Drone Warfare: The Changing Face of US Military Engagement

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Neither Romney nor Obama mentioned drones today. Unmanned aircraft armed with missiles have become key tools in America's arsenal, and controversial ones too. They are routinely used to strike down terror suspects in northwestern Pakistan, for example. But drone strikes there have also killed many civilians, and that breeds resentment of the United States. Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the New America Foundation, and Christine Fair is an assistant professor, also at Georgetown University. Both have studied U.S. drone use in Pakistan's tribal territories. Christine Fair says American drone strikes are often preferable to the destruction that can occur when Pakistan's military uses its F-16 fighter jets to go after militants.

Christine Fair: When they have engaged, they have displaced millions, literally millions. And when I went to South Waziristan with the Pakistan military to the Makeen Valley, what you saw was complete devastation from their conventional F-16 strikes. In contrast, you do not see this kind of displacement happening with drones.

Werman: Let me jump in. How much do you think drones have become the face of U.S. military engagement, as much as they have a face? I mean, they're pretty anonymous. Rosa?

Rosa Brooks: They've become the faceless face of U.S. military engagement. Christine is quite right to say that we should always ask the question, when we say something like drones are bad or drones kill civilians or drones do this or that, we should always say well, you know, compared to what? Compared to what alternatives? And I think that there are absolutely times when the use of unmanned aerial vehicles is going to be a better and appropriate alternative to pursue our counterterrorism aims than, for instance, using conventional aircraft, then putting troops on the ground, etcetera. The tough question, though, is that even when we do the right thing for the right reasons, two tough questions, and one we can save for later in the discussion if you like, is the rule of law issues. And the other is what you might call the strategic communication issues, that perception, as we have seen in recent weeks over the riots in Libya and elsewhere, perception can matter as much as reality. And particularly when we are talking about a program that remains largely covert and unacknowledged, the perceptions of the program, not just in Pakistan, but globally, including in allied nations, can hurt us quite badly even if we believe it's entirely wrong.

Werman: It's interesting because our leaders haven't really been talking about drone use. So talk about the way drone use isn't being talked about in the public sphere. I mean, why is that? It makes it feel like it is covert.

Brooks: Well, it is in fact largely covert. Not entirely, but largely, and drone use is the most talked about and overt of covert things. In fact, there's litigation going on right now, the ACLU, The New York Times, and other actors are seeking records from the intelligence community relating to drone strikes that, as the administration would put it, may or may not have been carried out by the CIA. And the administration is essentially arguing, we have never admitted this, we never will admit it's happening, as long as we don't admit it's happening, officially speaking, it isn't happening, or we can't comment on whether it's happening. Meanwhile, of course, many senior officials from President Obama to Leon Panetta, both while he was CIA director and in his current position as Secretary of Defense, have seemingly alluded, fairly transparently, to the drone program, commented on it, as have other senior officials. So we're existing in this strange world in which, because no one has uttered the magic words, the CIA is carrying out a drone program and here is what it consists of, the administration is maintaining that this remains, if there is or isn't anything, whatever it is is covert, if it is there. And yet, at the same time, it's obviously widely discussed and, in fact, boasted about to some extent, by senior administration officials.

Werman: Right. And there's not a big movement in the United States against drones, whereas if you go to Pakistan, it seems that Pakistani leaders and the Pakistani public see drones as a serious problem. Perhaps there's some political theatrics in that position. But why is there such a disconnect, Christine, between how drones are viewed in Pakistan and the lack of challenge in the United States to drone use?

Fair: First of all I would disagree with the claim that there is no opposition here, there is growing opposition. One of the impediments to transparency is not just the CIA, it's also Pakistan's intelligence. The Pakistani intelligence organization, the ISI, wages routine psychological operations in how drones are reported and in how they essentially manipulate public outrage towards the Americans. They do this strategically. By fanning the flames of anti-Americanism, they then use that antagonism, which they helped to generate. In fact, the ISI has a media cell which is dedicated to doing precisely these things. They then use that animosity as wiggle room to tell the Americans, well, we can't do this because it's already so unpopular.

Werman: As unique a situation as Pakistan is, Christine, and you make that point, it does seem like Pakistan offers some examples for future drone use. The Pentagon announced in recent weeks that it's provided 66 different countries with drone technology. What would both of you do differently about drone use at this point? Increase it, decrease it, eliminate it all together, tweak it?

Fair: Personally, I feel it's very hard to make that assessment when there's no transparency about who's being targeted, and with what efficacy, and what those people did. The lack of transparency is both an artifact of the CIA's position but equally, and I think even more so, that of Pakistan intelligence. I just think it's hard to say without knowing who's being targeted and with what impact and with what outcomes.

Werman: Rosa Brooks, last word to you. What would you do?

Brooks: There's no way to evaluate whether this is working strategically and in fact getting us closer to a time when are safer from terrorist-related threats emanating from those regions. There is no way to evaluate whether we're targeting the right people or the wrong people. There's no way to discuss whether we need tighter accountability, better methods to prevent against abuses, etcetera, etcetera, because we really do not know and our government is not telling us. And while I think there are unquestionably moments and reasons for keeping information classified, when such a large swathe of U.S. foreign policy goes black, a swathe large enough to have, as best we can tell, killed three or more thousand people, an unknown number of whom may have been civilians, we don't know. That's a real problem if you want to live in a democracy

Werman: Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Christine Fair is an assistant professor, also at Georgetown University. Thank you both very much indeed.

Fair: Thank you.

Brooks: Thanks, Marco.