Last week John Bellinger, the lawyer who drafted the legal framework for drone strikes under George W. Bush, accused the Obama administration of overusing drone strikes because of a reluctance to capture suspected terrorists.
The evidence for the statement is obvious: shortly after Obama took office, the CIA ostensibly shut down its network of secret interrogation centers (i.e. black sites), the president promised to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp , and the U.S. ramped up drone strikes.
The shift to drones was made for legal and political reasons — as opposed to the significant moral and legal concerns that torture brought — and is even more ruthless than indefinite detention.
New York Times author Mark Mazzetti, author of the book “ The Way of the Knife ," wrote that a May 2004 report by CIA inspector general John Helgerson was " perhaps the single most important reason for the C.I.A.’s shift from capturing to killing terrorism suspects."
Helgerson's report raised questions about the legality of CIA torture tactics and suggested that CIA officers might face criminal prosecution for the interrogations carried out in the secret prisons. So the Agency shifted its strategy.
Between 2004 and now, in Pakistan alone there have been 368 CIA drone strikes that have killed a total of 2,541 to 3,533 people, including hundreds of civilians, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
"The outcry over extraordinary rendition — which was how President Bush went about capturing and interrogating a lot of these suspected individuals — was incredibly unpopular … abroad [and] in the U.S.," Foust said. "Frankly, killing people polls better, and it polls strongly across the aisle."
A recent poll indicates that 54% of Americans believe Gitmo should stay open while 27% percent believe it should be shut down. Meanwhile 83% of Americans approve of the Obama Administration's use of drones against suspected terrorists .
In the words of Bellinger: "This administration has decided they don't want to do detention, because the Bush administration got into trouble with detention, so now they're just going to kill people."
Foust explained that capturing targets had become a "political black hole of what to do with detainees," after the shuttering of black sites left no standard process for arrests and extradition in hot spots such as Yemen and Pakistan.
"That poses a lot of really big challenges to doing this in an up front, legal way," Foust said. "It doesn't mean it's impossible, just that it would take a lot of work to put that into place ... You end up creating this ecosystem where killing is easier, more politically palatable, and more popular than capture."
But there are clear downsides to targeting military-age males in drone strikes.
Bellinger noted that "drone strikes are causing us great damage in the world."
Recently U.S.-educated Yemeni journalist Farea al-Muslimi told the Senate how people from his village now think of America: "[W]hen they think of Americans they think of the terror they feel from the drones overhead that hover, ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants have previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger towards America in Wessab."
The biggest problem going forward, according to Foust, is that the aggressiveness of the targeted killing program against al-Qaeda invites overuse.
The U.S. justification for drone strikes in non-battlefield countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are questionable, and expansion to al-Qaeda affiliates in Mali, Syria, and Iraq would be difficult to defend.
"It's a slippery slope of essentially taking anyone who is attempting to brand themselves with the terror brand [i.e.al-Qaeda] and labeling them a threat to the U.S., which then opens up this whole menu of options that includes drone strikes," Foust said. "That's the kind of slippery slope policy making that concerns me."
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