President Obama’s nominee for CIA chief, John Brennan, has been a strong advocate for the expansion of drone use by the United States.
That’s certain to come up at Brennan’s confirmation hearings.
Brennan has described the trajectory of US drone policies “unsustainable.”
Micah Zenko agrees.
He’s the author of a new Council on Foreign Relations special report titled “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies.”
“Domestic and international pressure,” says Zenko, could jeopardize entire program, “as it did other Bush-era forms of counter-terrorism, such as warrantless wire-tapping and “enhanced” interrogation.”
Zenko calls for greater transparency and accountability, to set norms of behavior for the rest of the world, as drone technology proliferates.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World. President Obama’s choice of John Brennan to head the CIA has already hit a snag. Senate republican Lindsey Graham wants to delay Brennan’s confirmation until he gets more answers from the White House on a unrelated matter, the September attack in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, but there’s another issue that’s certain to come up once Brennan’s confirmation hearings get underway: drones. Brennan has been a strong advocate for the expanded use of un-manned aerial vehicles, as they’re technically known, during his tenure as White House counter-terrorism chief. Micah Zenko is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and he authored a report for the council that came out yesterday. It’s called Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies. So Micah, what do you think should be done with the drone program? Should it be brought to an end?
Micah Zenko: No. I mean, as I like to say, what the United States should do at a minimum is do what it says it’s doing which is it should end the practice of signature strikes. Which are, I mean, most people have read about how the Obama administration has all of these quote kill lists.
Zenko: Of individuals who go through a very careful vetting process and then can be targeted with lethal force, but in fact most of the individuals who are killed we, the United States, doesn’t know their name. They’re individuals who, through patterns of behavior through overhead surveillance or signals intelligence, are determined to look like suspected militants or terrorist groups. So the United States should end the practice of signature strikes. It should only target those individuals who they say they’re targeting, which is a significant and imminent threat to the United States and because the U.S. is the lead actor in these, what it is doing and the administration acknowledges this. What it is doing is establishing a precedent that other nations will follow. In a world characterized by the proliferation of drones used with little transparency or little constraint would be one that we don’t want to live in.
Werman: So, Micah, tell us what kind of policy you’d like to see enacted that would make the use of drones say more transparent and does that really make sense? I mean, Washington isn’t really going to start talking openly about future drone strikes.
Zenko: Well the one thing they could do is- So right now, for a reason sort of bureaucratic infighting around and before 9/11, some of the drone strikes are conducted the CIA and then some of the drone strikes are conducted by special operations command which is a elite, semi-secretive Pentagon outfit. Now CIA drone strikes, under U.S. law, are covert which means the United States role and responsibility can not be acknowledged at all. Whereas operations conducted by the Pentagon are more what they call clandestine. They’re semi-secret. The U.S. will acknowledge they do them. They will provide some justification and defense, but as it stands right now all the drone strikes in Pakistan are done by the CIA, all the drone strikes in Somalia are done by the Pentagon, and in Yemen some of the drone strikes are done by the CIA and some of them are done by the Pentagon. So what you have is this sort of mish mash of executive authorities and oversight which sort of prohibit the ability to understand what’s going on and I would also add in the case of Yemen some of what are reported as U.S. drone strikes are potentially by the Yemeni Air Force or even the Saudi Air Force, which was reported recently, but the United States gets blamed for everything and so some of the worst myths and misperceptions about drones, we allow them to persist. When the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan is asked about drones, he can not say anything and the United States essentially allows the Taliban to tell America’s story about how it uses drones and that’s just a tremendous failing.
Werman: So what are the scenarios that really worry, Micah, if the U.S. does not get it’s drone house in order?
Zenko: Well the biggest scenario is that other countries develop the technology which will happen in the next five to ten years. The thing that we learn about drones is because of their inherent advantages, it makes the use of lethal force more likely. When other countries have the ability to use armed drones against it’s neighbors or regional actors, they will use lethal force more likely if they follow U.S. precedent. So in a range of scenarios where force is already used outside of a country’s borders, this will increase significantly because of the inherent advantages that drones provide over other lethal means.
Werman: So let’s circle back to John Brennan, the nominee to take over the CIA, the man under whom a lot of this drone program expanded in the last few years. Is he the person who the CIA can help or hinder this kind of reform you’re talking about?
Zenko: Well Brennan has been one of the individuals who recognizes, because he was a long time CIA official and saw previous controversial counter-terrorism practices ended by domestic and international pressure. He recognizes that what the United States was doing in terms of drone strikes was un-sustainable and so he’s given a number of very carefully scripted speeches and press appearances but he was one of the people who tried to codify and streamline this practice. At Langley as the director of the CIA, he will actually have less influence and less ability to direct what goes on because currently he is a special assistant to the President. He meets with President Obama several times a day, but at Langley where, as I said before, all CIA operations, covert operations, can not be acknowledged of defended by the U.S. government. He will not be able to tell the Pentagon how it uses its drones. So if the Obama administration wants to have any U.S. government-wide reform of drone stroke policies, that is not going to be the job for the CIA director to oversee and manage. It will have to be a priority and directed by President Obama personally.
Werman: Micah Zenko a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the Councilâ’s report on reforming U.S. drone strike policies. Thank you.
Zenko: Thank you. Happy to speak.
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