May 8, 2015
U.S. Domestic Drone Debate: Supported Abroad, Suppressed at Home
By John Kaag and Chris McKallagat
Co-Author, Drone Warfare; Former Fellow, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs

In recent weeks, the international negotiations surrounding the development of Iran’s nuclear program have underscored the dangers of “dual-use” technologies (those that can be used for both peaceful and military purposes). In the case of Iran’s ongoing attempts to develop nuclear energy, there are, of course, real concerns about this sort of technology: The peaceful employment of certain devices in the private sector can quickly be used to belligerent ends.

In the United States, technology transfer between military research and development (R&D) and the commercial sector is standard practice, and, for the most part, this transfer has been beneficial. The advent of the Internet and modern satellite technology emerged from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) labs, for example. The porous boundaries between military and commercial R&D, however, are cause for concern – and not just because of the recent debate over nuclear weapons.

Jay Carney, former White House press secretary and Time magazine Washington Bureau Chief, once said at a White House press conference that the use of drones in the government’s targeted killing program was “legal,” “ethical,” and “wise.” Carney is now head of global corporate communications for Amazon. He reports directly to Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, and, according to International Business Times, considers the “drone issue” to be a top initial priority.

For Amazon, there is perhaps no issue more important than the domestic use of drones. It is likely, then, that Bezos judged Carney’s command of the domestic debate on drones from the White House podium since 2011 to be worth the price of recruiting him to do the same at Amazon.

Amazon has been out front among its competitors in the United States when it comes to speaking about the benefits of unmanned aircraft for commercial markets. For the last two years, Amazon’s public-relations strategy, a key component of any successful marketing plan, has focused primarily on persuading Americans that the convenience drones are likely to afford in delivering goods directly to their doorstep will surely outweigh privacy fears.

This tactic has been largely unsuccessful, and Americans remain much more concerned about the domestic use of drones, in any capacity, than their use in U.S. counterterrorism operations abroad. With Carney at the helm, we expect Amazon’s public-relations strategy on drones to shift dramatically, playing on a type of scare tactic that led most Americans to ignore the potential violations of international law that resulted from the drone campaign (particularly signature strikes) in the Middle East in the last five years.

Carney is intimately familiar with the intricacies, and in some instances outright contradictions, of the domestic debate on the use of drones. Since 2011, he has been among the principal architects and sales agents of the government’s strategic communications and marketing campaign that has sought to limit the extent and form of information available to the public in order to focus our attention on the benefits and obscure (or simply hide) the costs. Key to gaining domestic approval for the expanded use of drones for counterterrorism operations abroad has been the careful framing of drones as a panacea to address the persistent threat of terrorism.

Speaking at the National Defense University in 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama laid out the main tenets of his administration’s comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, arguing that using drones prevents civilian casualties and allows a lighter footprint for U.S. armed forces in countries such as Yemen and Somalia. Using drones to kill terrorist suspects was justified precisely because it was so effective in limiting the costs typically associated with fighting wars. The thrust of the Obama administration’s marketing strategy was to sell the American public on the notion that if they bought into the use of drones for counterterrorism they could remain secure at home and reduce unintended consequences abroad.

Unfortunately, the record in Yemen and Somalia since 2013 has done little to support Obama and Carney’s assertions that drones are an effective solution to the threat of terrorism. Groups linked with Al Qaeda – Al Shabab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (A.Q.A.P.) in Yemen – continue to directly threaten the United States, and have carried out and/or sponsored major terrorist incidents in Kenya and Paris, France in the last six months. The recent collapse of Yemen’s central government has led to further chaos in the country and left A.Q.A.P., which U.S. officials claim is the most dangerous branch of Al Qaeda, substantially less challenged.

The problem with Obama’s overemphasis on the use of drones for counterterrorism is that it does nothing to address the underlying political problems that allow terrorist organizations to flourish. Because the United States is forced to partner with local governments – many of them authoritarian or military-led regimes – to gain access to sovereign airspace in order to carry out drone strikes, its ability to then pressure its allies to make necessary political reforms is seriously limited.

Carney’s new employer is well aware of how the dual-use marketing game is played in the United States. When it comes to the commercialization of technologies also used by and for the military, Amazon’s relationships with the military-intelligence-industrial complex in Washington are well known. In 2013, for instance, Amazon reportedly inked a deal with the Central Intelligence Agency worth $600 million to build a private cloud infrastructure.

Understanding the manner in which Americans respond to the politics of threat inflation, we expect Carney to craft a new Amazon public-relations strategy for drones that convinces the American public that not allowing companies like Amazon to use drones as a means to drive economic innovation is a more salient threat than domestic surveillance or drone accidents. The fear that Amazon may decide to invest its drone resources abroad could be enough to tip the scales in Washington. After all, as former president George W. Bush reminded Americans soon after the tragedy of 9/11, the only thing that could possibly be worse than a terrorist attack on the United States is a bad economy.

John Kaag and Chris McKallagatJohn Kaag is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and director of the Ph.D. in Global Studies. He is co-author of Drone Warfare (Polity, 2014).Chris McKallagat is a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Previously, he spent time working at the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.