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Obama talks drones: Will it increase transparency for Pentagon to take lead?

In a speech Thursday, President Obama acknowledged some of the complexities involved in the drone war. A new presidential directive released this week says that the Pentagon, rather than the CIA, should ‘have the lead for the use of force.’

In his widely anticipated foreign-policy speech Thursday, President Obama rejected the wisdom of a global “war on terror” and warned, in the words of President James Madison, that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Continual warfare has been the plight of the United States since 2001 – and for much of the past decade, the US government has used drones to prosecute its wars.

Some of these wars are well known to the American public – Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. Others are secret wars, waged out of the public eye in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

The secret wars have been prosecuted largely using drones and under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency. Critics have long argued, however, that the American public should have greater knowledge and oversight of these wars.

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“Covert operations have their place, but what we’re doing with drone strikes is really a part of war – and it should be treated as such,” says Mark Jacobson, former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan.

To that end, a new presidential directive released this week in advance of Mr. Obama’s speech says that the Pentagon, rather than the CIA, should “have the lead for the use of force” – not just in Afghanistan, but also in other countries where the US is fighting against Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The hope among nongovernmental organizations that have long endeavored to raise awareness about America’s secret drone war is that this move will result in greater transparency.

“This is a big deal. It’s something that we’ve been pushing for for quite a long time – to have it moved over to the DOD,” says Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “The military is actually quite accountable not only to Congress but also to the American people.”

During the years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military went to great lengths to explain “how they handle and avoid civilian casualties,” Ms. Holewinski says. “They’ve wanted to be transparent, to prove, ‘Here’s how we avoid casualties.’ They wanted people to see how they tried to avoid civilian harm.”

For this reason, the public has every reason to expect that the Pentagon will shed more light on America’s secret wars than has the CIA, which does not directly answer to the American people, Holewinski says.

Others argue, however, that the move could actually decrease transparency. Currently, the CIA is required to report anticipated covert activities to the “Gang of Eight,” which is made up of the top intelligence leaders in Congress.

But as the Pentagon takes over greater responsibilities for drone operations, “there is no obligation of the military to report before or after any drone strikes,” says Bruce Fein, deputy attorney general under President Reagan and author of Constitutional Peril: the Life and Death Struggle for Our Constitution and Democracy.”

Congress is now considering legislation that would require the Pentagon to report its drone strikes as well. In the meantime, however, while Mr. Fein says he takes the Pentagon’s statements that it is trying to reduce civilian casualties “in good faith, that’s all it is – it’s just trusting.”

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NGOs, he notes, have come up with civilian casualty figures that “are multiple times” what the DOD cites as its civilian casualty figures.

It is a point Obama acknowledged in his speech Thursday. “Much of the criticism about drone strikes – at home and abroad – understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There is a wide gap between US assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports,” he said. “Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties.”

This has fueled considerable backlash against the US. Obama’s speech was an acknowledgment that even if strikes have taken out terrorists, in some cases, “They have actually increased Al Qaeda and the enemy by giving them a recruiting tool,” says Fein, now the president of the Lichfield Group, which does public advocacy on national-security issues.

“As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion,” Obama said. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”

He continued, “For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power– or risk abusing it.”

Adds Dr. Jacobson, now a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States: “There are going to be times when these strikes are necessary, but you want to balance that with the risk that it can also increase resentment or add to the drivers” of terrorism. “A campaign against violent extremism isn’t just about drone strikes. It has to combat the beliefs and ideologies. If the use of these strikes works in the short term, but has a negative effect over the long term, then you want to adjust that.”

By the end of 2014, the progress the US has made in reducing core Al Qaeda “will reduce the need for unmanned strikes,” Obama said.

For now, however, these strikes continue to target militants abroad as well as US citizens. The problem is that “militant” and “combatant” are terms not defined by the US government, Holewinski says.

And whether targets of US drone strikes are American or foreign citizens, “They deserve due diligence,” she adds.

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To that end, she says, there are some key questions that the administration should answer – questions that Yemeni, Pakistani, and Somali civilians are currently asking and that Americans should ask as well.

“They want to know, ‘What is the criteria under which I can be targeted? Will I be notified that I’m being targeted? Why – under what circumstances – can I be killed? How can I be safe from being killed?’ ” says Holewinski. “That is what they want to know.”