Drones vs. Other CT Options & The Issue Of Proliferation

This week, I participated in an interview with the radio show The Takeaway discussing the use of drones and why I believe taking them completely out of the counterterrorism menu is a bad idea.  Host John Hockenberry and I traded some opinions on how drones measure up to backing foreign militaries or proxy militias in foreign countries.

Interestingly, this discussion always centers on civilian casualties caused by drones, but when I bring up the issue of civilian casualties from options other than drones, no one seems to have a good handle on what the numbers look like.  Neither is there any discussion of the effectiveness of drones in eliminating al Qaeda leaders.  I’m not advocating civilian casualties nor trying to justify drones, I’m just trying to point out how we came to rely so heavily on drones and how truly evaluating drones requires an examination of multiple counterterrorism options and civilian casualties across all those options.

The interview ended with a discussion about drone proliferation and the possibility of terrorist acquisition of drones. For this, I try to argue there is an extremely large difference between flying a remote control plane, which could be classified a drone, and multi-country or even intercontinental drone operations.  Namely, the scale of intelligence required for targeting and the telecommunications architecture necessary for command and control.  

Listen here if you have five minutes.


Recent War On The Rocks Discussion on Counterterrorism, Syria & Drones in 2014

Just before I took a holiday break, I got the chance to sit down for a chat with Will McCants, J.M. Berger and Ryan Evans in a segment of the War On The Rocks podcast.  Ryan moderated a fun discussion and it is available here at War On The Rocks.  I wish Ryan had recorded our second hour of discussion as well as the first since I think everyone got more fired up as the debate ensued.

For highlights, check out J.M. and Will’s discussion on Omar Hammami’s relevance and engagement.  Will lays down some knowledge on Syria and the Middle East noting that Syria will be for the non-interventionists what Iraq was for the interventionists.  J.M. explains terrorists use of social media which is always an enlightening discussion for me.  At minute 22:00, I get on a drones rant which I’m sure will fill my inbox with hate email and has led to a series of discussions I’ll wrap up in a separate post. Take a listen if you have the time.

War On The Rocks

Drone Week 2013: New ICG Report, AG Acknowledgement & POTUS CT Address

Well, it’s May, and it seems like every year about this time (2011, 2012, 2013) I end up writing more about drones.  I didn’t see this being a heavy week on the discussion of drones, but what else should I do but continue to drone on…..

First, the International Crisis Group (ICG) released one of the more extensive research efforts into the use of armed drones in counterterrorism.  The report “Drones: Myths and Realities in Pakistan” provides a comprehensive analysis and lots of references.  I’m still reading it now, but I’ve already found many interesting points in “Section IV:  Drones and Counterterrorism” starting on page 22.  I’ll note some interesting quotes here in this post which mirror discussions I’ve had in previous posts on drones here at this blog.

On page 24, the section entitled “Winning Hearts and Minds or Losing Allies?” starts off with hosts this paragraph.

In debates on the drone issue, the argument is commonly put forward that drones produce more terrorists than they kill: militant groups exploit real and fabricated accounts of civilian deaths to enlist fresh recruits, including the relatives of drone strike victims, for jihad against the U.S. and its allies.133  The actual benefit to extremist groups, including in terms of recruitment, appears, however, minimal. A local analyst who has extensively researched security and governance in FATA notes that while anti-drone rhetoric does draw some converts, “the loss of a Baitullah Mehsud or a Qari Hussain is much more damaging than the recruitment of a few dozen foot soldiers”.134

As I noted in my previous post, the reasons for joining an extremist group vary significantly from place to place and person to person.  In all cases, I believe the local socioeconomic dynamics surrounding the recruit play the greatest role.  In this report, ICG notes:

Moreover, militant recruitment is a complex process, achieved more often on economic than ideological grounds. The main causes for the spread of militancy in FATA are not drone strikes but domestic factors. These include the absence of the state and insecurity due to the resulting political, legal and economic vacuum; and the military’s support of, provision of sanctuaries to, and peace deals with militant groups.

As noted earlier this week, Christine Fair described the same root causes in 2010. The ICG report goes on to explain why public opinion polling reference drone use in FATA is essentially worthless.  In my opinion, the closer one polls to where the drone strike occurs, the less people will like drone strikes.  This isn’t rocket science (well, maybe it is a little bit, drones fire rockets).  One final quote from the paper comes from a researcher who compares drone strikes to other options:

 said a researcher. “You had military operations and militancy on one side, which destroyed towns and villages, and you had drones on the other, which were more precise.”

The article concludes that drones are not the solution or a long-run solution. I think almost everyone agrees on this.  The article says the solution is for Pakistan and the West to establish “Rule of Law”.  OK, well, Pakistan and other nations have only tried to govern this area for a few centuries, right, so maybe we can tackle this challenge ……uhhh, next fiscal year?  Not likely.

Second, Attorney General Eric Holder revealed one of the biggest non-secrets in American history: the U.S. uses drones and these drones have killed Americans.

Holder’s letter offered a detailed justification for the CIA’S killing of Awlaki, who Holder said had “repeatedly made clear his intent to attack U.S. persons and his hope that these attacks would take American lives.”

Transparency, I like it.  I wish they did this after every drone strike.  But then again, would we expect this sort of transparency after every infantry squad engagement?  Probably not! And are Americans sufficiently informed to understand what they would even be reading?  Would they care?  I don’t know, but I guess Holder’s prelude is set up for…..wait for it…..

Third, President Obama will provide an address on his counterterrorism policy on Thursday. Supposedly this address will go over everything: GITMO, drones, disposition matrix kind of stuff maybe.  It sounds like the President will be addressing all the CT stuff I was complaining about last year in the post “Counterterrorism 2012: No Drones, No Detention, No Intervention“. The NY Times article “Debate Aside, Number of Drone Strikes Drops Sharply”  shows how drone use has decreased ( I posted their table from Long War Journal below).  The article notes:

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 8.48.00 PM

Mr. Obama, who insisted early in his presidency on a personal role in many strike decisions, may also shed light on the declining use of drone strikes. Current and former officials say the reasons include a shrinking list of important Qaeda targets, a result of the success of past strikes, and transient factors ranging from bad weather to diplomatic strains. But more broadly, the decline may reflect a changing calculation of the long-term costs and benefits of targeted killings.

So, after all the complaints the past year about transparency and CT strategy, all the bashing on both political sides about the threat of terrorism and how counterterrorism should be conducted, the President seems to be giving everyone what they want right; information and a strategy.  And what will likely happen? Both sides will probably crucify him for it. The President will attempt to do exactly what some of the American public has asked for, and Friday morning on Twitter, there will be nothing but bitching, moaning and sharpshooting.  Well, I think we should close GITMO, I think we should keep using drones, and I have a feeling, for the most part, I’ll be happy with most of what the President outlines that the USG is doing in counterterrorism.  If anything, I think we could maybe do less in some areas.   In retrospect, for me, U.S. counterterrorism makes a lot more sense in 2013 than it did in 2003.   In conclusion, for my take on what modifications could be made to the drone program, see this post (Americans: If you don’t want to get killed by a drone avoid these four things!) and this post (After Brennan, Implementing Curbs on Drone Targeting).

Will there be “blowback” from U.S. drone use?

After a few weeks of quiet, the drone debate has surfaced again in the U.S.

The past week has seen at least two drone strikes in Yemen.  One reportedly killed the Ansar al-Sharia leader of Abyan province and the Long War Journal claims the latest attack , launched missiles at,

“two fighters “as they left a farm on a motorbike” in the Khobza area of Baydah province”

A year ago, all the talk of terrorism, counterterrorism and drones centered on Yemen.  The media has lost interest in Yemen over the past year and while the pace of drone strikes appears to have decreased; their use has not gone away.

More interesting, an article from the Huffington Post I read yesterday that was published in 2010 entitled “Drones over Pakistan: Menace or Best Viable Option?”. This article is a must read.  Dr. C. Christine Fair had spent months in Pakistan researching the drone issue and, similar to Christopher Swift’s take on Yemen last year, found a very different perspective on the drone debate inside Pakistan.  She spoke with a senior Pakistani officer and:

This senior officer himself attested to Pakistan’s own inability to eliminate key threats and the necessity of the drones to eliminate terrorists in a way that most effectively minimizes the loss of innocent lives.

As for those stories that recount the psychological damage placed on populations by the buzz of drones, Fair contrasts with this anecdote:

“Another interlocutor explained that when children hear the buzz of the drones, they go their roofs to watch the spectacle of precision rather than cowering in fear of random “death from above.”

While I’m sure there have been mistakes in the use of drones in Pakistan, Fair says in Pakistan,

This antipathy towards the program is due in large measure to the collaboration of Pakistan’s media to sustain tenacious criticism of the program by spreading suspect civilian casualty reports planted by the militants themselves or various “agencies.”

Well, what should we think? As readers of this blog, you likely know my stance, “Go Drone With Some Modifications” (See here and here). However, the debate often centers around one’s perception of innocence and a which is more noble: means or ends. This is where it all gets really tricky.

COIN proponents like the notion of winning “hearts and minds” and this sells well to the public as the means ‘feel’ just. But in actuality, COIN in Pakistan means Pakistani army and militia invasion, which creates immeasurable casualties over time.  Drones, on the other hand, ‘feel’ evil, but I believe kill more precisely than any other tool and if I had to choose between a drone strike or sending in a tribal militia – I’ll go drone every time. (Did you see above, we just hit two dudes on a motorbike! it doesn’t get much more precise than that.) Again, both parties, drone critics and drone advocates, will swing the number of civilian casualties in their favor because there is no clear definition of the enemy and the U.S. isn’t overly clear about its use of the tool.  Would Osama Bin Laden’s wife be considered a militant or a civilian? Were the people in an AQAP member’s house hit by a drone strike militants or civilians? What about the house across the street from where the missile strikes, militants or civilians?

Drone critics have made some progress, I believe, in curbing the use of drones.  The pace of attacks has decreased overall it seems.  I assume this is either due to public pressure or that the U.S. may be running out of targets.  However, critics of drones are unlikely to make much more progress in reducing drone use unless they can provide a viable counterterrorism alternative to drones – America’s most effective and Slide1efficient counterterrorism tool.  While critics protested publicly during the hearings, I’ve heard little from them since Brennan’s confirmation. If drone critics remain concerned about their use, they must sustain a real campaign against their use and provide plausible alternatives.  The truth is: both political parties and most Americans are big fans of drones as long as they aren’t aimed at them.

The mantra I’ve seen repeated amongst drone critics has been that the U.S. use of drones will result in “blowback” against the U.S. While I agree this is conceivable, this repeated “you just wait, this is going to come back to haunt you” argument needs to come with some specific predictions if it is to be treated seriously.  I’ve listened to this argument against drone use for more than two years now.  (See here and here) If there is going to be “blowback” for the U.S. use of drones, when will there be “blowback” and where will there be “blowback”?  Be specific. To say there will be a terrorist attack from Yemen again, or from Pakistan again, will surely be correct, but these attacks may have only some or no relation to U.S. drone use.

Conversely, the option “to not use drones” over the past several years must be discussed by those that criticize drone use.  For example, I believe if the U.S. had not developed and implemented the use of drones in Pakistan, al Qaeda would be stronger today than it currently is, the U.S. would be further engaged in Afghanistan providing more troops for a longer period, and the TTP and al Qaeda would maintain a strong foothold in Pakistan’s frontier that would further destabilize Pakistan and yield more terrorist attacks against the West. Likewise, I also believe the success of drones in Pakistan has sent al Qaeda to seek alternative safe havens – one of which is Yemen.  In Yemen, without the use of drones, I believe the U.S. would be committed to a larger ground presence and further entanglement with dubious allies in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Additionally, I believe the U.S. would have suffered more attacks from an AQAP whose external operations, led by Awlaki, would have continued, increased and improved with time.  While my assessment, due to the course of history, cannot be proven right or wrong, I can see the logic for why the U.S. chose to pursue drone strikes and I believe it outweighs the arguments for not using drones.  For drone critics, they must qualify their prophecy about the long-run effects of drone use.  I’ve heard the drone “blowback” argument for at least three consecutive years now and, while I respect it, I’m not convinced.


Update: Omar Hammami ‘Wanted’ – worth 1/5 of a “Bin Laden”

Wow, just when I thought the Omar Hammami saga was turning boring, the U.S. State Department issued an announcement of a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Omar.  CNN reports that:

Posters and matchbooks in Somali and English emblazoned with the names and pictures of Omar Shafik Hammami and Jehad Serwan Mostafa tout rewards up to $5 million each for information leading to their arrest or conviction. Both men are on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List.

Omar, dude, what do you think about this?  As has been detailed at length in these blog posts (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10), Omar has been on the run for about a year now – on the run from Shabaab that is.  Now, Omar has apparently really gotten the attention of the U.S. government.  Omar has lots of enemies hunting him, but to be honest he has also rallied a bit of support amongst the Shabaab defector crowd lately so he may not be so alone.  What a mess for the Alabaman!  Omar has said on Twitter many times that he would not be taken alive.  So we’ll see.  Will the Somalis protecting him turn him over for the money?  Or will there be a full on battle between Shabaab and “Omar Hammami & the Muj”?  I guess only time will tell.

Screen Shot 2013-03-20 at 6.07.15 PMAt $5 million, Omar is now the highest valued American on the Most Wanted List surpassing Adam Gadahn at $1 million.  As Omar said, who is more important in the world of terrorists?  Those that do or those that talk?  I wonder if Adam is jealous?  For comparison, Omar Hammami, I guess, is worth about 1/5 of a “Bin Laden” ($25 million reward).

On a separate note, I’m glad that CNN pointed out that the Rewards for Justice program is being used in this initiative – a tool that I think has been underutilized in recent years.  Good for the State Department for using this tool and I point this out to the anti-drone advocates.  The Obama Administration has done and arrest-extradition and a Rewards for Justice pursuit recently.  Here’s a note I wrote a few weeks back about the program.

Additionally, I think the U.S. should look to bring back and further promote the “Rewards-for-Justice” program, especially in Africa, along with drone campaigns.  The program wasn’t that successful after 9/11 in Pakistan (Pashtunwali, tribal protection, etc.), but some of the new CT battefields are not like the Pakistan safe haven al Qaeda enjoyed.  An increase in programs like “Rewards-for-Justice” might ease the need for drone strikes, particularly in those places where resources often trump ideology – like Africa.

So has their “Disposition Matrix” changed in recent weeks?  Do you really think the reward will grab Omar from interior Somalia?  If it doesn’t, then what should we do in the absence of partners in Southern Somalia?

Both officials said the Rewards for Justice Program – administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security – is not involved in drone programs and the intent of the reward is to obtain information that will lead to the men’s apprehension and prosecution.

By the way, I’m pretty sure Jehad Mostafa fixed my air conditioning last summer or installed my cable box, can’t remember which.

Counterterrorism Policy (Drones) And Hot Dogs: Don’t tell us how they are made!

Last week saw Rand Paul of Kentucky perform a 13 or so hour filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to the position of Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Paul’s filibuster surprised many because he actually advocated for a cause he believed in while also bizarrely focusing on domestic drone targeting above all other aspects of the program.  After Paul’s filibuster theater, the nomination cleared Congress last week and Brennan has assumed his role as Director – a good thing in my opinion.  So after all the emotion, has anything really been accomplished in the drone debate?  Will any changes in policy arise?

Drone policy changes can occur in a few ways.  First, Congress could make laws limiting their use.  I doubt this will happen because the greatest irony of the Paul filibuster is that he comes from the political party that is naturally more supportive of drone use. Second, the executive branch could self-regulate and it appears they have been trying to do this over the years.  The latest New York Times article “How a U.S. citizen came to be in America’s cross hairs” provides even more details and clarity on the lengths the Obama administration went to find legal justification for their use of drones to pursue Anwar al-Awlaki.  As I noted in months past, the DOJ memo, in my opinion, didn’t provide endless powers to the President but instead developed specific authorities for the pursuit of Awlaki – a policy built on a unique case. This may or may not be a good idea.

The article provides the chronology for why the U.S. became so alarmed by Awlaki.

By 2008, said Philip Mudd, then a top F.B.I. counterterrorism official, Mr. Awlaki “was cropping up as a radicalizer — not in just a few investigations, but in what seemed to be every investigation.”

However, this evidence represented protected First Amendment speech so did not justify lethal action.  It wasn’t until the Abdulmutallab interrogation that the Obama administration changed course.

“He had been on the radar all along, but it was Abdulmutallab’s testimony that really sealed it in my mind that this guy was dangerous and that we needed to go after him,” said Dennis C. Blair, then director of national intelligence.

and then more attacks emerged….

Meanwhile, attacks linked in various ways to Mr. Awlaki continued to mount, including the attempted car bombing of Times Square in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen who had reached out to the preacher on the Internet, and the attempted bombing by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula of cargo planes bound for the United States that October.

I recommend that everyone check out the New York Times article as it provides real depth in reporting. The article also briefly mentions the revelations from Morten Storm – an alleged Danish agent that supposedly helped track Awlaki in Yemen.  I’m not so sure I buy into the whole Morten Storm story, but here is one interesting note from The Daily Beast that caught my eye. Storm claims Awlaki:

“He [Awlaki] wanted to attack the big shopping centers in the West … by using biological weapons. But I said that I didn’t want to take part in killing civilians—I could only agree to attacking military targets,” Storm says. “Of course I wouldn’t have helped him carry out any kind of terrorist actions. But I had to let him think that I was on his side.”

Well, if true, I’m sure the idea of a ‘biological weapons attack in a shopping mall’ certainly got the administration’s attention and hurried along the justification.

So will the executive branch continue to check itself? I think so, but will it be enough.  The debates may have at least sent a message to the administration.  Unfortunately, it will be entirely up to the Obama administration to check itself as I doubt Congress has the ability to do much of anything. BTW, did anyone catch that John Brennan was sworn in on an original draft of the Constitution? I assume he hears everyone’s concerns, good for him.

In conclusion, Americans continue to struggle with how best to conduct counterterrorism more than ten years after the 9/11 attacks.  For the most part, Americans want their counterterrorism strategy to be like hot dogs – it should taste good but don’t tell them how its made.  As time passes from the trauma of the 9/11 attacks, the American stomach for killing terrorists lessens – when the hot dogs get cold, no one wants to eat them.  Thus by advocating only one solution (law enforcement only – no drones), Americans would be choosing 1) either inaction and eventual attack or 2) counterterrorism by proxy where Americans temporarily enjoy a “Hear No Evil, See No Evil” approach likely to render long term negative consequences such as the backing of corrupt dictators, repression of freedom and the empowering of future non-state threats (like al Qaeda).  On the flip side, the Obama administration will continue to be able to use drone strikes until innocent people are killed again by an errant shot based on poor intelligence – a roughly 100% chance this will happen.

For many opposed to targeted killing by drone, they would prefer all enemies in a new asymmetric world be adapted such they can be mitigated through legal processes created in a more than 200 year old document. They like their threats to be either criminals or enemy nations; not a blend of the two.  Unfortunately, America’s adversaries have adapted as threats as a direct result of the U.S. system.  As America is successful in law enforcement and military operations, enemies morph straddling the lines of sovereignty, exploiting weak states, using disruptive technology, riding ideologies that rally the disenfranchised and hitting seams between bureaucracies and nations.  Protecting America’s values and effectively deterring terrorists and other threat actors (like cyber) requires new laws and new processes.  Barring another major attack, the momentum to make change appears too weak – status quo will likely reign.

As for Awlaki, from my perspective, there’s only two differences between him and Bin Laden.  Bin Laden’s attacks 1) succeeded and 2) were of a far greater magnitude than Awlaki’s.  Bin Laden, like Awlaki, never personally executed attacks on the U.S. – he advocated them, approved of them and helped finance them, but he didn’t personally execute the attacks. Likewise, both Bin Laden and Awlaki were only partially involved in the design of actual attacks (KSM largely played that role for UBL and presumably Asiri for Awlaki). Yet, no one thought twice about the elimination of Bin Laden which was seen as an act of warfare more than law enforcement action.  If the biological attacks on a shopping mall threats were true, one might even argue that Awlaki was more personally involved in attacking the U.S. than Bin Laden. If Abdulmutallab had detonated his device over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, I doubt many Americans would be too squeamish about Awlaki getting smacked by a drone.  I realize Bin Laden was indicted in a U.S. court, but that still wasn’t sufficient for two different administrations to aggressively pursue him through a targeted killing.  It was debated, but only committed to post-9/11.

So should the U.S. kill Awlaki before a plane blows up over Detroit or before a biological attack hits a mall? Or should the U.S. wait until after an attack and engage in a ten year war to root out an amorphous enemy and spend a fortune to rebuild a failed state?  Without new laws and new processes, the U.S. will always be in limbo riding a pendulum swinging back and forth between inaction and overextension.

Which is it? “Drones Kill al Qaeda” – “Drones Make al Qaeda”

The past week has brought a flurry of debate sprinkled with intermittent anger over how the U.S. utilizes unmanned, armed drones to target al Qaeda members around the world.  After I wrote the post, “Americans: If you don’t want to get killed by a drone, avoid these 4 things!”, I received a flurry of hate mail (of which a fraction actually dealt with drone policy) and some positive discussion.  The debate on whether the U.S. should use drones to kill al Qaeda members hinges on two separate points of contention.

  1. Legal/Moral: Can the U.S. legally use drones to engage al Qaeda members (American or non-American)?
  2. Efficacy: Do drones eliminate more al Qaeda members than they create?

Today, I’ll focus on the latter question and save the legal/moral/ethical debate for later.

So are drones effective?  Osama Bin Laden noted in his internal documents the devastating impact of drones on al Qaeda in Pakistan.  However, Gregory Johnsen, Jeremy Scahill and other Yemen journalists/analysts see drones not as the great killer of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) but instead the primary radicalizing force for new recruits to AQAP.  So which is it? Do drones eliminate al Qaeda or do they create al Qaeda?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Please cast your votes on the efficacy of drones and the results should show up after you cast your ballot.  Note, this question is only about the efficacy of drones – save your moral/legal arguments for later.  And no hedging! Is it worth continuing drone operations or not? Don’t qualify with “Sometimes” or “Depends on the conditions”. Assume that regardless of the context, the drone program will be conducted in roughly the same way with the same results.


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After Brennan Testimony, Implementing Curbs On Drone Targeting

National Security Adviser John Brennan’s appointment hearing for the position of Director of CIA brought out one of the more interesting policy discussions in recent years.  I’ll embed the hearing footage from C-Span below.  It’s a quick 3.5 hours broadcast and as always watching committee meetings on C-Span is slightly less tortuous than water boarding.  That being said, some ideas I’ve debated here at this blog did arise during the hearing to include Senator Dianne Feinstein’s suggestion of a FISA type court for oversight of drone targeting.

Of even more interest, Max Fisher at the Washington Post was kind enough to extend the drone accountability debate by referring to my points from earlier in the week and he added some analysis of his own.  Thanks to Max for the nod and I’ve clipped some of his well thought out comments below.  I’ll also add a little more detail with regards to my logic for these recommendations, most of which were initially published in this drone related article I published with Frank Cilluffo at HSPI last summer.  Here are Max’s notes and some additional comments.

Detention PolicyWe don’t have one, and not having a detention policy makes drone strikes more attractive.

The Obama administration tried and failed to fix this problem, in part by seeking to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and potentially open a prison on U.S. soil where they might detain terrorism suspects. The administration also sought civilian trials for suspects such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But Guantanamo is still open, and the United States has no attractive, consistently viable options for detaining terrorism suspects.

Max is exactly right.  Listening to Congress debate limiting drones or taking them off the table entirely is a bit ridiculous when they have done nothing to help create a workable detention policy.  As long as there is no detention policy, a “law enforcement only” approach can not even be implemented.  It’s on Congress to fix this.  The Executive has tried and gotten no where trying to build an alternative to drones.

FISA Type Court – Accounting for Drone Strikes

Established in the 1978, the 11-judge panel must approve surveillance warrants against suspected foreign spies. Its deliberations are secret but meant to establish accountability and to keep the executive branch in check.

As I’ve said before, the goal is not only to create more oversight and make targeting more accountable.  It’s also to make drone targeting more consistent in its application.  Here’s why:

  • Creates record of targeting justifications – I feel like there may be some sort of central accounting for targeting justifications but I’m not sure.  The FISA type court would keep a permanent, central public record for targeting justifications.  I’m guessing the records of targeting decisions over the past decade probably reside in different places strewn about the DoD and the intelligence community.
  • Creates targeting consistency across organizations and over time – While I’m fairly confident the drone targeting process incorporates certain standards, I suspect these standards vary between battlefields and vary amongst organizations evaluating targets.  With regards to current FISA applications, all law enforcement agencies present their evidence to one legal body, this body then creates one standard for receiving a warrant.  Additionally, a FISA type court has multiple members (groups usually make better decisions) and membership rotates incrementally allowing for consistency in standards over time.  One of my concerns has been turnover during presidential election cycles.  Under the current system, every time the President switches there is likely to be a change in the standard.  These swings could be dramatic and would really undermine the application of one of the U.S.’s most effective counterterrorism tools.
  • Puts responsibility on targeting planners and a judicial committee and not solely on the President – The President’s decision to take responsibility for approving targets is noble but wrong in the long-run.  When things go wrong, everyone wants to point to the President, but we all know he is only making decisions based on the information and guidance from those below him.  In a FISA system, investigator’s must vouch for the information they provide as justification for a FISA warrant.  If an investigator’s  information turns out to be crap, the FISA judge, law enforcement administration and potentially the public will come down on that investigator like a ton of bricks.  Instituting a FISA type process will push accountability onto those in the targeting process who have their cross hairs on “suspected al Qaeda” guys.  (This has always been a big difference and sometimes a point of contention between CIA officers and FBI Agents. Agents must testify and are accountable for their evidence.  This curbs aggression as Agents might be called to public court for their accusations. This can frustrate CIA analysts and officers who think FBI Agents are being too cautious.  However, the CIA officer and analysts operate where estimates and intelligence often remain secret, anonymous and where the burden of proof tends to fall in more vague terms like “probably” or “likely”.  I’m not bashing one organization or the other.  Just pointing out that it’s different, and a FISA court could institute more accountability on covert actions from intelligence organizations and the military where calculations of less certainty are more acceptable.  We don’t want less certainty in drone targeting, we want more.)
  • Targeting planners and the court make tactical decisions, the President make strategic decisions – The President has bigger fish to fry.  He doesn’t need to be reviewing individual target packages.  He should instead be focusing on the proper application of an entire range of counterterrorism options to achieve the long-run goal of protecting Americans from terrorism while upholding our values and the rule of law.  Let planners who understand the terrorist organization and the application of force pick targets and let a judiciary body handle the legal basis for targeting.

Designation of targets as al Qaeda

But how do you determine that? And who even counts as al-Qaeda, whose regional allies are variously described as branches, offshoots or affiliates?

America is hooked on al Qaeda.  And this addiction has led counterterrorism policies to focus narrowly on one terrorist organization when today there are actually many.  As I discussed this past summer, “What if there is no al Qaeda?“.  There are still likely to be terrorist organizations trying to target the U.S. Shouldn’t we be able to go after them as well?  The State Department has an important role designating Foreign Terrorists and Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).  Should we go after all FTOs with drones?  Like if they kill one of our Ambassadors?  I would recommend re-writing these policies and future drone policy such that it focuses on terrorist organizations rather than solely on al Qaeda.

Red Team Analysis of Drone Strikes – This is about evaluating the long-run effect of drones

The idea here would be to change the ways that U.S. counterterrorism officials make decisions about who and where to strike, not necessarily to limit their authority. It’s about reforming the system and encouraging it to make better choices, but it still accepts that system itself. I’m skeptical that this would solve any of the major problems with targeted killing, though it might abate them a bit.

I think this is important for understanding the longer run impacts of drone strikes.  Right now, I suspect drone targeting focuses on the implications of single attacks and does a cursory nod to “this might radicalize the population later.”  On the other end, drone critics keep pointing to drone strikes as radicalizing populations but they fail to evaluate drone strikes in comparison to other CT options (like sponsoring tribal militias) and use sad anecdotes rather than data to support their assertions.  A lessons learned body  focused on drone strikes could evaluate 1) under what conditions drone targeting can minimize civilian casualties, 2) what criteria for targeting result in the greatest detriment to terrorist groups, 3) the effects of population radicalization as a result of sustained drone strikes and 4) could place drone strike effectiveness and detractors in context with other CT options.  Essentially, the Red Team can also provide lessons learned that improve the effectiveness and reduce the negative externalities of the program, which might result in a curbing of the technique’s application over time.  Right now, I think the focus is mostly on targets and the near term.  The analytical team would be looking longer run at campaigns.  I think this might be happening a little in government, but not much.

Post Mortem Disclosure of Targeting Justifications – Preserving the tool for the future

This seems very unlikely to happen, given that the Obama administration would probably not want to draw attention to the frequency and location of its strikes. But perhaps Watts is onto something about bringing more transparency to the program.

I agree with Max.  I think this is more about desire than ability.  I think the disclosure would help Americans understand why the tool is being used.  And overseas, I think it can help locals understand what the U.S. is trying to do (it won’t always work – lots of conspiracies out there.)  In the absence of information and a justification, silence breeds contempt and critics begin making up their own theories.  The disclosure doesn’t have to be full, but the U.S. government would have helped itself out a lot had it released details of the Abdulmuttalab case immediately after the targeting of Awlaki.  Instead, silence and the delay in disclosure led to accusations of conspiracy and undermined the credibility of the government.

Let Local Populations Know There Are Drone Targets In Their Midst – I’m not saying cough up secrets

I’m a little skeptical that this would work and that it wouldn’t risk drawing even more unwanted attention to the program, but perhaps Watts is onto something with the idea that the United States could be more public about who it considers a viable target, and perhaps how it arrived at this conclusion. If U.S. counterterrorism forces are going to put foreign populations under their jurisdiction, as they’ve done in places such as Yemen, maybe there is a way to communicate that the United States at least differentiates between suspected terrorists and civilians.

Americans tend to assume that local populations in which al Qaeda members reside understand what al Qaeda members are up to.  This is not the case.  Ali Soufan describes in his book how it was a Yemeni al Qaeda member learning of the destruction on 9/11 that resulted in him turning on al Qaeda during interrogation and helping the U.S. gain valuable information.  Likewise, I’ve also seen the inverse.  Harun Fazul, a known terrorist that killed hundred of Kenyan civilians during the U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, lived openly in Kenya for years.  On Sibu island, Fazul married into local families, built a mosque and operated a business. The locals didn’t seem to realize that it was Fazul that killed many of their countrymen in 1998.  Could the U.S. maybe communicate that to local environments so locals understand why the U.S. is operating in their area?  Not all will believe it, but some will.

Additionally, I think the U.S. should look to bring back and further promote the “Rewards-for-Justice” program, especially in Africa, along with drone campaigns.  The program wasn’t that successful after 9/11 in Pakistan (Pashtunwali, tribal protection, etc.), but some of the new CT battefields are not like the Pakistan safe haven al Qaeda enjoyed.  An increase in programs like “Rewards-for-Justice” might ease the need for drone strikes, particularly in those places where resources often trump ideology – like Africa.

Americans: If You Don’t Want To Get Killed By A Drone, Avoid These 4 Things!

The much anticipated Department of Justice memo authorizing the use of drones to target Americans….scratch that.  A white paper from the Department of Justice outlined what might be the U.S. government’s position with regards to the killing of Americans via the use of unmanned drones.

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Twitter erupted with claims that this memo provided the President unprecedented powers to kill any American, anywhere, for any reason.  Well, I read the memo, and I’m fairly certain that is not what it said. (I think @blakehounshell was the first to point this out.) However, in reading this memo, which may or may not exactly detail U.S. policy, I did identify four important points for Americans if they want to avoid getting a warhead to the forehead.

Americans, if you are trying to avoid being transformed into a red mist;

  1. Don’t join al Qaeda outside the United States– Who knew that if you are an American and you decide to join al Qaeda that you might get smacked in the face with a Hellfire missile.  Unbelievable, the nerve of the American government to hold a grudge for so long.  Can you believe the Executive Branch would be willing to kill members of the terrorist organization, including American members, that committed the largest terrorist attack in history on American soil?  Absolutely absurd! However, simply being a member of al Qaeda won’t necessarily get a drone sortie on your hut.   
  2. Don’t become a Senior Leader of al Qaeda overseas – Even more shocking, if you are an American citizen and you join al Qaeda, and then later, you become one of the senior leaders of that organization, you might just wake up to a mouthful of hell’s fire! Unbelievable!  To think that you could join a terrorist group and openly advocate for the killing of your fellow citizens, and then be so good at promoting terrorism against your homeland that you would be honored by al Qaeda with a promotion….to think you could then be killed for that promotion.  I can’t imagine.  Who are these barbarians?
  3. Don’t actively plan to kill or actually attempt to kill Americans – It turns out that if you are an American and you join al Qaeda overseas and then you plan to kill or actually try to kill Americans, you could get shot in the face with a missile.  Ridiculous.  What right do U.S. citizens have to try and prevent terrorists from attacking them?  Surely if you join al Qaeda, recruit a guy off the Internet, and then help wrap his junk with explosives before setting him off to take down an airplane over Detroit on Christmas day, you should be allowed to hide out overseas and enjoy another opportunity to try a better, more sophisticated attack against the U.S., right?
  4. Don’t make it difficult to be arrested – This is where the white paper gets completely ludicrous.  It seems that if the U.S. government cannot figure out a way to arrest you since you’ve joined al Qaeda, been promoted, tried to attack the U.S. and have been hiding in a failed state with no functioning law enforcement, they will then maybe send a drone after you.  How insulting! How is this possibly fair to American terrorists that join al Qaeda?

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Unlike the folks I witnessed on Twitter suggesting this document provides the President unbounded power to kill Americans, I see the inverse – a legal opinion particularly crafted to pursue one Anwar al-Awlaki.  As has been seen in other public domains, Awlaki, an American, served as the head of external operations for AQAP in Yemen (a senior leader position), was being considered for promotion to head of AQAP (a more senior position) and was actively participating in plots to attack the U.S. (See Underwear Bomber).  This uniquely qualifies him for targeting according to this white paper.  The question should now be: what other Americans could be legally targeted by the U.S.?  Adam Gadahn maybe? The list seems to be fairly short and not expansive in the way suggested by drone conspiracy theorists.

Drone critics – what do you want?

Look anti-drone critics, I get it.  You are worried that the President might become Judge Dredd – prosecutor, judge and executioner without any oversight.  I understand this.  I also know you have seen the Terminator one too many times and feel as if drones are somehow autonomous killing machines different from other technology the U.S. has used to carry out airstrikes for decades (namely cruise missiles & manned aircraft).  However, drones have proven highly effective at dismantling al Qaeda in its safe havens – Bin Laden himself attested to their effectiveness. Drones have also limited the large scale military interventions you so ardently protested against the past decade.  While you continue to call for a “law enforcement” only approach where each individual is indicted, captured and convicted, this one system fits all approach just doesn’t fly in the modern age of warfare.  Terrorists use the limitations of “law enforcement only” approaches to their advantage.  At the same time, the “law enforcement only” approach requires a detention policy and an extradition policy.  Drone critics, you also didn’t seem to like Guantanamo Bay or renditions either (See “Counterterrorism 2012: No Drones, No Rendition, No Detention“).  When someone actually tried to put a structure in place to legally and morally conduct counterterrorism with the appropriate amount of force to sustain pressure against terrorists (John Brennan and the “Disposition Matrix”), you punched him straight in the face and are now threatening his nomination to Director of the CIA. Drone critics: you are being ignored because you are against all actions. You are thus advocates for inaction. And inaction cannot be our counterterrorism strategy.

Drone critics – Give us your plan

The biggest thing holding back drone critics is their inability to articulate, in clear terms, what exactly they would like the policy to be with regards to the use of drones – “Indict, Arrest and Convict” just doesn’t cut it.  Likewise drone critics, you have not done sufficient research into what happens if we don’t use drone strikes to pursue terrorists – namely that it pushes the U.S. to use proxies (foreign militaries and local militias) in the pursuit of al Qaeda and its affiliates.  Make sure you are comfortable with the counterterrorism options you are indirectly supporting by taking drone operations off the table.

I’ve had some productive discourse with Greg Johnsen and Frank Cilluffo and I have written some longer pieces on drones which can be found at these eight links (#1#2#3#4#5#6#7, #8).  But again, I’ll re-post my recommendations for creating an improved and more accountable drone targeting process.  Drone critics: take any of these and run with them. Refute them if you want. But whatever you do, please offer solutions to what you want the drone process to be. Otherwise you will continue to be ignored.

Here’s an excerpt from “The “Disposition Matrix” – Drones, Counterterrorism & National Security for the next decade” posted on October 25, 2012.

“There are several points where I think drone targeting, and counterterrorism more broadly, can be improved and refined.

  •  Detention Policy – We don’t have one!

The article states:

“Obama’s decision to shutter the CIA’s secret prisons ended a program that had become a source of international scorn, but it also complicated the pursuit of terrorists. Unless a suspect surfaced in the sights of a drone in Pakistan or Yemen, the United States had to scramble to figure out what to do.”

For drone critics, I noted this past summer the lack of a detention policy has led the U.S. to pursue more drone strikes.  U.S. counterterrorism planners are restricted from or encouraged not to do the following:

  • Detain terrorists and send them to Guantanamo Bay – a good thing.
  • Conduct renditions of terrorists and ship them to black site prisons – probably a good thing.
  • Detain terrorists and turn them over to their home countries if they might be subjected to torture – a likely occurrence with respect to virtually all of our Middle Eastern, North Africa or South Asian counterterrorism partners.

So what is the counterterrorism planner to do?  Lacking any way to detain a terrorist, it likely becomes much more appealing to kill a terrorist.  So drone critics, when you are whining about drone targeting are you also advocating alternatives for a detention policy that doesn’t involve Guantanamo Bay, renditions, and human rights abuses by counterterrorism partners?  I’m not hearing many solutions to this conundrum, which directly encourages further drone targeting.

  • Oversight of the Executive Branch

The article notes:

“With no objections — and officials said those have been rare — names are submitted to a panel of National Security Council officials that is chaired by Brennan and includes the deputy directors of the CIA and the FBI, as well as top officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the NCTC.”

As drone critics point out, the President and the Executive Branch holds all the power with drone targeting.  This summer Frank Cilluffo and I offered:

“The U.S. might examine the establishment of a secret panel of judges and policymakers that hear cases for placing individuals on a targeting list. A single individual, as suggested in recent articles – even the Commander-in-Chief, should not be the lone arbitrator for each person proposed for targeting. An established process involving a collective judgment will render more defensible and consistent rulings. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court might provide an example structure for how secret information can be protected while evaluating the evidence for placing a terrorist on a targeting list.”

A judicial panel could be appointed and authorized, similar to the FISA court, to provide oversight and accountability on drone targeting.  This judicial process could provide documented deliberation, justification and accounting of drone targeting allowing for periodic review in terms of effectiveness and investigation when civilians are errantly engaged.

  • Interdisciplinary “Devil’s Advocate” Red Team

The article notes:

 “Counterterrorism experts said the reliance on targeted killing is self-perpetuating, yielding undeniable short-term results that may obscure long-term costs.” ….

For a decade, the dimensions of the drone campaign have been driven by short-term objectives: the degradation of al-Qaeda and the prevention of a follow-on, large-scale attack on American soil.

Side effects are more difficult to measure — including the extent to which strikes breed more enemies of the United States — but could be more consequential if the campaign continues for 10 more years.”

I would recommend that a threat or geographically oriented team of interdisciplinary “Devil’s Advocates” be injected into the targeting process.  Drone targeting by its nature focuses on the short term tactical goals of counterterrorism.  The “Devil’s Advocates” team could provide cleared country experts, cultural studies folks, PHD’s in terrorism and strategists that can anticipate the long term “blowback” implications of pursuing immediate term drone strikes in a given country outside of declared war zones.  In the Yemen example, the panel might include development specialists, diplomatic ditherers, regional experts and strategists familiar with the Yemeni context and able to plot alternative worst-case scenarios of what might happen if drone strikes go bad.  This can provide a valuable check for those consumed with the day-to-day tracking and engagement of terrorists.

  •  Publicly Disclosed Targeting Justification – Post Mortem

The secretive nature of today’s drone targeting leads to conspiracy theory generation by drone critics.  As part of the approval process for drone targeting, a declassified justification for targeting individuals (that protects intelligence sources and methods) could be drafted.  Immediately upon interdiction of terrorist targets, the White House could disclose this justification publicly serving two purposes.  One, it would allay the conspiracy theories of those that believe the U.S. is unjustly killing individuals for no good reason.  Two, it would put an informal check on the intelligence process encouraging planners and policymakers to get their intelligence and resulting justifications correct, as once a justification is openly published it would allow the public and the media to do their own checking if they choose.

  • Expand the use of information operations in concert with drone strikes

As part of the effort to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage from drone strikes, where possible, I think the U.S. could expand its information operations in the locations where they are targeting terrorists.  As much as possible, I’d dump the equivalent of ‘Wanted Posters’ throughout areas where terrorists operate and let people know that terrorists are in their midst and that if they associate with said terrorist they might just get hit by a drone.  Some would argue this alerts terrorists that they are being targeted, but I imagine most terrorists already know the U.S. could put a warhead-on-their-forehead at any given time.  The information campaign would work much like the “Wanted” posters in the old west, many smart people would begin distancing themselves from those being targeted, maybe even cough up some terrorists to local law enforcement and it could inform local populaces as to who is being targeted and why they are being targeted.  I don’t think this will win any hearts-and-minds per se, but it does help people unknowingly enmeshed with terrorists make better decisions about who they hang out with.

  • The temptation to overreach – finding a definition of “al Qaeda”

Critics cited in the article rightfully note that drones make killing easy as compared to other counterterrorism options.  As the U.S. has relatively decimated the upper tier of al Qaeda’s leadership, the targeting list has continued to add members.

“Is the person currently Number 4 as good as the Number 4 seven years ago? Probably not,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official involved in the process until earlier this year. “But it doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous.”

This begs the question, “Are we really even fighting al Qaeda anymore?”  As al Qaeda members flee Afghanistan and Pakistan, we must begin addressing who our adversaries are and how far we will go to pursue them.  As of now, there is no common understanding of what al Qaeda is. As seen with the Benghazi attack, new militant groups with a handful of al Qaeda members or supporters are scattered around the globe. These groups will cooperate at times and compete at other times in pursuit of their goals, which vary from place to place and include different elements of al Qaeda’s ideology based on local conditions.  Essentially, which of these new militant groups, regardless of the title al Qaeda, are truly threats to the U.S. and require dedicated counterterrorism action?  Until the U.S. clearly identifies its adversaries and its interests, its likely to go too far in pursuit of some counterterrorism objectives and completely fail to address key threats in other locations.

 “We didn’t want to get into the business of limitless lists,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who spent years overseeing the lists. “There is this apparatus created to deal with counterterrorism. It’s still useful. The question is: When will it stop being useful? I don’t know.”

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“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.