Micah Zenko

Target Window

Time for President Obama to reform drone policy.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The first time I saw what a Predator drone could do was in 2000 when I worked part-time in the Office of Policy Planning at the State Department. On the clunky desktop computer, if someone (not me, of course) was bored or curious, they could watch the full-motion video footage from the Predators hovering over the Kosovo area of Serbia, where they were monitoring the implementation of the NATO-Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Republic of Serbia Military Technical Agreement. With its narrow field of vision provided by those early electro-optical sensors, it was like seeing a battlefield through a soda straw. However, the monotonous mission of tracking Serbian combat troop movements was ideal for a robot.

What I did not know was that at the same time — frustrated by the four to six hours required to find and target Osama bin Laden with cruise missiles — the National Security Council had issued a January 2000 memorandum calling for new methods to locate and track the al Qaeda leader. An interagency team — including the NSC’s counterterrorism shop, the Joint Staff’s director of operations, the CIA’s counterterrorism center, and various Air Force components — successfully mated a Hellfire II "tank-buster" missile that had previously been launched from the Army’s Apache helicopter gunships to a drone. In February 2001, a Predator drone conducted its first strike at a secret Air Force testing range. Nine months later, a drone strike killed Mohammed Atef, a top al Qaeda military commander, in Afghanistan. On November 3, 2002, Abu Ali al-Harithi, an al Qaeda operational planner, was targeted and killed by a drone in Yemen, along with five others. Since then, there have been over 400 targeted killings in the non-battlefield settings of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia — over 95 percent of which have been executed by drones.

I have written plenty about "discrete military operations" — which prominently feature drone strikes — for a dissertation, book, and various shorter pieces over the past five years. To compile and summarize what steps the Obama administration should take with regards to its use of armed drones in non-battlefield settings, I spent the past six months researching and writing a new report for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action: Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies. The report was informed by over five dozen interviews with current and former U.S. officials, as well as a remarkable advisory committee that included former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Gen. Stanley McChrystal, civilian protection advocate Sarah Holewinski, Harvard professor Joseph Nye, and George W. Bush administration NSC and State Department legal advisor John Bellinger III.

The good news is that, unlike his predecessor, President Obama has repeatedly raised concerns about U.S. drone strike policies and their potential long-term impact on emerging drone powers. (The White House also reportedly worried about how a President Mitt Romney would use drones.) Unfortunately, his administration has not yet publically addressed those concerns, or taken corrective actions, although there is an ongoing intra-administration debate about if and how this process could occur. My report attempts to fill this void by describing why U.S. drone strikes in non-battlefield settings matter, and how the Obama administration should reform their use.

First, drones have inherent advantages over other lethal weapons systems, which is why they are almost exclusively used by the United States in non-battlefield targeted killings. Whenever I spoke with military and intelligence officials, the first, second, and third issue they raised was drones’ persistence, or ability to loiter — often in conjunction with multiple drones — over a prospective target for a virtually unlimited period of time. As one senior CIA official mentioned with slight exaggeration: "With enough drones we can watch some compound in the tribal areas [in Pakistan] forever. And sometimes we do." Drones also collapse the "find-fix-finish" timeline required by cruise missiles from over four hours to seconds. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, unmanned platforms carry zero risk for pilots or troops on the ground. Together, these advantages are not lost on foreign officials, who routinely acknowledge their desire for their own fleet of armed drones.

Second, current and former administration officials worry that U.S. drone strikes could face operational limits due to domestic or international pressure. For example, the Bush administration engaged in the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects to third-party countries, torture, and warrantless wiretapping. Although the Bush administration defended all of these tactics as essential to protecting the U.S. homeland, domestic political pressure ultimately led to significant reforms or termination.

Similarly mounting opposition to U.S. drone strikes is already apparent. Between February and June 2012, U.S. support for drone strikes fell from 83 percent to 62 percent — less support than enhanced interrogation techniques received in the mid-2000s. At the same time, there is overwhelming international opposition to U.S. drone strikes that could lead to the end of U.S. access to regional airbases, overflight rights, and overt or tacit host nation support, all of which are critical to conducting drone strikes. Just as the U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships were kicked out of Ethiopia in 2007 and the CIA drone fleet was evicted from Pakistan in 2011, this could happen elsewhere. Alternatively, the United States may not receive permission from any southern European or northern African state to conduct drone strikes against, say, Mali. This would severely limit the geographic reach of drones, as it will be another seven to ten years before the United States is flying armed drones off carriers.

Third, the United States is the unrivaled leader in using armed drones. Other than Israel — which overwhelmingly uses manned aircraft — in the Gaza Strip and the United Kingdom in the traditional battlefield of Afghanistan, the United States is the only state to conduct drone strikes on the sovereign territory of another state. If the United States hopes to have normative influence on how others use drones — and administration officials repeatedly claim that they do — then U.S. leadership must provide a legal framework, a coherent and plausible explanation of the scope of legitimate targets, and a rationale for how targeted killings are coordinated with broader foreign policy objectives. The problem is that the administration’s public articulation of its drone strike policies — used only against specific senior al Qaeda officials who pose an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland — are fundamentally at odds with how they are actually employed, such as the use of signature strikes against suspected militants predominantly engaged in domestic insurgencies.

To address these issues, the Obama administration should bring its drone strike practices in line with its stated policies by: exclusively limiting its targeted killings to the leadership of al Qaeda or those with a direct operational role in past or ongoing terrorist plots; immediately ending the practice of signature strikes, or publically explaining how they plausibly meet the principles of distinction and proportionality; and reviewing the current policy whereby the executive authority for drone strikes is split between the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command, which have different legal authorities, degrees of permissible transparency, and oversight.

There is intense interest in drone strikes on Capitol Hill from virtually everyone except senior members in both parties who possess the authority to convene hearings. Nevertheless, the relevant congressional committees should hold hearings to examine how drone strikes are coordinated with broader foreign policy objectives; discuss the short- and long-term effects of U.S. targeted killings with government officials and nongovernmental experts; and assess the geographic and temporal limits of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and the legal justifications for targeted killings of U.S. citizens. At a minimum, professional staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees should receive general briefings about drone strikes and other targeted killings that occur in countries and regions that they oversee. They have repeatedly requested such briefings — and even threatened to withhold funding — but the White House has steadfastly refused.

President Obama’s second term provides a narrow window for his administration to pursue politically or diplomatically sensitive issues. Many hope that Obama will accelerate the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan, close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, or push for Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea and Comprehensive Test Ban treaties. While the Obama administration did not initiate the controversial practice of drone strikes of suspected terrorists, or signature strikes against anonymous "military-age males," it is vastly expanding the scope and intensity of such operations. Consequently, the administration has a responsibility to capitalize on the opportunity to significantly reform its drone strike policies.

A leading proponent for more transparent and defensible targeted killings policies was White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, nominated yesterday to be the next CIA director. Since he will be unable to lead or oversee any U.S. government-wide reforms in armed drones from the covert world at Langley, it must be a personal priority for President Obama. Either the Obama administration proactively shapes U.S. and international use of armed drones through transparency, self-restraint, and engagement, or it continues with its current policies and risks the consequences — a world characterized by the proliferation of armed drones used with little transparency or constraint in which targeted killings occur with impunity against anyone deemed an "enemy."

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