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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Experts Decry Secrecy Surrounding U.S. Drone Strike Policies
Experts Decry Secrecy Surrounding U.S. Drone Strike Policies
By Stew Magnuson



Figuring out what is right and what is wrong about the tactical use of armed aerial drones to kill terrorists in ungoverned territories would be easier if the Obama administration disclosed its policies to the public, analysts said Jan. 24 at a Washington, D.C., panel discussion.
 
“There is a lot the administration can and should say about the way it conducts [drone strikes and], what it does and doesn’t do,” said Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow in government studies at The Brookings Institution.
 
The panel took place to mark the release of an American Security Project report, “Understanding the Strategic and Tactical Considerations of Drone Strikes.”
 
Administration officials have been relatively good about discussing the legal framework, although in general terms, but there are other aspects “they have danced around,” Wittes said.
 
“They have not done anything comparable in addressing what their targeting procedures look like — even at a high level of generality,” he said.
 
Statements saying that all al-Qaida fighters are fair game, but not all of them are necessarily targeted, implies that there are criteria, he said. They shouldn’t talk about operational details — he wouldn’t want them to — but they can speak in general terms, Wittes said.
 
The report said from a tactical standpoint, armed drones have been a remarkably effective tool in killing terrorists. From a strategic level, the technology has long-term challenges that have not been fully accounted for in policy decisions.
 
Joshua Foust, fellow for asymmetric operations at ASP, and author of the report, said civilian deaths have fueled anti-American sentiment in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen. The fear is that this is creating even more terrorists.
 
“They need to figure out a way to talk about civilian casualties. And they need to figure out a way to count them,” Wittes said of the Obama administration officials. That is a “hard project,” he said. “There really is a huge underlying data deficit.”
 
The overwhelming number of drone strikes take place in the tribal territories of Pakistan, and putting neutral investigators on the ground there has been impossible.
 
Wittes believes that armed remotely piloted aerial vehicles are effective and highly discriminating tools in the war on terrorism. From the prehistoric spear to Tomahawk missile, the history of weapon development has always focused on providing the maximum amount of safety for the attacker while imposing the most harm on the enemy. Armed drones are no different. If there is legal justification for killing a person with a bullet, or a bomb dropped from an F-16, then the same justification applies to drones.
 
They are not as precise as a soldier or special operator on the ground with a rifle who can see his target clearly. Yet, their small diameter bombs are more precise than larger ordnance dropped from a fast-moving F-16, or a Tomahawk missile.
 
The question that needs to be asked is, what are the alternatives to aerial drones? The nation doesn’t currently have the wherewithal to put “boots on the ground” in ungoverned spots like Pakistan’s tribal territories, Yemen or Somalia. And invading forces may create far more enemies than drones, Wittes said.
 
“For a lot of applications, it is by far the most discriminating and human rights friendly way to approach kinetic military action,” he said. Not everyone sees it that way. But more openness on the part of the administration will lead to legitimacy, he asserted.
 
Daphne Eviatar, senior counsel at Human Rights First’s law and security program, said the administration should release the office of legal council memos that have been written on the legal justification of the programs.  
 
“I think the level of generality at which they have justified this program legally, it has been so vague, that it has allowed us to just raise a lot more questions, and to be confused. I think that would go along way toward establishing more credibility,” she said.
 
“It’s fine that they have a playbook, but we should know what’s in it,” she added. She noted that some 75 nations now fly unmanned aerial vehicles. Very few of them have armed versions, but that will change. These counties will follow the United States lead.
 
Panelists also addressed the Central Intelligence Agency’s role in targeted drone killings. It is an accident of history that the CIA is conducting these missions, Wittes said. The agency was initially flying Predators to collect intelligence — its traditional role. Someone wondered if CIA officials could mount a missile on the aircraft, and the “mission creep” grew from there.
 
“That is not a good reason in the long run to develop a whole new paramilitary organization,” Wittes said.
 
Foust said in places like Yemen, the Defense Department and the CIA run independent drone programs with different, and potentially conflicting kill lists.
 
“Occasionally, they collaborate. Occasionally they don’t. We don’t know if they work together. We don’t know if they are going after the same people in different ways, and engaging in destruction that they don’t necessarily have to,” Foust said.
 
Because of the secrecy surrounding the programs, it is hard to answer whether drone strike programs are effective, Foust said.

Photo Credit: Defense Department

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