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, Targeted Killings, and American Citizens

by Micah Zenko
February 16, 2013

A drone prepares for takeoff in Afghanistan (Handout/Courtesy Reuters). A drone prepares for takeoff in Afghanistan (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).

Government Accountability Office, “Cybersecurity: National Strategy, Roles, and Responsibilities Need to Be Better Defined and More Effectively Implemented,” February 14, 2013.

Amanda Terkel and Ryan Grim, “Nancy Pelosi Ambivalent on Drones Program,” Huffington Post, February 14, 2013.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is not sure whether the public should be told when the federal government kills an American citizen.

“It depends on the situation,” she said. “Maybe it depends on the timing, because that’s right—it’s all about timing, imminence. What is it that could be in jeopardy if people know that happened at this time? I just don’t know.”

Bruce Feirstein, “Mr. July, Your Drone Is Ready,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2013.

I’m reminded of an interview I did in the summer of 1999 with a B-2 Stealth bomber pilot at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Mo. Noting the seeming invincibility of the B-2, I asked what he thought would be the Air Force’s greatest challenge in the future.

Well before the age of drones, the bomber pilot’s answer was prescient. “I worry about antiseptic warfare, when you remove the blood component and can wage war without fear of taking any casualties. I’m concerned that our leaders won’t fully understand the consequences of what they’re doing, because what seems cheap and clean is anything but.”

Peter D. Feaver and Christopher Gelpi, “Hagel and the Veteran Effect: Service Tempers Views on the Use of Force,” Daily Beast, February 12, 2013.

Over a decade ago, we surveyed elite military, elite civilians, and the general population about their views on a wide range of foreign policy and national security issues. We wound one especially noteworthy pattern: Civilian elites were more supportive of using military force, and for a wider range of scenarios, than were military elites (defined as up and coming mid-range officers at key stages of their career). We asked, for instance, about the importance of using the military to “meet humanitarian needs abroad.” Civilian elites who had never served in the military were five times as likely as military elites to call this “very important.”  To be sure, military elites still tended to rate such missions as “somewhat important,” but such differences in enthusiasm for humanitarian missions are significant when making difficult decisions about the use of force.

This opinion gap within American policy elites also corresponds with actual American uses of military force over the past two hundred years. We examined all international disputes involving the United States from 1816 to 1992 and found a striking pattern: The more veterans in Congress and in the Cabinet, the less likely the United States was to initiate the use of force.  But, if force was initiated, the more veterans in the political elite, the more likely the intervention was at a higher level of escalation. Of course, the veteran status of the political elite is only one cause of American military action among many.  But we found these effects to be substantial even after accounting for the typical predictors of military conflict.

Associated Press, “Military Weighs Cutbacks, Shifts in Drone Programs to Save Money, Face Evolving Threats,” Washington Post, February 11, 2013.

Hostage said the Predators and Reapers can be used in the Pacific region “but not in a highly contested environment. We may be able to use them on the fringes and on the edges and in small locales, but we’re much more likely to lose them if somebody decides to challenge us for that space.”

David Deptula, a retired Air Force three-star general who was deputy chief of staff for intelligence, said the military needs to measure its drone requirements by the amount of data and intelligence needed by troops to accomplish their mission. The focus should not be on the number of drone patrols but on how well the information is being received and analyzed. As technologies advance, he said, the Pentagon can reduce the number of drones in orbit, while still increasing the video, data and other information being transmitted.

“There are smarter ways to deliver the capabilities that are more cost effective” than just building more drones, he said.

David Carr, “Debating Drones, in the Open,” New York Times, February 10, 2013.

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Open Hearing on the Nomination of John O. Brennan to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, February 7, 2013.

SENATOR WYDEN: Mr. Brennan, I’m also convinced there are parts of drone policy that can be declassified consistent with national security.  And I hope that you will work with me on that if you are confirmed.

Let me ask you several other questions with respect to the President’s authority to kill Americans.  I’ve asked you how much evidence the President needs to decide that a particular American can be lawfully killed, and whether the administration believes that the President can use this authority inside the United States.  In my judgment, both the Congress and the public needs to understand the answers to these kinds of fundamental questions. What do you think needs to be done to ensure that Members of the public understand more about when the government thinks it’s allowed to kill them, particularly with respect to those two issues—the question of evidence, and the authority to use this power within the United States?

MR. BRENNAN: I have been a strong proponent of trying to be as open as possible with these programs as far as our explaining what we’re doing. What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues, but at the same time, optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security.  I don’t think that it’s one or the other; it’s trying to optimize both of them. And so, what we need to do is make sure we explain to the American people: what are the thresholds for action; what are the procedures, the practices, the processes, the approvals, the reviews. The Office of Legal Counsel advice establishes the legal boundaries within which we can operate.  It doesn’t mean that we operate at those outer boundaries.  And, in fact, I think the American people would be quite pleased to know that we’ve been very disciplined and very judicious, and we only use these authorities and these capabilities as a last resort.

(3PA: Brennan was asked again in post-hearing questions from the committee: “Could the Administration carry out drone strikes inside the United States?,” to which he replied: “This Administration has not carried out drone strikes inside the United States and has no intention of doing so.” President Obama also non-answered this question during a Google+ Fireside Hangout on February 14. Click here for his full response.)

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