Posted by on May 29, 2012 in Blog

Each revelation about the Obama Administration’s covert drone program raises more questions about the program’s legality, efficacy, and lack of oversight. Jo Becker and Scott Shane provide more troubling details of the program in The New York Times today, outlining President Obama’s close personal attention to the drone strikes he authorizes. Though it is perhaps heartening to know that the President is closely involved in this process, Becker and Shane’s article also illustrates many of the drone program’s most troubling problems.

Civilian casualties caused by drones have been a matter of intense debate between government officials and outside observers. Independent studies have estimated that hundreds of civilians, mostly Pakistanis, have been killed in drone strikes since 2001, though the CIA argues that many fewer have been killed. Becker and Shane’s reporting provides a troubling standard for deciding which casualties of a strike were militants:

[The Administration’s method of counting civilian casualties] in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This standard turns the motto of American justice on its head: military age men in Pakistan, Yemen, and other nations are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Unfortunately for many such men, any opportunity to prove themselves innocent comes only after they’ve been hit by a large missile. This reliance on guilt by association is based on faulty logic, and ultimately counterproductive because it embitters the Pakistanis so important to the success of the American mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Times article also raises important questions about the future of American operations against al-Qaeda. William Daley, President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, speaks to these concerns:

William M. Daley, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff in 2011, said the president and his advisers understood that they could not keep adding new names to a kill list, from ever lower on the Qaeda totem pole. What remains unanswered is how much killing will be enough. “One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20?” Mr. Daley said, describing the internal discussion. “At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”

This dilemma relates to another important concern about the use of drones: can they be used indefinitely? Since the justification for their use depends on the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which permits military actions against those involved in 9/11, the drone program lacks a clear end date. This puts the US in danger of pursuing an endless counterterrorism policy against militants only loosely connected to the 9/11 attacks.

Given the Obama Administration’s lack of transparency about the drone program, media reports like this one are the best windows available to those interested in understanding American policy. The Administration should open the program to public debate so it could stand or fall on its merits. Either way, Americans deserve to know the details of what is being done in the name of their safety.    



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