On Tuesday, April 23, NSSP Director Peter Bergen testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. As the first public hearing called by Congress specifically on the covert CIA targeted killing program, it was an extraordinary and unprecedented event. Below are Bergen's big takeaways:
As of early 2013, the drone campaign was no longer Washington’s worst kept secret; it was, for all intents and purposes, out in the open. This new openness is a good thing. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed a century ago, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Key questions that need to be considered publicly include:
- To what extent has the tactic of using drone strikes overwhelmed the broader strategic objectives of the United States? For instance, have the hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan all really been necessary? If the cost of the drone program in Pakistan, whose victims are largely lower-level members of the Taliban, is the increasingly hostile view of the U.S. now prevalent among the 180 million citizens of Pakistan—a country with nuclear weapons and the second largest Muslim country in the world—is that cost too high?
- Has the increased emphasis at the CIA on targeted killings hampered the agency’s ability to understand really important political developments in the Muslim world, such as the Arab Spring? As a senior Obama official has noted: “The CIA missed Tunisia. They missed Egypt. They missed Libya.” Even after the Egyptian revolution occurred, the CIA appears to have entirely missed the fact that the ultra-fundamentalist Salafists would do very well at the election box, winning around quarter of the votes in the 2011 parliamentary election, making them the second largest political bloc in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood.
- Is the United States setting a dangerous precedent for other nations with its aggressive and secretive drone programs in Pakistan and Yemen? Just as the U.S. government justifies its drone strikes with the argument that it is at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates, one could imagine a Chinese strike against Uighur separatists in western China or an Iranian attack on Baluchi nationalists along its border with Pakistan. The rules and regulations the U.S. government places on its use of drones as targeted killing machines will decide whether future U.S. leaders will be able to call on other countries to self-impose similar limitations. A failure to stand up a transparent, accountable structure within which drone targets are chosen, collateral damage decisions are made, and post-hoc evaluations are held could have important ramifications should countries like China and Russia cite U.S. precedents if using armed drones against individuals or groups they consider to be terrorists.
- Should there be an international framework governing the use of drone attacks? The time has come for some kind of international convention on the legal framework surrounding the uses of such weapons, which promise to shape the future of warfare as much as tanks and aerial bombers did during the 20th century. Yet so far, there has been virtually no substantive public discussion about drone attacks among policymakers at the international level.
- Should Washington transfer responsibility for the drones flying over Pakistan from the CIA to the U.S. military? The CIA's control of the program in Pakistan is more a legacy of its longtime dominance of operations targeting al-Qaeda than a reflection of any special expertise in drone warfare, and military control would have several advantages. In Afghanistan, where U.S. drone programs are already controlled by the Pentagon, U.S. military lawyers ensure that the strikes conform to the laws of war. In Pakistan, whatever vetting process the CIA observes remains largely opaque. In Afghanistan, the U.S. military also tends to pay compensation for accidental civilian deaths, whereas Pakistani civilians in the tribal areas can seek little legal or material recourse from the United States when their relatives are slain. Military control of the drone program in Pakistan would also place the strikes more clearly in the chain of command and link U.S. actions in eastern Afghanistan more directly with those in Pakistan's tribal regions. Coordinated Afghan-U.S. military operations now give the Afghan government more ownership over security conditions in Afghanistan. A similar arrangement should be struck in Pakistan
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