White House aides rankle at any comparison to Bush and Cheney. They dutifully note that in his first days in office, Obama ended the use of torture (a.k.a. enhanced interrogation techniques) and declared his intention to shut down Guantanamo. (Gitmo remains open, but that’s mainly because congressional Republicans and Democrats thwarted the White House effort to develop a high-security facility in the United States to house the detainees.) And the Obama-ites contend they have reformed some of the Bush-Cheney policies, such as the use of military commissions, to justify maintaining these practices. Also, they are not reluctant to add that Obama did end the war in Iraq and is downsizing the war in Afghanistan (at a faster pace than then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA chief David Petraeus urged in 2011). But much of this defense has tended to get lost as the administration has fired off drone strikes without acknowledging the individual attacks and has, following in the path of previous administrations, resisted certain congressional oversight efforts.
So Obama’s speech Thursday on counterterrorism policies—which follows his administration’s acknowledgment yesterday that it had killed four Americans (including Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen)—is a big deal, for with this address, Obama is self-restricting his use of drones and shifting control of them from the CIA to the military. And the president has approved making public the rules governing drone strikes.
The New York Times received the customary pre-speech leak and reported:
A new classified policy guidance signed by Mr. Obama will sharply curtail the instances when unmanned aircraft can be used to attack in places that are not overt war zones, countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The rules will impose the same standard for strikes on foreign enemies now used only for American citizens deemed to be terrorists.
Lethal force will be used only against targets who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans” and cannot feasibly be captured, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a letter to Congress, suggesting that threats to a partner like Afghanistan or Yemen alone would not be enough to justify being targeted
Abu Ubaydah Abdullah al Adam, a senior al Qaeda leader who serves as the intelligence chief for the terror group, is reported to have been killed in a recent US drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The report is unconfirmed, and al Qaeda has not issued an official statement regarding al Adam.
Two jihadists, identified as Al Wathiq Billah and Barod, posted on Twitter on April 20 that al Adam was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which obtained the tweets. Barod “indicated he was killed that day,” according to SITE.
No drone strikes were reported in Pakistan on April 20, but an attack was reported on April 17 in South Waziristan. The last US drone strike reported in North Waziristan took place on April 14 in the Datta Khel area, which is a known haven for al Qaeda’s top leaders. Several senior al Qaeda leaders and military commanders have been killed in drone strikes in the Datta Khel area.
The two jihadists’ claims that al Adam was killed in a drone strike are not official confirmation that he is indeed dead. Al Qaeda has not released an official martyrdom statement announcing his death.
Ex-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged his government secretly signed off on U.S. drone strikes, the first time a top past or present Pakistani official has admitted publicly to such a deal.
Pakistani leaders long have openly challenged the drone program and insisted they had no part in it. Musharraf’s admission, though, suggests he and others did play some role, even if they didn’t oversee the program or approve every attack.
In an interview this week in Islamabad, Musharraf insisted Pakistan’s government signed off on strikes “only on a few occasions, when a target was absolutely isolated and no chance of collateral damage.”
WASHINGTON—A federal appeals court said Friday that it will no longer accept the “fiction” from the Obama administration’s lawyers that the CIA has no interest or documents that describe drone strikes.
“It is neither logical nor plausible for the CIA to maintain that it would reveal anything not already in the public domain to say the Agency at least has an intelligence interest in such strikes,” said Chief Judge Merrick Garland. “The defendant is, after all, the Central Intelligence Agency.”
The decision gave a partial victory to the American Civil Liberties Union in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that seeks documents on the government’s still-secret policy on drone strikes. The three judges did not say any particular documents must be released, but they rejected the administration’s position that it could simply refuse to “confirm or deny” that it had any such documents.
A federal judge had rejected the ACLU’s suit entirely, but the three-judge appeals court revived the suit. The agency’s non-response does not pass the “straight face” test, Garland concluded.
President Barack Obama’s pick for CIA director, John Brennan, promised senators who will vote on his nomination more openness about U.S. counter-terrorism programs, saying the closely guarded number of civilian casualties from drone strikes should be made public, according to his written responses to questions released on Friday.
Brennan was questioned sharply by Democrats and Republicans alike during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination last week.
Along with harsh interrogation techniques, Brennan was questioned about drone strikes against terrorism suspects in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. These strikes have increased under Obama and included the killing in Yemen of a U.S.-born cleric suspected of ties to al Qaeda and his U.S.-born son.
The U.S. government, without releasing numbers, has sought to portray civilian deaths from these strikes as minimal. But other organizations which collect data on these attacks put the number of civilians killed in the hundreds.
On Sunday the New York Times reported that the Obama administration, prompted by the possibility of losing the election, has been developing a “formal rule book” to govern the use of drone strikes, which have killed roughly 2,500 people under President Obama.
One aspect of the piece in particular caught our eye: While administration officials frequently talk about how drone strikes target suspected terrorists plotting against the U.S., the Times says the U.S. has shifted away from that. Instead, it has often targeted enemies of allied governments in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan. From the Times:
[F]or at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.
In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.
To learn more about this underappreciated aspect of U.S. drone policy, I spoke to Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been critical of U.S. drone policy and was quoted in the Times piece. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You were quoted over the weekend arguing that the U.S., with the campaign of drone strikes, is acting as the “counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” How did you come to this conclusion?
Under the Obama administration, officials have argued that the drone strikes are only hitting operational Al Qaeda leaders or people who posed significant and imminent threats to the U.S. homeland. If you actually look at the vast majority of people who have been targeted by the United States, that’s not who they are.
Washington is abuzz over the presumed political pandering behind the White House¹s fostering the image of the Commander in Chief as the final arbiter of which among our terrorist enemies abroad is or is not a legitimate target for U.S. drone strikes. While regrettably self-serving if true, the outrage misses the more important point: the President’s limited time is better spent on strategy than on tactics.
Simply stated, civilian control of the U.S. military is a foundational concept of our democracy, but it doesn’t mean the President needs to pull the trigger himself. It is inescapable that briefs getting to the President are short, often consensus-driven, and lack some details because they have been filtered and reviewed by dozens of people. That is fine for delivering information to support strategic decisions, but insufficient for tactical go/no-go decisions that require both a deeper background in military and intelligence affairs and appreciation of subtle differences within snippets of intelligence reports than any President could or should have. We must protect the kinds of tactical and operationally sensitive information otherwise not written down because it could compromise sources and expose tradecraft and relationships with foreign intelligence services. Also, the President need not personally weigh the personality of the field officer filing the report or institutional rivalries that shade conclusions this way or that. Unless the target is Bin Laden himself, isn¹t it better that the President be setting policy, delegating to trusted professionals, and spending his time working to resolve other major issues?
Three related concerns also arise:
First, even if he had all the details he doesn’t have decades of on-the-ground experience in intelligence to rely upon in making tactical-level life and death decisions. We live in a harsh and changing world, one where a decision today to use a drone kills a man without trial or appeal. In a world where a couple dozen people can kill three thousand and cost billions in damage and decades of war, such summary executions may have become necessary. As a realist I can accept that because the other option is to let these terrorists kill untold hundreds or thousands of innocent lives. But it is not appropriate for the President to be seen as picking specific names and setting the conditions under which specific strikes occur; he is neither qualified nor sufficiently protected to be doing such tactical tasks.
Relatives of three US citizens killed in drone strikes in Yemen last year filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against four senior national security officials Wednesday.
The suit, in the US District Court here, opened a new chapter in the legal battle about the Obama administration’s use of drones to pursue terror suspects away from traditional ”hot” battlefields such as Afghanistan.
The first strike, on Sept. 30, killed a group of people including Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was born in New Mexico, and Samir Khan, a naturalized US citizen who lived at times in New York and North Carolina. The second, Oct. 14, killed a group of people including Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was born in Colorado.
Accused in the lawsuit of authorizing and directing the strikes are Leon E. Panetta, the secretary of defense; CIA chief David H. Petraeus; and two senior commanders of the military’s Special Operations forces, Admiral William McRaven of the Navy and Lieutenant General Joseph Votel of the Army.
“The killings violated fundamental rights afforded to all US citizens, including the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law,” the complaint says.
Press officials with the CIA, the Pentagon, and the Justice Department declined to comment.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, was filed by Nasser Awlaki, who was Anwar’s father and Abdulrahman’s grandfather, and Sarah Khan, Samir’s mother. Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights are assisting them.
In 2010, the two groups helped Nasser Awlaki in an effort to obtain a court injunction against government efforts to kill his son. A federal judge threw out the case, primarily on the ground that Nasser Awlaki had no standing to sue in place of his son. Now Nasser Awlaki and Sarah Khan represent the estates of their sons and his grandson.
In a city full of them, Harold Koh is Washington’s biggest hypocrite.
As the dean of Yale Law School, Koh was the most prominent critic of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies, deriding them as “executive muscle-flexing.” The former President, Koh said, was the “torturer-in-chief.” In a 2002 interview with The New York Times, he referred to the war on terror as “legally undeclared” and questioned the administration’s right to kill terrorists on the battlefield. “What factual showing will demonstrate that they had warlike intentions against us and who sees that evidence before any action is taken?” he asked.
In 2009, after the election of Barack Obama, Koh was awarded the job of State Department legal adviser. Since that time, he has defended a war waged in Libya without explicit congressional authorization, drone strikes targeting suspected terrorists and the extrajudicial assassination of an American citizen who had become a leading Al Qaeda ideologist.
None of these, however, can be considered the greatest of Koh’s manifold hypocrisies. That honor stems from a 2010 speech in which he triumphantly declared that the Obama administration “unequivocally guarantee(s) humane treatment for all individuals in U.S. custody as a result of armed conflict” (emphasis original).
One wonders, then, what Koh would make of Eli Lake’s blockbuster Daily Beast story last week. Reporting from Somalia, Lake found a secret prison holding alleged terrorists captured by, or with the assistance of, the United States.
For most Americans, the so-called drone war is a no-brainer: maximum lethality delivered at low economic cost, with zero risk to American personnel—all buffered by the virtual-reality nature of a delivery system that keeps the consequences safely out of sight. That explains why a stunning 83 percent of the country supports President Barack Obama’s use of drones to target suspected terrorists. But the rest of the world isn’t as comfortable with this remote-controlled, auto-pilot war. Indeed, international watchdogs have begun to raise concerns.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of drones. First and foremost, drones are the closest thing to risk-free war man has ever invented—at least for those of us on this side of the unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) prowling the skies of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. While the political cost is high when a commander-in-chief loses a pilot, it’s negligible when a commander-in-chief loses a pilotless plane. Compare, for example, the ho-hum reaction to the loss of drones in Iran and the Seychelles under Obama with the international crises other presidents faced when U.S. pilots were shot down over enemy territory: President Dwight Eisenhower was publicly humiliated after the Soviets brought down Gary Powers’ U-2. President John Kennedy was pressured to go to war when Rudolf Anderson was shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And President Bill Clinton had to deal with a hostage crisis after Michael Durant’s Blackhawk was shot down in Mogadishu, and later had to launch a massive search-and-rescue operation deep behind enemy lines when Scott O’Grady’s F-16 crashed in Bosnia.
Most UCAV operators, however, are some 7,000 miles away from their targets—and 7,000 miles away from danger. With no risk to U.S. personnel and a high return—the Brookings Institution estimates that as many as 2,209 militants have been killed by drone strikes—Washington has latched on to UCAVs as an important tool in the national-security toolbox and arguably the primary weapon in the post-9/11 campaign against jihadist groups: