In a Secret Drone War, Immoral Kill Deals Will Always Tempt Us

Killing targets simply because foreign governments want them dead carries a high potential for blowback.

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Critics of America's drone war have long insisted that the secrecy surrounding it all but guarantees abuses. How could it be otherwise? CIA agents are permitted to operate as international assassins, killing without any transparent standards, their actions kept secret even after the fact. The Obama Administration has taken pains to dispute that common-sense narrative. "In full accordance with the law -- and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives -- the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda  terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones," John Brennan stated in his April 2012 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

What the Obama Administration kept secret was the story of how CIA drone strikes in Pakistan started, back during the Bush Administration, as reported by Mark Mazzetti in The New York Times:

The target was not a top operative of Al Qaeda, but a Pakistani ally of the Taliban who led a tribal rebellion and was marked by Pakistan as an enemy of the state .... In a secret deal, the C.I.A. had agreed to kill him in exchange for access to airspace it had long sought so it could use drones to hunt down its own enemies. The C.I.A. had been monitoring the rise of Mr. Muhammad, but officials considered him to be more Pakistan's problem than America's. In Washington, officials were watching with growing alarm the gathering of Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas, and George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director, authorized officers in the agency's Islamabad station to push Pakistani officials to allow armed drones. Negotiations were handled primarily by the Islamabad station. As the battles raged in South Waziristan, the station chief in Islamabad paid a visit to Gen. Ehsan ul Haq, the ISI chief, and made an offer: If the C.I.A. killed Mr. Muhammad, would the ISI allow regular armed drone flights over the tribal areas?

Put another way, the drone program in Pakistan succumbed right from the beginning to a temptation critics warned about. Killing wasn't restricted to targets that posed an imminent threat to the United States; rather, the CIA killed people who wouldn't have even been targets but for the fact that the ruling regime in another country wanted them dead, a criterion that poses problems moral and strategic. What better way to invite blowback than killing, on behalf of Pakistan's rulers, people who the United States judged to be no threat to the American homeland?

Did the CIA make similar arrangements in other countries? Has this sort of quid pro quo continued into the Obama Administration, with Pakistan putting targets on a kill list in return for continuing to tolerate American drone strikes?* Congress ought to demand answers to those questions. Congress should also assert its authority to ensure that going forward, the CIA is forbidden from killing people who pose no direct threat to America. So long as the executive branch is permitted to do what it will in secret, there will be an incentive for Obama and his successors to kill on behalf of foreign regimes so that they give us permission to kill whoever we want.

Even if the Obama Administration has totally avoided that temptation, which I doubt, it would still be irresponsible of them to fight for executive-branch autonomy, knowing that their predecessors violated the standards they've articulated for what constitutes a just drone strike, and that one of their successors, whether four or eight or 16 years from now, is likely to do the same.

In a secret drone war, immoral kill deals will always tempt us.

*Note that the Obama Administration has refused to share certain Office of Legal Counsel arguments pertaining to the legal rational for its drone strike program, reportedly because they contain secret protocols negotiated with Pakistan and Yemen.