The United States government has been using drones as a weaponized platform since at least February of 2002, when the Central Intelligence Agency launched a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone, killing neither Osama bin Laden—the presumed target—nor any militants, but rather four civilian men scouring an abandoned military base for scrap metal.  This intelligence failure was an apt harbinger.  More than fourteen years later weaponized drones are still killing civilians under the cloak of secrecy, and the CIA is still making the dubious claim that it is crucial for America’s safety.

Former CIA Chief Gen. Michael Hayden, in a recent New York Times oped, writes that it is “fair to say that the targeted killing program has been the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict,” while admitting that the program is not perfect – that “no military program is.”  Here lies the fatal error in this assertion, and illuminates the reality that makes the weaponized drone program so dangerous to America’s safety: the CIA should be in the intelligence business, not the military business.  The covert nature of the CIA’s drone program shields it from any meaningful discussion, critique, or oversight, and allows Hayden and other advocates to assert, without facts or evidence, that the program works; that despite overwhelming and objective data, civilians rarely get killed; that claims that drone strikes are creating more militants are without merit.


Even the title of Hayden’s article hints at the shortsightedness of American drone policy and the apparent inflexibility of our intelligence apparatus: in order to “keep America safe,” she must embrace drone warfare.  As if there is no option to defeat militants other than killing them with drones. If an errant strike kills a civilian and, as a result, creates ten militants where there were none before?  No problem, we just kill ten more.  His anecdotal example of a targeting process—described, presumably, to share how thoroughly vetted is the decision prior to launching an attack—is indicative of the dangers of having an unchecked intelligence agency conducting purely military missions: the notion that all military-age males are automatically deemed militants, and thus lawful targets; that, despite a nation where amputees are common, having one leg is evidence enough to confirm legitimacy as a lawful target; where a child’s death is acceptable because his grandfather had chemicals that he—“perhaps”—intended to use on Americans.

This is warmongering at its worst.  It is unimaginative problem solving, particularly when lives, both American and foreign, are at stake.  Imagine if a foreign military regularly fired a $100,000 rocket from a $13 million airframe to destroy a single enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army, and killed a child each time they did so.  Yet this is essentially Hayden’s justification when he writes “in warfare it is regrettably necessary to kill foot soldiers, too.”  Weaponized drones undoubtedly kill men who have nefarious intentions for the United States, but in killing civilians—and they almost always do—weaponized drones create such men as well.

Hayden argues that drone warfare keeps America safe, but of what version of America does he speak?  America’s strength lies in her transparency, in her due process, and in her ability to legitimately profess to be a nation of laws with a professional military other nations could emulate. There are now nearly eighty countries that use drones, more than a quarter of which have or are developing weaponized platforms.  If America wants to effect global use of weaponized drones, then America has an opportunity to lead by example.  The authority for firing missiles from a weaponized drone should be restricted to the warfighters in the Department of Defense, not left under the auspices of a spy agency.  There should be assurances that the President’s 2013 Procedures for the Use of Force, which requires a “continuing, imminent threat” and “near certainty” that civilians will not be killed or injured prior to a lethal attack, are followed.  If it makes tactical sense to kill a single foot soldier with a missile, and civilians in the process, then the legal standard for determining what is a lawful target and when it can be lawfully engaged should be made clear and subject to scrutiny.  When individual mistakes are made, there should be a thorough investigation, followed by acknowledgement and compensation where appropriate.  Congress should consider an independent review for covert drone operations, similar to the study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Until then, and for as long as the CIA fires weaponized drones, the notion that “drone warfare” is keeping America safe is nothing more than a dangerous opinion.

Morse is the senior advocate, US Program, at the Center for Civilians in Conflict in Washington, D.C.  He can be reached at