Micah Zenko

This Is Not the Drone Debate We’re Looking For

How Rand Paul and company are totally missing the point.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

After 10 years of disinterest from policymakers and pundits, and one year of carefully-managed official statements from the Obama administration, there is finally an active debate on the U.S. policy of non-battlefield targeted killings via drones. Suddenly, everyone feels compelled to offer their opinion on drone strikes on political talk shows and in op-eds and congressional hearings. There is just one problem: Little of the public debate discusses the actual conduct of targeted killings, and focuses instead on hypothetical operations. As a result, there is even greater misinformation that distorts, muddies, and distracts from the real issues.

During his 13-hour filibuster, Senator Rand Paul repeatedly asked if President Obama believed he had the constitutional authority to target U.S. citizens within the United States. He specifically mentioned the hypothetical scenario in which Jane Fonda, Kent State protestors, or someone in a café (mentioned 34 times!) could be targeted under the Obama administration’s legal framework. While Paul raised several important questions about targeted killings, his focus on such implausible examples obscured the full scope of the drone wars. Of the 3,500 to 4,700 victims, only four were U.S. citizens — and only one was targeted intentionally. In short, the longest congressional discussion held on targeted killings concentrated on one one-thousandth of the issue.

The following day, John McCain took to the Senate floor to denounce Paul and defend targeted killings in case of contingencies like "Nazis who came ashore on Long Island in World War II" or a "bomb-laden, explosive-laden vehicle headed for a nuclear power plant." These justifications echoed those of Attorney General Eric Holder, who declared domestic drone strikes were reserved for "circumstances like a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001." According to the 9/11 Commission, at around 10:15 a.m. on the morning of September 11, Vice President Dick Cheney told his military aide that Air Force F-16s were authorized to shoot down a civilian airliner (United 93) heading toward Washington, D.C. if the fighter pilots could confirm that it had been hijacked. Since nobody actually contends that the president cannot use force in such an instance, these arguments are emotionally-laden red herrings.

Meanwhile, human rights groups, legal scholars, and columnists are increasingly warning about the prospect of fully autonomous robots, which could conduct lethal strikes without a human being in the decision-making loop. While the U.S. military has long maintained autonomous defensive systems that launch counterbattery fire to suppress artillery and rocket attacks, Pentagon officials have repeatedly stated that there are no plans to develop fully autonomous drones for targeted killing operations. Although there should be clear limits on what decisions are made by robotic sensors and algorithms, this is not an imminent capability that presidents will possess, nor is it a practical near-term concern. Moreover, it is unrelated to the weapons platforms that have been used by the Bush and Obama administrations 420 times and counting.  

Finally, drone defenders stick to the official line of who can be attacked: senior operational leaders of al Qaeda and associates who pose a grave and imminent threat to the United States. This has not been true for almost five years, though the assertion continues to be recycled and widely accepted by policymakers and pundits. In fact, the vast majority of individuals killed by drones were anonymous militants who allegedly threatened coalition forces in Afghanistan or the domestic security forces in Pakistan. According to the New America Foundation, of the estimated 2,426 to 3,969 people killed by CIA drones in Pakistan, only 51 — or roughly 2 percent — were reported as "militant leaders."

The reality of U.S. targeted killings is more complex than the unlikely or hypothetical scenarios offered in the past few weeks. For example, there has not been a U.S. targeted killing in Somalia in almost 14 months, since the al Qaeda-affiliated organization al-Shabab was weakened by African Union, Kenyan, and Ethiopian troops deployed throughout the country. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, stated last week that al-Shabab was "significantly weakened in the past year," while James Clapper, the director national intelligence, described it as "largely in retreat." That this relative good news has occurred without the assistance of U.S. cruise missiles or special operations raids holds lessons for confronting extremist militants elsewhere.

At the same time, the CIA’s drone strikes in Pakistan have declined from a zenith of 122 in 2010, to 48 in 2012, to 6 so far in 2013. Since 2008, these strikes have primarily focused on suspected militants who threaten U.S. servicemembers with improvised explosive devices, suicide bombs, and small-arms fire across the border in Afghanistan. As additional U.S. troops withdraw, drone strikes that are intended to protect them should also become increasingly rare. Moreover, if Afghanistan exercises its sovereign right to prohibit the United States from using its territory for external military operations — once a possibility, now increasingly likely — then the laws of geography and logistics make drone strikes into Pakistan basically impossible. This also assumes that Pakistani officials remain unable to fulfill their repeated pledge of ending U.S. drone strikes — a pledge first made in January 2006, or 341 strikes ago.

Finally, the number of targeted killings in Yemen against suspected members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and militants fighting an insurgency against the security forces of the regime of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, went from 10 in 2011, to 42 in 2012, to 5 so far in 2013. These are difficult to assess, since reportedly some strikes are conducted by Yemeni and Saudi air forces, and others by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command. The Yemeni government has also claimed responsibility for some U.S. strikes that caused civilian casualties in order to shield the United States from criticism and accountability. Based on conversations with Obama administration officials, whether the current strategy in Yemen is "working" to reduce the threat posed by externally-directed terrorism is one of the most hotly debated questions of U.S. foreign policy.

The overdue public and congressional debates about the Obama administration’s targeted killings should be based on how those operations are actually justified and conducted, which is itself based on inconsistencies and unexamined assumptions that deserve close scrutiny. A debate that focuses on drone strikes that have not occurred, that are highly improbable, or that would be conducted with capabilities that do not exist, might get public attention, but it misses the real story.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola