.

    I am not an expert on international law but I wager that there is probably some law being broken when a sovereign country enters the borders of another sovereign country uninvited to conduct military operations resulting in the deaths of persons–deserving or undeserving.

    This asymmetric war is not just being fought in places like Pakistan. It is being fought on US soil as well. Henk points out that there may be a possibility that drones will be used on US soil to watch US citizens. This is not unlike the thinking behind PRISM. All these measures watch out for threats which may or may not turn out to be US citizens not unlike the Boston Marathon bombers. Say hello Big Brother.

    I guess this is the decade where national security is going to test the limits of your right to privacy. Fields of battle will be picked. Airports are a non-starter. If you want to get on a plane or get anywhere near a plane or airport full of people, national security will reserve the right to search your bag, shoes and car in the parking lot without probable cause. Mere presence in the airport or airplane is sufficient probable cause.

    But what about the email that you access from your home, your office, your coffee shop? What about your license plates being read and tracked on the highway? Is there a difference between the 450 and the internet superhighway? What about US postage mail and email? Meh. Let's wait a little and let the smart ppl on tv tell us.

    July 18, 2013 at 9:32 pm | Reply
    • Rebecca

      While CNN dithered on about Whitney Houston's death, Congress passed a law authorizing the use of drones by the U.S. military and Homeland Security against U.S. citizens. I've been posting about this since it happened, so I'm glad CNN finally feels the need to cover the issue (they did have one article at 4 am when it happened that was up for about 30 minutes). I didn't want to see Whitney Houston die, but there was a time when CNN would have been all over that drone issue. Sad to see the death of the fourth estate.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  13. KHG

    How do you co-relate Europe's concern with its fear of US spying to its worry of US drones being used against its enemies. The two are clearly two fundamental issues. Your article does not make sense.

    July 20, 2013 at 8:03 am | Reply
    • Rebecca

      The two issues are related.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Reply
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    • Rebecca

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      July 21, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  15. Anti Winston Smith

    " American drone strikes, even as their number has escalated under Barack Obama’s presidency . "

    A good cause for a Nobel Peace Prize !

    War means peace !

    George Orwell -1984

    July 20, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  16. Deutsche Bier

    Obama is like the Darth Vader, and the USA is the Evil Empire. Europe is a colony of the Evil Empire. China and Russia are the resistance against the Evil Empire.

    July 20, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Reply
    • George patton

      Quite true Deutsche Bier, quite true. You nailed it!!!

      July 21, 2013 at 11:42 am | Reply
    • Rebecca

      China and Russia are the evil twinkies.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Reply
      • George patton

        Come on Rebecca, just how much do you know about either Russia or China? Very little, I bet. I bet that you don't even know which alphabet the Russians use, do you? The only evil empire in the world today is the one that we ourselves have created!

        July 21, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
  17. Ivo

    Great masterpiece of classical brainwashing......
    So.....now...the issue is is changed entirely.....now there is no issue about the fact...that killing people in this way is terrorism.....now the issue is that other countries may have these airplanes.......and so......everything is ALRIGHT.
    There is also a hidden suggestion to promote this practise all over the world.

    July 20, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Reply
  18. Rebecca

    Them and me both. Never mind that New Mexico is all excited about making a killing off building drones for the feds. hahahahahahaha

    July 21, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Reply

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