A new report written by former Obama administration officials and military officers warns that the US reliance on drone strikes for counter-terrorism “risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts”.
The report, released on Thursday from the Stimson Center, does not reject drone strikes and is notable primarily for its authors, almost all of whom have served in senior government, military and intelligence posts.
Rather than the typical drone critics, the skepticism over what the Obama administration calls “targeted killing” – usually accomplished through drone strikes – comes from, among others, a former US military commander for the Middle East; a former commander of the Afghanistan war; a former FBI and CIA senior officer; and two senior Pentagon policy officials from Obama’s first term, when drone strikes became the signature US counterterrorism weapon.
While most thinktank reports command little attention in Washington, the Stimson Center report, released Thursday, indicates a shift in elite consensus in national security circles around drones. It challenges some of the central premises behind the embrace of drone strikes – typically that they provide an asset for killing suspected terrorists in remote or diplomatically inaccessible terrain, short of a potentially costly raid or even outright invasion.
Yet the Stimson Center report, spearheaded by retired General John Abizaid and former Pentagon official Rosa Brooks, portrays drone strikes as a potential facilitator of perpetual war, rather than the alternative to it that the Obama administration contends.
“The increasing use of lethal UAVs may create a slippery slope leading to continual or wider war,” the report warns, lending official recognition to a point made for years by leftwing critics of Obama’s drone attacks. UAV is a military acronym for unmanned aerial vehicle, one of the more formal terms for drones.
Echoing a criticism from United Nations drone investigator Ben Emmerson, the report finds that “despite the undoubted good faith of US decision-makers, it would be difficult to conclude that US targeted strikes are consistent with core rule of law norms.”
The administration itself has recently acknowledged the concern. In a widely heralded May 2013 speech, Barack Obama imposed new restrictions on drone strikes after acknowledging killing four Americans – three of them, to include a 16-year-old boy, allegedly accidentally. The subsequent months saw a reduction in drone-induced killings in Yemen and especially Pakistan.
Yet the presentation of targets of opportunity and the pressure to react in a seemingly cost-free way to terrorist attacks have kept the drones aloft. While US secretary of state John Kerry pledged in August to end drone strikes in Pakistan “very soon,” and a pause kept the drones from flying over tribal Pakistan for much of the year, several strikes there took place in the wake of the deadly assault on the Karachi airport earlier this month.
Abizaid, Brooks and their fellows on the Stimson Center’s drone “task force” call attention to a “lack of strategic analysis” about drone strikes within the Obama administration, despite the administration turning armed Predators and Reapers into its weapon of choice. Earlier this week, a Justice Department memo from 2010 became public, shedding light on internal administration deliberations about taking the fateful step to kill a US citizen with a drone strike and without trial.
“A serious counterterrorism strategy needs to consider carefully, and constantly reassess, the balance between kinetic action and other counterterrorism tools, and the potential unintended consequences of increased reliance on lethal UAVs,” the Stimson report contends. “Kinetic action” is a military euphemism for the use of force.
But the report stops far short of rejecting drone strikes.
The Stimson experts reject a flat determination of the illegality of “targeted killing,” and does not use the far more controversial term “assassination.” It recommends shifting operation of the strikes from the CIA to the US military, rather than ending them, and although the report urges greater transparency around drones, it elides a recognition that a military-run drone campaign is likely to entail fewer congressional notifications than the CIA’s. That, along with a recommendation to establish “appropriate international norms,” tacitly recognizes the entrenchment of drone strikes within the national security firmware.
The report also has little to say about the still-unknown tally of civilians on multiple continents killed in US drone strikes, beyond rejecting that strikes “cause disproportionate civilian casualties” as a perception “with little basis in fact.”
Yet the report spends little time grappling with the issue and evinces little effort at distinguishing the facts from the fictions of drone-related deaths. Nor does it significantly address the administration practice of killing people based solely on a determination that their patterns of behavior fit terrorist profiles.
But the Stimson report acknowledges that even in cases where only “terrorists” are killed, the strikes “can cause great resentment, particularly in contexts in which terrorist recruiting efforts rely on tribal loyalties or on an economically desperate population.” In Yemen, activists have testified that a fear of the drones has become part of the culture, as parents use the threat of drone strikes to usher unruly children to bed.
Right as the Stimson Center released its drone report, three Democratic senators on the intelligence committee wrote to the White House requesting greater transparency over drone strikes.
“We believe every American has the right to know when their government believes it is allowed to kill them,” wrote Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich, who highlighted a lack of White House response to a similar November letter.
Caitlin Hayden, the chief spokesperson for the National Security Council, said that the White House “look[s] forward to reviewing” the Stimson report.
“The President has repeatedly emphasized the extraordinary care taken to ensure that our counterterrorism actions are carried out in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law and consistent with U.S. values and policy. He has also specifically highlighted the importance of transparency,” Hayden said.
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