U.S. must consider impact of drones

September 23, 2011


— What “rules of war” should apply to Predator drones, the eerily efficient weapons that cruise the skies and target adversaries with the precision of a sharpshooter’s bullet? It’s an urgent question — not simply for the United States, which is expanding its use of drones, but for dozens of other nations that may soon use them to target their own “bad guys.”

Although drones have been controversial abroad, there has been relatively little public debate about them in America. That’s partly because U.S. officials usually won’t discuss their operations, which are highly classified. But officials affirm privately that they have been highly effective against al-Qaida’s leadership in the tribal areas of Pakistan — and that they are being used in Yemen and Somalia in an escalating campaign against al-Qaida affiliates there.

These weapons, which project power without risking “boots on the ground,” can become addictive. According to a report last year by a U.N. special rapporteur, more than 40 countries now have drone technology, and nations seeking to arm drones with missiles include Israel, Russia, Turkey, China, India, Iran, Britain and France.

“We have to be extremely careful and prudent about how we use this technology. It’s very efficacious in killing terrorists, but there are significant risks of blowback from its widespread use that could harm our counterterrorism efforts,” argues Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law professor who served in the George W. Bush administration Justice Department.

A drone debate, of sorts, had been taking place behind the scenes in preparation for a speech last Friday by John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser. He argued that U.S. legal authority to use force against al-Qaida wasn’t “restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan” but could be expanded to other theaters “without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time.”

On the eve of Brennan’s speech, The New York Times reported a split within the administration. The Pentagon’s general counsel, Jeh Johnson, was said to have urged broad targeting against groups anywhere aligned with al-Qaida, while the State Department’s legal adviser, Harold Koh, reportedly recommended a more limited rule that, outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, would authorize targeting only individuals actually plotting to strike America.

These disagreements were resolved by Brennan’s speech, which took a hard-line view. Brennan conceded that some key allies, though “converging” toward U.S. legal arguments, “take a different view of the geographic scope of the conflict, limiting it only to the ‘hot’ battlefields.”

Here’s the real question, according to current and former government officials: As the U.S. steps up Predator attacks over Yemen and Somalia, should it adopt the same “signature” targeting it uses over Pakistan? Under this approach, the drones can strike al-Qaida training camps and fighters not on the list of specific targets compiled by the CIA. The signature approach is more aggressive, but it risks creating what terrorism analyst David Kilcullen calls “accidental guerrillas” — and thereby widening the war.

To understand the debate, some background is useful. The CIA’s legal authority (it conducts attacks over Pakistan and will probably have similar responsibility in Yemen and Somalia) dates back to a lethal covert-action “finding” signed days after Sept. 11, 2001. The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center compiles a list of approved targets, usually numbering less than several dozen, based on intelligence that they pose a serious, continuing threat to the U.S. That list is reviewed every six months, and names come on and off.

Legal review is done by the CIA general counsel, who in turn consults with the White House counsel. Signature targeting was added in 2008, using the same 2001 presidential finding, which was renewed by President Obama in 2009. The rules call for notification of the National Security Council (including the attorney general) if a U.S. person is a target. Such a broader review apparently took place when Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who’s a senior al-Qaida operative in Yemen, was added.

Here’s the real problem with drones. They may indeed reduce collateral damage, as their proponents argue, because of their precision and surveillance. And America’s growing use of them against al-Qaida may be legal under international law that allows self-defense. But what’s legal isn’t always wise.

A world where drones are constantly buzzing overhead — waiting to zap those deemed threats under a cloaked and controversial process — risks being, even more, a world of lawlessness and chaos. Drones have been America’s best weapon against al-Qaida, but one to use sparingly — against people U.S. intelligence knows are seeking to kill others.

David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com


Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 8 months ago

Here's a good question: Instead of putting so much thought about whether the use of drones is a good idea, why don't the analysts think more about exactly why al-Qaida exists in the first place?

This is a huge, huge topic: Is there any real difference between our support of the House of Saud today and our support of the King holding the Peacock Throne of Persia in 1953?

If the future unfolds the same way as history did in the past, it's not going to be good.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 8 months ago

Your comparison of our support of Saudi Arabia's current regime and that of our previous support of the Shah is interesting. I think what you're suggesting is that what we are doing is shortsighted. Our long term interests would be better served if we chose another path. To some degree, I agree with you. But the problem I have is this, what different path will yield better results? From my perspective, we have little understanding of that region. Any path we choose will yield unknown results. All we can do is speculate. While our support of Saudi Arabia may well lead to problems down the road, disengagement might lead to even greater problems. And had we never supported the Saud family, we might have had huge problems with whatever happened in the region, and we would not have benefitted from their resources. Additionally, I believe that not only are the results of disengagement unknown, I believe they are unknowable. We like to think of ourselves as a learned people. But many times we just muddle along, making the best decisions we can at any particular moment.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 8 months ago

There's something that I've pointed out a few times to friends, but I've never posted it here:

The first thing you need to understand about any foreign culture is that you cannot understand it.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 8 months ago

I guess there is some irony in having kids in Nevada killing anti-technology types in the wilds of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Drones of all sizes are in the future, some as small as insects. The ultimate warriors, a robot army are not all that far off. Once we get there, the generals can have their endless wars and play with their new toys. It should take some of the pressure off as the 'wounded soldiers' will go back to General Motors for repair and we won't have as many grieving mothers and fathers. Rules of war? HAH. More information on your tax dollars at work: http://www.darpa.mil/

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 8 months ago

I know! They could just play chess instead!

Getaroom 6 years, 8 months ago

Time for more reruns of The Terminator. SkyNet is here to stay!

Abdu Omar 6 years, 8 months ago

Until we solve the root cause of terrorism, there will be terrorists. Palestine is trying to become a state and in doing so can shuffle off the occupation of Israel. I am not going to argue whether or not Israel should or should not occupy Palestine, but I will say, that when Palestine becomes a sovereign nation and the world recognizes it as such, the pressure on Israel will be felt and they will withdraw. Then the terrorists have no beef with the US. But if the US continues to prohibit Palestine from coming into being, there will be hell to pay.

Our best efforts should be to move the parties into discussions, give them a deadline and stick to it. IF they fail, then there is no more American funds for any reason. Show the world we 1) mean business and 2) we are going to be completely fair to both sides.

As it is now, we favor Israel and the Congress does everything in its power to show the world that they are not "fair and balanced". The reason is simple. The Israeli lobby pays its way to the Congress every day and the campaigns of every Congressman depend upon the money AIPAC and JDL give them. There should be a way to stop special interests from funding campaigns, in my opinion. Let the American People speak without special interests interferring.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 8 months ago

There cannot be a meaningful peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians without broad regional support. And by that I don't mean just Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the other countries in the region. It must include the "Arab Street". As the recent events in Egypt show, the peace treaty signed by those two is conditional of support by the people.
Israel did not fight multiple wars with the Palestinians. They fought multiple wars against multiple countries, while the Palestinians supported those countries. For any agreement to have meaning, it must have the support of those counties' leaders as well as their people. The conflict has never been Israel vs. the Palestinians, it's been Israel against a broad consensus throughout the Arab world that Israel has no right to exist. If it's expected that Israel bring to the table far reaching, for them, concessions, such as settlement removal and allowing sovereignty of a hostile neighbor, it's not too much to ask that the Palestinians bring to the table the overwhelming support of the "Arab Street", which must include a cessation of all support for all those who would continue hostilities against Israel.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 8 months ago

This is something that has been discussed in the Reform Jewish Temple: It could happen that what are now referred to as the settlements could become part of Palestine, and under some circumstances that might not be such a bad idea. The problem is that Jewish people that remain in Palestine are not at all likely to be safe there, as Muslim people are very safe in Israel.

But that prospect seems to be fading, because some leaders of the Palestinian movement have made very public announcements that Palestine will have to be ethnically cleansed of all Jews after Palestine has become a state.

That would be very much like Saudi Arabia - there are never any accusations that Saudi Arabia is an "apartheid state", because they have expelled all Jewish people, and no one that has their passport stamped as having visited Israel is allowed into Saudi Arabia.

I have never understood why Israel is so often referred to as an "apartheid state" when Arab citizens comprise 20% of the population, but Saudi Arabia is not because 0% of the population is Jewish. If there are no members of a minority in a state, there is no way it is an "apartheid state", right? That's the public perception here and in many other countries.

So, it follows that in order for Israel to cease being an "apartheid state", all of the Arab citizens would have to be expelled, as all Jews have been from many (not all!) Islamic countries. But that is certainly not going to happen without a constitutional amendment in Israel, which is not at all likely to happen because it would be in horrific conflict with Jewish values.

But, with what appears to be Islamic values, expelling people for their religious viewpoint is not a problem at all.

Here's something interesting: In Iran, Jewish people are quite well accepted, as long as they are not Zionists. That's unusual among Arabic countries, and to me it seems that perhaps Iran is not the big bad bear that our media seems to always portray it as.

Of course, that leads to another observation: The only thing any of us know about any foreign country is what our media tells is the case. And so much of any country's media is so biased that it's very difficult for any of us to really understand what's going on, and it follows that for any of us to have any clue of what other cultures actually think is just about impossible.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 8 months ago

I had best point this out: Reform Jews are quite often not thought of as being Jews at all by Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, and Ultra-Orthodox Jews because of their incredibly liberal views on so many matters.

So much so that Reform Jews are not allowed to immigrate to Israel as Jews today, although that issue is very slowly and ponderously going through the Israeli courts.

For example, a position of the Reform movement is the answer to the question: Did the miracles described in the Bible actually occur?

No, but you are free to believe they did if you want.

Another viewpoint of the Reform movement is that adherents to that movement do not care much about Temple mount, because there is no need for the Jewish Temple that once stood there to be rebuilt. Leave the mosque there, sure, what's the problem? And it's my opinion, but I don't know for fact, that at least many Reform Jews think that having a rebuilt Temple would be a horrible step backward into very primitive systems of worship.

It seems that most Reform Jews really don't care all that much about the borders of Israel, the important thing is that there be a country named Israel on at least part of what used to be Israel, and that Jews can at least visit the holy sites.

And, most Jews in the United States are Reform.

I think the real problem today is that Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel. And as Ariel Sharon was before him, they are/were both hard liners that were elected because of a public perception in Israel that they will keep the country safe. Perhaps in the future there will be a prime minister that will take a softer stance, and it's likely that at that point, some progress will be made.

Fossick 6 years, 8 months ago

"The rules call for notification of the National Security Council (including the attorney general) if a U.S. person is a target. Such a broader review apparently took place when Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who’s a senior al-Qaida operative in Yemen, was added. "

Well, I'm glad that at least the Attorney General has to be notified when the CIA decides to execute a US citizen. Someone has to send out the press releases, after all.

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