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The 3:00 AM Call

Why aren't we asking Hagel about the stuff the SecDef actually does?

President Obama's nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel to replace Leon Panetta as the secretary of defense led to an outcry from a number of Beltway mind-readers who have apparently mastered Hagel's positions on Iran (too soft), gay diplomats (too hard), and Israel (too anti). Opposing these clairvoyants are pundits claiming that it does not matter who Obama nominates as his secretary of defense, since policymaking will be concentrated in the White House regardless. The White House has promoted this notion, with Obama's spokesperson Jay Carney stating: "Sen. Hagel's records on those issues (Israel and Iran) and so many others demonstrated that he is in sync with the president's policies."

Missing from the peanut gallery is any substantive discussion of the secretary of defense's statutory and customary role in the use of U.S. military power. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution declares the president "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy," which gives him the ultimate authority for decisions to go to war, or to conduct high-risk military operations -- like the Mayaguez Incident in 1975 or the Osama bin Laden raid in 2011. As part of the "National Command Authority," however, defense secretaries also play a critical role in decisions to use force. These decisions include approving troops and supplies in support of ongoing wars and authorizing imminent military operations.

These oft-overlooked responsibilities are particularly relevant to Hagel's upcoming confirmation hearings, since the United States faces a "period of persistent conflict" requiring the secretary of defense to make important decisions about how and where the U.S. military is deployed and used. Consider a few illustrative examples of such judgment in recent history.

In November 1983, President Reagan approved a joint U.S.-French air raid against a Hezbollah barracks in the Baalbek Valley in Lebanon in retaliation for attacks against U.S. forces deployed around Beirut. Secretary Caspar Weinberger -- for reasons that remain unclear -- refused to give the authorization order to the Sixth Fleet commander permitting the aircraft to leave their flight decks. When briefed on what happened (or, in this case, did not happen), President Reagan responded: "That's terrible. We should have blown the daylights out of them. I just don't understand." However, Reagan never demanded an explanation from Weinberger or disciplined him in any way.

In April 1988, a submerged naval mine in the Persian Gulf -- determined by the Pentagon to have been implanted by Iran -- tore a 22-foot hole in the hull of the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts. In response, Reagan authorized "Operation Praying Mantis" -- retaliatory raids on two oil platforms used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy for surveillance. The explicit rules of engagement permitted the U.S. military to attack any Iranian military assets attempting to stop the raids. In the brief and one-sided engagement that followed, Iran lost half of its navy. In the aftermath, as a damaged Iranian frigate Sabalan was being towed back to the port of Bandar Abbas, the pilot of a U.S. Navy A-6E attack aircraft requested permission to destroy. Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci heard this request while monitoring the Pentagon's National Military Command Center radio communications. Carlucci ordered the Sabalan to be spared, deeming that the devastating earlier encounters were commensurate with the president's wishes.

In September 1993, Major General Thomas M. Montgomery, deputy commander of the United Nations forces in Somalia, requested tanks and armored vehicles to protect humanitarian supply convoys from attacks by militia groups. Secretary Les Aspin refused to authorize their deployment because the White House and Congress wanted to prevent an expanded military role in Somalia. Three days before stepping down as chairman of the joint chiefs, General Colin Powell asked Aspin to reconsider, to which he replied: "It ain't gonna happen." That decision was revisited after the "Black Hawk Down" tragedy cost the lives of 18 U.S. servicemembers (and between 500 and 1,000 Somalis), as some claimed that armor could have saved those American lives -- though the commander of the ill-fated raid asserted that he might not have used it anyway.

In 2005, CIA and Special Operations teams in northern Pakistan developed intelligence giving them "80 percent confidence" about the future location of senior al Qaeda official Ayman al-Zawahiri. A concept of operations was proposed in which 30 Navy SEALs would parasail 30 miles from Afghanistan to a Pakistan staging area, where they would attempt to kill or capture the suspected terrorist. Shortly before the operation was scheduled to commence, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it off due to concerns that it was too great a risk and would exacerbate diplomatic tensions with Pakistan. Though the raid was supported by CIA Director Porter Goss and Special Operations Commander Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, Rumsfeld exercised his authority to make the final call.

Several of the senators who will vote on Hagel's nomination say they want answers to their specific policy questions, or more generally to "better understand his worldview." However, in both the written "advance policy questions" and the confirmation hearings, senators rarely ask candidates about their view on the proper role and utility of using military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives. Far more often than the examples listed above, secretaries of defense are called upon to make decisions about how military forces are deployed or used, in ways that require the wisdom and judgment to weigh competing interests.

Based largely upon his combat experiences in Vietnam, Hagel has indicated that he supports the use of force as a last resort, but only in a manner that is "wise and smart." This suggests that when his phone rings at 3:00 a.m. and he must decide to send troops into harm's way, or authorize airstrikes, he -- like many of his predecessors -- would say no. Such restraint based upon his unique understanding of the inherent limits of military force would not be a bad thing.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

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."

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