Targeted Killing: Drones

A Report Card on the Stimson Report Card

By Charlie Dunlap
Tuesday, March 1, 2016, 3:59 PM

Last week, the Stimson Center released its “Report Card on The Recommendations of The Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy.” The report card unsurprisingly earned headlines like “Obama’s Drone Policy Gets an ‘F,’” mainly because it concludes that the “current U.S. policy suffers from a lack of transparency and accountability.” But as a member of one of the working groups for the task force that produced the report – and a proponent of using drones – my recommendation is not to read it, at least not with any expectation that it represents the views of everyone listed in the original report. At the very least, neither the report nor the report card reflect my views. More importantly, it is not the place to look if you want to be schooled on a balanced view of drones.   

I am genuinely disappointed–and, really, puzzled–with the Stimson Center’s own lack of transparency with this report, much as I was with its original 2014 recommendations. Despite being in the working group, I wasn’t even allowed to see the draft 2014 report before it was released to the public. The same lack of transparency was applied to the current “Report Card,” even though it seems to have been given to reporters in advance of public release.  

The 2014 report, while grudgingly conceding some positive attributes of drones, gave voice to virtually every critique, but few of the counters. Among other things, it makes claims about the purported negative “blowback” drone strikes allegedly cause, without even citing the contrary research. It also gratuitously insults the military and everyone else (to include the courts) associated with drones by claiming that it “would be difficult to conclude that US targeted strikes are consistent with core rule of law norms.” Stimson may have that difficulty because it chose to ignore anyone with a different view.

For its part, the 2016 “Report Card” overlooks the dramatic decline in civilian casualties from drone strikes, along with the polls that undercut the original “blowback” theory – not to mention a whole range of legal and other developments that have changed the drone debate. Instead, it doubles down on its demand for public disclosure of the kind of detailed information about targeted killings by drones that any enemy intelligence officer would love to have to shape operations to avoid the strikes.

Importantly, although the 2016 “Report Card” couches itself in language such as “the task force concluded…” I am advised that in reality it is no more than an analysis by Stimson; it does not necessarily represent the consensus views of the task force or the additional 28 people (including me) listed on pages 60-61 of the original task force report. I get the sense that the whole project, from the beginning, was intended to be critical of the U.S.’s drone efforts. And as evidence of that, consider how Stimson is proudly citing the report’s mention in the Intercept – a source I and others don’t endorse on this issue. I now believe as well that my inclusion (and perhaps that of others) on the working group was not a serious effort to obtain a wide variety of perspectives about drones, but rather, window-dressing to allow Stimson to claim, as it did in this week’s follow-up report, a diversity of background and viewpoint that is far beyond that of the actual task force.

I know and personally like many of those in the ten-member group. That said, it was plainly unbalanced. Despite the fact that the Air Force is the service that far and away has the most experience in the actual operation of drones, the task force’s members who were veterans were dominated by three retired Army officers, including the co-chair, retired General John Abizaid, an infantry officer. The sole Air Force vet on the task force itself was a former airlift pilot who left the service in the 1990s, long before drones were in wide use.

This may explain the curious fact that the whole report is focused on targeted killings conducted only by drones, and not by ground forces. There is no demand for public disclosure of all the details of ground operations doing targeted killings even though, as Mark Bowden observed in his lengthy 2013 article on drones in Atlantic, “ground combat almost always kills more civilians than drones do.”

Yes, as the Stimson Center touts in its report, General Abizaid did command U.S. Central Command from July 2003 to March 2007, a period during which drone use reportedly began in earnest in Pakistan. However, that was also the period in which the weapons’ system was alleged–if you believe the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) reports–to have been especially lethal to civilians. Since 2012, by contrast, BIJ contends that while as many as 886 people were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, the maximum number of civilians killed was 74. Civilian deaths in any number are tragic, but given the complexity of that battlespace, 74 is a remarkably low number, especially when you consider that in a single year, 2006, BIJ contends that of a maximum of 105 people killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, as many as 100 might have been civilians.  

In short, today’s policies seem to be very effective in limiting civilian casualties. Why isn’t Stimson transparent about that rather significant fact? People relying upon the current report card would certainly not be aware that since Stimson’s 2014 report, even BIJ is claiming a maximum of just seven civilians killed out of an estimated maximum of 281 deaths by drones in Pakistan.

At the same time, there is no question that drones have put real pressure on terrorists. To me, at least, that implies a measure of policy success worthy of more than an F.  

Jennifer Williams’ analysis of the trove of materials found in Bin Laden’s lair in her March 2015 Foreign Affairs article (“The Bureaucracy of Terror”) makes some key points as to policy. She finds that “documents support the argument that U.S. President Barack Obama and other proponents of the drone program have made that the strikes are effective and that the U.S. drone program is heavily constrained.”

She isn’t alone. In his 2015 book, former acting director of the CIA Michael Morell says: “In documents recovered from his residence after the 2011 US raid that killed him, we learned that Bin Laden considered drone strikes the most effective US weapon against his group.” And General Mike Hayden, the former CIA director, has likewise very recently said much the same.

But people like Hayden and Morell with significant experience with drones were not part of the ten-person Stimson group (even for the “Report Card”) and their widely-available contrary views were not even mentioned in the 2016 report. Consider as well that retired Lt. Gen Dave Deptula – someone who also has real expertise about drones – was not invited to participate. Yet in 2013, he assessed the weapons in an essay whose title says much: “Drones Best Weapons We’ve Got For Accuracy, Control, Oversight; Critics Don’t Get It.” Even if Stimson disagreed with him, given his unquestionable expertise, should it not have tackled his many public assertions, if only to discount them?

I don’t mean to sound like a reflexive defender of the drone program. I too have found fault with important of aspects of the president’s drone policies. When Obama laid out his drone policies in his 2013 National Defense University speech and the accompanying fact sheet, he publically stated that operations would only be conducted when there was a “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”  

I question the wisdom of this sort of “transparency” as it telegraphs to adversaries exactly what they need to do protect themselves from a drone strike: surround themselves with civilians. What’s more, despite that effort at transparency, there is no evidence that the hostility towards drones by those disposed against them in the first place has diminished even one iota. The hard truth is–whether Stimson wants to accept it or not–that in the real world, this kind of transparency has bought little, while our enemies have “gone to school” on it.

Facts do matter. Polls show that support for drone operations increases dramatically as educational levels rise. I read that to mean that as people get more information, they come to understand the value of drones as one element of a counterterrorism policy. So it may be that a case can be made for greater transparency and that more facts will yield even more support. But I firmly believe that this could be done without excluding those who offer alternate conceptions as to the cost of transparency, and how much of it the public wants or needs. 

Of course, even the best-informed people may still differ over how drones are used by the US, but that decision ought to include at least the publically available information. In my opinion, if there is to be finger-wagging about transparency, the critics ought to start by looking in a mirror.