Target Window

Time for President Obama to reform drone policy.

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.

Similarly mounting opposition to U.S. drone strikes is already apparent. Between February and June 2012, U.S. support for drone strikes fell from 83 percent to 62 percent -- less support than enhanced interrogation techniques received in the mid-2000s. At the same time, there is overwhelming international opposition to U.S. drone strikes that could lead to the end of U.S. access to regional airbases, overflight rights, and overt or tacit host nation support, all of which are critical to conducting drone strikes. Just as the U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships were kicked out of Ethiopia in 2007 and the CIA drone fleet was evicted from Pakistan in 2011, this could happen elsewhere. Alternatively, the United States may not receive permission from any southern European or northern African state to conduct drone strikes against, say, Mali. This would severely limit the geographic reach of drones, as it will be another seven to ten years before the United States is flying armed drones off carriers.

Third, the United States is the unrivaled leader in using armed drones. Other than Israel -- which overwhelmingly uses manned aircraft -- in the Gaza Strip and the United Kingdom in the traditional battlefield of Afghanistan, the United States is the only state to conduct drone strikes on the sovereign territory of another state. If the United States hopes to have normative influence on how others use drones -- and administration officials repeatedly claim that they do -- then U.S. leadership must provide a legal framework, a coherent and plausible explanation of the scope of legitimate targets, and a rationale for how targeted killings are coordinated with broader foreign policy objectives. The problem is that the administration's public articulation of its drone strike policies -- used only against specific senior al Qaeda officials who pose an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland -- are fundamentally at odds with how they are actually employed, such as the use of signature strikes against suspected militants predominantly engaged in domestic insurgencies.

To address these issues, the Obama administration should bring its drone strike practices in line with its stated policies by: exclusively limiting its targeted killings to the leadership of al Qaeda or those with a direct operational role in past or ongoing terrorist plots; immediately ending the practice of signature strikes, or publically explaining how they plausibly meet the principles of distinction and proportionality; and reviewing the current policy whereby the executive authority for drone strikes is split between the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command, which have different legal authorities, degrees of permissible transparency, and oversight.

There is intense interest in drone strikes on Capitol Hill from virtually everyone except senior members in both parties who possess the authority to convene hearings. Nevertheless, the relevant congressional committees should hold hearings to examine how drone strikes are coordinated with broader foreign policy objectives; discuss the short- and long-term effects of U.S. targeted killings with government officials and nongovernmental experts; and assess the geographic and temporal limits of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and the legal justifications for targeted killings of U.S. citizens. At a minimum, professional staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees should receive general briefings about drone strikes and other targeted killings that occur in countries and regions that they oversee. They have repeatedly requested such briefings -- and even threatened to withhold funding -- but the White House has steadfastly refused.

President Obama's second term provides a narrow window for his administration to pursue politically or diplomatically sensitive issues. Many hope that Obama will accelerate the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan, close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, or push for Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea and Comprehensive Test Ban treaties. While the Obama administration did not initiate the controversial practice of drone strikes of suspected terrorists, or signature strikes against anonymous "military-age males," it is vastly expanding the scope and intensity of such operations. Consequently, the administration has a responsibility to capitalize on the opportunity to significantly reform its drone strike policies.

A leading proponent for more transparent and defensible targeted killings policies was White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, nominated yesterday to be the next CIA director. Since he will be unable to lead or oversee any U.S. government-wide reforms in armed drones from the covert world at Langley, it must be a personal priority for President Obama. Either the Obama administration proactively shapes U.S. and international use of armed drones through transparency, self-restraint, and engagement, or it continues with its current policies and risks the consequences -- a world characterized by the proliferation of armed drones used with little transparency or constraint in which targeted killings occur with impunity against anyone deemed an "enemy."

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

National Security

Nudging the President

Splitting the difference is no way to win a war.

If you clicked on a link to read this column, you were likely influenced by a combination of factors: the title (often misleading or sensationalist), an accompanying picture (I bet someone in a uniform), where it appeared on the FP homepage (top is better than bottom), or how it was described in a tweet (short and pithy helps). Advertisers, psychologists, and behavioral economists have long been aware that the social construction of options influences both the choices of decision-makers and their outcomes. Because it is impossible to make decisions in a vacuum, free from external influences, we rely on shortcuts like recommendations from friends, historical precedents, name recognition, or simply cool pictures.

How choices are framed for decision-makers can have negative or positive repercussions -- assuming that the person has some ranking of values or preferences. In their landmark 1981 paper, "The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice," psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman presented social science experiments that found people reversed their preferences based on manipulative "variations in the framing of acts, contingencies, and outcomes." In the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein endorsed the role of "choice architects," engaged in libertarian paternalism that preference certain decisions by, for example, arranging healthy foods prominently at eye level in a school cafeteria to make it more likely children choose to eat them.

And in one memorable scene from The Simpsons movie, Environmental Protection Agency chief Russ Cargill lays out five folders (labeled one to five) on the desk of "President Schwarzenegger" in the Oval Office. He tells the commander-in-chief: "Well, I've narrowed your choices down to five unthinkable options."

Schwarzenegger: Ok, I pick 3! 
Cargill: Try again. 
Schwarzenegger: 1! 
Cargill: Go higher. 
Schwarzenegger: 5? 
Cargill: Too high. 
Schwarzenegger: 3? 
Cargill: You already said 3. 
Schwarzenegger: 6? 
Cargill: There is no 6. 
Schwarzenegger: 2? 
Cargill: Double it. 
Schwarzenegger: 4! 
Cargill: As you wish, sir. 

Although national security discussions are (hopefully) taken more seriously than the Simpsons would convey, such cartoon satire does have a kernel of truth in how decisions are framed to the president and/or secretary of defense -- collectively, the national command authority permitted by U.S. law to authorize the use of military force. Similar to everyday choices like which brand of cereal to buy, how senior military officials present and characterize military options strongly influences policymakers' decisions.

Recent history is rife with examples of this phenomenon. According to David Halberstam, in the George H.W. Bush and early Clinton administrations, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell "would show his lack of enthusiasm by giving [senior civilians] a high estimate, and they would quickly back off. The figure never went under two-hundred thousand troops." Largely as a result of how the choices were framed, the proposed massive ground presence was never seriously considered by civilian officials, who summarily dismissed it as "the usual two-division, $2 billion option."

In August 1992, the Senate Armed Services Committee requested testimony from a senior official from the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a hearing on Bosnia. There was zero appetite among the Joint Chiefs to get involved militarily in Bosnia, and Powell directed his principal military assistant, Lieutenant General Barry McCaffrey, to convey this to the committee. To prepare, McCaffrey drafted his presentation and slides sans approval from the Office of the Secretary of Defense or the White House. When committee senators asked what force level would be required to end the violence in Bosnia, McCaffrey replied, "It would be around 400,000 troops." According to McCaffrey, Powell later asked, "Where the f#&k did you get those numbers?" He replied, "I made them up, based on my understanding of the parties and the situation." Nevertheless, the anchoring effect of the highball estimate ultimately succeeded in shelving the ground presence option.

In fall 1998, the White House tasked the Pentagon with developing options for halting the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. In return, the Pentagon estimated a requisite deployment of 175,000 to 200,000 NATO troops. As a senior administration official stated: "The numbers came in high. No one said yes, no one said no; it was taken off the table...It was a complete eye-roller." When the White House reconsidered ground options in Serbia after three months of air war, the initial proposal effectively prevented any serious debate, since "there was only one option by then that the Joint Chiefs would support."

At the same time, during Clinton administration debates over whether to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, senior civilian officials believed that military leaders were intentionally oversizing the options on the table. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger stated flatly: "[The military] didn't want to do it [attack al Qaeda]...There was just no enthusiasm and creativity." His deputy, James Steinberg, recalled that the civilian advisors "were not at all happy with the military's options for going after Bin Laden." Meanwhile, Vice Admiral Scott Fry, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1998 to 2000 and the man who often presented such options, argued, "We could never impress upon the civilians in the National Security Council how far Afghanistan was from a staging base or carrier group."

Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, debates over force levels spilled over into the public sphere. After Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki testified that a post-war occupying force would require "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers," Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz immediately dismissed the estimate as "wildly off the mark." Campaign planners found subsequent proposed options silently rejected by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with no explanation or "force caps" (a ceiling for permitted ground troops) beyond "rework the plan." As a result, the size of the U.S. ground invasion of Iraq shrank substantially and -- combined with inadequate post-conflict stabilization planning -- ultimately played a role in the emergence of the insurgency.

In 2005, CIA and special operations teams in northern Pakistan developed intelligence that provided "80 percent confidence" about the future location of senior members of al Qaeda, including Ayman al-Zawahiri. Over time, the plan to kill or capture these militants grew to include somewhere between 150 to several hundred special operators and CIA operatives. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called off the raid at the last moment because of its unwieldy size and less than 100 percent guaranteed actionable intelligence.

(Six years later, President Obama would authorize the raid that killed Osama bin Laden with fewer U.S. special operators (79 and a dog), less certainty that the al Qaeda leader would be in Abbottabad ("50-50"), and significantly farther into Pakistani territory (100 miles). However, although Obama is lauded for authorizing the operation, it was probably less politically risky than Rumsfeld's decision, largely because Special Operations Command (SOCOM) had dramatically improved and routinized such raids. As Admiral William McRaven described the killing of bin Laden: "We did 11 other raids much like that in Afghanistan that night. From a military standpoint, this was a standard raid and really not very sexy.")

In fall 2009, over the course of three months, the Obama administration debated how many additional U.S. troops to deploy as part of an Afghanistan "surge." The military reportedly developed options between 40,000 and 80,000 troops, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, regional combatant commander General David Petraeus, and commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal coalesced around the lower end of the spectrum. Vice President Joseph Biden and Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel sought a smaller and cheaper option of no more than 20,000 troops focused on conducting counterterrorism missions. According to journalist Steve Luxenburg: "In the end, Obama essentially designed his own strategy for the 30,000 troops, which some aides considered a compromise." When military officials repeatedly attempted to add forces, much to the president's frustration ("Why do we keep having these meetings?" he asked an aide), he personally wrote a six-page "terms sheet" that limited the size and scope of U.S. forces and operations in Afghanistan.

As many of these examples suggest, civilian officials are often deeply ignorant of the factors that limit military effectiveness like geography, logistical demands, actionable intelligence, or adversarial strategy. Meanwhile, the perspective of many senior uniformed officials was best described by Richard Betts thirty-five years ago: "The military's natural professional impulse is toward worst-case contingency planning for any conceivable disaster." One way to limit worst-case contingencies is to "plus-up" the force package. "War is not a game to be won 6 to 5. You want to win 21 to 0," as another director of operations on the Joint Staff told me in an interview.

In his excellent book, Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations, Peter Feaver analyzed the principal-agent problem, which argues that civilian principals have the authority and military agents have the expertise. The belief that military planners provide inflated estimates of the forces required to achieve an objective is an example of what Feaver terms "shirking" -- something that undermines the ability of civilians to make future decisions. This includes generals dissuading the active consideration of certain options or intimidating mid-level civilians under the guise of merely offering their "best military advice."

To bridge the gap between relatively uninformed civilian principals and expert military agents, trust must be built through the back-and-forth bargaining process that develops and hones military options. When senior military officials perceive that their civilian bosses are unfocused, unserious, or unaware of the costs associated with using force, they are less likely to develop creative (and risky) options, resulting in "oversized options" that render any use of force politically impossible. Similarly, when civilian officials sense that the military is reticent or inflexible, or refusing to accept that the White House wants to "do something" -- assuming reasonable risks and costs -- military planning suffers. While there is no "correct" number for the forces required for a campaign or mission, it is only through trust and dialogue that strategy -- the combination of military and non-military means to achieve an outcome -- are generally successful.

The framing of military options remains particularly relevant today as the United States considers what force levels to keep in Afghanistan after 2014 -- assuming permission from Kabul. As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, U.S. officials noted that "preliminary military recommendations" include maintaining "6,000 to 15,000 troops for training and counterterrorism missions" in Afghanistan, and that "senior U.S. officials said they expected the president to authorize up to 10,000" -- roughly splitting the difference, just as he did three years ago.