Where Rand Paul and John Brennan can agree on US drone program

Sen. Rand Paul's epic filibuster raised valid concerns about the US drone program, delaying the vote to confirm John Brennan as CIA director. Turns out Mr. Brennan also values transparency and accountability and may support the transfer of CIA drone operations to the US military.

Senate Television/AP
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky speaks on the Senate floor in Washington, March 6. Mr. Paul's remarks centered on what he said was the Obama administration's refusal to rule out the possibility of drone strikes against American citizens in the US. Op-ed contributor Meg Braun writes: 'Shifting the CIA drone program to the military would likely improve the transparency, accountability, and precision of drone operations.'

Sen. Rand Paul's epic 13-hour speech-turned-filibuster on the Senate floor yesterday raised serious – and valid – concerns about the US drone program. Mr. Paul's remarks delayed the vote to confirm John Brennan as CIA director, but as it turns out, Mr. Brennan also values transparency and accountability. Though he is known as the architect of America’s drone program, as newly-confirmed CIA director, Brennan may, in fact, challenge the current reporting structure.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee last month, Brennan said unequivocally, “The CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations.” This is in keeping with insider reports that Brennan has repeatedly advocated for President Obama to transfer drone operations from the CIA to the Pentagon.

And Brennan would be right to advocate for such a shift. As America enters the next decade of the fight against Al Qaeda, strategic and ethical considerations require that the government refocus its attention on high-level leaders, avoid civilian casualties, and remain accountable to the American public. To do so, it needs to capitalize on the military’s superior expertise, relative transparency, and overall effectiveness by giving the Pentagon command of all armed drone operations.

Brennan is well positioned to push for this change. A staunch advocate of transparency, who even objects to using the blind carbon copy (BCC) function on emails, Brennan recently told the Washington Post, “I think the rule should be that if we’re going to take actions overseas that result in the deaths of people, the United States should take responsibility for that.”

Brennan’s call for enhanced transparency conflicts with the culture of secrecy that is often cited as the primary advantage of the CIA-led drone program. The agency’s policy is to neither confirm nor deny its covert operations, and as long as the US government declines to acknowledge drone strikes, so can other countries. From 2004 through 2007, Pakistani authorities frequently claimed that the blasts produced by drone strikes were a result of bomb makers inadvertently blowing themselves up. And in recent years, the Pakistani government continues to deny that it has consented to US drone operations.

But the facade of deniability has, in reality, long since disappeared. The CIA drone program is the worst kept secret in Washington, largely as a result of the Obama administration’s eagerness to claim credit for its successes.

And despite their counterterrorism accomplishments, these not-so-covert drone operations are proving detrimental to the CIA. In the last ten years, drone strikes have attracted far too much public scrutiny to an organization that prides itself on operating in the shadows and have transformed America’s leading spy agency into what one intelligence officer characterized as “one hell of a killing machine.”

As of September 2011, about 20 percent of the CIA’s analysts worked as “targeters” whose primary function was to scan data to identify targets for drone strikes. Critics in the intelligence community have argued that this focus on lethal operations has diverted the CIA’s attention away from other threats, such as cyber attacks, nuclear proliferation, and the emergence of China as a potential rival in the Pacific.

Drone strikes may at times be a necessary evil, but the scale on which the US is utilizing them has become counterproductive. Although drone technology is capable of being proportionate and discriminate, the decisionmakers who use drones do not always exhibit these same traits. The CIA’s war of attrition against low-level militants in Pakistan has caused many civilian deaths and inflamed anti-US sentiments. Research by the New America Foundation suggests that drone strikes in Pakistan have killed as many as 368 civilians and recent public opinion polls reveal that 97 percent of Pakistanis oppose CIA drone strikes, and 80 percent have unfavorable views of the US.

Shifting the CIA drone program to the military would likely improve the transparency, accountability, and precision of drone operations, thereby ensuring greater responsibility on the part of the operators and reducing civilian casualties. CIA officials are trained to steal secrets; they aren’t professional soldiers. The US military follows rigorous protocols for mitigating collateral damage and lawyers trained in the laws of war are an integral part of targeting decisions. The CIA has no such legal procedures or sophisticated matrices for assessing collateral damage, and has resisted attempts to create a formalized set of operational guidelines. This makes it ill equipped to deal with the moral, legal, and strategic challenges drones inevitably raise.

The benefits of the military’s experience and professional standards speak for themselves. A report released recently by the United Nations indicates that US military drones operating in Afghanistan fired 294 weapons in 2011, but only one incident caused civilian deaths. In that same year, up to 11 out of 73 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan killed civilians.

Mistakes are inevitable in war, but when they occur, they must be accompanied by public accountability, and the military generally takes responsibility for its actions. When an Air Force drone strike inadvertently killed 23 Afghan civilians in February 2010, the military issued a report explaining how mistakes had been made, revised its training protocols, and disciplined the responsible officers. This openness to public scrutiny enables the military to better maintain public trust, a source of legitimacy that current drone operations are sorely lacking. 

Admittedly, the military’s Joint Special Operations Command has recently begun conducting drone strikes alongside the CIA in Yemen, and has inherited the spy agency’s propensity for secrecy. However, if drone operations were fully integrated into the Pentagon, they could become transparent. Although the military does not always disclose the details of its work, it does take public responsibility for its operations. 

Critics will argue that secrecy is a necessary component of drone operations and the oversight and bureaucracy of the military will hinder America’s ability to initiate drone strikes quickly and covertly when needed. However, this need not be the case. The military has been engaging in rapid target selection and response for decades using a rigorous process that still maintains the element of surprise. Similarly, as the February 2010 incident in Afghanistan revealed, the military can keep the specifics of its after-action investigations classified so as to not compromise the identity of soldiers or reveal the tactics and technology employed by the US, while still releasing public reports that take responsibility for its mistakes.

The CIA drone program should have been a military function from the very beginning, and the CIA knows this. In the summer of 2001, the US military was finalizing development of its first armed drone, and there was a protracted debate in the National Security Council about whether a potential drone strike on Osama bin Laden should be conducted by the CIA or the military. George Tenet, then the director of the CIA, insisted that lethal operations were the responsibility of the US military and the CIA had no business firing missiles. However, after 9/11, drones became the CIA’s ticket to a leading role in counterterrorism operations and the agency’s principled reservations were largely abandoned.

Now it is time for the White House to reign the CIA drone program back in. A sustainable drone program must be temperate, it must be transparent, and it must be well regulated. Current CIA drone operations are none of these things, but these qualities are attainable under the direction of the US military. The future of drones must, like all uses of force, lie with the professional armed forces.

Megan Braun is a Rhodes scholar and masters student in International Relations at Oxford University, where her research explores the evolution of US drone policy. Her work has previously appeared in Foreign Policy, CNN, and the journal Ethics & International Affairs.

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