America's remote-control war against terror has spread from Afghanistan and Yemen to North Africa and the Middle East. Drone warfare has grown from a temporary response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to become a permanent part of the Central Intelligence Agency’s effort to root out and eliminate potential threats to the United States. The program raises serious questions that need answers before targeted killings become ingrained in American foreign policy.
The Washington Post recently detailed how America’s use of remotely piloted aircraft to kill hard-to-reach terrorists has increased. The Obama Administration has created a permanent infrastructure to identify threats, gather data about them, plan contingencies for capturing or killing human targets, and carrying out the plans when opportunities arise.
From a planning center in Washington, D.C., a desolate outpost in Djibouti, and remote piloting centers in New Mexico and Nevada, targets are selected, approved, and eliminated. There have been more than 35 attacks in Yemen this year.
The “disposition matrix” changes as new information is obtained, new threats appear, and old threats are eliminated. The hit list looks set to continue for at least another decade, even though officials admit that the terrorists on the list are second-class threats compared to those of a few years ago.
Death by drone-fired missile is President Obama’s preferred method to deal with terror threats. It has led to the deaths of top al-Qaeda officials. It is undeniably effective. But there is no congressional oversight. The final decision to kill rests with the President. Death by fiat seldom is simple.
CIA Director David Petraeus wants at least 10 more drones to go with the 30 to 35 the agency has. The Defense Department wants to triple the size of the Djibouti base, which flies dozens of missions each month. There are a half-dozen drone and surveillance bases in Africa.
All of this is necessary, administration officials say, because instability in Syria, Mali, Libya, and other places make them breeding grounds for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. But is it the right way to fight this war?
For decades, the CIA has been primarily an intelligence-gathering agency. What are the long-term implications if it becomes a paramilitary organization?
The Obama Administration says the killings are legal, even when the targets are American citizens. But drone attacks are cloaked in secrecy, so there is only the administration’s word that particular deaths are justifiable under international law.
Even if the killings are legal, are they moral? Is there a formula to balance civilian deaths caused by drone strikes against how high a target is on the “disposition matrix”?
Will U.S. drone attacks encourage other countries to develop their own kill matrices? The Post reports that countries including China are racing to catch up with America’s drone technology.
More important: Does it work? People involved in the drone campaign have no doubt. They also have no data. It will take years to evaluate whether targeted killings breed more terrorists. By then, the damage will have been done, and it may be too late to turn back.
“When we institutionalize certain things, including targeted killing, it does cross a threshold that makes it harder to cross back,” Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, told the Post. It’s better to answer these questions now, before the nation crosses that threshold.