An armed MQ-9 Reaper drone at a military base in April. Photo via Flickr user US Air Force
On Thursday, a panel made up of former military and intelligence officials released the most thorough examination yet of America's fondness for the remote-controlled flying death machines commonly known as drones. A little over a year after President Barack Obama gave a major speech that attempted to justify his expansion of the use of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), his pals in the national security elite have detailed the strategic, legal, and ethical questions underpinning their use.
The report, released by the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, urges far greater transparency when it comes to drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere; it also calls for an internal cost-benefit analysis, the formation of an oversight commission to review UAV policies, and a concerted effort to assess future trends in drone warfare.
Warning of a "slippery slope toward continual or widening conflict and instability" across the globe, the group of ten former CIA and Pentagon honchos argue that the White House risks setting a precedent other countries, including US antagonists like Russia, might be tempted to follow.
"What we don't want to have happen is sort of sleepwalk into a new normal where all of a sudden it's totally common to be launching strikes of any kind all over the world—and now everybody else is doing it too beacuse we set the norm," panelist Janine Davidson, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration and is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me in an interview.
"These task forces are always tricky because there's always cynicism that it'll be a report that just sits on a shelf or whatever," Davidson, a former aircraft commander and pilot, added. But even though the panelists were broadly critical of the administration's current policies, their diagnosis should carry significant weight given that many of them have been in high-level national security discussions before (indeed, they met with White House officials while working on the report). Some of the recommendations the authors make, such as having the Pentagon manage drone attacks rather than the CIA, are supposedly already in the works. And Obama seems to realize that stories of strikes on wedding parties that result in young children getting ripped to shreds do not represent good "optics," to say the least—especially as flying robots become more and more common all over the globe.
"We're coming up to a next wave where [drone use is] going to be domestic, it's going to be commercial, and it's going to be global," said Samuel J. Brannen, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There's this pretty naive view out there that the US is going to be able to prevent drone proliferation by simply deciding it doesn't want to export drones and setting up some sort of arms-control regime. That's just not going to happen. The cat's out of the bag."
Coming just a few days after the court-ordered release of the legal memo intended to justify the 2010 killing of American al Qaeda operative Anwar Awlaki in Yemen, the task force's critique of the administration for its lack of of transparency rings especially true. Among other things, the authors point out that there has yet to be a comprehensive government cost-benefit analysis on the use of drones to kill terrorists and challenge the conventional wisdom that UAVs have been key to containing Islamic militancy since 9/11.
"There is no indication that a US strategy to destroy al Qaeda has curbed the rise of Sunni Islamic extremism, deterred the establishment of Shia Islamic extremist groups, or advanced long-term US security interests," the report says.
As a second-term president who has no more elections to win, Obama obviously doesn't have to worry all that much about how popular his counter-terrorism programs are. But inasmuch as these are prominent members of the US foreign policy brain trust wagging their fingers at him, one would think his almost-lame-duck administration will have a hard time simply brushing it all off as griping from peaceniks.
"Drones are neither some evil super-weapon nor some mystical magic bullet," Georgetown University law professor and former Obama administration official Rosa Brooks, a cochair of the task force, told me. "It's just another way of dropping bombs from the sky. It's just another technology, then, but it's a technology that has made certain things easier than they used to be and given rise to what we see as a somewhat dangerous fantasy that we can kill our way out of a very complex problem one bad guy at a time."
The authors of the report specifically reject the oft-repeated assertion that drone warfare is like a video game that breeds an isolated "Playstation mentality," pointing out that PTSD is disproportionately frequent among drone pilots because they spend weeks or even months surveilling their targets.
Still, the specter of endless war facilitated by UAVs (the use of which reduces the impact of combat on most Americans) is essentially the status quo at this point thanks to the sweeping powers granted to the military and intelligence agencies after 9/11.
"The problem is that it's not drones that are deciding to kill people wherever they might be killing them, it's policymakers and it's counter-terrorism policy and it's specifically the authorization of military force," Brannen, who recently authored his own report on this subject, told me.
The worst-case scenario is that the administration does some tinkering around the edges, pats itself on the back for simultaneously solving global terrorism and obeying international law, and then doesn't actually reduce the frequency of morally dubious strikes. If nothing else, however, the debate has clearly shifted onto friendlier territory for the civil libertarian crowd. Not only is the military potentially facing electoral rebuke in the form of various 2016 presidential contenders who hope to build their brands as opponents of the national-security state over the next couple of years, but—as the task force's report shows—the Beltway establishment that sticks around regardless of who wins elections is starting to wake up to an existential problem.
"When Human Rights Watch or Rand Paul says something, people have a tendency to say, 'Oh that person or that group would say that,'" Brooks said. "Our hope is that this is not a group where people think, 'Oh, well they would say that' when you're looking at the former general counsel of the CIA and the former commander of [US Central Command] and the Bush administration's top lawyer out of the National Security Council."
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