A slim aircraft glided through Israeli airspace, maintaining low altitude and taking a winding path to avoid detection. It flew over sensitive military installations and was beginning its approach to the Dimona nuclear reactor when it was blown from the sky by the Israel Defense Forces. The plane was pilotless, directed by agents elsewhere, and had been attempting to relay images back home. Whether they were successfully transmitted, Israelis won’t say, perhaps because they don’t know. But here’s what’s certain: It wasn’t American. It wasn’t Russian or Chinese. It was an Iranian drone, assembled in Lebanon and flown by Hezbollah.
The proliferation of drone technology has moved well beyond the control of the United States government and its closest allies. The aircraft are too easy to obtain, with barriers to entry on the production side crumbling too quickly to place limits on the spread of a technology that promises to transform warfare on a global scale. Already, more than 75 countries have remote piloted aircraft. More than 50 nations are building a total of nearly a thousand types. At its last display at a trade show in Beijing, China showed off 25 different unmanned aerial vehicles. Not toys or models, but real flying machines.
It’s a classic and common phase in the life cycle of a military innovation: An advanced country and its weapons developers create a tool, and then others learn how to make their own. But what makes this case rare, and dangerous, is the powerful combination of efficiency and lethality spreading in an environment lacking internationally accepted guidelines on legitimate use. This technology is snowballing through a global arena where the main precedent for its application is the one set by the United States; it’s a precedent Washington does not want anyone following.
America, the world’s leading democracy and a country built on a legal and moral framework unlike any other, has adopted a war-making process that too often bypasses its traditional, regimented, and rigorously overseen military in favor of a secret program never publicly discussed, based on legal advice never properly vetted. The Obama administration has used its executive power to refuse or outright ignore requests by congressional overseers, and it has resisted monitoring by federal courts.
To implement this covert program, the administration has adopted a tool that lowers the threshold for lethal force by reducing the cost and risk of combat. This still-expanding counterterrorism use of drones to kill people, including its own citizens, outside of traditionally defined battlefields and established protocols for warfare, has given friends and foes a green light to employ these aircraft in extraterritorial operations that could not only affect relations between the nation-states involved but also destabilize entire regions and potentially upset geopolitical order.
“I don’t think there is enough transparency and justification so that we remove not the secrecy, but the mystery of these things.”—Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence
Hyperbole? Consider this: Iran, with the approval of Damascus, carries out a lethal strike on anti-Syrian forces inside Syria; Russia picks off militants tampering with oil and gas lines in Ukraine or Georgia; Turkey arms a U.S.-provided Predator to kill Kurdish militants in northern Iraq who it believes are planning attacks along the border. Label the targets as terrorists, and in each case, Tehran, Moscow, and Ankara may point toward Washington and say, we learned it by watching you. In Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
This is the unintended consequence of American drone warfare. For all of the attention paid to the drone program in recent weeks—about Americans on the target list (there are none at this writing) and the executive branch’s legal authority to kill by drone outside war zones (thin, by officials’ own private admission)—what goes undiscussed is Washington’s deliberate failure to establish clear and demonstrable rules for itself that would at minimum create a globally relevant standard for delineating between legitimate and rogue uses of one of the most awesome military robotics capabilities of this generation.
THE WRONG QUESTION
The United States is the indisputable leader in drone technology and long-range strike. Remote-piloted aircraft have given Washington an extraordinary ability to wage war with far greater precision, improved effect, and fewer unintended casualties than conventional warfare. The drones allow U.S. forces to establish ever greater control over combat areas, and the Pentagon sees the technology as an efficient and judicious force of the future. And it should, given the billions of dollars that have gone into establishing and maintaining such a capability.
That level of superiority leads some national security officials to downplay concerns about other nations’ unmanned systems and to too narrowly define potential threats to the homeland. As proof, they argue that American dominance in drone warfare is due only in part to the aircraft itself, which offers the ability to travel great distances and loiter for long periods, not to mention carry and launch Hellfire missiles. The drone itself, they argue, is just a tool and, yes, one that is being copied aggressively by allies and adversaries alike. The real edge, they say, is in the unparalleled intelligence-collection and data-analysis underpinning the aircraft’s mission.
“There is what I think is just an unconstrained focus on a tool as opposed to the subject of the issue, the tool of remotely piloted aircraft that in fact provide for greater degrees of surety before you employ force than anything else we use,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. “I think people don’t realize that for the medium altitude aircraft—the MQ-1 [Predator] and MQ-9 [Reaper] that are generally written about in the press—there are over 200 people involved in just one orbit of those aircraft.… The majority of those people are analysts who are interpreting the information that’s coming off the sensors on the aircraft.”
The analysts are part of the global architecture that makes precision strikes, and targeted killing, possible. At the front end, obviously, intelligence—military, CIA, and local—inform target decisions. But in as near-real time as technologically possible, intel analysts in Nevada, Texas, Virginia, and other locations watch the data flood in from the aircraft and make calls on what’s happening on target. They monitor the footage, listen to audio, and analyze signals, giving decision-makers time to adjust an operation if the risks (often counted in potential civilian deaths) outweigh the reward (judged by the value of the threat eliminated).
“Is that a shovel or a rifle? Is that a Taliban member or is this a farmer? The way that warfare has advanced is that we are much more exquisite in our ability to discern,” Maj. Gen. Robert Otto, commander of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency, told National Journal at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. “We’re not overhead for 15 minutes with a fighter that’s about to run out of gas, and we have to make a decision. We can orbit long enough to be pretty sure about our target.”
Other countries, groups, and even individuals can and do fly drones. But no state or group has nearly the sophisticated network of intelligence and data analysis that gives the United States its strategic advantage. Although it would be foolish to dismiss the notion that potential U.S. adversaries aspire to attain that type of war-from-afar, pinpoint-strike capability, they have neither the income nor the perceived need to do so.
That’s true, at least today. It’s also irrelevant. Others who employ drones are likely to carry a different agenda, one more concerned with employing a relatively inexpensive and ruthlessly efficient tool to dispatch an enemy close at hand.
“It would be very difficult for them to create the global-strike architecture we have, to have a control cell in Nevada flying a plane over Afghanistan. The reality is that most nations don’t want or need that,” said Peter Singer, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and one of the foremost experts in advanced military technology. “Turkey’s not looking to conduct strikes into the Philippines.... But Turkey is looking to be able to carry out long-duration surveillance and potentially strike inside and right on its border.”
And that’s a NATO ally seeking the capability to conduct missions that would run afoul of U.S. interests in Iraq and the broader Middle East. Already, Beijing says it considered a strike in Myanmar to kill a drug lord wanted in the deaths of Chinese sailors. What happens if China arms one of its remote-piloted planes and strikes Philippine or Indian trawlers in the South China Sea? Or if India uses the aircraft to strike Lashkar-e-Taiba militants near Kashmir?
“We don’t like other states using lethal force outside their borders. It’s destabilizing. It can lead to a sort of wider escalation of violence between two states,” said Micah Zenko, a security policy and drone expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “So the proliferation of drones is not just about the protection of the United States. It’s primarily about the likelihood that other states will increasingly use lethal force outside of their borders.”
LOWERING THE BAR
Governments have covertly killed for ages, whether they maintained an official hit list or not. Before the Obama administration’s “disposition matrix,” Israel was among the best-known examples of a state that engaged, and continues to engage, in strikes to eliminate people identified by its intelligence as plotting attacks against it. But Israel certainly is not alone. Turkey has killed Kurds in Northern Iraq. Some American security experts point to Russia as well, although Moscow disputes this.
In the 1960s, the U.S. government was involved to differing levels in plots to assassinate leaders in Congo and the Dominican Republic, and, famously, Fidel Castro in Cuba. The Church Committee’s investigation and subsequent 1975 report on those and other suspected plots led to the standing U.S. ban on assassination. So, from 1976 until the start of President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” the United States did not conduct targeted killings, because it was considered anathema to American foreign policy. (In fact, until as late as 2001, Washington’s stated policy was to oppose Israel’s targeted killings.)
When America adopted targeted killing again—first under the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks and then expanded by President Obama—the tools of the trade had changed. No longer was the CIA sending poison, pistols, and toxic cigars to assets overseas to kill enemy leaders. Now it could target people throughout al-Qaida’s hierarchy with accuracy, deliver lethal ordnance literally around the world, and watch the mission’s completion in real time.
The United States is smartly using technology to improve combat efficacy, and to make war-fighting more efficient, both in money and manpower. It has been able to conduct more than 400 lethal strikes, killing more than 3,500 people, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa using drones; reducing risk to U.S. personnel; and giving the Pentagon flexibility to use special-forces units elsewhere. And, no matter what human-rights groups say, it’s clear that drone use has reduced the number of civilians killed in combat relative to earlier conflicts. Washington would be foolish not to exploit unmanned aircraft in its long fight against terrorism. In fact, defense hawks and spendthrifts alike would criticize it if it did not.
“If you believe that these folks are legitimate terrorists who are committing acts of aggressive, potential violent acts against the United States or our allies or our citizens overseas, should it matter how we choose to engage in the self-defense of the United States?” asked Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “Do we have that debate when a special-forces team goes in? Do we have that debate if a tank round does it? Do we have the debate if an aircraft pilot drops a particular bomb?”
But defense analysts argue—and military officials concede—there is a qualitative difference between dropping a team of men into Yemen and green-lighting a Predator flight from Nevada. Drones lower the threshold for military action. That’s why, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, unmanned aircraft have conducted 95 percent of all U.S. targeted killings. Almost certainly, if drones were unavailable, the United States would not have pursued an equivalent number of manned strikes in Pakistan.
And what’s true for the United States will be true as well for other countries that own and arm remote piloted aircraft.
“The drones—the responsiveness, the persistence, and without putting your personnel at risk—is what makes it a different technology,” Zenko said. “When other states have this technology, if they follow U.S. practice, it will lower the threshold for their uses of lethal force outside their borders. So they will be more likely to conduct targeted killings than they have in the past.”
The Obama administration appears to be aware of and concerned about setting precedents through its targeted-strike program. When the development of a disposition matrix to catalog both targets and resources marshaled against the United States was first reported in 2012, officials spoke about it in part as an effort to create a standardized process that would live beyond the current administration, underscoring the long duration of the counterterrorism challenge.
Indeed, the president’s legal and security advisers have put considerable effort into establishing rules to govern the program. Most members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees say they are confident the defense and intelligence communities have set an adequate evidentiary bar for determining when a member of al-Qaida or an affiliated group may be added to the target list, for example, and say that the rigor of the process gives them comfort in the level of program oversight within the executive branch. “They’re not drawing names out of a hat here,” Rogers said. “It is very specific intel-gathering and other things that would lead somebody to be subject for an engagement by the United States government.”
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
The argument against public debate is easy enough to understand: Operational secrecy is necessary, and total opacity is easier. “I don’t think there is enough transparency and justification so that we remove not the secrecy, but the mystery of these things,” said Dennis Blair, Obama’s former director of national intelligence. “The reason it’s not been undertaken by the administration is that they just make a cold-blooded calculation that it’s better to hunker down and take the criticism than it is to get into the public debate, which is going to be a hard one to win.”
“Consistently, nations have gone down the pathway of first only surveillance and then arming.”—Peter Singer, Brookings Institution
But by keeping legal and policy positions secret, only partially sharing information even with congressional oversight committees, and declining to open a public discussion about drone use, the president and his team are asking the world to just trust that America is getting this right. While some will, many people, especially outside the United States, will see that approach as hypocritical, coming from a government that calls for transparency and the rule of law elsewhere.
“I know these people, and I know how much they really, really attend to the most important details of the job,” said Barry Pavel, a former defense and security official in the Bush and Obama administrations who is director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. “If I didn’t have that personal knowledge and because there isn’t that much really in the press, then I would be giving you a different rendering, and much more uncertain rendering.”
That’s only part of the problem with the White House’s trust-us approach. The other resides in the vast distance between the criteria and authorization the administration says it uses in the combat drone program and the reality on the ground. For example, according to administration officials, before a person is added to the targeted strike list, specific criteria should be met. The target should be a 1) senior, 2) operational 3) leader of al-Qaida or an affiliated group who presents 4) an imminent threat of violent attack 5) against the United States.
But that’s not who is being targeted.
Setting aside the administration’s redefining of “imminence” beyond all recognition, the majority of the 3,500-plus people killed by U.S. drones worldwide were not leaders of al-Qaida or the Taliban; they were low- or mid-level foot soldiers. Most were not plotting attacks against the United States. In Yemen and North Africa, the Obama administration is deploying weaponized drones to take out targets who are more of a threat to local governments than to Washington, according to defense and regional security experts who closely track unrest in those areas. In some cases, Washington appears to be in the business of using its drone capabilities mostly to assist other countries, not to deter strikes against the United States (another precedent that might be eagerly seized upon in the future).
U.S. defense and intelligence officials reject any suggestion that the targets are not legitimate. One thing they do not contest, however, is that the administration’s reliance on the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force as legal cover for a drone-strike program that has extended well beyond al-Qaida in Afghanistan or Pakistan is dodgy. The threat that the United States is trying to deal with today has an ever more tenuous connection to Sept. 11. (None of the intelligence officials reached for this article would speak on the record.) But instead of asking Congress to consider extending its authorization, as some officials have mulled, the administration’s legal counsel has chosen instead to rely on Nixon administration adviser John Stevenson’s 1970 justification of the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, an action new Secretary of State John Kerry criticized during his confirmation hearing this year.
Human-rights groups might be loudest in their criticism of both the program and the opaque policy surrounding it, but even the few lawmakers who have access to the intelligence the administration shares have a hard time coping with the dearth of information. “We can’t always assume we’re going to have responsible people with whom we agree and trust in these positions,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The essence of the Constitution is, it shouldn’t matter who is in charge; they’re still constrained by principles and rules of the Constitution and of the Bill of Rights.”
Obama promised in his 2013 State of the Union to increase the drone program’s transparency. “In the months ahead, I will continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world,” the president said on Feb. 12. Since then, the administration, under pressure from allies on Senate Intelligence, agreed to release all of the legal memos the Justice Department drafted in support of targeted killing.
But, beyond that, it’s not certain Obama will do anything more to shine light on this program. Except in situations where leaks help it tell a politically expedient story of its skill at killing bad guys, the administration has done little to make a case to the public and the world at large for its use of armed drones.
Already, what’s become apparent is that the White House is not interested in changing much about the way it communicates strike policy. (It took Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan’s nomination to force the administration to concede that it doesn’t have the right to use drones to kill noncombatant Americans on U.S. soil.) And government officials, as well as their surrogates on security issues, are actively trying to squash expectations that the administration would agree to bring the judicial branch into the oversight mix. Indeed, judicial review of any piece of the program is largely off the table now, according to intelligence officials and committee members.
Under discussion within the administration and on Capitol Hill is a potential program takeover by the Pentagon, removing the CIA from its post-9/11 role of executing military-like strikes. Ostensibly, that shift could help lift the secret-by-association-with-CIA attribute of the program that some officials say has kept them from more freely talking about the legitimate military use of drones for counterterrorism operations. But such a fix would provide no guarantee of greater transparency for the public, or even Congress.
And if the administration is not willing to share with lawmakers who are security-cleared to know, it certainly is not prepared to engage in a sensitive discussion, even among allies, that might begin to set the rules on use for a technology that could upend stability in already fragile and strategically significant places around the globe. Time is running out to do so.
“They’re not drawing names out of a hat here.”—Mike Rogers, chairman, House Intelligence Committee
“The history of technology development like this is, you never maintain your lead very long. Somebody always gets it,” said David Berteau, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re going to become cheaper. They’re going to become easier. They’re going to become interoperable,” he said. “The destabilizing effects are very, very serious.”
Berteau is not alone. Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations, has urged officials to quickly establish norms. Singer, at Brookings, argues that the window of opportunity for the United States to create stability-supporting precedent is quickly closing. The problem is, the administration is not thinking far enough down the line, according to a Senate Intelligence aide. Administration officials “are thinking about the next four years, and we’re thinking about the next 40 years. And those two different angles on this question are why you see them in conflict right now.”
That’s in part a symptom of the “technological optimism” that often plagues the U.S. security community when it establishes a lead over its competitors, noted Georgetown University’s Kai-Henrik Barth. After the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States was sure it would be decades before the Soviets developed a nuclear-weapon capability. It took four years.
With drones, the question is how long before the dozens of states with the aircraft can arm and then operate a weaponized version. “Pretty much every nation has gone down the pathway of, ‘This is science fiction; we don’t want this stuff,’ to, ‘OK, we want them, but we’ll just use them for surveillance,’ to, ‘Hmm, they’re really useful when you see the bad guy and can do something about it, so we’ll arm them,’ ” Singer said. He listed the countries that have gone that route: the United States, Britain, Italy, Germany, China. “Consistently, nations have gone down the pathway of first only surveillance and then arming.”
The opportunity to write rules that might at least guide, if not restrain, the world’s view of acceptable drone use remains, not least because this is in essence a conventional arms-control issue. The international Missile Technology Control Regime attempts to restrict exports of unmanned vehicles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction, but it is voluntary and nonbinding, and it’s under attack by the drone industry as a drag on business. Further, the technology itself, especially when coupled with data and real-time analytics, offers the luxury of time and distance that could allow officials to raise the evidentiary bar for strikes—to be closer to certain that their target is the right one.
But even without raising standards, tightening up drone-specific restrictions in the standing control regime, or creating a new control agreement (which is never easy to pull off absent a bad-state actor threatening attack), just the process of lining up U.S. policy with U.S. practice would go a long way toward establishing the kind of precedent on use of this technology that America—in five, 10, or 15 years—might find helpful in arguing against another’s actions.
A not-insignificant faction of U.S. defense and intelligence experts, Dennis Blair among them, thinks norms play little to no role in global security. And they have evidence in support. The missile-technology regime, for example, might be credited with slowing some program development, but it certainly has not stopped non-signatories—North Korea and Iran—from buying, building, and selling missile systems. But norms established by technology-leading countries, even when not written into legal agreements among nations, have shown success in containing the use and spread of some weapons, including land mines, blinding lasers, and nuclear bombs.
Arguably more significant than spotty legal regimes, however, is the behavior of the United States. “History shows that how states adopt and use new military capabilities is often influenced by how other states have—or have not—used them in the past,” Zenko argued. Despite the legal and policy complexity of this issue, it is something the American people have, if slowly, come to care about. Given the attention that Rand Paul’s filibuster garnered, it is not inconceivable that public pressure on drone operations could force the kind of unforeseen change to U.S. policy that it did most recently on “enhanced interrogation” of terrorists.
The case against open, transparent rule-making is that it might only hamstring American options while doing little good elsewhere—as if other countries aren’t closely watching this debate and taking notes for their own future policymaking. But the White House’s refusal to answer questions about its drone use with anything but “no comment” ensures that the rest of the world is free to fill in the blanks where and when it chooses. And the United States will have already surrendered the moment in which it could have provided not just a technical operations manual for other nations but a legal and moral one as well.
This article appears in the March 23, 2013, edition of National Journal as Standard Deviation.