Protecting the Innocent in Obama's Drone War

Indiscriminate killer.

Photographer: Timothy Walter/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

In his admirably direct statement Thursday about the U.S. drone strike three months ago that killed two Westerners held by al-Qaeda, President Barack Obama said: "I take full responsibility." He shouldn’t. The Central Intelligence Agency, Pentagon and especially Congress all have some accountability for America's drone war and the innocents who have died in it.

The deaths of American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto present Congress with an opportunity to fulfill the oversight role demanded of it. More than a mere postmortem, its investigation needs to look hard at the administration's legal rationale for its drone strategy and decide whether it's an adequate basis for the next administration -- or whether Congress needs to pass legislation before 2017.

National security concerns will rightly constrain any public inquiry. Still, there are plenty of questions the administration can and should answer. One of the main ones is which agency carried out this attack, and where exactly it happened.

For years, the CIA conducted all drone strikes inside Pakistan under a secret agreement that allowed the Pakistani government to claim deniability. This charade is now pointless, especially with Pakistani public opinion solidly against the terrorists after the massacre at a school in Peshawar last December. In 2013, the Pentagon, with more experience in trying to avoid civilian casualties, was supposed to take over the agency's duties. That changeover has been delayed by congressional resistance, but remains necessary. 

Obama said in 2013 he signs off on every strike aimed at an individual. He didn't in this case because, the White House says, the two American jihadis killed in a contemporaneous strikes in the same region -- Ahmed Farouq and Adam Gadahn -- were not targets. So what was the purpose of the bombings? Were they so-called signature strikes, aimed at activity as opposed to people? If so, what happened to the administration's plans to end that practice?

Even if Farouq and Gadahn were killed unintentionally, the public needs to know the full circumstances of their deaths -- whether the U.S. made any attempt to capture them, as with Muhanad Mahmoud al Farekh, an American detained in Pakistan this year and now facing trial in the U.S. Were they on any so-called kill list? Were they "engaged in continual planning and direction of attacks on Americans,"one threshold in the administration memo outlining the legal rationale for killing a U.S. citizen?

Civilian deaths are sadly inevitable in war. But it's worth finding out how well the U.S. has fulfilled promises to limit them in Pakistan. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 421 and 960 civilians have been killed by drones in Pakistan; human-rights advocates have higher figures. The Pentagon should put an end to this speculation with more transparency.

Ostensibly, the U.S. had no idea where Weinstein and Lo Porto were being held. If so, does this reflect a breakdown in human intelligence in a region controlled by two allied nations? Were attempts made at a rescue or for a hostage trade? Surely the CIA could release more information without compromising national security.

In the aftermath of Congress's report on CIA torture last fall, there was discussion of a similar congressional inquiry into Obama's drone war. That remains a good idea. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.