[Note: This piece is cross-posted to the SIDIblog, the blog of the Italian Society of International Law, which was kind enough to ask for my views on these topics; for those interested in their other posts (in multiple languages), see here.]
- War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.
Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege (1832), Bk. 1, Ch. 3.
- It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur. But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.
U.S. President Barack Obama, April 23, 2015
I arrived in Rome for a month-long visit at LUISS Universita Guido Carli to find a country wrestling with the tragic news of the death of one of its own – Giovanni Lo Porto. As President Obama himself announced, the United States inadvertently killed Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein, a USAID contractor, as part of a January drone strike targeting an al Qaeda compound in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Both aid workers were Al Qaeda hostages; Lo Porto had been kidnapped in 2012, while Weinstein was abducted in 2011.
The story made global headlines for Obama’s apology that the United States had not realized these hostages were hidden on-site, and thus their deaths were a tragic mistake:
As President and as Commander-in-Chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni. I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.
President Obama directed a “full review” of the strike, and there are calls for other investigations as well, including here in Italy.
Amidst this tragedy – and some of the apparent missteps by the U.S. (not to mention Pakistani) governments (painfully noted by Mr. Weinstein’s family) — there is something remarkable in the Obama statement. Unlike so many other reports of U.S. errors or controversial programs in recent years (think Wikileaks or this guy), here was the U.S. Government, on its own, declassifying and disclosing the facts surrounding a drone strike that by all accounts appears to have included a major mistake in its execution. For lawyers, moreover, such disclosures are critical – without them we are left with what I’d call the “fog of technology” which precludes the application of the rule of law in an open and transparent way.
Clausewitz’s concept of the “fog of war” is simple, and well known: it describes the situational uncertainty that military actors face, their lack of perfect information about an adversaries’ intentions and capabilities (not to mention incomplete knowledge of their allies’ intentions and capabilities). What looks good on paper before an armed conflict may prove unworkable as the conditions of war – physical hardship, the need for immediate decision-making, emotional strains, etc. – complicate decision-making, and with it, the achievement of military objectives.
I use the term “fog of technology” to identify a similar situational uncertainty that lawyers face when confronting the deployment of new technology. Simply put, new technology can cloud how lawyers understand the content of law. Of course, lawyers can assess new technology and find it analogous to prior cases, allowing for what I call “law by analogy”, where the nature or function of a new technology is regulated according to how an analogous technology or function has been regulated in the past. But the more novel the technology – the more it can function in non-analogous ways, or with effects previously unimagined – the more lawyers may (or at least should) struggle with interpreting and applying the law to it.
Now, the fog of technology can emerge in all sorts of legal systems and all sorts of contexts from 3D printing to nanotechnology to driverless cars. But President Obama’s explicit reference to Clausewitz makes me think about it in the particular context of warfare itself. We are very much in a fog of technology when it comes to applying law to modern conflicts, whether it’s the remotely-piloted drone that killed Lo Porto and Weinstein, Stuxnet, or rumors of truly autonomous weapon systems (or “killer robots”). Which domestic and international legal frameworks regulate the deployment of these technologies? Does international humanitarian law (IHL) govern these operations, and, if so, does it do so exclusively, or do other regimes like international human rights apply as well? To the extent a specific regime applies – IHL – how do its rules on things like distinction or neutrality apply to technologies and operations that may have no prior analogues? More specifically, how does the law treat specific cases – was the killing of Lo Porto and Weinstein, tragic but legal, or was it an internationally wrongful act?
Of course, technology is not the only reason we have such questions. Indeed, several scholars (most notably Michael Glennon) have identified the idea of a “fog of law.” The rise of new types of non-state actors such as Al Qaeda continue to generate legal uncertainty; more than a decade after September 11, debates persist over whether and when U.S. counter-terrorism operations fall within a criminal law framework, or, as the U.S. insists, within the laws of armed conflict. Similarly, when the United States targets and kills a U.S. citizen abroad (such as Ahmed Farouq, the American affiliated with Al Qaeda, who died in the same strike that killed Lo Porto and Weinstein), the question is not so much how the technology did this, but whether the U.S. Constitution regulates such killing.
Still, I think there are features of technology itself that make lawyering in this context significantly more difficult. My co-blogger Ken Anderson recently summarized a few of the most important aspects in a recent post at the Hoover Institution. He identifies several commonalities among cyberweapons, drones, and killer robots: (i) their ability to operate remotely; (ii) their capacity for extreme precision (at least when compared to earlier weapons); and (iii) the diminished ease of attribution. Of these, I think the problem of attribution is foundational; law will have little to say if legal interpreters and decision-makers do not know how the technology has been deployed, let alone how it functions or even that it exists in the first place. In such cases, the fog of technology is tangible.
Consider the story of drones and international law. (more…)