Our de­fault is killing ter­ror­ists by drone at­tack. Do you care?

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - David Ig­natius

Ev­ery war brings its own de­for­ma­tions, but con­sider this dis­turb­ing fact about Amer­ica's war against al-Qaeda: It has be­come eas­ier, po­lit­i­cally and legally, for the United States to kill sus­pected ter­ror­ists than to cap­ture and in­ter­ro­gate them.

Preda­tor and Reaper drones, armed with Hell­fire mis­siles, have be­come the weapons of choice against alQaeda op­er­a­tives in the tribal ar­eas of Pak­istan. They have also been used in Ye­men, and the de­mand for these ef­fi­cient tools of war, which tar­get en­e­mies from 10,000 feet, is likely to grow. The pace of drone attacks on the tribal ar­eas has in­creased sharply dur­ing the Obama pres­i­dency, with more as­saults in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber of this year than in all of 2008. At the same time, ef­forts to cap­ture al-Qaeda sus­pects have vir­tu­ally stopped. In­deed, if CIA op­er­a­tives were to snatch a ter­ror­ist to­mor­row, the agency wouldn't be sure where it could de­tain him for in­ter­ro­ga­tion.

Michael Hay­den, a for­mer di­rec­tor of the CIA, frames the puz­zle this way: "Have we made de­ten­tion and in­ter­ro­ga­tion so legally dif­fi­cult and po­lit­i­cally risky that our de­fault op­tion is to kill our ad­ver­saries rather than cap­ture and in­ter­ro­gate them?"

It's cu­ri­ous why the Amer­i­can pub­lic seems so com­fort­able with a tac­tic that ar­guably is a form of long-range as­sas­si­na­tion, af­ter the furor about the CIA's use of non­lethal meth­ods known as "en­hanced in­ter­ro­ga­tion." When Is­rael adopted an ap­proach of "tar­geted killing" against Ha­mas and other ter­ror­ist ad­ver­saries, it pro­voked an ex­ten­sive de­bate there and abroad.

"For rea­sons that defy logic, peo­ple are more com­fort­able with drone attacks" than with killings at close range, says Robert Gre­nier, a for­mer top CIA coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cer who now is a con­sul­tant with ERG Part­ners. "It's some­thing that seems so clean and an­ti­sep­tic, but the moral is­sues are the same."

Fir­ing a mis­sile from 10,000 feet is cer­tainly a lower risk for the at­tack­ers than an as­sault on the ground. "The U.S. is re­luc­tant to mount such cap­ture-orkill op­er­a­tions in the tribal ar­eas for the same rea­son that the Pak­ista­nis are: They fear that an elite team might be sur­rounded by hun­dreds of tribes­men," says Gre­nier.

Though the Pak­istani govern­ment pub­licly de­nounces the drone attacks, it pri­vately con­dones them. That's in part be­cause the drones pro­vide a mil­i­tary punch that the Pak­istani mil­i­tary is un­will­ing or un­able to match with con­ven­tional forces. But le­gal chal­lenges are be­gin­ning, as in a $500 mil­lion law­suit planned by a Pak­istani man who told re­porters this week that two of his relatives had been killed in a drone strike.

The re­luc­tance to chase al- Qaeda on the ground, and per­haps cap­ture its op­er­a­tives alive, also comes with an in­tel­li­gence cost.

The United States and its al­lies lose the in­for­ma­tion that could come from in­ter­ro­ga­tion, along with the cell­phones, com­put­ers and other com­mu­ni­ca­tions gear that could be seized in a suc­cess­ful raid.

One rea­son that coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions against alQaeda were so ef­fec­tive in Iraq was that they uti­lized this cy­cle of raid, cap­ture, in­ter­ro­gate, an­a­lyze, raid again.

The CIA be­gan get­ting out of the de­ten­tion busi­ness when the in­fa­mous "black sites" over­seas were closed in 2006. At that time, 14 CIA de­tainees were trans­ferred to Guan­tanamo Bay, but since then, only two more have been caught and trans­ferred there; agency of­fi­cials have been ad­vised that Guan­tanamo is closed for new busi­ness.

The only al­ter­na­tives are Ba­gram air base in Afghanistan, for al-Qaeda op­er­a­tives caught in the war zone, or de­ten­tion and trial in the United States.

Don't mis­un­der­stand me: It's not that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion's lim­its on de­ten­tion and in­ter­ro­ga­tion are wrong. They have ap­plied clear guide­lines to what had been, be­fore 2006, a murky area.

The prob­lem is that these rules, and the wari­ness of get­ting into more trou­ble, have had the per­verse ef­fect of en­cour­ag­ing the CIA to adopt a more lethal and less sup­ple pol­icy than be­fore.

U.S. and Pak­istani of­fi­cials sup­port drone attacks be­cause they don't see a good al­ter­na­tive to com­bat al-Qaeda's op­er­a­tions in the tribal ar­eas.

I don't dis­agree with that view. But this pol­icy needs a clearer foun­da­tion in law and pub­lic un­der­stand­ing than it has to­day. Oth­er­wise, when the pen­du­lum swings, the CIA of­fi­cers who ran these sup­pos­edly clan­des­tine mis­sions may be left hold­ing the bag.

So ask your­self: If you don't like the CIA tac­tics that led to the cap­ture and in­ter­ro­ga­tion of al-Qaeda op­er­a­tives, do you think it's bet­ter to va­por­ize the mil­i­tants from 10,000 feet? And if this both­ers you, what's the al­ter­na­tive?

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