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Appointment of John Brennan as Director of Central Intelligence and U.S. Drone Strike Policies

Presider: Gideon Rose, Editor, Foreign Affairs, and Peter G. Peterson Chair, Foreign Affairs
Speakers: Sarah Holewinski, and Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
February 4, 2013

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OPERATOR: Excuse me, everyone. We now have our speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen- only mode. At the conclusion of the presentation, we will open the floor for questions, and at that time instructions will be given if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn today's conference over to Gideon Rose.

GIDEON ROSE: Hi, everybody. Gideon Rose here, editor of Foreign Affairs. And we're delighted to have the chance to talk with you about John Brennan's appointment as the head of the CIA and about the current status and future of the war on terror.

We have a couple of fantastic experts here, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations and Sarah Holewinski of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. Both of them are Foreign Affairs authors who have written excellent pieces that are well worth your attention, and both of them have focused in particular on the tactics of the war on terror, the upsides and downsides of the mode of indirect warfare or light-footprint direct warfare we're currently using and therefore well-positioned to tell us about what has been doing on and what Brennan's selection means and implies about the future.

So with that, let's get right to it. So what exactly is the significance of this appointment for the war on terror, guys, and what does it herald about what comes next? Micah, why don't we start with you, since you just did a report on drones.

MICAH ZENKO: Sure. This is Micah Zenko. Thank you so much for the opportunity, and I'm happy to go first.

I think what this does is it further cements the sort of institutionalization and the codifying of the process of targeted killings, taking the individual who, since 2007, was an adviser to the -- Senator Obama's presidential campaign and then led his transition team and then served as his senior White House counterterrorism adviser, the person who managed and oversaw the various kill lists that -- of suspected terrorists and militants the United States went after -- this now places him as the lead executive authority of all CIA drone strikes.

The real question which is to be determined is whether or not John Brennan's move from the White House to Langley to be director of CIA is in fact an effort for the CIA to get out of the drone strikes business. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta this weekend said -- and people -- reportedly, John Brennan says this as well -- is that the CIA should not be doing these operations; only the Pentagon should do them because if only the Pentagon does them, they can be more transparent, the Congress can have more oversight, and we can have a better understanding of what the United States is doing going around the world and using lethal force. But for the near term, this simply the -- sort of, again, the institutionalization, the codification of the -- Obama's lethal presidency.

ROSE: Sarah, what's your take?

SARAH HOLEWINSKI: Well, I'm sure it would be a lot more fun if we had a call where I was debating Micah on everything. But I have to agree with what he just said. And I think this is actually a story about what we don't know, and that's the whole drone story to begin with is what -- we don't know the impact on the ground, we don't know what the long-term ramifications of the drone program are going to be, and frankly, we don't know what John Brennan is going to do about the drone program when he gets to the CIA. I mean, White House insiders have said that he was the moderating voice about -- counterterrorism adviser, but because everything is so classified, because everything is so secret, we actually don't know what that moderating voice is. Now, if he goes over to the CIA and says, look, guys, we need to get back to intelligence gathering; we need to get out of the drones business, that would certainly be significant. But I'm not sure that that's going to come out in the hearings.

ROSE: OK, guys, let me ask you a question. Maybe I'll play the devil's advocate here. So from the perspective of a lot of people in America -- and I think, at least on observed basis, from the administration's perspective, we, on the one hand, don't want to be involved in major boots-on-the-ground wars with a heavy footprint in strange places where people want to kill us.

On the other hand, we don't want to walk away from the world entirely and recognize that there are indeed, threats out there that need to be confronted and bad guys who want to kill us. And so over the last few years the administration has essentially relief increasingly on targeted killings and raids and drone strikes to essentially find a middle ground between heavy counterinsurgency and, you know, withdrawal and isolation.

It in the short term seems to have worked pretty well. There are obvious possible dangers, but from the American public's perspective, this seems like a nice saddle point in between two options, neither of which seems particularly attractive. What's wrong with that picture? Why would you disagree with that?

ZENKO: This is Micah. I'll go first.

Again, this -- you have just perfectly characterized the Obama's administration false dichotomy that any counterterrorism response or any strategy for engaging the world requires kinetic military force and that along the spectrum of military force, you can either do Normandy invasion D-Day or Operation Desert Storm, or you can do drone strikes, and that the -- and among those two options, well, then of course we're going to -- we're going to pick drone strikes.

But the point of the matter is that the United States has been at this for over 10 years conducting over 420 targeted killings that have killed something like 3,500 people, although we really don't know because the administration has never provided any justification or estimates for how they count terrorists, militants, limit collateral damage, have the procedures to do -- to mitigate the ill effects of drone strikes, so we are basing our assumptions on the faith of the executive branch. And as you know, every administration that has ever had executive secret powers with a fairly disinterested Congress says their justification for using those operations boils down to, trust us.

And there is lots of reasons to suggest that we shouldn't trust them: Like, in Pakistan, these drones -- 2 percent of Pakistanis support drone strikes and are issues dealing with blowback and the emerging norms that the U.S. is setting for how other countries will use lethal force outside of their borders with drones. There is the issue of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has more than tripled in size, according to U.S. government estimates, since the drone campaign ramped up in 2009. These strikes are very poorly coordinated with other U.S. foreign policy objectives. So very famously, in February 2012 Secretary Clinton claimed that the U.S. should never be conducting lethal strikes in Somalia; that very same day there was actually a special operations drone strike against a convoy. And so there is a number of issues that should -- that should cause pause and should require the administration to provide more transparency, should make Congress care and should -- we should have a better understanding of what they're actually doing because in fact, we don't know other than their -- the administration's assertions.

ROSE: So Sarah, do you think -- are there any other problems that drone strikes cost?

HOLEWINSKI: (Inaudible) -- on that last point that Micah made about public transparency, I mean, you look at wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there were protests in the street of America, there were protests in the street of Baghdad and Kabul, there were people who agreed with the wars and came out and said so, including at the U.N., explaining what the United States was doing. We've got none of that here, so we've shifted from major boots on the grounds to an entirely secret operation in which not even the American people understand the costs or strategic benefit to what is being carried out in their name. So that's a -- that's a really big problem, and it's something that has to come forward and has to be clarified before we can even understand whether counterterrorism policy as it's being (carried out ?) through drones is effective or not.

ROSE: OK. Well, let me pose, again, devil's advocate for you guys. So your transparency and your congressional oversight -- this -- perhaps the least functional organ of government in the United States today is Congress. It is the most subject to ridiculous partisan bickering. You have hearings that essentially are platforms for propaganda from the two sides. And why do we assume that subjecting things to the kind of congressional politics, which have not worked in other areas, will be better than the methods and tactics which killed Osama bin Laden?

ZENKO: Well, just to know, there have been efforts to -- by Congress to have oversight. For example, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who are supposed to have oversight over all U.S. government foreign policy activities, they have asked the administration for off-the-record briefings. These are people with high-level security clearances. They've asked for off-the-record briefings. They've actually threatened to withhold funding to get them. And the White House refuses to acknowledge that the U.S. conducts drone strikes.

So if I'm doing -- supposed to provide oversight over East Africa and I can't be given some plausible description of what the Joint Special Operations Command is doing, I can't do oversight.

The Judiciary Committee, likewise, has asked for over 16 months for the Office of Legal Counsel memo which justifies the killing of American citizens. The White House has not only never provided the memo; they've never provided a briefing about the contents of the memo or acknowledged that it exists.

So I completely agree with you that there's lots to find disappointing about this Congress both on the House and the Senate side, but there are -- there are individuals there who are trying to get some insights into what the White House is doing, but they haven't received them.

ROSE: Sarah, are you impressed with Congress' handling of national security matters in the areas that you're talking -- you deal with, and do you think that would actually improve the -- either the morality or the efficacy of the war on terror programs if they were more involved?

HOLEWINSKI: Yeah, I'm definitely not impressed with how Congress has been handling this oversight in particular. But just because something is broken doesn't mean that we throw it out. We have a very strong Constitution. We have a very strong American ethic about having congressional oversight. It's not time to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's actually time to fix that oversight.

One of the best ways we can do that is to have the drone program taken away from the CIA, which is inherently a clandestine organization and agency, and rather put it with the DOD, which, while not perfect, actually does have a system of lessons learned, of best practices and of being transparent with the American public to an extent. I mean, naturally you have things that are a matter of national security that you're not going to share, but the level of secrecy around this drone program is just absurd, frankly, and Congress needs to have that kind of oversight. That's what America is about.

ROSE: OK --

ZENKO: If I can -- if I can just add on to Sarah's -- one of Sarah's point is that in February 2008, at a congressional hearing, the -- at the time, the CIA director, Michael Hayden, revealed that the CIA had detained 100 individuals, that they had -- made some description about how they were handled. He said that 30 of them received enhanced interrogation techniques. He said that three were waterboarded, and he named the three individuals. There has never been a plausible accounting of the more than 3,000 people -- so we're not talking -- three people were waterboarded; over 3,000 people have been killed. And we know more about how the United States can detain, question, interrogate, bring to justice individuals than we know about how they justify their death.

ROSE: OK, one more of the devil's advocate point on this, which is sometimes the United States government will do things in conjunction with allied governments or even sort of neutral governments that both governments feel are necessary but no one wants to admit to publicly. And so the attempt to break these out and make them more transparent might actually cause problems with an operation because it might embarrass the host government, which doesn't want to be publicly known that it's cooperating with the United States. Would the kind of changes you're talking about in making these things more above-board and more vetted and more public -- would those potentially crimp the style of not just the U.S. forces but of the host governments we're cooperating with?

ZENKO: I'll take this. I mean, if you look at U.S. law under Title 50, a covert operation is some action which the United States' involvement cannot be described or acknowledged in any way. The point is to maintain plausible deniability for a U.S. hand in doing so.

Well, that's not true anywhere. I mean, the -- when the U.S. began strikes in Pakistan in 2004, yeah, for a couple years they could pretend like this wasn't U.S. unmanned aircraft doing it. That's gone, and everyone acknowledges the strikes have happened there, including President Obama, who acknowledged a year ago almost to the date in a Google Plus hangout when he revealed for the first time that U.S. drone strikes were happening in Pakistan. So it's implausible that we need to maintain the myth that they're covert in places like Pakistan. The president of Yemen, President Hadi, has bragged about U.S. drone strikes, so that's not -- that's no longer plausible. And then similar too is with the -- too with the transitional federal government in Somalia and the current elected regime in Somalia. They widely acknowledge the U.S. is conducting these operations.

There are going to be other covert operations where the United States' hand should not be involved and they should remain properly secret, but this is the worst-kept, longest war -- this is the worst- kept secret and the longest war that the U.S. has been involved in that has been secret in history, and it's no longer an acceptable justification for not revealing what the United States is doing.

ROSE: So would you guys be happy if, say, the CIA's operations in this area were transferred to, let's say, Special Operations Command?

HOLEWINSKI: Well, I can -- I can take that.

No -- (chuckling) -- I wouldn't. I would be -- I would be happier than if they stayed with the CIA, which as an agency, of course, has a history of being clandestine and covert.

JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, is basically a mini- CIA within the Defense Department, and of course that is just as much of a problem as having a covert agency like the CIA take over drone strikes.

However, JSOC actually could be much more accountable, to (Congress ?) particularly, because it's DOD. That whole program needs some reworking. So at least if we put the drone operation under DOD, it would be some method for Congress to work this out and have more accountability.

ROSE: Micah, what's your take on this?

ZENKO: No, I would generally agree. I mean, there -- it is true that there has been this sort of blurred wall between the CIA and the Pentagon, with General Petraeus going from Central Command to the CIA, with Secretary Panetta come from the director of the CIA to the Pentagon. The current chief of staff of the Air Force was the lead military liaison to the CIA.

It's also not true that there is a bright wall between CIA and DOD operations. They share drones. They do joint command and control. The CIA provides intelligence for Pentagon operations and vice versa.

But the distinction is that the Pentagon, under Title 10 authority, does provide more justification and transparency into its strikes. So for example, the U.S. in its -- in the White House biannual war powers resolution reporting to Congress, they acknowledge targeted strikes by the Pentagon. They have never -- they don't acknowledge targeted strikes by the CIA in Pakistan.

And when Joint Special Operations Command brief the House and Senate Armed Services Committee, they provide much more information. I know individuals who have seen both the CIA briefings to the Intel Committees and the JSOC briefings to the Armed Services Committees. The Pentagon provides far more information.

And furthermore, if the White House decides to make these operations more transparent and Congress demands, I mean, you can change the level of transparency you have for them. They -- we do this all the time for military operations.

ROSE: So what would -- OK. If General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or Admiral McRaven were with us on the call, what would they say? Would they agree with you guys: Yeah, give us control over this?

ZENKO: Yes.

HOLEWINSKI: Yeah, they would, absolutely. Even General McChrystal was just recently questioning the drone program and the blowback that it's having in other places. I think the military command is very concerned not only about whether this is effective counterterrorism policy but whether it's right to have the CIA, JSOC and all involved in this to varying degrees, where you really can't tell who's doing what or what the coordination is.

I would also say just a real quick point about JSOC. At the very least, they are military, and when you've got civilians at the CIA carrying out drone operations in a massive lethal use of force, that should raise questions in and of itself. At the very least, JSOC officers have gone through military training. They've had IHL -- international humanitarian law -- training and should be aware of civilian protection, best practices.

ROSE: OK. What -- so I'll take my one last question before turning it over to our guests for their questions. Why -- is the -- why doesn't administration do what you're saying? Is it just because it's more convenient to have things done completely off the books at the personal behest of the White House and the CIA in a basement somewhere? Is that basically it and so that -- that what you're -- is it -- is the reason they are resistant to doing this precisely for the reasons you're talking about, because it would introduce a little more accountability?

ZENKO: I would say that every White House wants -- I mean, I don't want anyone grading my homework. Why would anyone want somebody looking into how they conduct their business? I mean, the White -- this White House is no different than any other White House in that -- in that degree.

The point to understand is that the CIA's involvement in drone strikes is a complete artifice of history. If you go back and read the 9/11 commission, if you look at how the CIA became involved in the armed drone program, it was a bureaucratic fight. The CIA just by happenstance had the initial armed drones, and they were used as an expansion of the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan, starting in 2004. There's no rhyme or reason why the CIA is still doing this, other than just sort of inertia and path dependency. That's not an -- that's not a -- for my -- for my opinion, a significant reason to continue a policy.

ROSE: OK. With that, let's get our guests in.

OPERATOR: Thank you. (Give queuing instructions.) And we are currently holding for questions.

Our first question comes from Tom Curry from NBC News.

QUESTIONER: Hi, can you hear me?

ROSE: Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: OK. I had two questions. One is, even if these strikes were done by the Air Force or people in the Defense Department, is it not the case that Congress would not get advance notification or Congress would not have to give permission before the strikes were done?

And my second question is, I don't know if you saw what General Hayden said last week at AEI. He said we have made it -- "we" meaning, I guess, the Obama administration -- has made it so legally difficult and so politically dangerous to capture terrorists or terror suspects that it seems that the default option is to take terrorists off the battlefields in another sort of way, by which he meant killing them.

He's said -- he's said similar things before, that the Obama administration would rather kill than capture and that they're losing a lot of valuable intelligence by doing this. Can you comment?

ZENKO: I'll take the -- just the first one and a bit of the second one. Presently, Joint Special Operations Command operations are not all reported ahead of time to the Armed Services Committee. They are reported as, quote, "special access programs," which are sort of intermittent broad classification programs that are reported up to Congress. These include things like buying very secretive satellites and other surveillance systems as well as a small number of military activities. So as it stands, they're not individually reported to the committees, and that wouldn't necessarily provide more oversight of them -- of them anyways.

To the -- to the second issue, I would say that the detaining individuals sort of ended under President Bush, right? So that stopped roughly in 2006, when the CIA ended its third-party rendition program, when it ended its enhanced interrogation. The fight since then has been the U.S. -- the White House and the Congress can't agree on what is the correct jurisprudence for individuals who are detained in non-battlefield situations.

And so that still is the case today. Whether or not that leads to more individuals being killed and captured is hard to make a clear determination, but it is true that if an individual is detained in a nonbattlefield setting today, it is not apparent whether or not they come to the U.S. court system or military tribunals, although the Obama administration has said no more individuals will go to Guantanamo. So it's still, in my mind, unclear.

HOLEWINSKI: Yeah, let me comment on the second question real quick. You know, the Obama administration has said that it would prefer to capture rather than kill, and it has said this several times. And yet, even then, officials come out the next day and say, well, we really don't have anywhere to put anyone, so the inference being, we have to kill them.

I'm a little worried this is the discussion. This is sort of the fake Catch-22: that either we have to capture them or we have to kill them. And I'm not hearing very many other smart policy alternatives to the war on terror, which I would like to hear.

MR. : Such as what?

HOLEWINSKI: Well, I mean there's always development, there's always human rights, there's always soft power, but I think that, you know, whether we want to fall back on those or whether we want to think creatively about other ways in which we could counter terror, it should be a public discussion.

ZENKO: I would just to that that every administration official says that obviously you can't kill your way out of this problem, but that seems to be the lead approach that the Obama administration has taken -- not just General McChrystal or General Hayden, you know, who was in the Air Force before he ran the NSA and the CIA. I've never met a senior military official who thinks drone strikes are the answers to the problem. And the reason is, if you're a -- if you're a military commander, your whole point in life is to increase your situational awareness of the environment that you operate in.

The military acronym is find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, disseminate. Well, all the U.S is doing right now is the first three F's, which is find, fix, finish. Unless you detain somebody to get greater information, you sort of end your situational awareness of the battlefield.

And so, you know, you can sort of kill people in perpetuity, forever, but it doesn't ultimately get to the causes of why disinterested third parties join terrorists or why you sort of will be doing this mission forever. I mean again, 3,500 people have been killed in over 400 operations, and there's no evidence that targeted killings is going to be the end to this, and there's no sense of when this mission -- when these sort of operations will end.

HOLEWINSKI: And in fact, continuing to kill people using lethal force over time may actually be the opposite of counterterrorism operation.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question comes from David Lerman from Bloomberg News.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Can you hear me? Can you hear me?

ROSE: Yes, we can.

QUESTIONER: Oh, OK. I'd just like to bring it back to Brennan's confirmation. Can you both tell me what you would ask Brennan at the hearing? What do we want to know from him about this policy that he hasn't already addressed, in broad terms?

HOLEWINSKI: Well, I can -- I can give a couple. Obviously, I'm coming from Center for Civilians in Conflict, so I have a very particular view on this. But I would want to know the definition of a civilian. I would want to know the legal justification for targeting. I would want to know what kind of training CIA, JSOC, DOD drone operators receive, particularly about distinction between civilians and combatants. I would want to know what is the legal, ethical and strategic justifications for signature strikes, which are strikes based on behavior rather than known identity.

ZENKO: Yeah, I would just add to that -- I mean, one of the more disturbing aspects of John Brennan's public statements is he has a conception of using military force that you find in a lot of senior civilian officials, which is he often uses terms like "surgical" and "exceptional" and "precise." He likes to use the cancer metaphor that you can get to the cancerous body without affecting anything else.

This is not the way anyone who uses air power for a living knows how air power works, right? This is a very antiseptic, quote, tools of national power, as he always describes them, notion.

He -- I mean, he also claims that in Yemen -- that the Yemenis actually like drone strikes and there isn't wide opposition to them. And there's no Yemeni -- there's no journalists, there's no activists, there's no lawyers who would make -- who would agree to that. And to get to Sarah's earlier point, the size of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has more than tripled since drone strikes started occurring with a great intensity.

The final question I would add is many of these interventions, especially in Yemen -- the United States is serving as the counterinsurgency air force of the Hadi regime. The U.S. makes the claim that every individual targeted is a senior al-Qaida operational leader who poses a significant and imminent threat of violent attack against the U.S. homeland. That's simply not plausible, and it's not true. If you look at some of the individuals targeted, they're engaged in an insurgency operation against the state of Yemen. They want to impose some degree of Shariah law and potentially kill soldiers in the areas where they operate. They are not getting on planes to conduct strikes in the U.S. homeland.

But in this elongated definition of imminence, the Obama administration can justify targeted killings anywhere. And so that would be one of the questions to ask.

But I would just point -- I went back and looked at all of the confirmation hearings for the last three CIA directors, and if you look at actual questions about these issues, they don't happen. And when Roy Blunt tried to ask General Petraeus about targeted strikes, Dianne Feinstein basically cut him off. So I don't suspect there will be a lot of deep new revelations about targeted killings on Thursday.

HOLEWINSKI: You know, one of the -- one of the more simple but complicated questions that could be asked is, Mr. Brennan, what is the impact of drone operations on the (towns ?) in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia? And I would be really interested to see if he had an answer to that because I really don't -- (audio break) -- officials quite understand what the impact of this policy is, and if they don't know the impact, is it then actually a good policy?

QUESTIONER: Thanks.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jamie Tarabay from Atlantic Media.

QUESTIONER: Hello there. Can you hear me?

MR. : Yes.

HOLEWINSKI: Hi, Jamie.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Sarah? How are you?

HOLEWINSKI: Good.

QUESTIONER: I think one of the things that I'm very interested in -- and perhaps we can try and sort of give some hint to the people, you know, questioning Brennan on Thursday -- is just how they come up with their kill lists and the fact that there is this very broad area that all these people fall into. And you know, I'm trying to recall which White House press spokesperson said, when asked about al-Awlaki's 16- year-old American son, who was killed alongside the magazine editor in a drone strike and the -- sort of the response to that, well, that's what you get when you hang out with your dad like that and, you know, the idea that someone has made a decision that this is the list, and these are the people on this list, and what kind of oversight there is or, you know, just what kind of accountability there is in terms of who's on the list and how that gets decided, like what their sort of prerequisites are. Thanks.

HOLEWINSKI: Go ahead, Micah. Do you want to go?

ZENKO: Yeah, sorry. Well, I mean, one thing to understand is that most of the individuals who have been killed by U.S. targeted killings -- and of the 400-plus targeted killings, 97 percent of them happened by drones, but not all of them by drones -- most of the individuals killed don't appear on a kill list, right? The kill list articles that emerged last spring were a really interesting smoke screen to get over the issue of signature strikes.

You know, most of the individuals who the United States kills, they're -- they don't go through a careful interagency vetting process. They don't carefully weigh the intelligence about whether to conduct the operation. Through patterns of behavior determined by ground intelligence, signals intelligence and aerial surveillance, these are individuals who are determined to have, quote, "provided material or operational support to suspected Islamic militants or terrorist organizations." So these aren't -- these aren't named individuals. The kill lists are the minority of strikes. But how individuals appear on it we've never -- we've never been told, although there are a lot of adjectives that senior administration officials use on and off the record about how it's very careful, very precise, very deliberate, very thought-out. But again, that's simply executive branch assertion.

HOLEWINSKI: And, of course, a "kill list" is such an ominous phrase that it's been getting so much attention. Frankly, in most armed conflicts, there is a kill list. A warring party will create a list of people that it wants to take out because it believes that it's up a, you know, high chain of command, this kind of thing. That's not necessarily the problem, or even knowing who's on the kill list is not necessarily a problem, although, of course, we knew who was on the kill list. In Baghdad, for example, they had the playing cards, which made them very obvious.

But when it comes to these drone strikes, the problem is we don't know how they get onto the kill list. So it's the behavior that they have, the history that they have or the actions that they've taken in the past or, perhaps, their rank in a particular organization that gets them put on the list. And those are the types of protocols and procedures, the basic attributes of what can get you onto the kill list that is so important not only from a legal justification standpoint for the drone program but because civilians on the ground who are living under drones live in constant fear. There's really tremendous psychological trauma to these communities because they don't know who can be targeted and who can't, because it's never been made public. So if I give water to somebody on the street because they're thirsty or I invite somebody into my home but they happen to elicit those behaviors that could put them on the kill list, does that mean that I am also targetable? So having this kind of ambiguity is really having quite a negative impact on the ground aside from the legal justifications that are necessary.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question from Lucien Kim (ph) from International Herald Tribune.

QUESTIONER: Hi, can you hear me?

ZENKO: Yes, sir.

HOLEWINSKI: Yeah.

QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm calling you from Berlin today, and I'm -- the debate so far has been on the domestic debates inside the U.S. What interests me sitting here in Germany is what are the worldwide implications of the U.S. drone program, for example, here in Germany, the big debate now about acquiring armed drones, possibly (also ?) from the U.S.? And second part question is what is the danger also of this becoming a proliferation issue and possibly a new arms race?

ZENKO: Well, I'll just point out that -- I mean, the -- as I highlight in my report, "Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies," I have a whole section which looks at the likely proliferance of armed drone capabilities. The good news is that drones fall under the sort of medium-altitude, long-endurance drones. They fall under the Category One justification of the ballistic missile -- the code of conduct to limit ballistic missiles. So the United States and Israel, who are the two lead actors, largely have tried to deny the proliferation of some of the drones that can be used for targeted strikes.

The other good piece of news is a lot of the countries that claim to develop armed drones -- they're taking longer than they thought. I mean, they're just not putting enough resources and attention on them. However, it is simply inevitable that many countries will have this ability in the next 10 to 15 years, and the lesson that has really been learned by the United States is, I would say, two. One is because of the inherent advantage of the drone, which is their persistence, responsiveness at no cost, drone strikes lower the threshold for using lethal force outside of your borders.

So the U.S. would not have conducted over 350 manned aircraft attacks in Pakistan or 350 special operations raids, but it's because of the weapon that they have.

The second big finding is that everywhere drones go, people find other missions for them. So even if Germany wants to get armed drones to protect German soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, I assure you that other commanders in other situations will find other utilities for them because they are so -- such a unique weapons system.

And so the question the Obama administration says they care about is what is the normative impact that U.S. targeted killings will have on other countries. They claim it's a worry, but there's no evidence that the -- that the administration has done anything to address it, like you would have to do, for example, through transparency, through oversight, through answering the various U.S. special rapporteurs, who have asked repeatedly for the international justification and what procedural safeguards are in place to minimize civilian harm; the administration hasn't done any of that. So when other countries have this technology, if they follow U.S. justification and if they follow U.S. practice, it will be a very dangerous world.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jessica Stone from CCTV News.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Can you hear me?

ZENKO: Yep.

HOLEWINSKI: Yes.

QUESTIONER: My question is about, when John Brennan gave his speech in April, he talked -- mentioned very briefly diplomacy in this arena, and I wonder if there is any evidence that there is any sort of diplomacy done before one of these attacks occurred, in particular with the host government.

ZENKO: Well, I can just say that the United States does all these operations in, I would say, at least in Yemen and Somalia with the clear expressed support of the host nation. So for example, the United States has very clear rules of engagement about when they'll fly, where they'll fly, what sort of drones they fly in what areas. They give some sense of description of what sort of targets they go after. Both countries clear the airspace where U.S. drones fly.

Similar in Pakistan, although in Pakistan, the Pakistanis do not acknowledge the strikes any longer. The U.S. simply tells them in advance the boxes, as they're called, which is the areas they fly in, and then Pakistan deconflicts the airspace, meaning they don't put any planes in that -- in that area.

So the governments where these strikes occur know they're going to happen, and this is all done through sort of painstaking diplomatic process over the years.

The distinction is that now in Pakistan, the government has asked the United States to stop, but they have not taken the steps. For example, the Pakistani military could shoot down U.S. drones tomorrow if they wanted to. So the Pakistani government has not taken the steps to end drone strikes, but they have requested repeatedly that they stop.

QUESTIONER: Is there any other --

HOLEWINSKI: You know, another --

QUESTIONER: Oh. Go ahead. I'm sorry, Sarah.

HOLEWINSKI: Oh, I'm sorry. Another way to look at diplomacy is not state to state, but state to a people. And one of the big missing pieces in diplomacy, in U.S. diplomacy, is actually with the people who are living under drones, the civilian populations. And of course, those are the ones who are experiencing all of the anger and who are pushing back, including with -- you know, by chanting "death to America" in the streets about these drone protests. The U.S. has not reached out to those populations, has not explained what this program is about, doesn't really understand the impact on the ground to them and their families, has denied quite a bit of the civilian harm, including deaths and injuries and property damage, that have come from the drone strike.

And in my years of research talking with hundreds of war victims, the thing that they want first and foremost, aside from -- you know, actually before compensation and these other kinds of things, is just some sort of dignity and recognition for their losses, some kind of explanation or recognition that this has happened to them and their family. And that's something that they'll never get from the United States.

QUESTIONER: So let me just be clear, is there any evidence that the U.S. ever discusses its reasons for planning the attack with these governments, or it just simply says, we're going to do it, please clear the airspace?

ZENKO: Well, they have general discussions about the rough scope of individuals who will be targeted. Yes, they do do that. But just to get back to Sarah's earlier point, it's a -- it's a -- it's an important point to make that, for example, in Pakistan, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan cannot acknowledge the U.S. conduct drone strike. Drones are the face of U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan, and the individual who serves as the chief of mission to represent the United States cannot defend or justify them.

And there was one really clumsy incident last October when the -- at the time the (serving ?) ambassador, Ambassador Hoagland, was asked about the reports from the NYU-Stanford study, which said that individuals living in the FATA region of Pakistan hated hearing U.S. drones buzzing overhead all the time.

And the ambassador -- the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan said it wasn't true. He said, actually, U.S. drones fly at such a high altitude that they can't be seen or heard.

Now, I mean, we have an individual here, Perzi Versha (ph), who was a former -- a journalist for The New York Times who came from North Waziristan. He'll tell you the people there here the drones all the time. So there's this incredible insensitivity to the real concerns that the people have on the ground, and because these are quote, covert operations, the -- every single time the U.S. ambassadors are asked to defend or describe them, they can't say anything.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Weihua Chen from China Daily.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Good afternoon. There is very little doubt, I mean, from your argument or from others, that this drone attack has been used by -- you know, as the main recruiting tool, you know, by al- Qaida, other extreme groups, you know, and also has helped radicalize the Muslim population. So if you counted the, you know, gains and the loss, you know, why do you think Obama failed to see this more important part of the picture and would rather escalate the drone strikes and radicalize the Muslim population? Thank you.

HOLEWINSKI: Well, with regard to drone strikes being a tool for terrorist recruitment, it's difficult to get that causal link; it's difficult to make it. There's really not a lot of factual evidence. We certainly need a lot more research. But one of the interesting things is that in the void between a drone strike and any kind of explanation from the United States about what happened, terrorist groups are certainly jumping into that and saying, look, we are going to -- you know, the United States is taking this out on the people; we're going to help the people; we're going to strike back at the United States. And so certainly that is making the terrorist groups in some places seem like champions of the people whereas the U.S. is actually the enemy.

ZENKO: I would just agree. It's very difficult to determine clearly that specific strikes radicalize the population or take neutral third parties and have them then join terrorist organizations. We simply don't know if that's true. I would simply say that people who live beneath a foreign country flying aircraft that can bomb them all the time come to hate it, which is why, again, in Pakistan, 2 percent, in the Pew Global Attitudes Project polling -- last summer 2 percent of Pakistanis supported drone strikes. People don't like having a foreign country flying over them that can -- that can bomb them. And whether or not those individuals are then joining al-Qaida is impossible to know, but they're hating America.

ROSE: Now, I'm going to cut it off there because we always end on time. But I just want to close with a quote from a piece of -- the next piece of -- issue of Foreign Affairs, which is the following: "To the United States, drone strikes seem to have very little risk and very little pain. But at the receiving end, it feels like war. Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly -- I don't think we do, but there's always the danger that you will -- then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that's what they can respond with." That's a quote from an interview, in the March-April issue, with General Stanley McChrystal, former head of JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command.

Kind of interesting stuff. Thank you very much, Micah and Sarah. Thank all of you for participating, and we look forward to talking with you in the future.

ZENKO: Thank you very much.

HOLEWINSKI: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. This does conclude our teleconference for the day. You may now disconnect.

ROSE: Thank you.


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