Drone attacks suggest US has not learned the lessons of 9/11

YOU can mention the war — any war — to Louise Richardson, but don’t get her started on the use of drones by the US.

The US has rapidly expanded its use of drones against terror suspects in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The way they have been used to target and kill suspected terrorists, including American citizens, horrifies Prof Richardson of St Andrews University in Scotland, who is and an acknowledged expert on terrorism and political violence.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House is considering moving the control of its controversial counter-terrorism drone programme from the CIA to the US military, a move that she will clearly welcome.

Though far from being a pacifist, Prof Richardson believes the use of lethal force has to be subject to constraints and done on a proper legal footing. America’s drone programme flies in the fact of that. Drone strikes have killed 176 children in Pakistan alone, according to eyewitness accounts, but that figure may be much higher.

“There has been an almost unconstrained use of drones without proper oversight and without readily available information. It is not unreasonable to see them deployed in a military theatre but, at the moment, you have them deployed in clandestine operations by the intelligence services to target people even in places where the US is not at war.

“Can you imagine if, say, the Russians sent drones over New York or how we would feel if Britain sent a drone over Cork to target someone it regarded as an enemy? The other difficulty is that, because they are controlled by the intelligence services, they are not subject to public scrutiny. We have no knowledge of mis-hits or mistakes made or the number of innocent people killed by drones. I don’t think they should ever have been put in place without establishing a legal framework for their use.”

While she accepts violence may, on occasion, be a legitimate response to aggression, the military option is often taken too readily. “Governments are often too willing to declare war as last resort even when it isn’t. It is much easier to start a war than to end it.”

War talk might be safer than the subject of golf as well. As the first female head of St Andrews, she might have expected to be offered membership of the nearby Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews which, like the university, is celebrating 600 years this year.

“All of my predecessors were traditionally offered honorary membership but I was not,” she says, yet while she acknowledges the inherent discrimination, she is not personally bothered by it. “I don’t have time, anyway, to spend three hours on a golf course.”

That’s because, in addition to running one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world, she is in demand as a writer, speaker, and expert on international terrorism.

With experience of college life on both sides of the Atlantic, she sees major differences in how institutions are run. “I have enjoyed the past four years at St Andrews enormously but the problem with British and Irish universities is the constraints that being publicly funded brings. Almost all universities in the States are funded by not-for-profit organisations and it means they enjoy far more resources and that gives them significant organisational autonomy.”

A political scientist, Prof Richardson has specialised in international security with an emphasis on terrorist movements. Her publications include, Democracy and Counter terrorism: Lessons from the Past (2007), What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat (2006), and When Allies Differ (1996).

Born in Tramore, Co Waterford, she was the first in her family to attend university, studying in Trinity College and later at Harvard where she rose to become executive dean of Radcliffe College, transforming it from a women-only college into a co-ed institute for advanced study.

In her seminal book on terrorism, What Terrorists Want, she writes that she would have joined the IRA “in a heartbeat” aged 14 and that her mother had to lock her in her room to stop her joining a protest march a week after Bloody Sunday in 1972.

Prof Richardson will today deliver an address at University College Cork, focusing on lessons learnt since the 9/11 attacks. Some have been learned, she believes, but not enough.

“The problem is that countries learn from their own mistakes but not the mistakes of others. Britain made mistakes in Northern Ireland and learned from that, but the US didn’t and repeated those mistakes elsewhere.”

Prof Richardson’s lecture, Terrorism: What have we learnt? comes as part of the Centre for Global Development Global Challenges lecture series. This free event begins at 5.30pm in Boole Lecture Theatre 1, UCC. A podcast of this talk will be available from www.ucc.ie/cgd. The talk will also be broadcast by UCC 98.3FM Radio.


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