Obama’s Problematic Drone War

President Obama’s lethal drone program raises many troubling questions, such as the quality of evidence used to justify the killings and the lack of judicial review. But another concern is simply its effectiveness, whether it creates more terrorists than it eliminates, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar writes.

By Paul R. Pillar

In John Brennan’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said she would explore with congressional colleagues the possible creation of a special court to review candidates for assassination by armed drones. The idea is worth exploring.

Such a judicial mechanism could be a way of meeting the well-justified concerns of many that the drone program is too much a matter of executive discretion. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can serve as a successful model of how such a court might work. If we are to involve the judiciary before tapping a person’s telephone (even when the target of the tap is a foreigner), why shouldn’t we involve courts before killing the person?

A Predator drone filing a missile.

Even if a drone court does not materialize, congressional consideration of one would give a healthy boost to the hitherto insufficient discussion and debate about applying the rule of law to aerial assassination. Before establishing any such court, however, Congress should carefully weigh one other thing such a court would do and some things it would not do.

Creating the court would further institutionalize, in an even more prominent way than “playbooks” used within the executive branch, assassination of individuals overseas as a continuing function of the United States government. Is that something Americans really want to do, and is it consistent with what Americans think they stand for?

A court would not weigh the pros and cons of either individual killings or the entire program on any criteria other than those that could be made justiciable. Presumably the court would make judgments regarding whether evidence presented to it shows that a given individual is willing and able to participate in anti-U.S. terrorist attacks.

One could not expect a court to weigh whether on balance the killing program is reducing the terrorist threat to the United States more than it is increasing it by stimulating more angry individuals to resort to terrorism. That troubling question has been hanging around now for years, going back to before armed drones were the heavily relied upon tool they have become and to when Donald Rumsfeld ruminated aloud about whether we were creating more terrorists than we were eliminating.

We still lack a satisfactory answer to that question that would constitute a justification for the drone program. (It is presumably this lack that leads David Brooks to suggest creating, in addition to a court, “an independent panel of former military and intelligence officers issuing reports on the program’s efficacy.”)

A court also would not consider other damage (or conceivably benefits) to U.S. policy and interests that goes beyond terrorism and the creation of more terrorists. We were reminded of the broader consequences when the Pakistani ambassador complained publicly this week that drone strikes were a clear violation of international law and her nation’s sovereignty and threatened U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Of course, we need to apply many grains of salt to such a complaint from the envoy of the country where Osama bin Laden was living under official noses and where other reporting suggests that at least some of the drone strikes have been privately welcomed by Pakistani leaders even though they publicly complain about all of them.

Nonetheless, widespread negative reactions to the strikes and their collateral damage affect popular attitudes, in Pakistan and elsewhere, toward the United States and ipso facto affect the posture of governments toward the United States. A couple of years ago I gave testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which I mentioned the two-faced Pakistani approach on this subject, with private attitudes not always matching the public rhetoric.

The one point on which the committee chairman, John Kerry, differed with my testimony was that he believed, based on his own conversations with Pakistani officials, that genuine attitudes toward the drone strikes were more strongly negative than I may have suggested. I take his comment then as a good sign that the new Secretary of State will give proper attention to the broader consequences of the aerial assassinations.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Obama’s Problematic Drone War

  1. elmerfudzie
    February 15, 2013 at 15:23

    May I be so bold as to presume that most of the readership here believes in the following: Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, Circle the wagons, keep the powder dry and most of us also believe in the warehousing of what ever armaments required to keep current and future enemies at bay. All that said, I must insist that the selection of the hellfire missile was a poor choice of drone weaponry. The firepower of that billet cannot be fathomed by average vets from WW II or the Vietnam eras. The damn thing is the size of a basketball but can devastate a pillbox or reinforced concrete bunker. Politically speaking, it was the wrong choice of weapon in terms of “collateral damage” and the menacing propaganda issues it spawns. In more general terms, drones also symbolize the Western Occident nations (Israel included) failure to groom a successful spy network to penetrate tight knit families with their diverse cultural ties and customs. Consequently we find ourselves using a chain saw to cut through the butter. All our billions of defense dollars have failed to fashion one single group of quislings who can unearth and compromise a few cave dwelling terrorists. Someone may be laughing out there but it ain’t me!

  2. Frances in California
    February 11, 2013 at 17:32

    No, Prof. Sanford! You’re right that trolls like to cadence on “PERIOD” but not all Israelis add that; Likudniks, surely. We Progressives like to end with ellipses; leave the thought hanging out there to encourage further debate . . .

  3. robert1014
    February 11, 2013 at 15:49

    Borat: who is this “fanatical” enemy that is “sworn” to destroy us? And, assuming there are people “sworn” to destroy us, one must ask: can they? Do they have any hope of accomplishing their “sworn” goal? Is it practical or ethical for us to throw the entire military might of our nation at a nonspecific enemy who we claim has “sworn” to destroy us if they have no possibility of achieving said goal? Does the word “proportionality” mean anything to us, or to you? Does the idea that our so-called “war on terror” is probably simply a ruse to justify the United States’ greater illegal aggression abroad and increasingly unconstitutional authoritarianism at home not seem remotely likely to you?

    Moreover, how do we know who we’re killing with these drones, (aside from innocent citizens, that is)? Do we simply accept the President’s word? That’s not good enough for me, it wasn’t good enough for the men who wrote the Constitution, and it shouldn’t be good enough for you or anyone else.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    February 11, 2013 at 15:35

    I suppose by the same logic that if Israelis continue to violate Article 49 of the Geneva conventions, U.N. Resolution 242 and Nuremberg Principle VI to whit, “plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity. (c) Crimes against humanity: Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connection with any crime against peace or any war crime”, then when they get blown up on a bus, they reap the whirlwind. Simple, end of story in your own words. But I’ve noticed you and your fellow trolls usually end your diatribes with the word, “PERIOD”. Israelis always seem to add that for emphasis.

  5. F. G. Sanford
    February 10, 2013 at 16:06

    Wasn’t it Ann Coulter who said, “If you take minorities out of the statistics, the crime rate in the U.S. is the same as Norway”, implying that there is a racial propensity to commit crimes. Brennan clearly stated that the drone program was not to “punish” people who had committed acts of terrorism, but to prevent “future” acts. Have we morphed into some kind of an alternate reality in which drones could be used for some kind of domestic or international ethnically suspicious agenda? Even talking about a program that legitimizes the “elimination” of persons based on their likelihood of committing a crime that has not yet occurred is bizarre in the extreme. I have to question the rationality, legality and morality of any discussion that would seriously try to make sense of such an absurd proposition. Professor Pillar, do you realize just how abominable this proposition sounds? A Peoples (Nazi Germany) Court? An Assassination Committee? Murder, Incorporated? Do you really think this could legitimately substitute for due process? I’m sure Joe Stalin would agree, but really, we’re in a moral wilderness here.

  6. Robert
    February 10, 2013 at 13:45

    Using a drone program like this is a double edged sword…one of the reasons the “targets” don’t like it, is because drones are effective, and our “pilots” are not exposed to direct fire…that alone should piss them off…as for US, this is where there should be no argument about the use of drones within our borders…The lines should be drawn in public and with our input…this is where I disagree with anyone supporting the Patriot Act and NDAA…As the record has shown, our political leaders really don’t listen to the voters…yes, a real bucket ‘o worms…

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