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Terms of Engagement

Silent but Deadly

How the State Department tried and failed to force Obama’s drone program into the open.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In the summer of 2011, Cameron Munter, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington and asked her to intercede with the White House to give him greater control over the CIA’s use of drones along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, and to let him speak openly to the Pakistani people — who viewed  drone warfare as a gross violation of national sovereignty — about the rationale for the strikes.

The stakes, in Munter’s mind, were very high. A few months earlier, the White House had dispatched Senator John Kerry to Pakistan in the hopes of cooling the public fury over the killing of two Pakistanis by Raymond Davis, a CIA contract officer. Kerry had succeeded, in part by promising greater coordination on counterterror measures — and then, soon after his plane left Islamabad, the CIA launched another drone strike. By the time Kerry landed in Doha, Pakistan’s political and military leaders were apoplectic, and Munter had a new crisis on his hands. Clinton brought the issue to the White House — and got beat by the CIA. "The State Department threw him under the bus," says Christine Fair, a South Asia scholar and an expert on counterterror warfare in the region.

Today, Pakistanis know next to nothing about the drone program, and believe the worst about it. The same may be said for many Americans. The debate over the use of drones has grown more acrimonious as the administration of President Barack Obama has increased the number of strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and expanded the program to Yemen and Somalia. Critics have denied the alleged pinpoint accuracy of drone strikes, arguing that hundreds of civilians have been killed as collateral damage. Scholars of constitutional law have asserted that targeted assassinations have no basis in American law. But there are many people — myself included — who defend the use of drones but decry the pervasive secrecy around them. There is a real danger that around the world drone warfare will come to be seen as the dark arts of the Obama administration, as torture and "rendition" were for President George W. Bush.

It seems blindingly obvious that the United States is not going to refrain from using unmanned vehicles — naval as well as aerial– for attack and surveillance. Any technology that can locate and kill an individual combatant without endangering American forces or bystanders (though there is an important debate over how many civilians have been killed) is not going away. Critics like Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the former Obama official Vali Nasr accuse the White House of falling in love with the short-term fix of drone warfare and ignoring the long-term imperative of nation-building in weak states. But experience in Afghanistan and Somalia, among other places, has taught us that nation-building, if it can work at all, is a generational endeavor. The United States can’t wait for the jihadist swamp to be drained.

At the same time, drones are not just another arrow in a battlefield commander’s quiver. It is precisely the power of drones, the immense temptation they pose, the certainty that they will become yet more central to American counterterror efforts in the future, which compels a much more open debate than we have had to date. To take only a single example, although the Authorization for Use of Military Force voted by Congress after 9/11 permits the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force," against the nations, organizations, and individuals responsible for the terrorist attacks, the Obama administration has authorized so-called "signature strikes" against targets whose individual identity is unknown but whose pattern of behavior matches that of al Qaeda. Is that authorized? Is it morally acceptable? Maybe; I’m skeptical.

The Obama administration deserves some credit for deciding — after intense debate — to speak about the legal and ethical rationale of this highly classified program. In the aftermath of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born leader of al Qaeda forces in Yemen, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a speech in which he defended the president’s right to target an American citizen for killing; soon thereafter, John Brennan, the president’s intelligence advisor, laid out in some detail the extensive review process which begins with the determination that an al Qaeda member poses a threat that warrants "lethal action." And that review process appears to be extraordinarily rigorous.

Of course, the level of disclosure was nothing compared to the exquisite detail which administration officials provided on the killing of Osama bin Laden. And many fundamental questions remain unanswered. Brennan’s comments shed no light on the rationale for signature strikes. How are those decided? We don’t know. And in Pakistan the CIA is targeting members of the Taliban, not al Qaeda, including jihadists who menace Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. Does that fit with the 2001 authorization of force? Is it a judicious use of this Faustian technology? Hard to say.

Brennan announced that the president had de-classified the drone program in Yemen, thus permitting him to speak. But the far larger program in Pakistan remains covert, and classified. (Many of the strikes in Afghanistan are carried out by the military, and thus are not covert.) Why the continuing secrecy in Pakistan? The White House declined to make anyone available to address this question. The widespread assumption, though, is that since Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders — unlike President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi of Yemen — publicly oppose the program, CIA officials have deferred to their wishes and maintained the cone of silence. The administration may have concluded that if the program were declassified and openly discussed, Gen. Ashraf Kayani, Pakistan’s military chief of staff and de facto leader, would finally make good on his endless threats to shut it down.

The CIA doesn’t have to care about public opinion; but diplomats do. That was why Munter made his bid for greater transparency last year. Munter, who has since retired from public service, believes that the drone strikes have been and continue to be effective, but argues that the secrecy has allowed Pakistanis to believe the worst about America. "If we are able to lift the veil on the program and talk more openly about what our goals are and how those goals coincide with those of people of good will in Pakistan," Munter says, "I think it could have a very positive effect."

But what about the danger to the program itself? "The impact of the program," Munter says, "has come to a point where it is time for the American authorities and the Pakistani authorities to have a much more open discussion." That might be healthy. But in any case, the United States can not hold itself hostage to Pakistani politics, which runs on perpetually stoked anti-Americanism. The benefits from the drone strikes, great though they may be, do not trump the imperative of democratic debate.

This post-election, pre-Inaugural period offers a moment for taking stock. In the weeks to come, I will be looking at other aspects of President Obama’s foreign policy. But perhaps we could ask the president, as a New Year’s resolution, to level with the American people about what it is that drones should and should not do, who they do and do not target, where they should and should not be used. It’s not too much to ask.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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