For years, the U.S. debate around drones and targeted killing has gone something like this: Civil rights advocates and others warn that the program is ethically dubious or outright outrageous, not to mention strategically problematic and deeply unpopular with the same populations we're trying to deter from extremism. Counterterrorism and foreign policy analysts, whether or not they share those concerns (and many of them do), sometimes counter that the program is still necessary to fight terrorism and has produced some real successes, despite the trade-offs and risks. That conversation is resurfacing this week as John Brennan, who runs the drone program out of the White House, readies for confirmation hearings to take over the CIA.
In some ways, it's as much a dilemma as a debate. Both sides, whether they are aware of it or not, often share a lot of common ground: humanitarian and strategic concerns, worries about U.S. policy backfiring in parts of the world where America's image is already in plenty of trouble, and a desire to avoid larger-scale military entanglements. No one is really happy with the status quo, but serious proposals that address both the benefits and downsides of drones and targeted killings are hard to come by.
But policies do exist that could potentially help the United States to resolve some aspects of its dilemma over drones and targeted killings. Clint Watts, a former U.S. counterterrorism official who now writes frequently (and often critically) about counterterrorism at his site Selected Wisdom, has offered a number of policy ideas over the past few months. As the drone debate gears up again, he's collected six of those ideas in a lengthy blog post.
Below is my brief write-up of Watts's policy ideas. These aren't endorsements, but consider them starting points for a debate that moves away from "drones are bad" vs. "we need drones" to a conversation that accepts both premises as non-mutually-exclusive.
1) Finally develop a U.S. detention policy for terrorism suspects. It is not going to be practically feasible for the United States to arrest every terrorism suspect. But Watts, like many analysts before him, notes that the post-Bush collapse of U.S. detention policy makes that option very unattractive to American counterterrorism officials even when it is physically possible.
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. "Lacking any way to detain a terrorist," Watts writes, "it likely becomes much more appealing to kill a terrorist."
2) Create at least a minimal oversight process. The Obama administration is probably not going to put every drone strike to a congressional vote, but perhaps it might appoint a panel of judges to oversee the decision. Watts and George Washington University professor Frank Cilluffo proposed in a recent policy paper that this panel might be modeled after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. 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.
3) More clearly identify who qualifies for targeting. Because the definition is not really clear. The Washington Post's Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung pointed out this problem in reporting on a recently exposed U.S. memo authorizing targeted killings against Americans in extreme cases. The memo's "elastic interpretation," as Miller and DeYoung put it, requires that the target be a "senior, operational" figure in 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?
This unclarified definition, Watts warns, practically begs U.S. counterterrorism officials to overreach. As drone critics point out, short-term cost-benefit analysis may lead U.S. officials to err in favor of a strike.
4) Incorporate a "red team" into the targeting decisions. In military lingo, a "red team" is an officially sanctioned devil's advocate, an individual or group whose job is to challenge the prevailing policies from within the organization. Watts suggests bringing in "cleared country experts, cultural studies folks, PhD’s in terrorism and strategists" who can offer longer-term thinking.
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.
5) After each strike, go public about the specific justification. The idea here would be first to reassure the world that there is some sort of process and rationale for each strike. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it would put much greater pressure on counterterrorism officials to make sure each strike is necessary and solidly justifiable.
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.
6) Make U.S. targets publicly known. This one is a little outlandish, but Watts suggests that the United States try the modern equivalent of the "Wanted" poster, signaling who has been placed on its target lists. He reasons that the targets probably already know they're targets and that this policy would make local civilians more aware of the risks of hanging around targets.
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.