Unregulated drone wars threaten U.S. prestige abroad

March 13, 2013

The Senate has finally confirmed John Brennan as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, yet controversy over the Obama administration’s drone program still lingers. The criticism came to a head last week with Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster of Brennan’s nomination in which he questioned the use of drones against American citizens and pressed the Obama administration about recently released Department of Justice memos.

In the memos, the Obama administration advances four criteria for the use of unmanned combat drones. The target of a drone attack must be, first, a “senior operational leader” that, second, poses an “imminent threat” to American national security and whose capture is, third, “infeasible.” Finally, the drone attack itself must be consistent with “law of war principles.”

While Paul Rand’s focus on the hypothetical use of combat drones on American soil was sensationalist, there is still a pressing need for greater scrutiny of our drone operations. The Obama administration’s four criteria are sound safeguards in theory, yet the gap between theory and practice has been troublingly wide. In eight years, the George W. Bush administration only approved 52 strikes in Pakistan, which was increased by 310 under Obama. Since 2008, the CIA has shifted away from drafting a list of high-value al-Qaeda leaders and instead uses “signatures,” or strikes based on suspicious behavior.

The deteriorating standard for drone attacks is problematic. First, we have increasingly targeted what one senior Pakistani official calls “mere foot soldiers” that pose a long-term but certainly not an “imminent” threat to the U.S.

Second, monitoring suspicious behavior instead of compiling a list of leaders means that we frequently mistake innocent civilians for enemy combatants. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that of the some 3,000 killed by drone strikes, between 475 and 900 were civilians, of which 176 were children.

Our current drone policy is ethically worrisome and may be inconsistent with “law of war principles.” But the greatest consequence of the program may be neither moral nor legalistic, but pragmatic. Drone attacks, especially when perceived as indiscriminate, are deeply unpopular in the Middle East. A 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes project found that of Pakistanis who considered themselves well informed about drones, 97 percent considered drone strikes bad policy. Our extensive use of drones runs the risk of creating more terrorists and alienating potential allies.

Yet, to paraphrase Churchill, our drone program is the worst tactic against terrorism–except for all the others. We are engaged in a never-ending “War on Terror,” and it is unfeasible to pretend that the U.S. is not going to aggressively attack terrorists or suspected terrorists around the globe. Taking the U.S.’s established role as “globo-cop” as given, we should focus on how to act in a manner that results in the least damage possible. With this in mind, we may come to the difficult conclusion that drone strikes, for all their flaws, are nonetheless the best way to fight the new war when compared with our other options.

By most reports, combat drones have decimated al-Qaeda operations in Pakistan. Relative to other courses of action, drone strikes do offer the better possibility for reducing civilian deaths. The highest estimates by the Bureau of Investigative Journalists show civilians as making up around 20 percent of those left dead by drone strikes in Pakistan, compared to ground actions by the Pakistani military upped the figure to 46 percent.

Drones are far from a silver bullet to the national security threats that face our country or a technology that we should necessarily pride ourselves on. But they are effective tools in our arsenal and offer better solutions than anything else; that the Obama administration has used them recklessly at times is not an indictment against drones strikes themselves. Instead of criticizing drones, we must push for changes that will help us use this foreign policy tool more carefully, more responsibly, and more effectively.

One such solution is to transfer jurisdiction of the drone program from the CIA to the Department of Defense. The CIA’s authority over drones is a relic of a time when drones were used for intelligence gathering, and its lack of accountability perpetuates poor decision-making. Combat drones are now used as cruise missiles were, meaning that the program belongs inside the DOD, under adequate legal supervision. Further, we can make fewer, more effective strikes by increasing legal oversight of the program. The success of Foreign Intelligence Security Act courts for wiretap surveillance suggests that oversight could work as a legal mechanism. One possibility, supported by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, is a secret court of federal judges that can quickly review and authorize strikes. Another option is to have DOJ lawyers present throughout the decision-making process.

A system of checks and balances can help us make smarter strikes and reduce collateral damage, decreasing the toll to our prestige abroad. Only by placing safeguards on the drone program can we turn our least-worst option into our best option.

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