In the wake of revelations that a January 2015 drone strike targeting two senior al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan also tragically resulted in the deaths of two hostages — U.S. citizen Warren Weinstein, and Italian national Giovanni Lo Porto, both aid workers — the Obama administration is apparently preparing to review its rules governing drone strikes. While it is imperative to understand what went wrong in this particular incident, it is also imperative that it not be used as a means to further constrain the drone program, which has proven an important tool and rare bright spot in what has been an otherwise poor track record for this administration when it comes to defending our national security interests.
The drone program as it has been deployed in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, has eliminated leadership and operatives of al Qaeda and its associated forces, and has done so in a manner that has both kept American military personnel out of harm’s way and provided greater safety to civilians on the ground than the alternatives of dropping bombs from manned aircraft or sending in special operations units. The loitering and precision capabilities offered by drones have enabled the United States to better comply with Law of Armed Conflict principles like necessity (targeting only militarily necessary targets) and proportionality (avoiding hitting militarily necessary targets when civilian deaths would be excessive relative to the military advantage gained from the strike) than the other options would have, while still giving us an effective tool with which to defend ourselves. Put another way, drones have given us a legal and effective alternative to having to choose between means that would risk the lives of U.S. troops and even more civilians or doing nothing.
If anything is to come of a reevaluation of the drone program writ large, the President should consider withdrawing the constraints he laid out at National Defense University in 2013, where he said “…And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.” This constraint goes beyond what the Laws of Armed Conflict require under proportionality doctrine, and has the effect of incentivizing terrorists to surround themselves with civilians to avoid drone strikes.
Having said that, the January strike should prompt reevaluation in two areas:
On-the-ground intelligence capabilities. Drones don’t just magically know where to go look for bad guys. While drones can be used to gather intelligence about the areas over which they hover and the targets they watch, they are in the air over a specific area in the first place because of intelligence that human analysts and operators receive from sources on the ground. Have we lost on-the-ground intelligence gathering capabilities in the Af-Pak area in light of our withdrawal from Afghanistan? If so, was that loss of capability a contributing factor in the loss of Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto during the January strike?
Abandonment of detention/interrogation. As effective as drones have been, they should not displace other important counter-terrorism tools, most specifically military detention and interrogation (enhanced, where necessary). Wherever feasible, we should be attempting to capture and interrogate al Qaeda operatives to learn about the status of the organization and ongoing plots against the U.S. and its allies, and also to gather intelligence that can be used to better guide drone strikes. Drone strikes are a necessary ingredient to a successful counter-terrorism strategy, but they are not sufficient by themselves. Have drone strikes been driven in part by President Obama’s misguided emphasis on shutting down detainee operations at Guantanamo Bay? If we once again had a viable location at which to securely detain and interrogate unlawful enemy combatants, might that affect calculations about a drone strike in a specific instance?
Finally: There will be much commentary in the coming weeks on what the administration did wrong in this incident and what that might mean for the drone program, but we cannot let this discourse devolve into a vacuum of moral confusion. Ultimately, the moral responsibility for the deaths of Messrs. Weinstein and Lo Porto rests with al Qaeda, who took them hostage as a function of, and in furtherance of, the jihadist cause. Losing sight of that fact does a disservice both to the hostages and to U.S. national security.