In defense of drones

February 11, 2013 

The following editorial, excerpted here, appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday:

In 2009, an American drone fired a missile that ended the bloody career of Baitullah Mehsud on a rooftop in Pakistan. He was the Taliban’s chief terrorist in that nation. Mehsud’s mistake: He showed his face for a few minutes, long enough for the unmanned aircraft to get a fix. He wouldn’t be the last terrorist to make that fatal mistake.

President Barack Obama has aggressively championed drone strikes as a significant part of America’s counterterrorism efforts around the globe, just as his predecessor, George W. Bush, did. The campaign has been extraordinarily effective, targeting militants across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and parts of Africa. It has helped cripple al-Qaida leadership.

Many people, including some members of Congress, are troubled by the risk of civilian casualties and the largely secret rules by which drone controllers select and strike targets. Some senators have demanded to see an opinion by the Department of Justice that provided legal justification for the president’s order approving a 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. He was an American citizen – and al-Qaida kingpin.

On Wednesday, Obama agreed to allow Senate and House intelligence committee members to review classified legal memos that justified the strike against al-Awlaki. The scope of drone warfare took center stage Thursday in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the nomination of John Brennan to run the CIA. The hearing was frequently interrupted by protesters who accused Brennan of war crimes.

Brennan, who has played a pivotal role in managing drone attacks as the White House’s counterterrorism adviser, offered a compelling defense of the program as “legally grounded” and deeply rooted in strong intelligence. He said officials have used drones “judiciously” and only as a “last resort.”

The secrecy around the program makes it difficult to judge how well the U.S. has done to avoid civilian casualties and select appropriate targets. But a recently leaked Justice Department memo provides confidence about the legal justification for the deployment of drones. “Targeting a member of an enemy force who poses an imminent threat of violent attack to the United States is … a lawful act of national self defense,” the memo says.

This is the future of national defense, more dependent on advanced technology and less dependent on risking boots on the ground. This is critical to efforts to identify and respond to terrorist threats to the U.S. before an attack is put into operation.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein acknowledged at Thursday’s hearing that the committee exercises “significant oversight” over targeted strikes but said she would consider proposals to create judicial oversight of drone strikes, along the lines of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which issues warrants for wiretaps.

We’re eager to hear more details. But adding judicial oversight introduces the risk of U.S. warriors shrinking from what in effect are battlefield decisions because they have one eye on the judges. Another risk: One more layer of oversight reduces the advantages of immediacy and surprise: We don’t want drone operators hoping their targeted terrorist will stay on a rooftop in Pakistan while a court in Washington debates whether it’s appropriate to eliminate him.

So let’s hear that debate. When they launch it, members of Congress need to keep in mind that there’s one commander in chief, not 535.

MCT Information Services

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