US needs to end silence on drones

Earlier this month, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee grilled John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, on the campaign of lethal drone strikes that Brennan has helped structure, escalate and eventually codify into policy.

A year or two ago, questions about the intelligence agency’s covert drone program during a public hearing would have been unthinkable.

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But Brennan’s hearing was not only a sign of greater congressional interest in and scrutiny of the drone program — it was a striking example of the U.S. government’s bizarre public acknowledgment of an operation that remains covert and under the exclusive control of the CIA and the executive branch.

We know the CIA is launching drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. And there are a lot of people out there who are unhappy about it.

But that’s not because the residents of those countries would rather let violent extremists run free. Pakistanis want the Taliban in power about as much as Americans would like to see mafia dons and drug lords running towns here. By the same token, the Pakistanis want the United States launching drone strikes along the border with Afghanistan about as much as Americans want Mexico launching drone strikes along the Texan border.

The largest problem with drone strikes at this point is not one of civilian casualties — it is one of American arrogance. To continue running this program without publicly disclosing why, how and who we are targeting is foolish. It engenders anti-Americanism and sets a dangerous precedent for the use of drones by other countries in the future.

That isn’t to say drone strikes should necessarily be ended completely, but this type of program should be run by the military, not the CIA. With the military at the helm of the drone campaign, the U.S. government could provide casualty counts for the strikes, create greater transparency for the process by which targets are selected and establish mechanisms for accountability.

Above all, the U.S. could make a strong public case for the use of drones, as well as acknowledge and apologize for the civilian deaths that occur.

According to data gathered by the New America Foundation — full disclosure: I work at the New America Foundation and I’m in charge of compiling this data — just 2 percent of the people killed in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions in 2012 were identified as civilians, and 9 percent could not be identified at all. Reputable news outlets identified the remaining 89 percent as militants.

This is down from a peak civilian casualty rate of almost 100 percent in 2006. At that time, perhaps it made sense to maintain the covert nature of the drone program. It wasn’t receiving a whole lot of media attention, the Pakistani military was still making an effort to take responsibility for many of the strikes, and the argument that the drone is a precise, surgical weapon that can avoid civilian casualties couldn’t be made.

Now, both the Yemenis and the Pakistanis have dropped any cover they provided the U.S. during the first few years of the drone program, which began in Pakistan in 2004 and ramped up in Yemen in 2011. The “plausible deniability” aspect of the program went out the window long ago.

The new Yemeni president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, has actually embraced U.S. drone strikes, telling The Washington Post in September that he signs off on all strikes conducted in Yemen and calling drone technology “more advanced than the human brain.”

Drone strikes today have a far better record on civilian casualties than the Pakistani military, which launched a major operation to clear the tribal regions of militants in 2009. According to a report from Amnesty International, 1,363 civilians were killed in the fighting that ensued between militant groups and Pakistani forces. New America counted between 110 and 216 individuals who were killed by U.S. drone strikes the same year and were either identified as civilians or could not be identified.

But a 2012 Pew poll found that just 17 percent of Pakistanis support the drone attacks, while 32 percent support using the Pakistani military to fight extremists. The U.S. government needs to wise up to the almost unanimous global opposition to unilateral drone strikes, end its silence and engage in a respectful dialogue about them. And maybe then, governments around the world could finally begin an open, honest conversation about a weapon that is bound to shape the future of conflict everywhere.

Rowland is a program associate with the New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New America Foundation.