Best Defense

Illusory precision: Some thoughts on drone strikes after the Weinstein incident

When editors and bookers call wanting a comment on some breaking act of violence, the safe response is this: “I’ll need to wait until the facts are in.” Or: “I don’t want to speculate…” The promise of drones has been that the facts would always be in.

<> on April 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.


By Heather Hurlburt
Best Defense guest columnist

When editors and bookers call wanting a comment on some breaking act of violence, the safe response is this: “I’ll need to wait until the facts are in.” Or: “I don’t want to speculate…”

The promise of drones has been that the facts would always be in. We would have video surveillance to replace speculation. We would replace unscientific shelling, or emotion-driven late-night house-to-house raids, with cold photographic fact. Eyes-in-the-sky would give analysts and decision-makers time to see civilians, id suspects, weigh risks.

So let’s lay out the “facts” that CIA drone operators over Pakistan knew on January 15, when they fired on vehicles arriving at a compound:

Four people were in the targeted compound. Yet six bodies came out.

No one present was a U.S. citizen who, under the procedures laid out in leaked Justice Department memos and affirmed subsequently by the Obama Administration, would have required additional layers of government review before targeting. Yet fully one-half of the casualties held U.S. citizenship.

There was no reason to believe hostages were present at what analysts believed was a “mid-level Al Qaeda meeting” in the compound. Yet two were.

Those are three enormous errors. We sack CEOs and football coaches for much less.

The mistakes are, individually, understandable: even drones have coverage gaps. Al Qaeda had every reason not to advertise the whereabouts of Western hostages. And operators seem to have been fully within guidelines that allow, in Pakistan, “signature strikes” which select targets based on general characteristics rather than specific identifications.

But the policies of this President, and the recommendations of Congressional supporters of even more vigorous covert action, have been premised upon the idea that drones and their operators would almost never make mistakes. If that premise is wrong, what then?

Anonymous men and women tonight are grieving that their recommendations, or their fingers on a keyboard, led to the deaths of innocents and fellow-citizens. They deserve our empathy. For it is our elected representatives who invited, no, demanded, that they push the button.

You can be pro- or anti-drone; pro- or anti-signature strikes; and even pro- or anti-Afghan War, and believe that President Obama holds ultimate responsibility for those policies — which he took today — and that Congress holds clear responsibility for overseeing whether they are achieving the desired ends and being implemented in accordance with the U.S. Constitution.

In that context, it’s bewildering to hear Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr say his panel provides “extensive oversight” of U.S. drone use. Somehow Congressional overseers don’t seem so relaxed about errors by the Secret Service or Department of Justice that resulted in profound embarrassment but not the deaths of civilians, let alone Americans. If an ICE or DEA cop had unknowingly shot dead a civilian hostage who also happened to be a Maryland resident, it’s hard to imagine Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, who counts Warren Weinstein’s family as constituents, limiting his response to requesting “a full account of the events that led to Dr. Weinstein’s and Mr. Lo Porto’s deaths.”

Before oversight slips, as it has in the past, into the mire of partisan polarization, it’s worth all sides considering that proponents of targeted killing — and new technologies of warfare more broadly — have more to gain from effective oversight than anyone — except, perhaps, the men and women who carry out those policies.

Here’s why.

Americans — civilians, military, intel community — want our policy execution to be flawless. It won’t be unless it is held to high external standards.

Pakistanis, Yemenis, Afghans have no illusions: For every Weinstein and LoPorto, there have been hundreds of civilians, men, women and children who wandered into the wrong place, or had their homes and cars and wedding parties wrongly identified, and paid the ultimate price. Because they are our most important allies in diffusing the threat of extremism, they too need to hear American leaders take responsibility for their losses. They too need to hear from us that civilian lives matter.

Human rights groups, security think tanks, and even the President’s own Civil Liberties Oversight Board have called for more transparency and stronger oversight. To dismiss them as aiming at ending drone strikes, as Senators Graham, Inhofe and others did today, is to misunderstand what makes American security policy sustainable, and to devalue not just the lives of civilians but the sacrifices of Americans. The idea that our elected leaders set and sustain moral standards is easy to laugh at for Beltway civilians; less so, if your fellow-citizens have entrusted you with the power of life and death.

Heather Hurlburt held senior positions in the White House and State Department under President Clinton. She also has worked on Capitol Hill and for the International Crisis Group. She holds degrees from Brown and George Washington Universities.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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