Drone Warfare in House Subcommittee Hearing

Yesterday (Tuesday, March 23, 2010) I was pleased to appear as a witness before the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, to discuss drone warfare and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).  The list of witnesses is here, along with a link to a webcast (which I can’t seem to open), and links to the witness statements.  I am always fascinated to listen to Brooking’s Peter Singer, author of Wired for War, and the rest of the panel was equally interesting, especially on the technical aspects of UAVs.

I was particularly interested to hear in this session discussion of the many ways in which UAV technology is entering civilian fields – everything from crop dusting to monitoring schools of fish from the sky.  Someone mentioned (but I haven’t verified) that University of Nevada now offers a degree program in UAV control.   My points were fairly removed from much of the rest of the technological or military discussion, being aimed squarely at policy and legal policy concerns.  In my oral statement, I emphasized the following:

  • The Obama administration has embraced drone warfare, but its lawyers have not caught up; presumably they have private concluded that the several drone warfare programs underway are legal, but it is not a good idea to keep the rationales secret.  Not, at least, with a program in Pakistan that is only a matter of official denial, not secret.  It leaves the President and operations people on down hanging out there exposed.
  • The drone warfare campaign embraced most thoroughly as a strategic matter – correctly, in my view – by the senior administration officials starting with the President is not the “hot battlefield” use of drones, in which they are essentially a substitute air support weapon for a manned system.  It is, instead, the use of drones in a role unique to them, as a targeted killing mechanism for use in places far off of active battlefields.  There are some questions raised about military battlefield use of drones, but the real questions lie off the active hot battlefield – and it is these uses that are the real reason why senior Obama officials have celebrated them.
  • The fundamental issue in a legal policy sense, then, is not so much drones as such – it is their use in a campaign by the CIA of targeted killing.  A better way to understand the drone debate is that this emerging technology has forced onto the table discussion of the lawful and appropriate role of the CIA, in the use of force, and in covert operations using force.  Much of the purely military discussion is interesting technically, but legally somewhat beside the point at least at this point.  A millimeter beneath the surface of the drone discussion is the question of the CIA.  This is the point of the attack on the CIA’s role as criminal made by Mary Ellen O’Connell, and also by Gary Solis in his characterization of America’s “own unlawful combatants.”
  • CIA director Leon Panetta has been engaged in a vigorous public defense of the drone program of targeted killing by the CIA.  I am all in favor of it, of course – but as a friend of the program, so to speak, and happy as I am to see Panetta speak up, his defense of the CIA program is slightly beside the point.  He defends the success of the program. Leaving aside criticisms of “blowback” – easy to make, hard to prove or disprove, frankly, but leave that aside – for most of us the success of the program is not the issue.  At issue is its legality, not its success.  Or at least, to know on what basis the lawyers think it is legal.  (Which, note to the Al Jazeera interviewer yesterday following the hearing, I took great pains to distinguish – I do not question the legality of the program as such, I question which legal rationale for its legality is the right one).
  • Even you believe targeted killing using drones is, as a general proposition, legal under domestic and international law, as I do, it matters what kind of legal rationale one asserts for it.  Not all lawyers would agree, to be sure, and I suspect this includes lawyers inside the administration, but in my view it matters whether one adopts an “armed conflict” justification in which, when the US targets someone in Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia or wherever, that person is determined to be a lawful target – and it doesn’t matter, for the bare legality of targeting, where he is located.  The armed conflict goes where the combatant goes.  Mumbai, Mogadishu, wherever.  I think this is wrong as a question of the laws of armed conflict, because it does not adhere to the threshold requirements of this peculiar non-international conflict with a non-state actor taking place on a global basis that the US has with Al Qaeda.  In my view, the proper legal frame is international law of self-defense – and it is what the US has traditionally viewed the exercise of these discrete uses of force by the CIA, covert or clandestine, as being anyway.
  • These two legal rationales eventually lead to different legal conclusions, constraints and authority for the use of force, unless one uses very awkward legal reasoning to force these very different uses of force altogether into the same frame.  My view is that forcing CIA targeted killing in places that might range widely in the world into armed conflict rationales is bad for the CIA’s legal reasoning – and requires ever greater legal contortions to make it fit into a model of armed conflict law that is fundamentally about the overt meeting of armies and state forces, not covert ops and intelligence services using force.  I don’t think it is a stable legal view for the CIA over the long term.  Moreover, as I thought in analyzing the Bush administration’s “global war on terror” legal frame, forcing all uses of force outside of plain law enforcement into the armed conflict box of law for overt war distorts that body of law and its interpretation, too.  It isn’t about regulating covert ops and intelligence services – there was a good reason why, during all those decades before the 1990s, exceptional and extraordinary uses of force by the covert civilian services was regarded as not unlawful under international law, but not part of the law of armed conflict, either.

Part of the “framing” problem of law here is that it is not just a division of the military operations from the CIA ones, overt from covert.  The Pakistan program by the CIA is, obviously, not covert – it is an operation in formal deniability – the ability to say at least officially (US and Pakistani officials), US military forces are not operating on the ground in Pakistan.  But, as Peter Singer pointed out in yesterday’s hearing, the scale of this non-covert program is up at the level of the opening of the Kosovo air campaign in 1999 – it is up there at the level of “real” war.  It might well be that the proper legal characterization of the CIA’s role in that theater of hostilities is not “self defense” operations as I would use to characterize the CIA operations in other places, smaller, more discrete, and perhaps genuinely covert or closer to it.  Quite possibly operations in Pakistan by the CIA have to be treated as part of the armed conflict.

The point is that a “deniability operation” (if it can be called that, to distinguish from truly covert) on a large scale eventually starts to resemble “hostilities” in a legal sense and in this case eventually merges geographically into the classic hostilities situation of non-international armed conflict that spills over a border.  If that is the case, then quite possibly it should be characterized as part of a single AfPak theatre of hostilities.  With, therefore, an armed conflict rationale for activities by the CIA.

But I do not think this rationale will work for the operation that matter into the future as Islamist terror groups morph and change and seek safe haven in other places.  Nor do I think it will work for post-Al Qaeda groups.  For those, I would opt for self-defense as Abe Sofaer characterized it in 1989.  And, to be clear, if that is the rationale, it does have to remain – as Gabriella Blum noted in a Harvard symposium on this a few weeks ago – exceptional measures.

So I think it will turn out to matter quite a lot over the long term that the Obama lawyers eventually opt for the specific law of armed conflict, including its definitions and thresholds under treaty and customary law, or some customary law of self-defense.  My guess is that the administration’s lawyers will finally opt for what appears to them to be both a narrower and a superficially reassuring ground of armed conflict that allows them to say that everyone being targeted is a “combatant” in a legal sense.  Again, my own view is that this won’t work over the long run – it will degrade as a rationale for the CIA under withering attack from the soft-law community, and it will have a tendency to degrade the law of war itself as rationales suited to a body of rules about large scale, or at least overt, conflict modeled on inter-state armed conflict, continues to pressed into service in an area that is mostly about covert or clandestine operations, and which aims to avoid overt war.

Put more bluntly, as a political evaluation, I think this rationale will work so long, but just so long, as there is an Obama administration.  As a legal rationale, armed conflict as a rationale will turn out to be a legally and politically “wasting asset.”  The legal attacks on targeted killing and the use of drones therein will be developing, but won’t ripen into active claims of war crimes, and so on, at least ones that have teeth, until the Obama administration leaves office.  Like many of the Bush-era legal tools in counterterrorism, my guess is that the Obama administration will rely on them in point of fact – but not legally defend them in ways that leave them plainly and cleanly available to the next president or future administrations.