“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.