President Obama’s nomination of John Brennan to lead the CIA signals that drone strikes will continue to be an important part of the CIA’s mission. Brennan began advising President Obama on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles after being named his counterterrorism adviser in 2009. Brennan’s nomination raises anew the controversies surrounding the targeted killings and the deliberate lack of institutional oversight of these methods.
Last fall, the Obama administration was reportedly hard at work codifying its rules for assassination by drone. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union had been pressing for such an effort, and it appeared that the administration was at last receptive to their arguments. However, the rules that administration officials were so busily drafting were meant for Mitt Romney, in case he won the election. Rather than leave the decision-making in the hands of a new president, Obama officials had suddenly become aware of the dangers of letting a single, in this case Republican, person make life-or-death decisions.
After Obama’s reelection, the administration’s sense of urgency lessened considerably. Now, with Brennan’s nomination, this urgency may have dissipated entirely. Certainly his elevation suggests that the decision-making process behind drone strikes will remain opaque. The man called “the high priest of targeted killing” will keep his exalted position.
This would be a mistake — and a squandered opportunity. Obama may be comfortable with Brennan’s philosophy of targeted assassinations, and he may be equally confident in the proposed new CIA chief’s ability to control the initiatives of underlings. However, these are flimsy foundations on which to base policy decisions, particularly ones concerning a weapon as controversial as drones. Cutting Congress and the public out of the process of determining how, when, and where these weapons should be used is counterproductive and shortsighted.
Fifty years ago, President Kennedy tried to improvise the rules governing a new aerial weapon deployed in secret. This weapon was designed to allow the United States to wage war remotely, with few American casualties, minimal congressional oversight, and maximum deniability. The results were disastrous. Kennedy quickly lost control of the Air Force’s Operation Ranch Hand, which involved spraying herbicides over areas of South Vietnam. Within months, decision-making authority had devolved from the administration’s highest levels to officials 12,000 miles away. The US ambassador to South Vietnam and his military counterpart quickly conspired to expand Ranch Hand operations, even as Kennedy sought to approve each individual mission. Ranch Hand missions defoliated jungles and killed rice crops. They also helped turn large areas of rural South Vietnam against the government.
South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem used US uncertainty about the mission for his own agenda. He asked for, and got, the United States to destroy crops grown by his own people as part of an effort to move rural South Vietnamese off their ancestral lands and into largely barren “strategic hamlets.” There was no explicit US policy against crop destruction, so Diem had an opening for his argument. Kennedy had not approved this use, but the momentum behind this expansion was too strong even for the president to stop.
Having an open debate about the criteria for drone use would prevent the sorts of problems that doomed Ranch Hand. The use of a controversial weapon should not be governed by an individual’s particular understanding of its capabilities and limitations. The power, for example, to order a mission that would do lasting damage to US-Pakistani relations should not reside in one person. No matter how capable and thoughtful Brennan, or anyone else, is, the responsibility for drone operations cannot remain with an individual. Given the proclivities of large bureaucracies such as the CIA, it will not.
The rules for drone use will take shape no matter what; how explicit they will be is up to Obama.