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 appeared in the Saturday, March 23, 2013 edition of National Journal.