18 January 2010

Why Is The CIA Running Armed Drones?

A recent news report stated that the Central Intelligence Agency had killed about 1,000 people with armed drone attacks, about a third of them civilians. This statement raises multiple questions.

Is the targeting of named individuals for pre-emptive strikes in what amount to assassinations a valid form of warfare? How much coordination of these strikes has there been with local allies? Is it appropriate to make war in a way that kills so many people who are guilty solely by association, with many victims being children of the intended targets?

My question for today is, "why is the CIA in the business of waging war, rather than providing intelligence?" The CIA's primary job is to gather information. "Covert ops" which involve killing or orchestrating military action by others, however, has rarely turned out well when conducted by the CIA. Bay of Pigs anyone?

We have a Department of Defense to wage wars. Military services have the same armed drones that the CIA is using. Military services have soldiers trained to operate in small groups on the front lines. The military has a well developed process to decide how and when to try to kill people in the course of waging war, and it has a system for holding people accountable for their actions. The military system isn't perfect, or even great, but fighting small wars is one of the things that it trains to do and is designed to do. The "covert operations" concept of the CIA is designed with isolated operations in mind, not sustained military campaigns that are at the core of military operations that the military services have tens of thousands of soldiers deployed to fight.

Putting the business of killing large numbers of people associated with an opposition force in a place where we have soldiers actively deployed and military engagement are taking places with military forces is normally not the duty of the CIA. The fact that the CIA has been taking such a leading role in conducting such killings suggests that it is doing so in order to circumvent restrictions on the conduct of operations or create accountability, were they conducted by the military. Air Force rules on authorizing and striking targets don't apply to CIA strikes.

In the military, there is a direct chain of command all the way up to the Joint Chiefs (the top military officers), the Secretary of Defense, and ultimately, the President. Everyone from the joint chiefs on down in the use of force decision making chain is a soldier. The chain of command in the CIA is less absolute. The people in charge of fighting the more public side of the war don't have to be kept in the loop at all, although they may sometimes be consulted. The degree to which lines of authority are direct and involve the ability to expect full information from one's subordinates and receive full obedience from one's superiors, is diminished. CIA agents are ultimately civil servants, not soldiers. Also, relative to the miltiary, CIA operations are particularly insulated from Congress.

It is hard to find a legitimate reason, other than simply that a small operation has rapidly grown in scale without being transferred to the military, for the CIA to be conducting this scale of missile attacks. And, the fact that the armed drones and missiles used to conduct the attacks had to be procured in the numbers that are involved, suggests more premeditation than the "it just got out of hand" justification can bear.

Why care? Isn't it just terrorists being killed anyway?

Because the war on terrorism that is being fought won't be won with body counts alone. Indeed, our military leaders on the ground refused to make body counts a criteria for success. The United States and its allies need to be able to assume a mantle of legitimacy to prevent a never ending renewal of violent attacks from new and ever mutating opponents.

A war fought without political accountability and some measure of transparancy undermine the soft power that the United States needs to keep the cooperation it needs from key allies. We already have Italy prosecuting CIA agents and convicting them in absentia. CIA rendition and secret prison operations in Europe threatend to bring down governments there. If Afghanistan and Pakistan's civilian governments either sully their reputations with their own people, through complicity with a CIA run war, or refuse to cooperate with us to avoid that appearance, the U.S. has created a terrorist safe haven.

We need to be able to proclaim our victories, and to be able to identify those who give up their lives or suffer injury fighting for our cause. We need to be able to secure public support for the strategies we take. We need to be conscious of the fact that war is politics by other means with many unintended consequences. We need to show the American people that we trust our military officers to fight a war without having to work around them in some of the most important parts of that effort.

I am not an anti-war activist. As President Obama explained in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, there is such a thing as just and necessary military action. I also recognize the need for our foreign affairs and military actions to be guided by intelligence, including "human intelligence" (i.e. people acting as confidential sources). But, increasingly our current intelligence bureaucracy is doing harm as often as it is doing good. Rather than bulk up the resources of less accountable independent intelligence agencies with a mandate to conduct all sorts of activities, as much as possible, intelligence, covert operations and analysis functions should be regularized in the Department of Defense and Department of State, leaving outside those agencies only what cannot be done any other way.

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