Tag: drones

Turbulence Ahead: Domestic Drone Debate Intensifies

National Journal has a new piece out today that highlights the continuing controversy over the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure thus far to publish a final rule governing the operation of drones in domestic airspace (FAA’s current unmanned aerial system (UAS) guidance can be found here). One thing the FAA will not be doing is wading into the commercial sector privacy debate over drones; it has punted that issue to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). But what about federal agencies and their use of UASs?

Federal domestic UAS use has a checkered history.

In December 2014, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General issued a report blasting the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drone program as waste:

  • The unmanned aircraft did not meeting the CBP Office of Air and Marine (OAM) goal of being airborne 16 hours a day, every day of the year; in FY 2013, the aircraft were airborne 22 percent of the anticipated number of hours.
  • Compared to CBP’s total number of apprehensions, OAM attributed relatively few to unmanned aircraft operations.
  • OAM could not demonstrate that the unmanned aircraft have reduced the cost of border surveillance.
  • OAM expected the unmanned aircraft would be able to respond to motion sensor alerts and thus reduce the need for USBP response, but the IG found few instances of this having occurred.

How Drones Encourage Dumb Wars and Corrode Democratic Government

My article in this week’s Washington Examiner magazine argues that because U.S. wars seem so cheap, they tempt us into making war too casually. I explain that while this tendency isn’t new, recent technology breakthroughs, which allowed the development of drones, have made it worse. We now make war almost like people buy movies or songs online, where low prices and convenience encourage purchase without much debate or consideration of value. I label the phenomenon one-click wars.

If we take occasional drone strikes as a minimum standard, the United States is at war in six countries: Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, with Libya likely to rejoin the list. In the first three, U.S. military action is exclusively the work of drones. Regular U.S. ground forces are present only in Iraq, where they avoid direct combat, and Afghanistan, where they mostly do.

There’s something remarkable in that combination of militarism and restraint. How can we be so willing to make war but so reluctant to take risks in making it?

My explanation starts with power. Wealth, technological prowess, and military might give the United States unique ability to make war around the world. But labor scarcity, liberal values, and our isolated geography that makes the stakes remote  limit our tolerance for sacrificing lives, even foreign ones, in war. This reluctance to bear the human costs of war leads to reliance on long-range technology, especially airpower.

Airpower, despite its historical tendency to fail without help from ground forces, always offers hope that we are only a few bombs away from enemy capitulation. The promise of cheap, clean wars is always alluring. They would let you escape the choice between the bloody sacrifices war entails and the liberal values it offends. 

Drones Risk Putting US on ‘Slippery Slope’ to Perpetual War

As the New York Times reports, the Stimson Center today released a report warning that “the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a ‘slippery slope’ into perpetual war.” The Washington Post, the Guardian and Vox all lead their articles on the report with that warning.

The slippery slope point probably isn’t new to most readers. But it’s worth focusing on here, both because the argument is often misstated or misunderstood, and because, in this case, I helped make it. The report’s task force, co-chaired by retired General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Rosa Brooks of Georgetown Law, included working groups. I was on one that considered, among other things, what danger drones create for U.S. foreign policy. The report largely reflects those we identified: the erosion of sovereignty, blowback from those in targeted countries, drone strikes’ tendency to undermine democratic oversight, and the slippery slope problem.

The report puts those concerns in context. It points out that: drones can serve wise or dumb policies; that most drones are for surveillance or other non-strike uses; and that it is drone strikes that occur off declared battlefields that have generated the most controversy. The report notes that past military innovations, like cruise missiles, raised similar concerns by making waging war easier.

The report rejects several common complaints about drones. It denies that they create a reckless, “playstation mentality” among pilots. It explains that drones are not more prone than other weapons cause civilian casualties.

Having delimited the circumstances where drones raise concerns, the report goes into considerable causal detail, at least compared to most reports of this kind, about what the trouble is. The blowback, oversight, and sovereignty problems are relatively easy to understand, in theory. The tricky part is measuring the harm.

The Pentagon as a Jobs Program, Part 3

A couple of months ago, I cited the example of upgraded Abrams tanks being shoved down the Pentagon’s throat by certain members of Congress because tank production = jobs back in the district. I followed that up with some historical background on congressional Pentagon pork-barreling that is discussed in former Reagan budget director David Stockman’s new book. Yesterday, a Wall Street Journal article on congressional resistance to reprioritizing military spending provided a new example:  

The battle over the Global Hawk is emblematic of the difficulty the Pentagon faces in trying to reduce its inventory while shifting its focus from the ground war in Afghanistan to emerging threats elsewhere.  

The Defense Department has sought to ground the fleet of 18 Global Hawk Block 30 drones, which has been used to conduct surveillance from Afghanistan to Libya. The Air Force says its piloted U-2 planes have better surveillance equipment for the job—and that ending the Global Hawk program can save $2.5 billion over the next four years.  

Lawmakers have not only rejected the Pentagon plans, but set aside $443 million to compel the Air Force to buy three more Global Hawks. On Tuesday, the Air Force said it is moving ahead with buying the drones even though it doesn’t want them. 

Northrop can rely on bipartisan support. The planes are built in the district represented by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R., Calif.), who heads the Armed Services Committee, which will consider a plan to keep Global Hawk running through 2016.  

McKeon – who has issues with numbers when it comes to military spending – recently made news when it was discovered by Politico that a lobbying firm run by his brother and nephews is taking on military-related companies as clients. In a statement to Politico, McKeon said that “We are knowledgeable about the [ethics] rules involved and will be devout in our adherence to both the letter and the spirit of those rules.” Well, that’s good to hear. It’s worth noting, however, that when it comes to congressional ethics rules, the fox is guarding the henhouse


Obama on Perpetual War: Less “Hope,” More Handwringing

There was something almost otherworldly about President Obama’s big national security speech last Tuesday at the National Defense University in DC. At times, Obama seemed to position himself as the loyal opposition to his own administration—or just one of many concerned citizens who worry that perpetual war “will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.” A few examples from the speech:

Look at the current situation [at Gitmo], where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike…. Is this who we are?  Is that something our Founders foresaw?  Is that the America we want to leave our children? 


I’m troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.


Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight…. this war, like all wars, must end.


The very precision of drone strikes and the necessary secrecy often involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites.  It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.

A president”? Anyone in particular? Who’s been president all these years, anyway?

Rand Paul’s “Teachable Moment”

On the U.S. government’s targeted killing and drone-bombing program, in the past I have harped on the fact that despite the discrete and immediate effects of disrupting terrorist activity, no expert can conclusively answer whether such tactics materially reduce the threat of terrorism. But don’t just take my word for it:

  • General James E. Cartwright, the retired, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said about drones undermining America’s long-term battle against extremism, “We’re seeing that blowback…If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”
  • General Stanley McChrystal, the retired, former commander in Afghanistan, has said about drones and anti-American sentiment, “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level…”
  • And John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser in the George W. Bush administration, has said that one day, drone strikes might “become as internationally maligned as Guantanamo.” 

Today, in a piece for U.S. News and World Report, I write about yet another relevant factor in the drone debate beyond the scope of the aforementioned issues: the Congressional prerogative to limit executive war powers. It explains why Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) should keep fighting the good fight for more transparency over the program:

Today, our commander in chief, through a secretive decision-making process based on classified evidence, has declared the right to use lethal force against anybody, anytime, anywhere on earth. Although Paul’s effort to shine a harsh light on targeted killings has thus far been commendable, he has squandered many opportunities to explain how we get back to the constitution-based system he champions. In this respect, the liberty movement has been right to hold his feet to the fire. Thus, here comes the “teachable moment.”

Check it out

Rand Paul and Jim Webb on Congress’s Abdication of Foreign Policy Power

John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director displayed Congress’s disinterest in checking the president’s runaway security powers. Two months ago, when I wrote an article with the unwieldy title, “Will Obama’s Brennan Pick Shed Some Much Needed Light on Drones?” I wouldn’t have guessed that the answer would be yes; it will bestir Congress to finally force the administration to say clearly that it does not reserve the right to kill Americans at home with drone strikes, insofar as they are not engaged in combat. That statement came only thanks to whomever leaked the Justice Department’s summary memo on the topic, Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder’s impolitic reluctance to articulate limits on the president’s power to kill Americans by calling them terrorists, and, of course, Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) resulting filibuster. The Senate predictably left Brennan’s other sins against civil liberties mostly unexamined. 

Paul’s hard-won “toehold of constitutionality” isn’t much to cheer about, even if we add to the spoils the administration’s vague agreement to be more open about its legal rationale for placing people on kill lists. This minimal defense of civil liberties and congressional privilege is what got Republican senators like Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz, Jr. of Texas, who seem to support unfettered executive discretion to kill in the name of counterterrorism outside the United States, to support the filibuster. 

Even that was too much restraint for the neoconservative right. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) read on the Senate floor a Wall Street Journal editorial calling Paul’s effort a stunt meant to “fire up impressionable libertarian kids” and assuring us that those targeted by drones here or abroad will be “enemy combatants.” McCain and the Journal spectacularly miss Paul’s point: the issue is whether the president should make that designation, chucking due process rights, without being checked by another branch of government. 

As McCain amigo Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) noted, the Republican caucus’ flirtation with civil libertarianism seems a situational consequence of partisanship. The same goes for Democrats. Were it President McCain doing what Obama is, far more than two Democratic senators (Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Pat Leahy of Vermont) would have voted against Brennan. During his filibuster, Paul asked what happened to the Senator Obama of 2007, who opposed torture and war by executive fiat. Paul suggests that those views were products of Obama’s then circumstance: not being president. Even that may be too generous. As I wrote in a recent book review concerning Obama’s counterterrorism record, “even when he took office, there was ample evidence that his dovish positions would not outlast their political convenience.” 

We can hope, I suppose, that Paul’s stance will increase Congress’s willingness to assert its constitutional war powers. Although he did not, as far as I know, propose specific restrictions on the use of military force outside of the United States, Paul did complain that the 2001 Authorization of Military Force against the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks and those that harbored them has become a permanent warrant for almost limitless executive war powers, a kind of escape hatch from the Constitution opened by presidential utterance of the word “terrorist.”