Technological Agency in the Co-Constitution of Legal Expertise and the US Drone Program

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On 30 September 2011, the US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen in what has become the most controversial incident of US ‘targeted killing’, or, as its critics would prefer, of the US practice of ‘extrajudicial executions’. This controversy over wording expresses a profound disagreement over the legal status of the US drone program. Target killing suggests that the drone program may be legally regulated. Extrajudicial execution suggests that it falls outside the realm of legality. This article does not seek to settle which terminology is the most appropriate. Instead it analyses the legal expertise struggling to do so and its implications. More specifically, it focuses on the processes through which drones constitute the legal expertise that constitutes the drone program as one of targeted killings and of extrajudicial executions; that is, on a process of co-constitution. Drawing theoretical inspiration from and combining new materialist approaches (especially as articulated by Bruno Latour) with the sociological approach of Pierre Bourdieu, the article shows that drones have ‘agency’ in the ‘field’ of legal expertise pertaining to the drone program. Drones are redrawing the boundaries of legal expertise both by making associations to new forms of expertise and by generating technological expert roles. They are also renegotiating what is valuable to expertise. Drones are making both transparency and secrecy core to expertise. However, and contrary to what is often claimed, this agency does not inescapably lead to the normalization of targeted killings. The article therefore concludes that acknowledging the agency of drones is important for understanding how legal expertise is formed but especially for underscoring the continued potential for controversy and politics.
Original languageEnglish
JournalLeiden Journal of International Law
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)811-831
Publication statusPublished - 2013

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