Obama Is Flying Blind on Drones

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April 15 (Bloomberg) -- As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama was unsparing in his criticism of President George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism policies. He condemned torture and the infamous detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the lack of transparency and congressional oversight, the dubious legal framework and the blowback that was spawning more terrorists and diminishing U.S. standing in the world.

Bush’s policies “compromised our most precious values,” Obama said then. “We cannot win a war unless we maintain the high ground and keep the people on our side.”

Similar critiques are being heard today, except they are directed at the Obama administration and its extensive use of drones, the armed, unmanned aircraft that have killed much of the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.

There is anxiety over the issue in the Obama camp. The president has yet to fulfill his pledge in the Feb. 12 State of the Union speech to provide a rationale and justification for these targeted killings. Congressional challenges and criticisms -- even belatedly from some Democrats -- are mounting. The use of drones has increased sevenfold under Obama and has caused the deaths of thousands of suspected terrorists and at least hundreds of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen.

The adoption of this policy was inevitable given the Democrats’ 2008 campaign pledge: no torture or rendition, and a tougher approach than Bush’s in going after al-Qaeda.

CIA Program

In Pakistan, the drone account is run by the Central Intelligence Agency. As the New York Times revealed, this was part of a secret deal with Pakistani intelligence. Even some who believe drones are essential and much less risky than the alternatives are bothered that much of the program has been run by the CIA.

“Drones can be a very important part of our war arsenal if used smartly,” says Frank Wisner, a top diplomat under Republican and Democratic administrations. “As offensive weapons, they should only be part of our intelligence apparatus if they are part of a covert action program and their deniability is essential. The agency should not be a war-fighting instrument.”

The administration is considering transferring all drone responsibility to the military, which now runs the program in Yemen. Leon Panetta, who served as both CIA director and defense secretary under Obama, says this is desirable.

“To move these operations to the military and with greater transparency makes sense,” Panetta said in an interview.

Obama’s approach points to a question that was first raised about Bush’s policies: “Are we creating more terrorists than we’re killing,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once asked in the context of Iraq.

Few dispute the Obama administration’s claims to have wiped out much of al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan, lessening the prospects of a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks. There is much evidence, however, that the drone strikes are creating more terrorists.

In a report this year for the Council on Foreign Relations, the national security scholar Micah Zenko said that in Yemen, the Pentagon has conducted dozens of drone strikes, killing more than 700 people. In 2009, the Obama administration said there were “several hundred” al-Qaeda members in that country; by 2012, the group had “a few thousand members.”

Foreign Opposition

When the Pew Research Center carried out polling on the drone attacks in 20 major countries last year there was majority support for the policy only in the U.S. In most other countries, there was overwhelming opposition. A recent Gallup poll in Pakistan showed attitudes toward U.S. leadership are more negative now than during the Bush years.

“The resentment created” by drone strikes “is much greater than the average American appreciates,” General Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander in Afghanistan, told Reuters in January. Drones add to “the perception of American arrogance that says, ‘We can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.”’

The U.S.’s near monopoly on these weapons won’t last. Dozens of other countries, including Russia and China, are rushing to develop armed drones. The Council on Foreign Relations report warns that if the U.S. doesn’t establish a coherent legal and policy rationale for its use of drones, they could become “an unregulated, unaccountable vehicle for states to deploy lethal force with impunity.”

In a recent op-ed column, John Podesta, the White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, criticized the Obama administration for not providing to Congress the appropriate legal opinions and memorandums governing targeted killings. Keeping both Congress and the public “in the dark,” he wrote, isn’t a sustainable policy. The article is said to have infuriated the president.

However, the policies may be exceeding the authority granted by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks that allows the president to go after those who were responsible or who were likely to attack the U.S. again.

Last week, the McClatchy newspapers, after reviewing intelligence reports, concluded that U.S. drones were killing hundreds of low-level militants in South Asia, contrary to the president’s assurances that the strikes targeted only top al-Qaeda leaders.

This suggests Obama is “misleading the public about the scope of who can legitimately be targeted,” Zenko said. Other sources said some of these strikes killed militants who weren’t affiliated with al-Qaeda at the behest of Pakistan.

There are the stirrings of a full-fledged debate. That would be healthy, one expert argues: “This genie is out of the bottle and there has to be greater transparency. We should welcome this debate.” That’s former CIA and Pentagon chief Panetta.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Al Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.