Use of drones for killings risks a war without end, panel concludes

The New York TimesJune 25, 2014 

— The Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a “slippery slope” into perpetual war and sets a dangerous precedent for lethal operations that other countries might adopt, according to a report by a bipartisan panel that includes several former senior intelligence and military officials.

The group found that more than a decade into the era of armed drones, the U.S. government has yet to carry out a thorough analysis of whether the costs of routine secret killing operations might outweigh the benefits. The report urges the administration to conduct such an analysis and to give a public accounting of both militants and civilians killed in drone strikes.

The findings amount to a sort of report card - one that delivers middling grades - a year after President Barack Obama gave a speech promising new guidelines for drone strikes and greater transparency about the killing operations. The report is especially critical of the secrecy that continues to envelop drone operations and questions whether they might be creating terrorists even as they are killing them.

“There is no indication that a U.S. strategy to destroy al-Qaida has curbed the rise of Sunni Islamic extremism, deterred the establishment of Shia Islamic extremist groups or advanced long-term U.S. security interests,” the report concludes.

The panel includes a number of former Pentagon and CIA officials and is jointly led by retired Gen. John P. Abizaid, the former head of U.S. Central Command, and Rosa Brooks, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a law professor at Georgetown University. Other members are Philip Mudd, a former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center; Jeffrey Smith, who served as the CIA’s general counsel during the Clinton administration; and John B. Bellinger III, the legal adviser to the National Security Council and the State Department during the George W. Bush administration.

The report will be released Thursday morning by the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. The New York Times was given a copy in advance of its release.

Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, said, “I’m not in a position to comment on a report that hasn’t been released yet, but we look forward to reviewing it.”

“The administration is exploring ways we can provide more information about the United States’ use of force in counterterrorism operations outside areas of active hostilities, including information that provides the American people with a better understanding of U.S. assessments of civilian casualties,” she said, adding that the United States needs to preserve “the ability to continue those operations.”

The report challenges some widespread criticisms of armed drones. Arguing that they should neither be “glorified nor demonized,” it said there is strong evidence that civilian deaths from armed drone strikes are far fewer than those from traditional combat aircraft. The panel also said there is little reason to conclude that drones create a “PlayStation mentality” - turning war into a video game that eliminates the psychological costs to drone pilots.

In fact, the report said, because drone pilots watch their targets sometimes for days and weeks before pulling the trigger - and then see them blown up on a high-resolution video screen - they are more susceptible to post-traumatic stress than pilots of manned aircraft.

The panel instead reserves the bulk of its criticism for how two successive U.S. presidents have conducted a “long-term killing program based on secret rationales” and how too little thought has been given to what consequences might be spawned by this new way of waging war.

The Obama administration has been reluctant to make public any of the legal underpinnings of the targeted killing program. As part of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits brought by The Times and the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal appeals court this week released a redacted version of a 2010 Justice Department memo that blessed as legal the effort to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Muslim cleric and U.S. citizen who eventually died in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen.

One section of the memo, a compilation of evidence to support administration claims that al-Awlaki had become an operational terrorist who posed a direct threat to Americans, remained redacted.

Some of the panel’s recommendations have already been embraced - although not yet adopted - by the Obama administration. One of the recommendations, shifting responsibility from the CIA to the Pentagon for the bulk of drone operations, was first discussed by White House officials last May although the CIA continues to carry out drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. It is unclear when, if ever, the CIA will be taken off the mission of firing missiles from armed drones.

The panel’s recommendation that the government release information about drone victims follows a provision the Senate Intelligence Committee included in its authorization bill last year demanding that the Obama administration give an annual report about the number of militants and civilians killed and injured in drone strikes. But intelligence officials fought the provision, and senators quietly stripped it from the bill in April.

The report raised warnings that other countries might adopt the same rationale as the United States has for carrying out lethal strikes outside of declared war zones. Using an example of a current crisis, it said that Russia could use armed drones in Ukraine under the justification that it was killing anti-Russian terrorists and then refuse to disclose the intelligence that served as the basis for the strike.

“In such circumstances,” the report asked, “how could the United States credibly condemn Russian targeted killings?”

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