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President Obama Should Limit Drone Killings, Argues Micah Zenko in New Report

January 14, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations


U.S. drone strike policies undermine the nation's foreign policy objectives and have resulted in the loss of hundreds of innocent civilian lives, according to a report by CFR Douglas Dillon Fellow Micah Zenko from the Center for Preventive Action. Zenko calls for greater oversight of U.S. drone strikes from the Obama administration, Congress, and the international community.

Zenko asserts that despite the United States' deep reliance on drones—they are responsible for over 95 percent of the more than four hundred nonbattlefield targeted killings—U.S. drone policies may be creating a "blowback" effect by radicalizing local populations and increasing the number of terrorists. Zenko notes that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) following in Yemen grew from "several hundred al-Qaeda members" in 2010 to "a few thousand members" by July 2012, according to the Obama administration. While it is always difficult to determine motivations for insurgencies and terrorist organizations, Zenko notes that "there appears to be a strong correlation in Yemen between increased targeted killings since December 2009 and heightened anger toward the United States and sympathy with or allegiance to AQAP."

He adds that U.S. drone policies also undermine the nation's core interests by spurring proliferation. "At least a dozen other states and nonstate actors could possess armed drones within the next ten years and leverage the technology in unforeseen and harmful ways."

Zenko also asserts that U.S. drone policies run the risk of sharing the "fate of Bush-era enhanced interrogation techniques and warrantless wiretapping. . . . Between February and June 2012, [American popular] support for drone strikes against suspected terrorists fell from 83 percent to 62 percent—which represents less support than enhanced interrogation techniques maintained in the mid-2000s."

The report concludes with a substantive agenda. Among the recommendations for the Obama administration and Congress:

  • Urging the Obama administration to limit killings to "the leadership of al-Qaeda and affiliated forces or individuals with a direct operational role in past or ongoing terrorist plots against the United States and its allies."
  • End so-called signature strikes, which target unidentified militants based on their behavior patterns and personal networks.
  • Improve its oversight of drone strikes and to continue restrictions on armed drone sales.
  • Work internationally to establish rules and norms governing the use of drones.

Read the full report, Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies.

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