Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Drones, Drones, Drones

by Micah Zenko
September 23, 2011

Lt. Col. Geoffrey Barnes, Detachment 1 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Attack Squadron commander, performs a pre-flight inspection of an MQ-1B Predator unmanned drone aircraft on September 3, 2008 (Christopher Griffin/Courtesy Reuters).

Lt. Col. Geoffrey Barnes, Detachment 1 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Attack Squadron commander, performs a pre-flight inspection of an MQ-1B Predator unmanned drone aircraft on September 3, 2008 (Christopher Griffin/Courtesy Reuters).

- Remarks of John O. Brennan, “Strengthening our Security by Adhering to our Values and Laws,” Harvard Law School, September 16, 2011.

The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qa’ida as being restricted solely to “hot” battlefields like Afghanistan.  Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida, the United States takes the legal position that —in accordance with international law—we have the authority to take action against al-Qa’ida and its associated forces without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time.  And as President Obama has stated on numerous occasions, we reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves. That does not mean we can use military force whenever we want, wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for a state’s sovereignty and the laws of war, impose important constraints on our ability to act unilaterally—and on the way in which we can use force—in foreign territories.

(3PA: Mr. Brennan asserts that the United States can target Al Qaeda and “associated forces” whenever and wherever it wants.  But, he claims, “That does not mean we can use military force whenever we want, wherever we want.” Puzzling.)

- Karen DeYoung, “U.S. increases Yemen drone strikes,” The Washington Post, September 16, 2011.

The Obama administration has significantly increased the frequency of drone strikes and other air attacks against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen in recent months amid rising concern about political collapse there….Unlike in Pakistan, where the CIA has presidential authorization to launch drone strikes at will, each U.S. attack in Yemen—and those being conducted in nearby Somalia, most recently on Thursday near the southern port city of Kismayo—requires White House approval, senior administration officials said.

(3PA: In this article, DeYoung claims that Yemen drone strikes are conducted by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command.  Meanwhile, in the piece below, Ignatius claims the CIA will “probably” be in charge of Yemen drone strikes.)

- Associated Press, “Pakistan fights to seize crashed U.S. drone from Taliban,” The Guardian, September 18, 2011.

Pakistani soldiers have fought Taliban militants to seize precious debris from a suspected US drone that crashed in a rugged tribal area near the Afghan border, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

(3PA: Note that this was the second reported CIA drone crash in Pakistan in the past three weeks. The other crash was two kilometers in Pakistani terrority.  As was reported: “Sources said soon after the incident personnel of [Frontier Corps] cordoned off the area and shifted the wreckage to FC fort. “Two cameras and other spare parts were recovered” they added.”)

- Peter Finn, “A future for drones: Automated killing,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2011.

“Authorizing a machine to make lethal combat decisions is contingent upon political and military leaders resolving legal and ethical questions,” according to an Air Force treatise called Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047. “These include the appropriateness of machines having this ability, under what circumstances it should be employed, where responsibility for mistakes lies and what limitations should be placed upon the autonomy of such systems.”

- Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller, “U.S. assembling secret drone bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, officials say,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2011.

The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said.

The aim in assembling a constellation of bases in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is to create overlapping circles of surveillance in a region where al-Qaeda offshoots could emerge for years to come, U.S. officials said. The locations “are based on potential target sets,’ said a senior U.S. military official. “If you look at it geographically, it makes sense — you get out a ruler and draw the distances [drones] can fly and where they take off from.”

- William S. Cohen, “Drones can’t change war,” Politico, September 20, 2011.

Something of a shift is evident with our increased reliance on armed drones to target those identified as enemy combatants. The increased use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, however, raises significant issues. For example:

• Who determines when a drone strike is legitimate, and who decides to “pull the trigger” for a given strike?

• How reliable is the intelligence that the U.S. gathers before a strike is ordered?

• How reliable and secure are the thousands of miles of networks and data links involved in the drones’ command and control with the decision makers and policymakers across the globe?

• How accurate are the calculations about collateral damage — casualties among innocent people — expected for each strike?

• Must consent, whether explicit or tacit, be given by leaders of the countries in which the strikes are executed?

• Does the use of drones, along with reduced military presence on the ground, undermine the confidence of the locals that we are willing to assume shared risks?

• What role does Congress play in overseeing war by remote control?

- Myra Imran, “HR ministry to take up drone attacks issue with UN rapporteur,” The News, September 20, 2011.

To build diplomatic pressure against drone attacks on Pakistan, the Federal Ministry of Human Rights has decided to take up the issue before UN Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions…He further requested that after every such strike the matter must be reported to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Since the office of Special Rapporteur already holds the view that these strikes may amount to extra-judicial killings and continues to take note of these strikes, Pakistan s official communication to it in this regard might prove to be highly productive.

(3PA: Read the UN Special Rapporteur’s May 2010 report on targeted killings for background. That report was written by Phillip Alston, Professor of Law at New York University. The current UN Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions is Christopher Heyns, Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria.)

- David Ignatius, “The price of becoming addicted to drones,” The Washington Post, September 22, 2011.

As the United States steps up Predator attacks over Yemen and Somalia, should it adopt the same “signature” targeting it uses over Pakistan? Under this approach, the drones can strike al-Qaeda training camps and fighters not on the list of specific targets compiled by the CIA. The signature approach is more aggressive, but it risks creating what terrorism analyst David Kilcullen calls “accidental guerrillas” — and thereby widening the war.

To understand the debate, some background is useful. The CIA’s legal authority (it conducts attacks over Pakistan and will probably have similar responsibility in Yemen and Somalia) dates to a lethal covert-action “finding” signed days after Sept. 11, 2001. The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center compiles a list of approved targets, usually numbering less than several dozen, based on intelligence that they pose a serious, continuing threat to the United States. That list is reviewed every six months, and names come on and off.

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