Drone Wars: What’s the Right Policy?

The McCain Institute hosts a debate on the controversial US lethal drone program
By Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg
December 10, 2013 Updated: December 16, 2013

WASHINGTON— “Are lethal drone strikes the most effective way to keep America safe without costly, drawn-out ground wars? Or have we become addicted to low-risk killing?” 
a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, 2008–2009, asked recently.

A debate on the drone warfare program was held at the McCain Institute in Washington, D.C., Dec. 5. During an introduction, Kurt Volker, executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, asked provocatively, “Do we want a country with a permanent kill list where it is part of the president’s job description to sit in the oval office and decide who we are going to take out today?”   

The United States’ use of lethal drones to kill terrorists in foreign countries began in the Bush administration and has significantly widened under the Obama administration.        

Despite this, the American people are not very familiar with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones. At the same time, an ongoing conversation among policymakers and lawmakers are questioning whether we want to be engaged in drone warfare in the manner and to the extent that we currently are.

The debate drew an audience of several hundred in person and online to hear four individuals with relevant career experience debate the appropriate use of drones. 

The debate was not about whether drones are an effective and legal weapon for the United States to use when targeting individuals who pose an imminent threat to the country. All four debaters agreed that drone use for this purpose is highly effective and legal. 

Two debaters took the side that the U.S. drone program is appropriate and no major changes are warranted. The others had legal and strategic qualms about the way the program is being conducted.

Kramer and Marks: Drones Authorized

Franklin D. Kramer served in the Carter and Clinton administrations working on counterterrorism. He was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs for President Bill Clinton. At present, he is a senior fellow at research group CNA, and professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

Our drone policy is “about right,” appropriate, and effective, said Kramer. While lethal drones were not used back in 2001, he said drones are authorized by the AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), which Congress approved three days after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Towers. 

The AUMF authorizes the president to use all “necessary and appropriate force” against those he determines committed or aided the terrorists attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.

Applying the AUMF, Kramer said, “We are operating under the laws of armed conflict,” and drones are an effective way to go after a group that is in “active hostilities against the United States.”

President Barack Obama, in a definitive speech on the subject of drone warfare at National Defense University (NDU) May 23, said he wanted to “refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.” The president said he was uncomfortable with “keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.” 

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands,” Obama said of the so-called war on terror.

But for now, Kramer said that the president has the authority to use armed drones, and Congress ultimately has authorized their use for counterterrorism in both administrations. Congress is regularly briefed on the strikes, he added.

Kramer’s debating partner, Major Gen. (retired) James “Spider” Marks, added his practical experience. Marks spent over 30 years in the U.S. Army. When he was a major, he was “present at the creation of Army UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).” In today’s vernacular, UAVs are unofficially called “drones.”

Marks explained that the “rules of engagement” with drones are “very precise” and thorough. He said the military carefully assesses “collateral damage estimates” or CDEs, to minimize the loss of innocent life, before the decision is made to use an armed drone. 

“I would argue that we are now in a continuous state of war,” said Marks, adding that armed drones have become an essential weapon in that war. If you have a target that you need to do something about, you have to decide what to do about that target. Do you use an armed drone or send 12 men to take it out, or what? he said. 

Obama also commented on the alternatives between lethal drones and conventional military options. The president said: “Even small Special Operations carry enormous risks. Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage. And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies …”

But in the same speech, the president warned of the dangers of regarding drone strikes as a “cure-all for terrorism.”

Bellinger and Eviatar: More Transparency

John B. Bellinger III was a high-ranking official during both terms of the Bush administration and was involved in the creation of the legal rationale for the use of armed drones. He served as the legal adviser for the State Department, 2005–2009, and previously served as senior associate counsel to the president, 2001–2005. 

Bellinger said he agreed with just about everything Kramer and Marks said. It’s what they left out that has made him a “mild critic of where we have become in the Obama administration.”

His view is that the policy has gone awry. 

“President Obama has come to rely massively on drones; it has really become his weapon of choice, dramatically increasing the drone program seven- or eightfold. We think maybe 350 drone strikes in five years, killing three to four thousand people.”

Astonishingly, “only four people have acknowledged that we have killed anyone. It has essentially become a secret killing program.”

Bellinger was referring to four U.S. citizens identified in a letter, dated May 22, from Attorney General Eric Holder to some members of Congress. It justified the targeting of Anwar 
al-Aulaki, an American citizen, who was killed in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011, by a Predator drone strike. Three others were also killed, but not targeted, including al-Aulaki’s son, Abdul Rahman al Awlaki, 16, on Oct.14.

Bellinger continued: “I have come out of the intelligence and covert action world too and I’m fine with some secret things. But for us to have killed three to four thousand people without acknowledging any of it is a problem.”

Further, Bellinger said, “It’s hard for the rest of the world to know what we are doing because we aren’t acknowledging what we are doing.” Much of the world doesn’t understand that we the United States can be in a conflict with a shadowy group in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and various other places.

Bellinger would like, as a starter, for the administration to identify the top 50 people who have been killed and why. He would also like for the United States to reach a consensus with other countries on the rules for the use of drones.

Up until now, the arguments made on both sides have been geared toward pragmatic concerns. Daphne Eviatar took the conversation in a new direction to consider the international legality of the drone program. As senior counsel in Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program, Eviatar investigates human rights implications of U.S. national security policies.

She cited Obama in the NDU speech when he said, “America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.”

Eviatar said that American officials define imminence “in a way that is actually far beyond what its ordinary usage is.” She said the Justice Department has a secret white paper that describes imminence as not requiring a specific threat or one that is immediate. Yet, “specific and immediate is what imminent means,” she said. 

This is an issue of international law that we disagree with our allies about, which is undermining their cooperation with us, Eviatar said. 

She wants the policy to be clear what legal framework drones are operating under. When an individual is targeted and killed, it should be made public why the individual was targeted, and the legal justification for the strike, she said.