Unaccountable Killing Machines: The True Cost of U.S. Drones

Officials often portray the global expansion of deadly drone strikes as an unequivocal success. But are we really accounting for all the consequences?



A series of articles have been published recently about the extent and, in some cases, failures of the drone program so famously expanded under President Obama's watch. The first, a blockbuster article by the Washington Post's Greg Miller, brings to light some truly worrying aspects of a policy that seems to have taken on a life of its own (emphasis mine):

In Yemen, for instance, the CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command pursue the same adversary with nearly identical aircraft. But they alternate taking the lead on strikes to exploit their separate authorities, and they maintain separate kill lists that overlap but don't matchCIA and military strikes this fall killed three U.S. citizens, two of whom were suspected al-Qaeda operatives...

Obama himself was "oddly passive in this world," the former official said, tending to defer on drone policy to senior aides whose instincts often dovetailed with the institutional agendas of the CIA and JSOC.

In other words, Jaffe is describing a system in which a decentralized apparatus carries out summary executions of people we're assured are bad and who are sometimes U.S. citizens, and the president knows about this but chooses not to exercise oversight or control of the process.

The upside to this system of drones, administration officials insist, is that al Qaeda has been crippled, and that it has created an intense strain on the ability of terrorists to carry out plots. And this is undoubtedly true -- the drone war has achieved its immediate purpose of thwacking bad people. But do we really understand the true cost of this form of warfare?

In the countries where the drone system is most active -- Pakistan and Yemen -- relations with local governments and communities are awful, and perceptions of the United States could barely be any worse. There is agreement seemingly only on the need for long distance killing, and even then -- especially in Pakistan -- there is a great deal of contention.

In fact, one could argue that the severe degradation of relations with Pakistan, which are driven to a large degree by popular anger over drone strikes (as well as a parallel perception among some Pakistani elites that the U.S. disregards Pakistani sovereignty at will), is driving the current U.S. push to ship supplies and, eventually, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, through Uzbekistan. While overall it might seem like a good trade to policymakers, engaging with the regime in Tashkent in this way nevertheless carries substantial reputational and moral costs, to say nothing of long term consequences we cannot predict.

In Yemen, the insistence on drone strikes in the absence of any broader (and more intensive) political engagement with the opposition political movements has created the mass perception that the U.S. is intimately tied to the oppression of the Yemeni people -- a dangerous social meme that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula certainly tries to coopt for its own advancement. But focusing on AQAP like that opens the same trap that cripples U.S. policy in the country: the assumption that terrorism is the only consequence that matters. On a more practical level, the U.S. negligence of Yemeni politics in its pursuit of terrorists is making it more likely, not less, that the eventual Shah-like fall of President Saleh will result in a hostile or indifferent power in Sana'a -- the opposite of what the current CT policy there requires.

Beyond the political consequences, the drone program also imposes severe bureaucratic costs. Within the U.S. Intelligence Community, various lethal targeting programs are heavily classified, compartmented, and SAPed -- meaning, they are mostly closed off from each other. This is one reason why the CIA and JSOC maintain separate, non-overlapping kill lists in Yemen. It also means it is practically impossible for anyone, in any position including the top of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to exercise proper oversight over the program. In other words, we have created an unaccountable killing machine operating at an industrial scale, to borrow CNAS President John Nagl's phrasing.

Within the U.S. government bureaucracy this shift in priority has distorted staffing choices and led to a momentum that will be difficult to ever stop. When I testified about Intelligence contracting before the U.S. Senate earlier this year, I noted the problems with how these programs get staffed: often without regard to specific skill sets, and usually under the assumption that more staff means better results. Both assumptions lead to muddled results. In some targeting programs, staffers have review quotas -- that is, they must review a certain number of possible targets per given length of time. Because they are contractors, their continued employment depends on their ability to satisfy the stated performance metrics. So they have a financial incentive to make life-or-death decisions about possible kill targets just to stay employed. This should be an intolerable situation, but because the system lacks transparency or outside review it is almost impossible to monitor or alter.

Furthermore, the Intelligence Community (IC) as a whole has been reoriented to support the killing machine. While that isn't of itself a bad thing, we should be asking very probing questions about whether it is necessary and if it is accomplishing the goals it should. The IC already struggles with making useful predictive analysis (i.e. understanding threats to the country and thinking of ways to respond to them). By focusing the IC so strongly on the identification of individuals to kill, the drones program is distorting the collection and analysis priorities of the IC, and in a very real way restricting the resources available to responding to larger economic, military, and nuclear threats. Bureaucracy becomes its own force after a while, and the possibility of ever reassigning these analysts and decision makers becomes less and less realistic the longer the program exists.

A final, important consequence of the dramatic expansion of the drone program is the continued degradation of the IC's Human Intelligence capabilities and the increasing reliance on liaising with "local partners." In both Pakistan and Yemen this has led to severe consequences both for our reputation and for our relations with each government. In Afghanistan, poor HUMINT tradecraft has led to a lot of unnecessary deaths because we relied on sketchy local sources instead of doing the hard work to develop thorough human intelligence. The result, way too often, is firing blind based on "pattern of life" indicators without direct confirmation that the targets are, in fact, who we think they are -- killing innocent people in the process. In Pakistan, the drones program has become so contentious that it's inspired death squads that summarily execute people they suspect of participating in the targetting process. And in Yemen, we are now slowly realizing that our "local partners" are really anything but, and we face the very uncomfortable possibility of being used as pawns to violently resolve conflicts that have nothing to do with us.

This sloppiness with life and death decisions is a substantial moral failing, and should be a huge scandal for President Obama. But, he has decided to both distance himself from it while also taking credit for its successes, even as it focuses on ever less important and marginal figures within the terrorist milieu.

The enormous expansion of drone operations has been a success in the narrowest sense of killing some bad guys. But it has come at an enormous cost: to our reputation, to our morals, to our relationship and status with countries we need to work with to contain and defuse terrorism, and in the lives of the many innocent people we've killed through either sloppiness or ignorance. Rather than asking the difficult questions of whether the success of the drone program has been worth it, though, President Obama has chosen instead to amplify its operations and thus claim victory in killing bad guys, even while he distances himself from the knowledge and personal responsibility for who these dead people are and what crimes they may have committed.

It is an absolute scandal. We owe ourselves better questions and more accountability of the drones we use to wantonly kill people around the planet.