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Political science professor calls for transparency, debate on the use of drones for targeted killing

January 23, 2014

MEDIA CONTACT: Hilary Dickinson at or 608-363-2849

The public doesn’t know how many drone strikes have been carried out on behalf of the United States or how many civilians have been killed.

Beloit College Political Science Professor Beth Dougherty explored those problems on Wednesday (Jan. 22) in the latest installment of the new “Lunchbox Series.” The title of her lecture was "Drone Wars: Evaluating targeted killing as a tool of U.S. counter-terrorism policy.”

A direct result of the 9/11 attacks, the use of armed drones have been called the most effective counter-terrorism tool by both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, explained Dougherty, who specializes in Middle East politics, human rights and U.S. foreign policy. The administrations argue that drones are effective at killing terrorists and they keep American troops from being on the ground.

They also claim that drones minimize civilian casualties, but Dougherty said that claim is difficult to evaluate as the public doesn't have any good information about who is killed. Many of the strikes occur in remote areas with no outside observers such as activists and students. Furthermore, the United States never confirms that the CIA carries out drone strikes and only occasionally confirms that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) does.

Recently leaked Pakistani documents, however, allege there have been 330 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 and approximately 2,200 people killed, among them 400 civilians and another 200 possible civilians, according to Dougherty. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reached a similar conclusion, reporting 381 strikes in Pakistan from 2004-2013 and an estimated 416-951 civilian casualties. 

The United States government’s basic argument is to trust that drones are the most useful and effective tool, but Dougherty asserts that the public should have a debate about whether or not they are the only tool in counter-terrorism and if they’re counterproductive because they radicalize populations and cause anti-American sentiment.

Furthermore, she said the U.S. is setting precedent for the future use of drones by other countries such as Russia and China.

“I believe we need to have a robust and informed public debate in the U.S., but that requires appropriate transparency,” Dougherty said. “Drone technology does allow us to hit a particular room or vehicle in a remote area of Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, but just because the U.S. can do these things doesn’t mean the U.S. should be engaged in this widespread program of targeted killing.”

To carry out this debate, Dougherty said there needs to be discussions in the media, people need to be willing to listen to critics of drones, and Congress should hold hearings on the subject.

SOURCE: Beth Dougherty is a professor of political science and Manger Professor of International Relations with research focuses on transitional justice mechanisms such as international criminal tribunals and truth and reconciliation commissions. She teaches a broad range of international politics courses, including Middle East politics, African conflicts, human rights and U.S. foreign policy. She has published on a wide range of subjects, including Iraq, transitional justice in Sierra Leone and Iraq, ethnic conflict and pedagogy. Dougherty can serve as a media resource on topics related to her research and teaching interests. A full bio and vitae are available here.