President Barack Obama has taken a lot of heat over America’s targeting of terrorists overseas with lethal drone strikes.
Critics argue that the secret CIA-run program provokes political backlash in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, outweighing the value of the terrorists killed. That the attacks too often go awry and inadvertently kill innocents. That there’s no effective oversight. And that Obama hasn’t given Congress sufficient legal rationale for the aerial strikes.
Those complaints include kernels of validity but often have been exaggerated. Drone attacks also have exterminated many sworn enemies of this country without risking U.S. lives on the ground or in the air.
Obama on Thursday answered his critics with a full-throated defense of drones:
“To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places – like Sanaa and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold,” Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.
“Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from [U.S.] drone strikes.”
He’s right. The drone campaign has been extremely and surgically effective, targeting militants across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and parts of Africa. It has killed wide swaths of al-Qaida leadership.
But the president also has suggested that he thinks the program has shortcomings. That’s why Obama administration officials have indicated that the drone strike program will be narrowed and subjected to greater scrutiny: A new classified policy directive signed by Obama reportedly curtails when the unmanned aircraft can be used to attack in places that are not declared war zones.
The president also is shifting more responsibility to the military from the CIA, an effort to provide more rigid accountability for the strikes.
Bottom line: This speech wasn’t some dramatic new statement of policy. And none of these refinements means America’s drone program will be significantly weakened. These adjustments mostly reflect changing reality on the ground in those countries where the U.S. targets terrorists: The number of reported U.S. drone attacks already has fallen sharply since 2010. One likely reason is the absence of high-value targets, those al-Qaida kingpins of yore. Many are dead or on the run.
Obama also promised more transparency for the drone program, something critics have long sought. One day before his speech, the administration acknowledged for the first time that it has killed four U.S. citizens in strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.
The president also mentioned the possibility of a secret court that would sign off on future strikes. That’s an idea floated by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and others. We’ve said before that we’d like to hear a debate on that.
However, the United States risks losing the advantage of surprise if individual drone strikes become entangled in slow-motion bureaucracy back home. We fear U.S. warriors shrinking from what in effect are battlefield decisions because they have one eye on Congress, or judges, or some other overseer who is not their commander in chief.
We don’t want drone operators hoping their targeted terrorist will stay put in Pakistan while judges in Washington debate whether it’s appropriate to fire the missile. Nor, we imagine, would the president.
Obama has said he envisions a day when the nation will no longer be on the war footing forced on this country by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. All Americans hope to see that day.
But we’re not there yet. The president alluded Thursday to many other attacks – before and after 9/11 – on Americans and their interests. Those assaults ebb and flow and change form. But all of them have something in common: the evil architects who plot and execute them.
That’s why the U.S. needs to keep those drones flying.