This Is Not the Drone Debate We're Looking For

How Rand Paul and company are totally missing the point.

After 10 years of disinterest from policymakers and pundits, and one year of carefully-managed official statements from the Obama administration, there is finally an active debate on the U.S. policy of non-battlefield targeted killings via drones. Suddenly, everyone feels compelled to offer their opinion on drone strikes on political talk shows and in op-eds and congressional hearings. There is just one problem: Little of the public debate discusses the actual conduct of targeted killings, and focuses instead on hypothetical operations. As a result, there is even greater misinformation that distorts, muddies, and distracts from the real issues.

During his 13-hour filibuster, Senator Rand Paul repeatedly asked if President Obama believed he had the constitutional authority to target U.S. citizens within the United States. He specifically mentioned the hypothetical scenario in which Jane Fonda, Kent State protestors, or someone in a café (mentioned 34 times!) could be targeted under the Obama administration's legal framework. While Paul raised several important questions about targeted killings, his focus on such implausible examples obscured the full scope of the drone wars. Of the 3,500 to 4,700 victims, only four were U.S. citizens -- and only one was targeted intentionally. In short, the longest congressional discussion held on targeted killings concentrated on one one-thousandth of the issue.

The following day, John McCain took to the Senate floor to denounce Paul and defend targeted killings in case of contingencies like "Nazis who came ashore on Long Island in World War II" or a "bomb-laden, explosive-laden vehicle headed for a nuclear power plant." These justifications echoed those of Attorney General Eric Holder, who declared domestic drone strikes were reserved for "circumstances like a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001." According to the 9/11 Commission, at around 10:15 a.m. on the morning of September 11, Vice President Dick Cheney told his military aide that Air Force F-16s were authorized to shoot down a civilian airliner (United 93) heading toward Washington, D.C. if the fighter pilots could confirm that it had been hijacked. Since nobody actually contends that the president cannot use force in such an instance, these arguments are emotionally-laden red herrings.

Meanwhile, human rights groups, legal scholars, and columnists are increasingly warning about the prospect of fully autonomous robots, which could conduct lethal strikes without a human being in the decision-making loop. While the U.S. military has long maintained autonomous defensive systems that launch counterbattery fire to suppress artillery and rocket attacks, Pentagon officials have repeatedly stated that there are no plans to develop fully autonomous drones for targeted killing operations. Although there should be clear limits on what decisions are made by robotic sensors and algorithms, this is not an imminent capability that presidents will possess, nor is it a practical near-term concern. Moreover, it is unrelated to the weapons platforms that have been used by the Bush and Obama administrations 420 times and counting.  

Finally, drone defenders stick to the official line of who can be attacked: senior operational leaders of al Qaeda and associates who pose a grave and imminent threat to the United States. This has not been true for almost five years, though the assertion continues to be recycled and widely accepted by policymakers and pundits. In fact, the vast majority of individuals killed by drones were anonymous militants who allegedly threatened coalition forces in Afghanistan or the domestic security forces in Pakistan. According to the New America Foundation, of the estimated 2,426 to 3,969 people killed by CIA drones in Pakistan, only 51 -- or roughly 2 percent -- were reported as "militant leaders."

The reality of U.S. targeted killings is more complex than the unlikely or hypothetical scenarios offered in the past few weeks. For example, there has not been a U.S. targeted killing in Somalia in almost 14 months, since the al Qaeda-affiliated organization al-Shabab was weakened by African Union, Kenyan, and Ethiopian troops deployed throughout the country. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, stated last week that al-Shabab was "significantly weakened in the past year," while James Clapper, the director national intelligence, described it as "largely in retreat." That this relative good news has occurred without the assistance of U.S. cruise missiles or special operations raids holds lessons for confronting extremist militants elsewhere.

At the same time, the CIA's drone strikes in Pakistan have declined from a zenith of 122 in 2010, to 48 in 2012, to 6 so far in 2013. Since 2008, these strikes have primarily focused on suspected militants who threaten U.S. servicemembers with improvised explosive devices, suicide bombs, and small-arms fire across the border in Afghanistan. As additional U.S. troops withdraw, drone strikes that are intended to protect them should also become increasingly rare. Moreover, if Afghanistan exercises its sovereign right to prohibit the United States from using its territory for external military operations -- once a possibility, now increasingly likely -- then the laws of geography and logistics make drone strikes into Pakistan basically impossible. This also assumes that Pakistani officials remain unable to fulfill their repeated pledge of ending U.S. drone strikes -- a pledge first made in January 2006, or 341 strikes ago.

Finally, the number of targeted killings in Yemen against suspected members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and militants fighting an insurgency against the security forces of the regime of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, went from 10 in 2011, to 42 in 2012, to 5 so far in 2013. These are difficult to assess, since reportedly some strikes are conducted by Yemeni and Saudi air forces, and others by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command. The Yemeni government has also claimed responsibility for some U.S. strikes that caused civilian casualties in order to shield the United States from criticism and accountability. Based on conversations with Obama administration officials, whether the current strategy in Yemen is "working" to reduce the threat posed by externally-directed terrorism is one of the most hotly debated questions of U.S. foreign policy.

The overdue public and congressional debates about the Obama administration's targeted killings should be based on how those operations are actually justified and conducted, which is itself based on inconsistencies and unexamined assumptions that deserve close scrutiny. A debate that focuses on drone strikes that have not occurred, that are highly improbable, or that would be conducted with capabilities that do not exist, might get public attention, but it misses the real story.

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National Security

God Bless Bob Woodward

In praise of investigative reporting.

It is the collective practice of policymakers and pundits to diminish the work and impact of journalists as circulation rates decline, revenue streams collapse, and young people increasingly receive foreign news from late night comedy shows. However, information uncovered by journalists has been critical to understanding the use of drones and targeted killings in non-battlefield settings under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Although there are a growing number of thoughtful studies on the legality, morality, efficacy, accuracy, and long-term consequences of targeted killings, it is important to remember that such analysis would be impossible without the considerable leg-work by investigative journalists.

In particular, a handful of journalists have been responsible for many of the important revelations about U.S. targeted killings:

  • Eric Schmitt and David Sanger (2008): Bush first authorized the practice of signature strikes: "Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance."
  • Siobhan Gorman (2009): Before CIA director Leon Panetta shut it down, the agency maintained paramilitary teams to kill or capture high-value suspected terrorists in populated areas where airstrikes could have caused collateral damage.
  • Pir Zubair Shah (2009): The reported practice of "double-tap" drone strikes: "In an initial strike, two missiles hit the compound, killing one person. When people rushed to the scene to rescue the wounded, two more missiles struck, killing eight, the residents said." And Joby Warrick (2011) for reporting CIA strikes against a Mehsud clan funeral procession in South Waziristan.
  • Bob Woodward (2010): The CIA maintains Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams of some 3,000 Afghans: "Without the local informants these teams develop, there would not be good signals intelligence so that the drones would not know where to target."
  • Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman, and Julian Barnes (2012): Obama authorized the Central Intelligence Agency and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to conduct signature strikes in Yemen, which "gives the agencies more leeway to conduct strikes on a wider range of targets, including lower-level fighters whose identities aren't known."
  • Kimberly Dozier (2012): "John Brennan has seized the lead in guiding the debate on which terror leaders will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure to vet both military and CIA targets."
  • Daniel Klaidman (2012): Obama authorized signature strikes in Pakistan and Yemen before he was ever briefed on what they were.
  • Greg Miller (2012): "The Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list called the ‘disposition matrix.'"
  • Ken Dilanian (2012): How the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence executes oversight of CIA drone strikes.

This list is by no means comprehensive. For instance, it does not include the critical work by others like Jane Mayer (2009), who provided the first comprehensive overview of the Obama administration's reliance on drones; Danger Room, which breaks stories and provides critical context to reporting of other journalists on America's secret wars; Jeremy Scahill's on-the-ground reporting from Pakistan (2009), Somalia (2011), and Yemen (2012); and David Rhode (2010), who wrote about the CIA's drone wars from the New York Times bureau in Islamabad, and, while kidnapped and held hostage by Taliban militants for seven months, experienced the impact of drone strikes firsthand, when one struck a few hundred yards from the compound where he was held in South Waziristan.

Like other opaque and evolving U.S. foreign policy activities, these reporters built on the works of one other by enhancing, refining, and eliminating information as new details were exposed. And as the Obama administration vastly increased the scope and intensity of lethal attacks, the reporting kept pace. In her excellent study of drone strikes coverage by five major U.S. publications, Tara McKelvey demonstrated that the number of articles per year nearly doubled between 2009 and November 2012, from 326 to 625.

All of these reporters benefited from journalists, stringers, government employees, activists, and other sources on the ground in the countries where targeted killings take place, providing information and logistics support to Western journalists, often at great personal risk. On a related note, sometimes foreign reporting compels American reporters to redirect their attention to a little-known program; for example, in November 1986 the Lebanese weekly Al-Shiraa first revealed aspects of what would become known as the Iran-Contra scandal. At other times, attentive reporters accidentally learn of covert programs in the public domain, like in April 1984 when Senator Barry Goldwater spontaneously read aloud a classified CIA memo on the Senate floor about the agency's direct role in mining Nicaraguan harbors. Though Goldwater's comments were soon excised from the Congressional Record, reporter David Rogers caught wind of it and wrote the story in the Wall Street Journal.

Since targeted killings are highly classified operations with the lead executive authority split between the CIA and JSOC, some reporting is assuredly incomplete and, at times, factually incorrect. Many current administration and congressional officials vow that some of the allegations I mentioned above are flat-out wrong. A retired senior intelligence official told me that he believed roughly 50 percent of initial reporting on classified programs is erroneous, although the stories become increasingly accurate as affected staffers and officials feel compelled to leak whatever side of the story best represents themselves or their agency; former Pentagon official Douglas Feith described this process as "policy arguments conducted through the press."

One former senior counterterrorism official notes that whenever staffers would propose a clandestine operation that pushed the boundaries of existing policy or legal authorities, he would first require them to include a strategic communications plan for when it inevitably landed on the front page of the Washington Post. It is unclear how seriously this practice was taken given that -- except when the White House and Pentagon have themselves notified sympathetic reporters or editors about a program's existence -- successive administrations have struggled to provide plausible responses or defenses, beyond the habitual non-denial denials. The favored White House tactic is to approve selective leaking by anonymous officials to defend or justify a controversial program. However, these efforts are now immediately scrutinized and dismantled by analysts in the blogosphere who have the institutional memory to place the anonymous comments in their proper context: see Marcy Wheeler's blog posts that have already demolished Sunday's New York Times piece purporting to describe how the Office of Legal Counsel found a legal justification for President Obama to authorize the killing of U.S. citizens who are suspected of terrorism.

Beyond targeted killings, we also know about the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques and torture thanks to Dana Priest and Barton Gellman (2002), the CIA's extraordinary rendition to black sites thanks to Priest (2005), and the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program because of James Risen (2005). Only through exposure and subsequent public outcry were these controversial or illegal government activities ultimately terminated or significantly curtailed. This pattern of uncovering the embarrassments and scandals of secret domestic and foreign national security programs has always been the most reliable means of checking executive branch abuses, by forcing policymakers to openly acknowledge and debate what they previously overlooked or ignored. As the official CIA history of "Intelligence Reform in the Mid-1970s" acknowledged:

Had Seymour Hersh not written his CIA domestic surveillance stories for the New York Times in December 1974... there seems little doubt that there never would have been a Rockefeller Commission, a Pike "Report," a Church Committee, or an Executive Order 11905.... Hersh alone, caused the President, and then Congress -- put in the position where it could not allow the Executive Branch alone to be the investigator -- to make intelligence a major issue of 1975. His stories, combined with a presidential reaction that gave the stories great credibility, took a long smoldering collection of problems and put them on the nation's front burner.

After the leaked Department of Justice white paper and Senator Rand Paul's marathon filibuster, several senators last week expressed a sudden interest in discussing whether the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force is still applicable, if targeted killings should fall exclusively under the military rather than the current CIA-Pentagon split, and the process by which the executive branch decides to use lethal force. These senior policymakers, including Senators Dick Durbin, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain, called for a serious and comprehensive set of hearings. Journalists will have provided the fuel for these long-overdue discussions by seeking out current and former government employees who felt compelled or obligated to speak out (despite the Obama administration's unprecedented efforts to prosecute alleged leakers).

If you value the work of these journalists and others, you should support them by paying for their content. Or, for publications that are still freely provided, bypass parasitic websites that aggregate and repackage the work of others, and seek out the original reports. During Sunshine Week, which began on Sunday, you could also support the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which funds the journalism and transparency organizations of your choice. Without your support, investigative journalists cannot adequately do their job, and you will remain in the dark about what your government doesn't want you to know.

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