from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Drone Strikes and Public Debate

An MQ-1B Predator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off from Balad Air Base in Iraq (Courtesy Reuters).

May 3, 2012

An MQ-1B Predator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off from Balad Air Base in Iraq (Courtesy Reuters).
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David Ignatius, the CIA’s favored receptacle of leaked classified information, has a piece in today’s Washington Post that criticizes the Obama administration for acknowledging the existence of “covert” drone strikes. Ignatius makes several remarkable claims that each deserve a response.

First, he writes: “What troubles me about the speech is that it further politicizes this realm of national-security policy…Since the program is no longer secret, Obama’s surrogates can now brag about it all they want.”

Ignatius might not have read a newspaper in the past three years, but all the Obama administration has done—albeit anonymously—is brag about drone strikes. I have a laundry list of quotes that I could repost, but they all emphasize that targeted killings (by drones or other means) are surgical, precise, deliberate, discriminate, or near-infallible. In one representative sample, a senior administration official declared in March 2010: “If there are Predator operations in Pakistan, I would argue that the collateral damage is negligible at most, and that reports of intensified damage are a myth.”

The welcome distinction is that administration officials can no longer hide behind the “covert” shield when journalists ask clarifying questions about targeted killings—if they decide to do so.

Second, Ignatius claims: “Open debate about drone policy is valuable. I just wish Brennan hadn’t expanded it at the very time Obama’s political advisers are preparing to run partly on his tough-minded role as “covert commander in chief.” This begs the immediate question: when would be an appropriate time to have an open debate on what the United States has done more than 350 times in four countries since the first non-battlefield targeted killing in Yemen in November 2002?  Should there be a short window after a president takes the Oath of Office in which policymakers can debate America’s expanding targeted killing program?

It is precisely because Obama is going to run on a campaign featuring a “tough” foreign policy via targeted killings that they should be openly discussed. If such military operations are to be a core pillar of the president’s reelection campaign, Democrats, Republicans, and independents have the right to greater transparency.

Finally, Ignatius raises a number of sound questions about domestic and international legal standards for targeted killings, “or, to use a less euphemistic term, assassinations.” Many former officials, academics, and NGOs have raised these questions (and many others) for years, and it is nice to read Ignatius joining in on the chorus. However, he writes, “Ducking these questions was easier when drone attacks were part of a covert CIA program whose existence was officially denied by the U.S. government.”

This sentence speaks for itself, and should be one that causes any journalist to blush with embarrassment. I’m not a journalist, but those I know and respect don’t generally conceive of their jobs as making life easy and convenient for political operatives during campaign season or for policymakers reviewing controversial policies that involves life or death decisions. There are many unanswered questions about the Obama administration’s targeted killings, but at least now there can be a debate and a demand for answers.