When These Experts Savage U.S. Drone Policy, It's Time to Worry

Former executive-branch officials and military leaders see strategic, legal, and ethical shortcomings in the targeted-killing program.
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Last month, experts drawn from the highest reaches of establishment national-security circles quietly released a report that savages Team Obama's lethal drone program. Repeated attempts are made to give those in power the benefit of every doubt. "We believe that US government decision-makers make targeting decisions in good faith and with genuine care," the report states. "All of us on this task force have worked inside the executive branch and have great respect for the integrity and thoughtfulness of the individuals connected with targeted strike decisions, from the president down to the men and women piloting weaponized UAVs."

The expert panel, led by General John P. Abizaid, former commander of U.S. Central Command, and Georgetown Professor Rosa Brooks, former counselor to the undersecretary of Defense for policy, nevertheless issued all of the following stinging critiques:

  • "To the best of our knowledge ... the US executive branch has yet to engage in a serious cost-benefit analysis of targeted UAV strikes as a routine counterterrorism tool."
  • "We are concerned that the Obama administration’s heavy reliance on targeted killings as a pillar of US counterterrorism strategy rests on questionable assumptions, and risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts."
  •  "We are concerned by the continuing lack of transparency relating to US targeted killings."
  • "... it would be difficult to conclude that US targeted strikes are consistent with core rule of law norms."
  • "US practices set a dangerous precedent that may be seized upon by other states—not all of which are likely to behave as scrupulously as US officials."
  • The secrecy that surrounds the targeted-killing program is incompatible with democracy, as the U.S. "has been fighting ... a covert, multi-year killing program. Without additional information, the citizenry cannot evaluate US targeted strikes."
  • "Unmanned aerial vehicle strikes also raise questions about the continued efficacy of traditional congressional oversight mechanisms."
  • "Export control rules for UAVs do not appear well-suited to advancing US national security objectives."

To sum up, the Obama administration hasn't rigorously evaluated whether its drone strikes are helping or harming national security; it is setting dangerous precedents; it isn't doing enough to prevent proliferation; and it is undermining democracy with excessively secretive practices that could also undermine the program's long-term efficacy. 

I can't emphasize the source of these criticisms enough. In addition to the aforementioned leaders, the panel included a former head of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan; a former senior associate counsel to the president and legal adviser to the National Security Council; a former assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs; a former Navy pilot; a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for plans and Air Force pilot; a former under secretary of Commerce for industry and security; a former deputy director at both the FBI and CIA; and a former general counsel of the CIA. These are consummate insiders disposed to think the best of the CIA, the military, and the executive branch.

Regular readers know me as a staunch, outsider critic of U.S. targeted-killing policy. One of the most complete accountings of my views can be found in extended remarks I delivered during a University of Richmond debate on drones. The panel of experts echoes many of the same concerns I raised that evening. It's a noteworthy convergence of concerns, given our very different perspectives. 

The whole report is worth reading—and written unusually clearly for this kind of effort. Any number of passages deserve additional emphasis. One looks at what we're doing from the perspective of foreigners in countries targeted with drone killings:

From the perspective of many around the world, the United States currently appears to claim, in effect, the legal right to kill any person it determines is a member of al-Qaida or its associated forces, in any state on Earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret evidence, evaluated in a secret process by unknown and largely anonymous individuals—with no public disclosure of which organizations are considered “associated forces” (or how combatant status is determined or how the United States defines “participation in hostilities”), no means for anyone outside that secret process to raise questions about the criteria or validity of the evidence, and no means for anyone outside that process to identify or remedy mistakes or abuses. US practices set a dangerous precedent that may be seized upon by other states—not all of which are likely to behave as scrupulously as US officials ....

Consider US targeted strikes from the perspective of individuals in—for instance—Pakistan or Yemen. From the perspective of a Yemeni villager or a Pakistani living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), life is far from secure. Death can come from the sky at any moment, and the instability and incoherence of existing legal categories means that there is no way for an individual to be certain whether he is considered targetable by the United States. (Would attending a meeting or community gathering also attended by an al-Qaida member make him targetable? Would renting a building or selling a vehicle to a member of an “associated” force render him targetable? What counts as an “associated force?” Would accepting financial or medical aid from a terrorist group make him a target? Would extending hospitality to a relative who is affiliated with a terrorist group lead the U.S. to consider him a target?)

Another passage imagines a future where other states start adopting the same public posture toward drone killings and their legality as the Obama administration:

Imagine, for instance, if Russia began to use UAV strikes to kill individuals opposed to its annexation of Crimea and its growing influence in Eastern Ukraine. Even if the United States strongly believed those targeted by Russian were all nonviolent political activists lawfully expressing their opinions, Russia could easily take a page out of the United States’ book and assert that the targeted individuals were members of anti-Russian terrorist groups with which Russia is in an armed conflict. Pressed for evidence, Russia could simply repeat the words used by US officials defending US targeted killings, asserting that it could not provide any evidence without disclosing sources and methods and creating a risk that terrorists would go underground. In such circumstances, how could the United States credibly condemn Russian targeted killings?

Considering the report as a whole, it's hard to see the Obama administration's targeted-killing policies as anything other than shortsighted. Drone strikes have killed lots of al-Qaeda members, to be sure. But the inadequate attention paid to vital legal, ethical, and strategic questions borders on gross negligence, a judgment that would surely be seconded by family members of the many innocents killed.

As a starting point toward a reformed program, Congress ought to compel the Obama administration to adopt the recommendations of this panel. Left to its own devices, recent history suggests it will continue to behave irresponsibly.

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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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