In several drone attacks in Pakistan last year, the CIA engaged in the controversial practice of "double taps," meaning it followed an attack with a second attack on the rescuers who rush in after the first. This was confirmed today in a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Double tapping is sure to make even those who support the use of drones at least a little queasy. To many, it is uncomfortably similar to the tactics used by some of the terrorists we are supposed to be morally superior to: Hamas, for example. Some argue that it is a violation of international law, including at least one UN official. At the very least, it is a risky tactic for a country that holds itself up as an example of rectitude in the world and it weakens our moral authority. Worse yet, it creates a justification that could be used against us by future enemies who don't even pretend to have our level of regard for human life.
At the risk of being labeled a CIA apologist, it must be acknowledged that the legal arguments are muddied by the fact that the laws of warfare were developed during, and in response to, conventional wars between states, with soldiers fighting for their respective countries. These conditions do not apply to the war against Al-Qaeda. They represent no state, cannot be identified by uniforms, and operate in disregard of national borders. And it should be emphasized, they certainly do not adhere to the accepted laws on warfare. Nevertheless, the U.S. does claim to adhere to international law, so their actions definitely warrant scrutiny.
The general principles of those laws and treaties on warfare dictate that civilians must not be targeted and civilian casualties are to be avoided, but a warring party does not have to avoid striking a military target just because civilian casualties will result. A guiding principle is proportionality; the expected civilian losses must be proportionate to the expected military gains. That alone is subject to interpretation. With that in mind, the salient issue is: What is to be done if the drone operator is fairly certain that at least some of the rescuers after an initial attack are themselves members of terrorist group like Al-Qaeda or Taliban, and therefore military targets? Bear in mind, the people we are fighting do not wear any kind of uniform to distinguish themselves from the civilians they live amongst.
In its investigation into the reports of double tapping, an earlier article by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism itemized its findings, including civilians versus Taliban fighters killed in the follow-up attacks. In more than half of them, the second attacks did kill more Taliban fighters. So in that regard, they accomplished their mission.
This is not to say that double taps are always acceptable, however. There are other legal issues one could argue, such as whether the civilian casualties were proportional. A stronger argument against double taps is the lasting damage they do to our image and moral authority. They don't pass the smell test and don't warrant the diminished respect for our already damaged image abroad. America's moral authority has always been one of its most potent weapons; we should be very careful we aren’t compromising it.