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What Leon Panetta’s Memoir Says About Drone Strikes

October 17, 2014

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Leon Panetta, Worthy Fights (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2014), pp. 388-391.

But the singular preoccupation with drones distracts from the larger context of the struggle we are waging. Yes, the United States possesses and uses drones to target senior Al Qaeda leaders who are otherwise beyond our reach to capture.

(3PA: Actually, the United States rarely uses drones to target senior al-Qaeda leaders. As I have pointed out, only between 2.2 percent and 5 percent of all victims of U.S. targeted killings were “leaders.” A recent study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism determined that less than 4 percent of the 2,379 drone victims in Pakistan were members of al-Qaeda. Moreover, most of those killed by drones were not “beyond our reach to capture.”  Again, as has been pointed out, there is no actual preference to capture suspected terrorists over killing them. Since this was first declared a policy preference in September 2011, the Obama administration has conducted over two-hundred targeted killings and only five capture operations.)

And yes, I appreciate the fascination with technology. Advances in weapon design often are captivating—witness the crowds at the annual Rose Parade as they gasp when the Stealth bombers pass overhead.

But to call our campaign against Al Qaeda a “drone program” is a little like calling World War I a “machine gun program.” Technology has always been as aspect of war: The North developed repeating rifles to use against the South in the Civil War; machine guns and tanks debuted in World War I; the Allies used radar, code-breaking, and nuclear weapons to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II. Those breakthroughs saved American lives and secured historic victories, though sometimes at great cost.

(3PA: The myth that drones are merely another weapons platform is one often repeated by U.S. officials, and is a myth that we have dismantled in successive reportsThe inherent advantages that armed drones provide have significantly lowered the threshold for when civilian officials will authorize the use of lethal force to kill people. There is a reason that, of the estimated 385 targeted killings in Pakistan, for example, 99 percent of them were conducted by drones and not by manned aircraft, rockets, or special operations forces raids.)

Today, as with those historical examples, what is most crucial is not the size of the missile or the ability to deploy it from thousands of miles away; what matters far more are the rules of law and engagement.

(3PA: Panetta makes an excellent point, but what matters even more is that the rules of law and engagement are publicly known and comprehensible, and have been demonstrably implemented. If not, then there will never be much public trust or understanding of the targeted killing program and U.S. policies will have no normative influence in shaping how other countries employ their own armed drones.)

Again, those rules reflect painstaking consideration across the government; they require presidential authorization, specific policies approved by the National Security Council, intelligence collection, and analysis by a number of agencies, legal opinions, and reviews and congressional oversight. Those legal standards in turn reflect the basic values that guide this work, and those who are involved in debating and constructing those rules work zealously to protect the values—notably the minimization of risk to American lives and those of noncombatants—that they express.

(3PA: These statements of process and values are admirable, but are based upon the foundational principle of U.S. targeted killings: “trust us.” Given how often the words of administration officials—including Panetta—have not matched actual drone strike practices, this is a tenuous argument to make. Panetta later writes, “I recognize that the public was not privy to those conversations, but the checks and balances of our government ensures that these operations were subjected to appropriate scrutiny while still keeping details out of the hands of our enemies;” Another assertion without factual support. While properly classified details should, of course, be kept out of enemies’ hands, unclassified details should not be hidden from American citizens, as they have been.)

Some of my colleagues in the Obama administration argued that these operations were far too secretive and that they should be conducted with full public explanation of each operation. One official even suggested that we send out press releases with each strike. I certainly agree with President Obama that we need to be far more transparent in the way we explain our drone policy. However, I also believe that certain operational details need to remain secret. The president, as commander in chief, needs a range of tools to defend the nation, and secrecy is one of those tools.

(3PA: This is another universal statement that U.S. officials make safely after they retire: “We should have been far more transparent.” What would be more useful is actual transparency and accountability by those same officials when they were serving in government. Moreover, it would be helpful if Panetta suggested even one way that America’s use of drones could be made more transparent. It is easy to aspire to transparency in the abstract, but retired officials are rarely specific.)

…And yet, as the president recognized that day and has since publicly acknowledged, this is an area admittedly fraught with complexity: When an American missile snuffs out an avowed enemy of this country, lives are both lost and saved. A terrorist who is committed to blowing up an airplane or destroying a skyscraper is eliminated, and those he would have killed are spared his brutality. At the same time, a young person who loses a father or a brother, who digs out the embers of a relative from the smoking wreckage of a Hellfire missile may be radicalized, may turn his anger against those who killed his loved one. It is a hard business of agonizing choices. In the world of theory, it is easy to be certain. In the world as it is, many brave men and women risk their lives to protect others from danger, and every decision is subject to dispute.

(3PA: Note how Panetta characterizes all drone victims as “an avowed enemy of this country” or “a terrorist who is committed to blowing up an airplane or destroying a skyscraper.” This is a scary and vivid characterization, though inconsistent with those individuals who the United States has primarily targeted with drones. Namely, low-level militants who pose a threat to the security forces and populations in the countries where they reside, or, in the case of the Haqqani Network, those who facilitate attacks against U.S. servicemembers deployed in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Panetta mentions “many brave men and women risk their lives to protect others,” but the point of armed drones is that Americans never risk their lives–unless they are those intentionally or unintentionally targeted and killed.)

As with enhanced interrogation, the use of drones provokes strong feelings and strenuous debate in our nation. It should. But as with the interrogation discussion, it’s important to recognize that neither side has a monopoly on reason. Relying too heavily for too long on technology that spies down from above and can unleash deadly force from half a world away surely reinforces a worrisome image of malevolent American omniscience. Moreover, this technology is rapidly spreading across the world. Americans would undoubtedly recoil if China, for instance, were to spot a dissident in Mexico and eliminate him with a missile.

(3PA: These are all critical dilemmas posed by Panetta and ones that would have benefited from him expressing his own opinion. For a long-time-policymaker purportedly unafraid of “straight talk,” Panetta refuses even in retirement to address these dilemmas head-on. It is also worth mentioning how he hypothesizes a Chinese drone strike on a “dissident,” as opposed to how Beijing would assuredly describe the target, as a “terrorist.” Using such disparaging terms to characterize victims is assuredly one of the many precedents that China will adapt from U.S. precedents regarding drone strikes.)

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