Argument: Militants are winning the public relations war about U.S. drones

September 2, 2014

An MQ-1 Predator drone operated by the U.S. Air Force is seen in this photo released by the military. An Air Force captain argues in a new piece that the United States struggles to manage public relations for drone operations because of secrecy surrounding them. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Lt Col Leslie Pratt

The United States has been launching drone strikes for at least a dozen years, killing more than 2,400 people across the globe during President Obama’s time in office alone. Many of them have been militants planning attacks on U.S. troops or partner nations, but the program also has killed enough civilians that it remains highly controversial.

But a new piece in the Air Force professional publication “Air and Space Power Journal” argues that it isn’t just civilian deaths that have made it difficult for the U.S. military to shape opinion about drone operations. While militant groups have developed a sophisticated public relations network that casts drone strikes in the worst light possible, the United States has kept them shrouded in secrecy, creating a one-sided view that needs to be rectified, writes Air Force Capt. Joseph O’Chapa.

“To the extent that national security can be safeguarded, this article has argued that the federal government should not simply disclose but publicize much of its RPA program that remains in the dark,” O’Chapa writes, using a military acronym that stands for remotely piloted aircraft. ” The battle for hearts and minds with respect to RPAs is being waged in the PR domain. Today, the enemy is winning.”

The piece does not address whether the United States was within its rights to launch specific controversial missions like the September 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and accused al-Qaeda operative. Awlaki’s relationship with al-Qaeda “brings him within the scope” of the 2001 congressional authorization to use military force against the militant group, according to a July 2010 memo Justice Department memo released in June under order of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York.

Still, O’Chapa’s piece is remarkably candid commentary for an active-duty officer. The military fosters discussion through professional journals like “Air and Space Power Journal,” but expressions of opinion are typically tempered with the reality that a service member can be court-martialed for “contemptuous words” against the president or other senior officials.

O’Chapa doesn’t go that far, but he advocates not only disclosing more information about drone operations, but actively pushing back against “misconceptions,” such as the concept that operating a drone is like playing a video game. In particular, O’Chapa argues, the United States should more clearly explain the rules of engagement used in drone strikes and the safeguards it has in place before an airstrike is launched.

“The world has heard only one side of a two-sided discussion and, unsurprisingly, has succumbed to it,” O’Chapa writes. “Intelligent, well-intentioned people should have the opportunity to hear both sides so that they can develop an informed opinion.”

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · September 2, 2014