US Bishops' Official Calls for Scrutiny of Drones Policy

Calls for More Comprehensive, Moral, Effective Fight Against Terrorism

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The United States should publicly discuss and scrutinize its policy of targeted killings by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, in order to formulate “a more comprehensive, moral and effective policy to resist terrorism,” said the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, wrote this in a May 17 letter to National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon.

“An effective counterterrorism policy should employ non-military assets to build peace through respect for human rights and addressing underlying injustices that terrorists unscrupulously exploit,” wrote Bishop Pates.

The letter was also sent to the leadership of the House and Senate Committees on Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Relations, Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Judiciary, Oversight and Government Reform and the Select and Permanent Select Committees on Intelligence.

Bishop Pates acknowledged the right of a country to use force in self-defense and noted that counterterrorism, even against an organization as dangerous as Al Qaeda, is primarily a law enforcement activity when it takes place outside of a war zone. 

But he noted that targeted killings by drones raise “serious moral questions,” including concerns related to discrimination, imminence of threat, proportionality and probability of success.

“Targeted killing should, by definition, be highly discriminatory,” wrote Bishop Pates. “The Administration’s policy appears to extend the use of deadly force to alleged ‘signature’ attacks and reportedly classifies all males of a certain age as combatants. Are these policies morally defensible? They seem to violate the law of war, international human rights law, and moral norms.”

Bishop Pates emphasized the importance of protecting American lives and the danger posed by an organization like Al Qaeda, but said the relative low cost and ease of using drones might tempt U.S. leadership to use them to excess, causing our nation to underutilize “economic, political and diplomatic responses.” He urged attention to the “longer-term social and political impacts of targeted killings by drones on the struggle against terrorism.”

“And doesn’t the prospect of widespread deployment of UAVs by other nations and non-state actors put a spotlight on our nation as the primary developer and user of UAV armed and unarmed technology?” he wrote. “The U.S. should exercise leadership in advancing international norms, standards and restrictions for their use.”

In sharing the correspondence with all of the bishops, Bishop Pates noted the letter addresses the morality of U.S. policy; it does not question the moral integrity of those charged with carrying it out.

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The full text of Bishop Pates’ letter is available online:

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