What If Mitt Romney Inherits Obama's Killer Drone Fleet?

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Andrew Sullivan says he'll use it less scrupulously than the president. But based on what evidence? Current policy is plenty unscrupulous already.

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Asked about drone strikes during Monday's foreign policy debate, Mitt Romney basically said that President Obama is right to use them. Expect more drone warfare in 2013 regardless of who wins the election. Does that mean that the two candidates are indistinguishable on the issue? My friend and former boss Andrew Sullivan doesn't think so. "Memo to Conor Friedersdorf," he wrote while live-blogging at The Dish. "You think Romney would be as scrupulous in drone warfare as Obama?" Implicit is the judgment that Obama has been "scrupulous."

But it isn't so.

Sullivan and I agree that Obama won last night's debate, and that he'd be likely to preside over a more prudent, reality-based foreign policy than Romney, based on the respective campaigns that they've run. On drones, however, Romney appears to have the exact same position as Obama. And Obama has been egregiously unscrupulous. I don't want to hear the dodge about how drone strikes are necessary. It's beside the point. This is about the specific ways Obama has waged the drone war. Even if you agree in theory with drone strikes, Obama's actions ought to bother you.

Let me be specific:

  1. As Jane Mayer noted when describing the CIA's drone strikes, "The program is classified as covert, and the intelligence agency declines to provide any information to the public about where it operates, how it selects targets, who is in charge, or how many people have been killed."
  2. The Obama Administration avoids judicial accountability by arguing that the drone program is secret, even as it acknowledges the existence of the program when bragging about killing terrorists. 
  3. As the Mayer article goes on to state, "because of the C.I.A. program's secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war. Should something go wrong in the C.I.A.'s program -- last month, the Air Force lost control of a drone and had to shoot it down over Afghanistan -- it's unclear what the consequences would be." 
  4. According to The New York Times, "Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It 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." 
  5. The Obama Administration permits the CIA to carry out "signature strikes" even though they don't know the identity of the people they're trying to kill! 
  6. As Glenn Greenwald explained, "In February, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism documented that after the U.S. kills people with drones in Pakistan, it then targets for death those who show up at the scene to rescue the survivors and retrieve the bodies, as well as those who gather to mourn the dead at funerals."
  7. As a report published by the law clinics at NYU and Standford document, innocent people in Waziristan are being terrorized and traumatized daily by Obama's drone war. And the policy has killed, at minimum, hundreds of innocent people, a judgment that is supported even by data from the New America Foundation, whose methods almost certainly under-count dead innocents.
So to sum up, Obama has implemented a global killing program with zero checks and balances; he's operated it out of the CIA rather than the Department of Defense; he invokes the state-secrets privilege to avoid defending it in court, even as he brags about its efficacy; it includes killing people whose identities we don't even know; all military-aged males we kill are presumed to be "militants"; the Pakistani government reportedly gets to pick some of the targets; at minimum, hundreds of innocents have been killed, including rescuers and funeral-goers; a 16-year-old American citizen was among those killed; and Sullivan, having been exposed many times to all the information I've just included, thinks its accurate to call Obama's drone program "scrupulous," though it could easily be made more transparent, accountable, and lawful.

What really gets me is that, in addition to arguing that Obama has run this program scrupulously (something implied in Sullivan's question, and explicitly argued in threads like this one), Sullivan has also himself articulated almost all of the reasons why the program has been unscrupulous -- that is to say, why Obama's drone policy "disregards, or has contempt for, laws of right or justice with which he  is perfectly well acquainted, and which should restrain his actions."

"One thing I've learned this past decade is that the CIA is pretty much its own judge, jury and executioner," Sullivan wrote. "It is much less accountable to the public, more likely to break the laws of war and destroy the evidence, more likely to do things that could escalate rather than ameliorate a conflict." Is it scrupulous to pick an organization like that to run your drone program?

Says Sullivan's post from June of 2011 (emphasis added):
Obama is now engaged in two illegal wars -- in Libya and in Yemen. There was no Congressional debate or vote on these wars -- and one is being waged by the CIA with unmanned drones. I think we have learned a little about what happens when you give the CIA carte blanche to run a war with no accountability except to a president who has a vested interest in covering up errors.
Said Sullivan on another occasion, "Put drones in the hands of an executive who is empowered to do anything without any input from the other branches of government ... and we have a problem indeed." He is also on record stating that "counting every military-age man in the vicinity of a Jihadist as a terrorist is a total cop-out," and he even wrote that "if the CIA, based on its own intelligence, can launch a war or wars with weapons that can incur no US fatalities, the propensity to be permanently at war, permanently making America enemies, permanently requiring more wars to put out the flames previous wars started, then the Founders' vision is essentially over. I think it's a duty to make sure their vision survives this twenty-first century test."

So let's get back to Sullivan's debate night question. "You think Romney would be as scrupulous in drone warfare as Obama?" My best guess is that, on drone warfare, their policies would be about the same -- that is to say, alarmingly unscrupulous, with unpredictable consequences. That's what happens when you give someone the power to kill without checks in secret. 

I have no reason to think one or the other would predictably kill more innocent people with drones. Does Sullivan? If Romney wins, what odds would Sullivan give on the proposition that Romney ultimately kills more civilians with drones than Obama has? Based on what evidence? Obama has already killed an American citizen without trial and conducted drone strikes in a country where no war has been declared, so I don't see how Romney would set any precedents that are even more alarming. (What precedent would that be?) Overall, I have no idea whose drone war would be more damaging. Having watched Sullivan strongly denounce and other times defend Obama's drone war in posts that cannot be reconciled with one another, I don't think he knows either.

So what if Romney is elected and turns out to be much worse on drones? It could totally happen. I wouldn't be surprised. I'll be opposing his unaccountable killing policy from day one regardless, just as I've opposed Obama's policy due to its manifold flaws. And if Romney's drone policy turns out to have all sorts of catastrophic consequences? I hope Sullivan remembers that Obama established the bipartisan consensus behind a worldwide drone-strike strategy and set all the necessary precedents without losing the support of backers like Sullivan. (He didn't even lose support for continuing his current drone policy itself.) A Romney drone fleet, operating in numerous countries with zero oversight from the judiciary or Congress, with American citizens in the crosshairs? Obama and his supporters built that. It would be ready for President Romney on day one.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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