Former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Gen. Michael Hayden has an op-ed in today’s New York Times: “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare.” The two-thousand-word piece provides some unique insights into the process by which CIA directors authorize—including over the phone—individual drone strikes and even order the specific munition to be used. Moreover, Hayden provides a more plausible and granular defense than those offered by other former CIA chiefs, including George Tenet, Leon Panetta, and Michael Morrell. He even makes some effort to engage directly with certain prominent criticisms of these lethal operations.
It should be acknowledged that it is difficult to evaluate Hayden’s op-ed, because he refers to intelligence reports that the American public will never see. Moreover, it is impossible to know whether everything Hayden wanted to reveal is included in the published Times piece, since the content of the op-ed must have been approved by the CIA Publications Review Board, whether as a stand-alone piece or an excerpt from his forthcoming book. Nevertheless, there are a few troubling aspects to the op-ed, which are consistent with all U.S. government officials’ arguments in support of drone strikes: how the program is framed and what complicating bits of information that are left out.
First, he writes, “Critics assert that a high percentage of the people killed in drone strikes are civilians—a claim totally at odds with the intelligence I have reviewed.” Without identifying the critics or the numerical percentage, it is difficult to know precisely how many civilians he believes were killed. But, based upon the averages provided by three non-governmental organizations that monitor counterterrorism operations, as director of the CIA Hayden personally authorized an estimated 48 drone strikes, which killed 532 people, 144 of whom were civilians. At 27 percent, this is more than twice the 12 percent of estimated civilian deaths from all of the U.S. drone strikes conducted through January 2016.
Second, Hayden emphasizes that targeted individuals were “senior,” “operatives,” or “Al Qaeda,” and that their primary motivation was to attack the U.S. homeland. He omits the fact that some of the suspected militants targeted were not involved in plotting attacks against the United States. According to top-secret intelligence reports obtained by Jonathan Landay, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) requested one drone strike in 2006, and five more in 2007. One of these strikes occurred on May 22, 2007 “after a Pakistani army assault on the [militant] compound was repulsed.” Landay continues, “The Pakistani army sought the strike even though it had been told that drones wouldn’t be used to support Pakistani troops in combat, said an individual familiar with the episode.” Despite these side-payment strikes, Hayden does not admit that the CIA provided close air support for the Pakistani Army, presumably because it erodes the narrative that drone strikes are being exclusively used for U.S. counterterrorism missions.
Third, he raises the controversial issue of “so-called signature strikes…when the identities of the people present were not known,” which is notable as the U.S. government has never acknowledged this practice. Just three months ago, retired CIA director David Petraeus stated, “I can’t talk about signature strikes…if they are even taken…I don’t know what they are.” Hayden claims they were not indiscriminate, as “Intelligence for signature strikes always had multiple threads and deep history. The data was near encyclopedic.” Since signature strikes were first revealed in February 2008, a great deal of information has emerged that conflicts with Hayden’s confidence. For example, classified intelligence reports obtained by NBC News showed that, “one of every four of those killed by drones in Pakistan between Sept. 3, 2010, and Oct. 30, 2011 [after Hayden retired], were classified as ‘other militants’.” In addition, of eight U.S. citizens killed in U.S. drone strikes, only one was knowingly targeted: Anwar al-Awlaki. The other seven were not definitively known to have been at the location of the attack. One way that the CIA has attempted to deal with the controversial practice is through better branding. According to Daniel Klaidman, author of Kill or Capture, after Hayden retired, “CIA actually changed the name of signature strikes to something called TADS…terrorist attack disruption strike.”
Fourth, the byline in the online version of the op-ed omits Hayden’s current employers. Sixty days after his tenure ended, Hayden was announced as a principle of The Cherthoff Group, and later was named to the boards at Alion Science and Technology, Motorola Solutions, and Mike Baker International. This is completely legal and consistent with many former CIA directors, who leave government service for private sector jobs or rotate back into government, like current CIA Director John Brennan, who stepped down as president and chief executive officer of The Analysis Corporation in January 2009 to become President Obama’s senior counterterrorism advisor. However, any such strong defense of a government program by a former government official should mention the potential conflicts of interest when the author is employed by corporations that provide analytical, technical, and/or logistic support for the U.S. military, intelligence community, and homeland security agencies.
Finally, Hayden opens the piece by proclaiming, “The longer they have gone on, however, the more controversial drone strikes have become.” As somebody who has studied U.S. drone strike policies and practices for ten years, I would say that they have never been less controversial. The Obama administration’s appearance of “reforms” presented in 2013 succeeded in permanently institutionalizing and normalizing what was—under Hayden’s early tenure at the CIA—a rarely used tactic. Drone strikes are generally supported by Americans (though opposed outside of the United States), and there is no plan for or interest from Congressional members to fully investigate covert drones strikes, as was the case for the CIA’s far more limited rendition and enhanced interrogation program. Today, drone strikes are a settled policy, but that does not mean Americans should accept everything a former CIA director tells us about them.