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The Drone Program’s Excesses Are the Symptom, Intelligence Overreach Is the Disease

Much like their torture program, the CIA drone operation has been demonstrated to be far less effective than the agency claims.

A year ago SISMEC pointed out that, although most of the victims of US drone strikes have ostensibly been “militants,” the White House definition of “militant” is extremely vague(generally, any fighting-aged male). Moreover, the purpose of the program isn’t to target any and all possible combatants, but instead to eliminate high-value targets from international terror organizations who pose a substantial threat to the US homeland. So the best measure of the “hit-rate” of the drone program wouldn’t be to compare the number of civilian casualties v. militants, but instead to ask how many of the total dead were the sort of high-value enemies the program is supposed to be targeting. If we approach the question from this angle, the hit-rate of the drone campaign is abysmal, despite the fact that most of its victims have been “militants.”

This conclusion has been underscored powerfully in a new report by the human rights group, Reprieve. Their report shows that in the pursuit of 41 high-value targets, the drone program killed 1,147 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Note, this is not the total casualties of the program (which is more than three times that number, mostly low-level “militants”)–instead, the Reprieve analysis is a narrow case study of the campaign for these 41 targets. The hit rate for these pursuits then is less than four-percent; 96% of those killed in the strikes were collateral damage. Again, defenders of the program would argue that most of this 96% are also “militants;” but the fact remains that they were not the intended targets of the strikes and were executed extra-judiciously without having committed any specific crime or posing any particular threat to America–in many cases the US is unable to identify who they were at all.

It is important to underscore the second-order effects of the bombings as well:

The Drone Campaign Enabled Extremist Groups, to Include ISIS

An analysis by the Stimson Center released earlier this year suggests that the drone program has been highly destabilizing, in part because the apparently low risk or cost of carrying out the strikes enables, perhaps even encourages, the United States to act far more rapidly and aggressively, and on a much larger scale, than it otherwise would. Absent the drone program many interventions would have been more-or-less impossible. Or the attempts would have required a lot more intel and footwork to make sure that, if they carried out the strike, it definitely hit its intended target. Absent drones, “do-overs” would be incredibly risky and expensive, if possible at all. In short, one effect of drones is that it contributes to military overreach. This can have highly-destabilizing effects.

One such effect of the drone program was contributing to the climate in which the so-called “Islamic State” could emerge. The pressure put on al-Qaeda in peripheral areas like Yemen actually seemed to drive militants into the heart of the region instead, where they were well-positioned to capitalize on the instability which followed the Arab Uprisings. Meanwhile, eliminating senior leadership degraded the checks and balances, unity, and orthodoxy of al-Qaeda. Rather than causing the organization to buckle, the vacuum allowed for the emergence of far more extreme elements who could more openly defy the senior leadership. These new jihadists have since proven far more effective at building forces, raising money and seizing territory.

In turn, the rise of ISIS has pushed AQSL even further into the periphery, now based once again in the Af-Pak region, where they have opened a new branch focused on Central Asia and are poised to further destabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan in cooperation with the Taliban. This deterioration will likely prevent the US from being able to draw down its troops in accordance with its new 2016 goal (thousands of combat forces will remain in Afghanistan at least until the end of President Obama’s term, despite the “official end” of the US combat mission earlier this month).

Meanwhile, AQAP remains highly active in Yemen, recently killing an American captive during a failed rescue operation by US special forces. Simultaneously, the destabilization of Yemen has pushed Shia Houthi militants to start an uprising against the central government, wherein they have managed to seize the capital, Sana. And a vicious cycle has set in, with the Houthis feeling compelled towards their actions by the existential threat posed by al-Qaeda extremists in the light of government ineptitude at protecting minorities, but with the subsequent rise of the Shia rebels helping to drive further recruitment for al-Qaeda and related groups in Yemen to resist the Houthi advance…all exacerbated by the geopolitical struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran who use the salafi and Shia militants as their respective proxies.

Rather than “defeating” the extremists, the drone program has spread and enflamed a crisis that was formerly geographically and militarily marginal.

The Problem Is Bigger Than Drones

Much like their torture program, the CIA drone operation has been demonstrated to be far less effective than the agency claims. Moreover, it generates substantial blowback, and likely violates international rules and norms. But the same can be said of the NSA bulk surveillance program and the FBI procedures targeting Muslim Americans for monitoring, and occasionally, entrapment in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which protects people and their correspondences from arbitrary surveillance and prohibits targeting people based on factors like race, religion, etc.

So the problem isn’t contained to a single agency or set of bad practices–there needs to be far more oversight and accountability of US intelligence services, and substantive changes to US counterterrorism and geopolitical policy. The alternative is lurching from crisis to crisis while the US remains engaged in a state of perpetual war in which American values and freedoms are continually eroded.

President Obama is right to point out that US intelligence services do incredibly difficult and important work, often with little recognition or appreciation of their sacrifices from those they serve and protect. But the latitude and anonymity afforded to these agencies also opens the door to profound abuse of the public trust, on a scale which threatens not only America’s strategic interests and international standing, but also the democratic foundations of its society.

When these excesses are identified, they must be dealt with–not with reports and condemnations, but with legal action, on both the criminal and political fronts. Anything short of this standard is less than useless: it provides the illusion of resolution while allowing the problems to grow worse.