We Can Do Something About the Drone Strikes If We Focus on Where They're Politically Vulnerable

[Adapted from a talk given for Chicago Area Peace Action, January 17, 2012.]

I'd like to begin by asking you all two questions about your current opinions on U.S. drone strike policy and what we can do about it. Be honest in your responses, because for Just Foreign Policy, understanding how people view these questions is crucial to understanding how to engage more Americans in reforming the drone strike policy. There's no wrong answer. No-one is going to be judged or compared favorably or unfavorably to anyone else based on their answers. It's not an exam. It's an opinion poll or focus group for people trying to engage more Americans in the task of reforming U.S. drone strike policy. Your answers are going to shape Just Foreign Policy's activity on these questions going forward. And they're also going to shape my presentation this evening.

Here is the first question:

Is it your current opinion that there are significant ethical, legal, or political problems with the current drone strike policy?

The responses I'm looking for are either yes, I think there are significant problems, no, I don't think there are significant problems, or I don't know, I'm not sure. Ignore any peer pressure you might perceive in this room. What was your opinion was when you woke up this morning? The mainstream media claims that according to opinion polls, 80% of Americans, including the majority of liberal Democrats, support the current policy. Are you more like the 80%, or are you more like the 20%?

Shut your eyes and cover them with a hand, a scarf, a book, or piece of paper, so we can have something like a secret ballot and you won't be intimidating the people around you.

Raise your hand if your current thinking is that there are significant ethical, legal, or political problems with the current drone strike policy.

Keeping your eyes covered, put your hands down. Raise your hand if your current thinking is that there are not significant ethical, legal, or political problems with the current drone strike policy.

Keeping your eyes covered, put your hands down. Raise your hand if you're not sure whether there are significant ethical, legal, or political problems with the current drone strike policy. Keeping your eyes closed, put your hands down.

I'm going to tell you what was just reported to us by the people in the room, but first I want to ask you a second question, this time about political action. For the purposes of the second question, I want you to suppose that in fact there are serious ethical, legal, and political concerns about the drone strike policy, even if you currently don't believe that or currently aren't sure whether you believe that.

Here is the second question:

Is it your current belief, that if there are serious ethical, legal and political concerns about the current drone strike policy, people in this room, and people like us, could significantly change government policy to address problems with the drone strike program through ordinary political action, in the next one to four years?

By "ordinary political action," I mean nothing that requires a significant amount of time or commitment, just ordinary political engagement, similar to what you might do on other issues that you care about. Again, the responses I'm going to ask for are yes, no, and don't know or not sure.

Shut and cover your eyes.

Raise your hand if you think that people in this room, and people like us, could significantly change government policy to address problems with the drone strike program through ordinary political action, in the next one to four years.

Raise your hand if your current thinking is that people in this room, and people like us, cannot significantly change government policy to address problems with the drone strike program through ordinary political action, in the next one to four years.

Keeping your eyes covered, put your hands down. Raise your hand if you're not sure whether people in this room, and people like us, could significantly change government policy to address problems with the drone strike program through ordinary political action, in the next one to four years.

OK, here's what happened. When I asked if you thought that there are significant ethical, legal and political problems with the current policy, every single hand went up. But when I asked if we could do something about it, the room split three ways. A third of you said yes. A third of you said no. And a third of you weren't sure.

Now I'm going to tell you my agenda for the evening. My goals are to 1) convince all of you that there are significant, ethical, legal, and political problems with the drone strike program and that 2) people like us can do something about it through ordinary political action. Moreover, I aim to convince you so thoroughly that 3) you'll be able to convince other people both that there are significant problems with the drone strike problem and that we can do something about it. You could say that the first goal is already accomplished. But I hope to convince you that how we talk about the problems with the drone strike program is key to achieving the other goals.

The first problem with the drone strike program is that it's "secret." That's kind of funny to say, because it's obviously not secret. We're talking about it, so it can't really be secret. But what it means to say that it's "secret" is that the U.S. government won't officially acknowledge it. The official, legal position of the U.S. government is that it's a secret program, so we're not going to publicly talk about it on the record. And what that means is that so far, there hasn't been normal reporting on this program in the media, where U.S. officials can be publicly challenged on the record. There has never been a significant Congressional debate about it. There have never been Congressional hearings about it. And we can't have a normal public discussion about it.

In a normal, public discussion about a government policy, you're able to debate established facts. So, for example, there's been a debate about Social Security. People have different opinions about what, if anything should be done to change the program or leave it alone. But the debate takes place on the basis of established facts. There's a government report, the Social Security Trustees Report, and anyone can go get this report on the web and read it. That report contains the official government projections about the costs and revenues of Social Security. And that report is the basis of all debates you see about Social Security in mainstream media: everyone, regardless of their opinion, is making reference to the numbers from the Social Security Trustees report.

With respect to the drone strike policy, we don't have anything like that. There's no official government report on the program you can read on the web that establishes key facts like about how many civilians have been killed. And there's no debate that takes place on the basis of established facts.

The importance of this can't be overstated. It might seem like a bloodless thing, if you don't realize the consequences, the fact that the program is "secret," something you wouldn't get really outraged about. You might say: what difference does it make?

But the fact that the program is "secret" is literally a matter of life and death. In a democracy, the public is supposed to be able to find out about and help change unjust policies. It's very hard to do that in this case. The "secrecy" of the program makes it extremely difficult for Congress and the public to conduct normal democratic oversight of the program. So, if the program is killing too many innocent civilians, it's hard to address that, because there's no agreement between the government and its critics about how many innocent civilians have been killed. There's no Social Security Trustees Report on civilian casualties that everyone can refer to. There have been independent reports, and these have been reported in the media, but then government officials anonymously say, "Oh, that's not true, those numbers are exaggerated," and that's the end of the discussion. The government officials never have to show their own numbers, and they never have to justify their numbers in comparison to the independent reports.

I mentioned earlier that mainstream media say that 80% of the public supports the program. This is an extremely damaging political fact from the point of view of trying to do something about the program. Say you're talking to Congressional staff, and you're trying to get them engaged on the problems with the drone strike program. Suppose they even agree with you on the merits. Hanging in the background is the fact that everyone knows, that the media is saying that 80% of the public supports the program. The staff member might be thinking: this issue is not a political winner for my boss. So, if you get a hearing, it's probably going to be from some Democrat in a safe district. It's not someone who is worried about public opinion. That's a very bad position to be in.

OK, where does this 80% figure come from? It comes from a poll conducted by the Washington Post in February 2012. The Washington Post trumpeted the poll with a banner headline: 83% of Americans support the program, including 77% of liberal Democrats. A lot of people in Washington saw that, and they thought, well, ok, reforming the drone strike policy is a loser issue, we're never going to get anywhere with that.

But what did the question ask? If you opened up the poll, here was the question: Do you support the use of drones to target top level terrorist leaders? 83% of the respondents said yes to that.

OK, what does that mean? Name a top level terrorist leader. Osama bin Laden. How do think most Americans feel about killing Osama bin Laden? We know the answer to that question. We saw that play out. Most Americans, apparently, felt great about that. So, if the question was: how do you feel about using drones to target people like Osama bin Laden, what do you think the answer to that question would be?

But now consider this question: is it an accurate description of the current drone strike program to say that it is a program that targets people like Osama bin Laden? If it is, then maybe it's fair to say that 80% of the public supports the current drone strike program. But what if that is a very misleading description of the current drone strike program? What if only a small proportion of the people killed have been top-level terrorist leaders? What if most of the people killed have been either low-level fighters, many of whom have no real dispute with the United States, or innocent civilians? If that were true, wouldn't it be very misleading to describe the current drone strike program as a program that targets top level terrorist leaders?

If it is true that it is really misleading to describe the current drone strike program as a program that targets top level terrorist leaders, then isn't it very misleading to say that 80% of the public supports the program, just because they told the Washington Post that they support targeting top level terrorist leaders? If that's a misleading description, then 80% of respondents told the Washington Post that they support a program that does not exist.

A study last fall by from Stanford and NYU reported the following:

the vast majority of the ‘militants’ targeted have been low-level insurgents, killed in circumstances where there is little or no public evidence that they had the means or access to pose a serious threat to the US. In 2011, a White House evaluative report on drone strikes, in fact, found that the CIA was “primarily killing low-level militants in its drone strikes.”[29] Journalist Adam Entous reached a similar conclusion in a May 2010 Reuters piece: based on conversations with unnamed US officials, he noted that only 14 top-tier leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other militant groups and two dozen high-to-mid-level leaders had been killed, with the remaining “90 percent by some measure” of those militant deaths consisting of “lower-level fighters.”[30] In September 2012, Peter Bergen and Megan Braun, reporting New American Foundation data, stated that since 2004, 49 “militant leaders” had been killed in strikes (accounting for 2% of all drone killings); the rest were largely “low-level combatants.”[31]

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London reports the following for CIA drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004:

CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan 2004–2013

Total reported killed: 2,629-3,461

Civilians reported killed: 475-891

Children reported killed: 176

If you do the math, then somewhere between 14% anwd 34% of those killed were civilians, and somewhere between 5% - 7% were children.

If 176 children were killed, and if only 2% of the deaths were "militant leaders," then roughly three times as many children were killed as "militant leaders." If between 14% and 34% of those killed were civilians, then at the low end, seven times as many civilians were killed as "militant leaders." At the high end, seventeen times as many civilians were killed as "militant leaders."

If this is all true, is it accurate or is it misleading to say the drone strike program is "targeted at top level terrorist leaders"?

What do you suppose the general public knows about this, or knew about this in February 2012? I said earlier that U.S. officials have refused to speak publicly on the record about the program. But there were two major exceptions last year. In January, President Obama spoke about the program on the record. In April, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan - now President Obama's nominee to head the CIA - spoke about the program on the record.

Obama said: this program is narrowly targeted on a list of top-level terrorist leaders. (The New York Times subsequently noted that wasn't true.) Brennan said: let me assure you that civilian casualties have been extremely rare.

How many Americans, do you suppose, believed the official story early last year? How many even knew that there was an alternative story?

You see how the issues of secrecy and transparency are totally crucial to the question of reforming the program. The widespread belief that political efforts are likely to be difficult hinges significantly on a belief that the public overwhelmingly supports the program. The belief that the public overwhelmingly supports the program strongly hinges on a belief by the public that the program is narrowly focused on top level terrorist leaders and civilian deaths have been extremely rare.

If the public story that the program is narrowly targeted on top level terrorist leaders and civilian deaths have been extremely rare can be shaken, then public support is vulnerable, and the program is politically vulnerable. The fact that Obama and Brennan put out this story - a story contradicted by independent reporting - is a clue to the political vulnerability of the program.

So, what should we be advocating? We should be advocating things that undermine the official story.

This is why, I argue, "ban drone strikes" is not the ideal message to try to take to Congress, mainstream media, and the general public, if we want to break the perception that nothing can be done about the policy, which is itself a key obstacle to doing anything. The danger of advocating for "banning drone strikes" in mainstream debate is that in the minds of many people who are not yet on our side, who don't yet know that there is an alternative to the official story, "banning drone strikes" would ban "the targeting of top-level terrorist leaders." As George Lakoff might say, "to negate the frame is to reinforce the frame." And, whether we like it or not, the known evidence suggests that the public supports the targeting of top-level terrorist leaders. They know that some top-level terrorist leaders are being killed - that gets reported in the press - and they support that.

Now, just because the majority of the public supports something does not necessarily make it right. But as a moral and political matter, if there are a bunch of people being killed by the U.S. government, and the vast majority of the people being killed are people whom the vast majority of the U.S. public would not support killing if they knew what was going on and had a choice, and a tiny sliver of the people being killed are people that the majority of the U.S. public would support killing, wouldn't it make sense to focus politically, as a starting point, on saving the vast majority of victims, whom the majority of the U.S. public would want to save?

To split the general public, liberal Democrats, and Members of Congress from the policy, we need to focus on the overwhelming majority of deaths that are *not* top level terrorist leaders. And, with the general public, with liberal Democrats, with Members of Congress, "ban drone strikes" doesn't help us do that. The belief that the policy can't be changed hinges on it being a debate about killing terrorist leaders. We need to change the debate so it's about killing civilians and low-level fighters who don't have anything to do with attacks on the United States.

So what are some opportunities for advocacy now?

-- Right now, there is an internal debate in the Administration about how much to participate in the French military operation in Mali. Sending armed drones is being discussed. This can be stopped. Stopping it means stopping an extension of the drone war. A key lever we have is telling Members of Congress that they should insist that the U.S. not send armed drones to Mali without Congressional authorization. [link]

-- In the next few weeks, Brennan is going to have a confirmation hearing. That's an opportunity for Senators to ask questions about challenge the drone strike policy. We can press Durbin and other Senators to ask questions about the drone strike policy, and we can press them to ask those questions in open session.

-- In particular: Senator Wyden has demanded that prior to the hearing, Brennan disclose the Administration's legal justification for the drone strikes outside of Afghanistan. This is a demand that Durbin and other Senators can back. In particular, Wyden and Durbin could hold up Brennan's nomination until the documents are disclosed.

-- Human Rights Watch and the Washington Post editorial board have called for the CIA to get out of running drone strikes completely. Whatever one thinks about the U.S. military, the fact is that it's more accountable and transparent than the CIA is. It's easier for outsiders to find out what the U.S. military is doing, and document their compliance or noncompliance with U.S. and international law. When civilians are killed or injured by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, there's a mechanism to force the U.S. military to investigate, acknowledge fault, and pay compensation. There's no such mechanism in the case of the CIA. If we could end the CIA role in drone strikes, it would be easier to have meaningful public debate and oversight of the drone strikes that remain.

The key thing on all this is that we have to start seriously engaging Congress and pushing Members of Congress to speak out publicly on these issues. The most important thing right now is to get something moving. The fact that most Members of Congress aren't saying anything publicly is a key buttress of the perception that nothing can be done. So we have to try different things to see what we can get traction on. Sen. Wyden is willing to publicly demand information. Let's see who else we can get to do that.

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