Re­viv­ing the drone de­bate

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

The rev­e­la­tion that two West­ern hostages died in a U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tion in Pak­istan early this year is shock­ing. It will, and should, re­vive the largely dor­mant de­bate about the drone at­tacks on Al Qaeda fig­ures and other mil­i­tants.

In the mean­time, Pres­i­dent Obama needs to be forth­com­ing — to the public, and not just to Congress in clas­si­fied brief­ings — about the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the attack on a sus­pected Al Qaeda com­pound in Jan­uary that killed War­ren We­in­stein, an Amer­i­can, and Gio­vanni Lo Porto, an Ital­ian. Both were aid work­ers.

The White House also said that Al Qaeda leader Ahmed Farouq, a U.S. cit­i­zen, was killed in the Jan­uary attack and that an­other Amer­i­can, Al Qaeda pro­pa­gan­dist Adam Gadahn, died in a sep­a­rate op­er­a­tion about the same time. Nei­ther was specif­i­cally tar­geted, the ad­min­is­tra­tion said, and their pres­ence at the sites wasn’t known about in ad­vance — an­other seem­ing in­dict­ment of U.S. in­tel­li­gence.

It’s not enough for Obama to in­voke the “fog of war” as an ex­pla­na­tion for the hostages’ deaths. With­out com­pro­mis­ing sources and meth­ods, the ad­min­is­tra­tion must ex­plain not only why this strike was nec­es­sary but why those who planned the op­er­a­tion were con­fi­dent that no hostages or other in­no­cents were at the scene. (White House Press Sec­re­tary Josh Earnest said the com­pound was sub­ject to “near-con­tin­u­ous” sur­veil­lance in the days be­fore the op­er­a­tion, and he re­ferred to un­spec­i­fied other in­tel­li­gence.)

Look­ing for­ward, the ad­min­is­tra­tion should fol­low the ad­vice of Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein (D-Calif.) and re­lease an­nual re­ports on the num­ber of deaths — both com­bat­ant and civil­ian — from U.S. strikes. Tal­lies by the New Amer­ica Foun­da­tion, based on me­dia re­ports, in­di­cate that the num­ber of drone strikes in Pak­istan have de­clined sig­nif­i­cantly to 22 last year from a high point of 122 in 2010. There also has been a wel­come decline in the num­ber of civil­ian deaths. Be­yond the tragic loss of in­no­cent life, civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in­flame anti-Amer­i­can sen­ti­ment and cre­ate sym­pa­thy for mil­i­tants.

As the ad­min­is­tra­tion pre­pares for a fur­ther draw­down of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next year, it seems determined to pre­serve the op­tion of drone strikes. If the U.S. is go­ing to wage this sort of war, it needs to be scrupu­lous in en­sur­ing that at­tacks are ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary and based on air-tight in­tel­li­gence, and that mis­takes are min­i­mized.

In of­fer­ing his apolo­gies, Obama re­ferred to “the an­guish that the We­in­stein and Lo Porto fam­i­lies are en­dur­ing to­day.” The same pain af­flicts the rel­a­tives of Pak­istani civil­ians who have died in drone strikes. For all their re­mote­ness and tech­no­log­i­cal so­phis­ti­ca­tion, armed drones are deadly weapons of war. They must be wielded care­fully.

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