Expanded use of drones raises questions for US military

The US military is reportedly expanding its drone program in the Afpak region, even as the United Nations and domestic protesters complain about the program's legality.

 "The Jonas Brothers are here," said US President Barack Obama, delivering a joke to the crowd at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington, DC.

"Sasha and Malia [Obama's daughters] are huge fans, but boys, don't get any ideas," said the president, setting up his punchline. "Two words: Predator Drones. You will never see it coming." The crowd laughs.

US Department of Defense videos of drone attacks targeting "insurgents" in Iraq, for example, leave the impression that the people on the ground killed by those drones never saw it coming either.

"You think I'm joking," the president quipped at the dinner, as laughter continued at his joke.

But a hellfire missile dropped from a remote-controlled plane killing people is no joke, especially not for the one in three people estimated to be civilians who are mistakenly targeted or caught in the crossfire of drone strikes in Pakistan, for example, where the Central Intelligence Agency is believed to run a covert drone program.

“US targeting practice including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned arial vehicles – UAVs – comply with all applicable laws including the laws of war," according to Harold Koh, a State Department legal advisor.

But the United Nations now begs to differ in a report. And for even longer, critics at home in the US have disagreed.

"We're here because we believe the CIA's drone bombing program is illegal and immoral," said Cindy Sheehan at a drone protest outside the CIA's Langley, Virginia Headquarters in January.

A former top ranking US government official believes the bombs violate international law, too.

“I think they do, because you cross a border and you go into a country with whom you are not at war under any definition known to man of war and you start to kill people with military implements and in some cases with military people pulling the trigger or pushing the button,” said Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief-of-staff for Colin Powell.

Although the US military keeps telling the public that it is doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties,  news reports seem to tell a different story. Recent headlines include: "US report faults Air Force drone crew, ground commanders in Afghan civilians strike," and "US to expand Pakistan drone strikes."

And the drone attacks are doing more harm than good to the US reputation in the region.  

"It doesn't stop terror, it increases vulnerability to innocent people there and innocent people here in America," said Sheehan.

Since 2004, drones in Pakistan have killed between 900 and 1,400 people according to the New America Foundation. Hundreds of those were in this year alone, and hundreds are believed to be civilians. So while the President can joke, the question remains whether the consequences of the US drone program mean the joke is on him.