The first time I saw what a Predator drone could do was in 2000 when I worked part-time in the Office of Policy Planning at the State Department. On the clunky desktop computer, if someone (not me, of course) was bored or curious, they could watch the full-motion video footage from the Predators hovering over the Kosovo area of Serbia, where they were monitoring the implementation of the NATO-Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Republic of Serbia Military Technical Agreement. With its narrow field of vision provided by those early electro-optical sensors, it was like seeing a battlefield through a soda straw. However, the monotonous mission of tracking Serbian combat troop movements was ideal for a robot.
What I did not know was that at the same time -- frustrated by the four to six hours required to find and target Osama bin Laden with cruise missiles -- the National Security Council had issued a January 2000 memorandum calling for new methods to locate and track the al Qaeda leader. An interagency team -- including the NSC's counterterrorism shop, the Joint Staff's director of operations, the CIA's counterterrorism center, and various Air Force components -- successfully mated a Hellfire II "tank-buster" missile that had previously been launched from the Army's Apache helicopter gunships to a drone. In February 2001, a Predator drone conducted its first strike at a secret Air Force testing range. Nine months later, a drone strike killed Mohammed Atef, a top al Qaeda military commander, in Afghanistan. On November 3, 2002, Abu Ali al-Harithi, an al Qaeda operational planner, was targeted and killed by a drone in Yemen, along with five others. Since then, there have been over 400 targeted killings in the non-battlefield settings of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia -- over 95 percent of which have been executed by drones.
I have written plenty about "discrete military operations" -- which prominently feature drone strikes -- for a dissertation, book, and various shorter pieces over the past five years. To compile and summarize what steps the Obama administration should take with regards to its use of armed drones in non-battlefield settings, I spent the past six months researching and writing a new report for the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action: Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies. The report was informed by over five dozen interviews with current and former U.S. officials, as well as a remarkable advisory committee that included former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Gen. Stanley McChrystal, civilian protection advocate Sarah Holewinski, Harvard professor Joseph Nye, and George W. Bush administration NSC and State Department legal advisor John Bellinger III.
The good news is that, unlike his predecessor, President Obama has repeatedly raised concerns about U.S. drone strike policies and their potential long-term impact on emerging drone powers. (The White House also reportedly worried about how a President Mitt Romney would use drones.) Unfortunately, his administration has not yet publically addressed those concerns, or taken corrective actions, although there is an ongoing intra-administration debate about if and how this process could occur. My report attempts to fill this void by describing why U.S. drone strikes in non-battlefield settings matter, and how the Obama administration should reform their use.
First, drones have inherent advantages over other lethal weapons systems, which is why they are almost exclusively used by the United States in non-battlefield targeted killings. Whenever I spoke with military and intelligence officials, the first, second, and third issue they raised was drones' persistence, or ability to loiter -- often in conjunction with multiple drones -- over a prospective target for a virtually unlimited period of time. As one senior CIA official mentioned with slight exaggeration: "With enough drones we can watch some compound in the tribal areas [in Pakistan] forever. And sometimes we do." Drones also collapse the "find-fix-finish" timeline required by cruise missiles from over four hours to seconds. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, unmanned platforms carry zero risk for pilots or troops on the ground. Together, these advantages are not lost on foreign officials, who routinely acknowledge their desire for their own fleet of armed drones.
Second, current and former administration officials worry that U.S. drone strikes could face operational limits due to domestic or international pressure. For example, the Bush administration engaged in the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects to third-party countries, torture, and warrantless wiretapping. Although the Bush administration defended all of these tactics as essential to protecting the U.S. homeland, domestic political pressure ultimately led to significant reforms or termination.