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Our default is killing terrorists by drone attack. Do you care?

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By David Ignatius
Thursday, December 2, 2010

Every war brings its own deformations, but consider this disturbing fact about America's war against al-Qaeda: It has become easier, politically and legally, for the United States to kill suspected terrorists than to capture and interrogate them.

Predator and Reaper drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, have become the weapons of choice against al-Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas of Pakistan. They have also been used in Yemen, and the demand for these efficient tools of war, which target enemies from 10,000 feet, is likely to grow.

The pace of drone attacks on the tribal areas has increased sharply during the Obama presidency, with more assaults in September and October of this year than in all of 2008. At the same time, efforts to capture al-Qaeda suspects have virtually stopped. Indeed, if CIA operatives were to snatch a terrorist tomorrow, the agency wouldn't be sure where it could detain him for interrogation.

Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA, frames the puzzle this way: "Have we made detention and interrogation so legally difficult and politically risky that our default option is to kill our adversaries rather than capture and interrogate them?"

It's curious why the American public seems so comfortable with a tactic that arguably is a form of long-range assassination, after the furor about the CIA's use of nonlethal methods known as "enhanced interrogation." When Israel adopted an approach of "targeted killing" against Hamas and other terrorist adversaries, it provoked an extensive debate there and abroad.

"For reasons that defy logic, people are more comfortable with drone attacks" than with killings at close range, says Robert Grenier, a former top CIA counterterrorism officer who now is a consultant with ERG Partners. "It's something that seems so clean and antiseptic, but the moral issues are the same."

Firing a missile from 10,000 feet is certainly a lower risk for the attackers than an assault on the ground. "The U.S. is reluctant to mount such capture-or-kill operations in the tribal areas for the same reason that the Pakistanis are: They fear that an elite team might be surrounded by hundreds of tribesmen," says Grenier.

Though the Pakistani government publicly denounces the drone attacks, it privately condones them. That's in part because the drones provide a military punch that the Pakistani military is unwilling or unable to match with conventional forces. But legal challenges are beginning, as in a $500 million lawsuit planned by a Pakistani man who told reporters this week that two of his relatives had been killed in a drone strike.

The reluctance to chase al-Qaeda on the ground, and perhaps capture its operatives alive, also comes with an intelligence cost. The United States and its allies lose the information that could come from interrogation, along with the cellphones, computers and other communications gear that could be seized in a successful raid. One reason that counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda were so effective in Iraq was that they utilized this cycle of raid, capture, interrogate, analyze, raid again.

The CIA began getting out of the detention business when the infamous "black sites" overseas were closed in 2006. At that time, 14 CIA detainees were transferred to Guantanamo Bay, but since then, only two more have been caught and transferred there; agency officials have been advised that Guantanamo is closed for new business. The only alternatives are Bagram air base in Afghanistan, for al-Qaeda operatives caught in the war zone, or detention and trial in the United States.

Don't misunderstand me: It's not that the Obama administration's limits on detention and interrogation are wrong. They have applied clear guidelines to what had been, before 2006, a murky area. The problem is that these rules, and the wariness of getting into more trouble, have had the perverse effect of encouraging the CIA to adopt a more lethal and less supple policy than before.

U.S. and Pakistani officials support drone attacks because they don't see a good alternative to combat al-Qaeda's operations in the tribal areas. I don't disagree with that view. But this policy needs a clearer foundation in law and public understanding than it has today. Otherwise, when the pendulum swings, the CIA officers who ran these supposedly clandestine missions may be left holding the bag.

So ask yourself: If you don't like the CIA tactics that led to the capture and interrogation of al-Qaeda operatives, do you think it's better to vaporize the militants from 10,000 feet? And if this bothers you, what's the alternative?

davidignatius@washpost.com


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