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.