It’s messy to watch, but the interplay of news coverage, politics and congressional oversight is playing out just as it should in the matter of the CIA’s drone strikes.
The Obama administration’s sudden transparency about the drone war — Republicans chalk it up to the president wanting to look tough in an election year — has sparked a long-overdue public debate about the appropriate role and scope of the administration’s policy of robotically killing enemies in distant lands. This debate is not necessarily what the administration intended, but the unpredictability of the public forum is one of the key strengths of modern government.
When columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out that you can’t interrogate a dead man, and that routinely vaporizing terror suspects “yields no intelligence about terror networks or terror plans,” he gave national voice to an opinion expressed quietly by dissenters in the intelligence community. He struck a chord with the public on that point and with his charges of a White House double standard: “festooning” prisoners with rights while summarily killing suspects. The Washington Post reported receiving 2,700 comments on Krauthammer’s June 4 column.
Few experts, including Krauthammer, think the drone strikes should be halted or that the U.S. should return to its pre-Sept. 11 complacency. In those days, neither the Clinton nor Bush administrations showed sufficient zeal for targeting Osama bin Laden, despite rock-solid CIA intelligence that he was targeting us. But in today’s context, congressional overseers should explore whether the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
Lawmakers should demand to know how a high-volume drone-strike campaign in Yemen and the tribal areas of Pakistan fits into America’s larger national security strategy. Does the take-no-prisoners policy — to borrow Krauthammer’s term — make it easier for al-Qaida to recruit terrorists? Does it undercut the goal of forging a more positive relationship with Muslim cultures? Does it sacrifice broader intelligence opportunities?
So far, the House and Senate intelligence committees appear to be more concerned about plugging leaks than finding answers to those questions. It is true that the White House needs to stop leaks that could compromise specific operations, but the intelligence committees should not fear public dialogue about the appropriateness of the policies that drive those operations. Whether the issue is secret prisons, extraordinary renditions or drone strikes, national security policy is strengthened, not weakened, when the public is included in the conversation. A realist would recognize the impossibility of entirely shrouding endeavors like those in our open society, and the loss of the moral high ground when they are revealed.
As for the merits of the drone strikes, dogged oversight by the intelligence committees will be crucial. The U.S. public has every right to know about the broad scale and scope of the drone campaign, but relies on hard-charging lawmakers with clearances to oversee the evidence justifying individual strikes. The public can’t be privy to that evidence before a killing, because that would compromise the ability to carry out an operation if a strike were in fact justified. In short, without poring over the evidence the president sees, it’s hard for anyone on the outside to conclude authoritatively that there are too many strikes.
The sheer volume, however, suggests that a low threshold is in place for applying deadly force. Lawmakers must look closely at that threshold in the context of the country’s overall strategic goals to make sure the strikes are helping, not harming, nationally security in the long run.
The drone war must not become a case of politicians employing weapons simply because they can.
Ben Iannotta is editor of C4ISR Journal.