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Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies

Author: , Senior Fellow

Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies - reforming-us-drone-strike-policies
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Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press

Release Date January 2013

52 pages
ISBN 978-0-87609-544-7
Council Special Report No. 65


Over the last ten years, drones have become a critical tool in the war against terrorist and militant organizations worldwide. Their advantages over other weapons and intelligence systems are well known. They can silently observe an individual, group, or location for hours on end, but take immediate action should a strike opportunity become available--all without putting a pilot at risk. This combination of capabilities is unique and has allowed the United States to decimate the leadership of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and disrupt the activities of many other militant groups.

Yet, as Micah Zenko writes in this Council Special Report from the Center for Preventive Action (CPA), drones are not without their drawbacks, especially with regard to targeted killings. Like any tool, drones are only as useful as the information guiding them, and for this they are heavily reliant on local military and intelligence cooperation. More important, significant questions exist about who constitutes a legitimate target and under what circumstances it is acceptable to strike. There is also the question of net utility: To what extent are the specific benefits derived from drone strikes offset by the reality that the strikes often alienate the local government and population? And there is the reality that drones are proliferating but, as is often the case with new technologies, the international legal and regulatory framework is lagging behind.

Zenko puts forward a substantive agenda. He argues that the United States should end so-called signature strikes, which target unidentified militants based on their behavior patterns and personal networks, and limit targeted killings to a limited number of specific terrorists with transnational ambitions. He also calls Congress to improve its oversight of drone strikes and to continue restrictions on armed drone sales. Finally, he recommends that the United States work internationally to establish rules and norms governing the use of drones.

Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies raises an important and underexamined set of issues. It analyzes the potentially serious consequences, both at home and abroad, of a lightly overseen drone program and makes recommendations for improving its governance. The result is a provocative report that is well worth reading and contemplating.

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More About This Publication

Add Morality to List of Drone Victims

Yet while Obama described drone strikes in the same breath as "a necessary evil," defining unmanned aerial violence as indispensable to U.S. national security is wrongheaded. As Micah Zenko's special report for the Council on Foreign Relations on reforming drone policy notes, the drawbacks actually outweigh the benefits.

Drone Strikes and Diplomacy, from Yemen to Pakistan

On The Takeaway with John Hockenberry, Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a recent comprehensive report on drone strike policies, describes the diplomatic problems that arise from targeted killing.

Discussion about President Obama's speech

On the Charlie Rose show, a panel of experts discussed President Obama's May 23, 2013 speech on drone strike and counterterrorism policies, including Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations; David Kilcullen, former advisor to Gen. Petraeus; David Ignatius of the Washington Post; Karen Greenberg of Fordham Law School;and Philip Mudd, former Deputy Director of the CIA and the FBI.

Debate Aside, Number of Drone Strikes Drops Sharply

"Globally these operations are hated," said Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who wrote a major study of targeted killing this year. "It's the face of American foreign policy, and it's an ugly face."

Drone Strikes Under Scrutiny

The United States has conducted more than 400 total strikes in at least three countries — Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — killing more than 3,000 people in its war on Al Qaeda, according to a report by Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Open-source Data Contradicts Feinstein on 'Single-Digit' Civilian Drone Deaths

In her introductory comments to John Brennan's confirmation hearing to becoming director of central intelligence, Sen. Dianne Feinstein asserted that civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes now number in the single digits annually. Those numbers are difficult to know with any certainty, and official U.S. estimates are secret. But some organizations do follow open-source reports on the strikes and attempt to track individual civilian casualties. At least some of their numbers, gathered by the scholar Micah Zenko for a Council on Foreign Relations report, appear to contradict Feinstein's assessment.

Brennan Faces Drone Attack from Senators

Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations believes that political pressure is now going to mount over drones, just as it once did for Mr. Bush over torture and wiretapping, leaving the Obama administration a choice between "drone policy reforms by design or drone policy reforms by default".

Brennan's Confirmation and Where CIA Drones Go From Here

Micah Zenko, a Council on Foreign Relations Douglas Dillon Fellow who wrote a 2013 special report on drones, notes drones did not come up in hearings for previous CIA directors Michael Hayden or Leon Panetta.

Senators, John Brennan Brace for National Security Showdown in CIA Hearing

But Zenko cautioned against those who would head into the Brennan hearing with high hopes for new information. Having read transcripts of the past 10 CIA director confirmation hearings, he said, "It would be unprecedented if there were an in-depth discussion about ongoing covert activities." The Senate Intelligence Committee "simply doesn't work that way, especially under chairman Sen. (Dianne) Feinstein" of California, he said.

U.S. Drone Strategy Draws Home-grown Criticism Over Lack of Transparency

The report's author, Micah Zenko, also urged an end to controversial "signature strikes" that kill supposed militants based on what they are observed doing and whose company they keep. Instead, he wrote, attacks should be limited to identified "leaders of transnational terrorist organisations and individuals with direct involvement in past or continuing plots against the United States and its allies".

Targeted Killings: Obama's Endless War

"In many ways, Brennan is a paradox: a devout Catholic who apparently opposes 'enhanced interrogations,' the death penalty at home, and those inside the government who want to expand the targeted-killing program further," said Micah Zenko.

Ten Questions for Chuck Hagel

Bonus follow-up on drones: "Same question: are we setting an equally dangerous precedent here? And do you agree with critics who say that current drone strikes are often counterproductive because they create as many extremists as they take out?"

Armed Drones Could Target President: Former U.S. Intelligence Chief

Blair said the Obama administration has only "partly thought through" the repercussions of its expanded drone attack campaign, including the inevitable proliferation of drone technology to other countries and organizations. He spoke Tuesday on a call organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, with senior analyst Micah Zenko.

Former Obama Official Defends Drone Program, Calls For More Transparency

That combination negatively impacts the U.S. mission in the countries it is trying to impact, Zenko argued. "Drones are the face of U.S. foreign policy" in Pakistan and Yemen, he said. "We allow the Taliban, and the Pakistani [intelligence agency], to tell the story of how our drones are being used."

Obama Overseas: Speak Loudly And Carry A Smaller Stick

"It's certainly cheaper," says Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has studied drone attacks. "The dichotomy the administration puts forward is that we can put 170,000 troops on the ground, or we can do drone strikes."

New U.S. Counterterrorism Guidelines Face Questions

In a telephone conference call Tuesday, former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations voiced their concerns...ZENKO: "If the United States decides not to apply the playbook to Pakistan it is essentially meaningless because 85 percent of all the targeted killings that the U.S. has conducted in non-battlefield settings since September 11, 2001, have occurred in Pakistan. So the vast majority of targeted killings and drone strikes will not be covered under the playbook."

America is Setting a Dangerous Precedent for the Drone Age

Micah Zenko of the Council of Foreign Relations makes this argument in a new report: A major risk is that of proliferation. Over the next decade, the U.S. near-monopoly on drone strikes will erode as more countries develop and hone this capability. In this uncharted territory, U.S. policy provides a powerful precedent for other states and nonstate actors that will increasingly deploy drones with potentially dangerous ramifications.

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