More Hazy Details From Obama's Drone Wars


Over at The Washington Post, Greg Miller has a detailed look at Obama's controversial drone program. Or rather, as many details as anyone can hope to get about a program which doesn't officially exist.

Some of the more interesting bits include the reminder that Obama is not the sole mastermind behind the program. Indeed his level of input seems debatable, with one official saying he's very attentive and keen on reducing as much "collateral damage" as possible and the other saying he's much more hands-off. Also, there is not one, but two, secret kill lists:

The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. Lethal operations are increasingly assembled a la carte, piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.

In Yemen, for instance, the CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command pursue the same adversary with nearly identical aircraft. But they alternate taking the lead on strikes to exploit their separate authorities, and they maintain separate kill lists that overlap but don't match. CIA and military strikes this fall killed three U.S. citizens, two of whom were suspected al-Qaeda operatives.

The convergence of military and intelligence resources has created blind spots in congressional oversight. Intelligence committees are briefed on CIA operations, and JSOC reports to armed services panels. As a result, no committee has a complete, unobstructed view.

The rest of the article suggest that this is not some sophisticated security maneuver, but more of a classically slow bureaucratic inability to focus and fix this problem. Or nobody in intelligence wants to fix what isn't broken, certainly the CIA has never been known for its deep desire to be overseen by members of Congress.

But there are at least debates about the level of security towards the program. Several anonymous officials would be glad to let people know more details about the how and why of targeting people with drones since the cat is out of the bag that this is happening whether the strikes are technically unofficial or not.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), the chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence is described as having "awe and concern" in respect to the drone program. She is glad that the program doesn't endanger Americans "But I worry about how this develops. I'm worried because of what increased technology will make it capable of doing."

An official in the article says we shouldn't worry that the relative ease of this kind of warfare will be an excuse for striking everywhere, but the numbers do confirm that Obama has happily embraced the tactic more than previous presidents. (To say nothing of the "775 Predators, Reapers and other medium- and long-range drones in the U.S. inventory, with hundreds more in the pipeline.")

Senior administration officials said the escalating number of strikes has created a perception that the drone is driving counterterrorism policy, when the reverse is true.

"People think we start with the drone and go from there, but that's not it at all," said a senior administration official involved with the program. "We're not constructing a campaign around the drone. We're not seeking to create some worldwide basing network so we have drone capabilities in every corner of the globe."

Nevertheless, for a president who campaigned against the alleged counterterrorism excesses of his predecessor, Obama has emphatically embraced the post-Sept. 11 era's signature counterterrorism tool.

When Obama was sworn into office in 2009, the nation's clandestine drone war was confined to a single country, Pakistan, where 44 strikes over five years had left about 400 people dead, according to the New America Foundation. The number of strikes has since soared to nearly 240, and the number of those killed, according to conservative estimates, has more than quadrupled.

Trust us, this is acceptable war, these people deserved it, the causalities are minimal; this is the impression that the Obama administration is trying to convey. But they also don't have prove a damn thing:

The administration has said that its covert, targeted killings with remote-controlled aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and potentially beyond are proper under both domestic and international law. It has said that the targets are chosen under strict criteria, with rigorous internal oversight.

It has parried reports of collateral damage and the alleged killing of innocents by saying that drones, with their surveillance capabilities and precision missiles, result in far fewer mistakes than less sophisticated weapons.

Yet in carrying out hundreds of strikes over three years — resulting in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths in Pakistan — it has provided virtually no details to support those assertions.

At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in response to the WaPo article that he is puzzled that anyone ever considered Obama the drone aficionado a dove. And:

Drones are a perfect weapon for democracy. One gains all of the political credit for killing the country's enemies, and none of the blame for military casualties. The occasional slaughter of a 16-year old boy is surely regrettable, but of almost zero political import….But I wonder about that 16 year old's younger siblings, about what they think of country they executes children a world away with a joystick. I wonder about their anger. 

That 16-year-old is of course the son of assassinated American citizen and alleged (yes, even in death, he gets to keep the alleged. Not an an encouraging sign, that) al-Qaeda operative Anwar Al-Awlaki. And once again, the government claims the son was not purposefully targeted, but was just in the way of the missile. 

And at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum responds to Miller's WaPo article and notes the convenience of drone warfare when Republicans love "killing bad guys" no matter how it's done and Democrats are too partisan to object when it's their guy doing the dirty work. Writes Drum, this newer, quieter warfare is all too easy. It's alright when we've declared war properly, as we did in Afghanistan, but:

Somalia is next on the list, and an administration official tells Miller that it's an inviting target not because the host government would cooperate, but because there's basically no host government to worry about. That's one more step along a slippery slope to simply using drones wherever we want because nobody is really paying much attention. That's not a slope we should be happy to slide down.

Reason on drones and the war on terror; Jacob Sullum on President Obama's power to assassinate his enemies.