“Rock and a Hard Place” – How does the U.S. manage the use of drones?

In the months leading up to the U.S. Presidential Election in November 2012, I was surprised by the amount of detail released in the media on how the U.S. employs drones to pursue its terrorist enemies.  While many on the left have called for increased transparency and accountability with regards to the use of drones, I on the other hand wondered what else the public needed to know about how drones operate and how targets are selected.  This New York Times article,”Secret Kill List“, pretty much described everything one would reasonably need to know about drone targeting decisions.  Does the public really need to review every targeting package (revealing intelligence sources and methods) before a terrorist target can be engaged?  I don’t think that’s a good idea.  That being said, I understand concerns about judicial oversight and have made several recommendations in past posts on how I think the drone process can be improved.

Some have criticized the recent story describing the administration’s development of a new “Disposition Matrix”, which attempts to match different counterterrorism options with terrorist threats.  Essentially, when slippery al Qaeda operatives move from safe haven to safe haven, what counterterrorism options can be pursued to disrupt the threat, whether it be law enforcement options on one end all the way to drone targeting on another.  Many have criticized this approach in the media and in particular criticized National Security Advisor John Brennan for his attempts to codify this process.  Gregory Johnsen, who has recently written an excellent book on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, took aim at Brennan this past week in a New York Times Op-Ed stating that Brennan should not be considered for the position of CIA Director:

Rather than promote the author of a failing strategy, we need a C.I.A. director who will halt the agency’s creeping militarization and restore it to what it does best: collecting human intelligence.

First, moving from National Security Advisor to CIA Director isn’t necessarily a promotion. Brennan currently guides all counterterrorism strategy across government of which the CIA is only one of many parts Brennan guides.  Second, Brennan as an old CIA hat, I would guess, would be more likely to move the agency away from paramilitary operations and back to its core collection mission, which Johnsen calls for in his Op-Ed.  Overall, Johnsen seems to be fixated on Yemen as a counterterrorism failure and the use of drones as inappropriate if there ever is an instance where things go wrong.

As I noted during my review of Greg’s book and through several rounds of debate (#1#2#3#4#5#6#7), I arrive at very opposite conclusions when assessing the counterterrorism strategy and relative effectiveness under Brennan’s reign.  Having lived through the post-9/11 follies of pre-emptive war, regime change, forced democratization of the Middle East and large scale, multi-trillion dollar counterinsurgency, I am satisfied with the more nimble, measured and thoughtful current approach to engaging a terrorist group spread around the globe. Especially as the removal of counterterrorism options has continued, the National Security Advisor increasingly has fewer options for going after committed terrorism enemies.  When I read about the “Disposition Matrix“, I see not a reckless policy of engagement but instead an administration trying to fight an asymmetric terrorist threat with new effective capabilities in the construct of an antiquated Cold War legal construct.  Brennan is trying to build a functional, accountable and adaptive counterterrorism approach for the 21st Century, not the 20th Century.  While Johnsen and others have rallied against drones in Yemen and elsewhere, I continue to respond with, “If not drones, then what should we do?”

Ironically, immediately following Johnsen’s non-vote for a CIA Director Brennan, the New York Times published a post entitled “Election Spurred a Move to Codify U.S. Drone Policy” noting that in the counterterrorism architecture, it is Brennan that curbs the use of drone strikes.

Though publicly the administration presents a united front on the use of drones, behind the scenes there is longstanding tension. The Defense Department and the C.I.A. continue to press for greater latitude to carry out strikes; Justice Department and State Department officials, and the president’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, have argued for restraint, officials involved in the discussions say.

If true, would Johnsen not be arguing against an individual, Brennan, who in fact is a check on a tactic that Johnsen wants reduced?  The Presidential debates didn’t even address the use of drones and Brennan, rather than being an aggressive advocate for drone use, may be the most reasonable and best person to have codifying a new way forward in counterterrorism.

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