The administration of US President Barack Obama’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the country on a “slippery slope” into perpetual war and sets a dangerous precedent for lethal operations that other countries might adopt, according to a report by a bipartisan panel including several former senior US intelligence and military officials.
The group found that more than a decade into the era of armed drones, Washington has yet to carry out a thorough analysis of whether the costs of routine secret killing operations might outweigh the benefits. The report urges the administration to conduct such an analysis and to give a public account of both militants and civilians killed in strikes.
The findings amount to a sort of report card — one that delivers middling grades — a year after Obama gave a speech promising new guidelines for drone strikes and greater transparency about the killing operations. The report is especially critical of the secrecy that continues to envelop drone operations and questions whether they might be creating new terrorists as they kill others.
“There is no indication that a US strategy to destroy al-Qaida [Qaeda] has curbed the rise of Sunni Islamic extremism, deterred the establishment of Shia [Shiite] Islamic extremist groups or advanced long-term US security interests,” it concludes.
The panel includes a number of former Pentagon and CIA officials and is jointly led by former US Central Command head and retired General John Abizaid, as well as New America Foundation fellow Rosa Brooks, who is also a law professor at Georgetown University. Other members are former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center Philip Mudd; Jeffrey Smith, who served as the CIA’s general counsel during former US president Bill Clinton’s administration; and John Bellinger III, legal adviser to the US National Security Council and the US Department State during former US president George W. Bush’s administration.
The report was to be released yesterday morning by the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, but the New York Times was given a copy in advance.
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said: “I’m not in a position to comment on a report that hasn’t been released yet, but we look forward to reviewing it.”
“The administration is exploring ways we can provide more information about the US’ use of force in counterterrorism operations outside areas of active hostilities, including information that provides the American people with a better understanding of US assessments of civilian casualties,” she said, adding that Washington needs to preserve “the ability to continue those operations.”
The report challenges some widespread criticisms of armed drones. Arguing that they should neither be “glorified nor demonized,” it said there is strong evidence that civilian deaths from armed drone strikes are far fewer than those from traditional combat aircraft.
The panel also said there is little reason to conclude that drones create a “PlayStation mentality” through which war is turned into a video game that eliminates the psychological costs to drone pilots.
The report said that because drone pilots watch their targets sometimes for days and weeks before pulling the trigger — and then see them blown up on a high-resolution screen — they are more susceptible to post-traumatic stress than pilots of manned aircraft.
The panel instead reserves the bulk of its criticism for how two successive US presidents have conducted a “long-term killing program based on secret rationales” and how too little thought has been given to what consequences might be spawned by this.
The Obama administration has been reluctant to make public any of the legal underpinnings of the targeted killing program.
As part of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits brought by the Times and the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal appeals court this week released a redacted version of a 2010 Department of Justice memo that blessed as legal the effort to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Muslim cleric and US citizen who eventually died in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen.
One section of the memo, a compilation of evidence to support administration claims that al-Awlaki had become an operational terrorist who posed a direct threat to Americans, remained redacted.
The report raised warnings that other countries might adopt the same rationale as Washington has for carrying out lethal strikes outside of declared war zones. Using an example of a current crisis, it said that Moscow could use armed drones in Ukraine under the justification that it was killing anti-Russian terrorists and then refuse to disclose the intelligence that served as the basis for the strike.
“In such circumstances, how could the United States credibly condemn Russian targeted killings?” the report asked.
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