21 October 2009
Jane Mayer on Predator Drones and Pakistan
The New Yorker
In this week’s issue of the magazine, Jane Mayer writes about the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of drones to kill terrorist suspects in Pakistan—a program that the Obama Adminstration is relying upon more and more. (Subscribers can access the entire article; everyone else can buy access to this issue online.) Mayer spoke about the costs of a remote-controlled war, the C.I.A.’s lack of transparency, and the Pakistan’s complicated response.
How has the use of Predator drones by the United States changed the situation in Pakistan?
Well, there’s good news and bad news. According to the C.I.A., they’ve killed more than half of the twenty most wanted Al Qaeda terrorist suspects. The bad news is that they’ve inflamed anti-American sentiment, because they’ve also killed hundreds of civilians.
And how is it different than other uses of American force?
It’s not coming from the military. It’s a covert program run by the C.I.A. People know about Predator drones, but not that there are two programs. The U.S.-military program is an extension of conventional military force. The C.I.A. runs a secret targeted-killing program, which really is an unprecedented use of lethal force in places where we are not at war, such as Pakistan. It’s a whole new frontier in the use of force.
John Radsen, a former lawyer for the C.I.A., told me that [the C.I.A.] “doesn’t have much experience with killing. Traditionally, the agency that does that is the Department of Defense.” You’ve got a civilian agency involved in targeted killing behind a black curtain, where the rules of the game are unclear, to the rest of the world and also to us. We don’t know, for instance, who is on the target list. How do you get on the list? Can you get off the list? Who makes the list? What are the criteria? Where is the battlefield? Where does the battlefield end?
It originally seemed simple, because in the beginning it seemed like they would just go after Al Qaeda, but the target list has been growing, particularly in Pakistan.
How do these targeted killings not violate the U.S. ban on assassinations?
After 9/11, the Bush Administration declared that terrorism was no longer a crime; it was an extension of war. Soldiers are privileged to kill enemy combatants in a war, and America is legally allowed to defend itself. And these targeted killings became an extension of the global war on terror.
How long has there been drone activity in Pakistan? Is it new?
Toward the end of the Bush Administration, the drone program in Pakistan ramped up, but when Obama became President, he accelerated it even faster. It’s surprising, but the Obama Administration has carried out as many unmanned drone strikes in its first ten months as the Bush Administration did in its final three years. It’s the favorite weapon of choice right now against Al Qaeda, and for good reason: It’s been effective in killing a lot of people the U.S. wants to see dead.
What does Pakistan think of the drones?
Originally, the Pakistani people’s reaction to the U.S. drone strikes in their country was incredibly negative. Pakistanis rose up and complained that the program violated their sovereignty. So, to obtain Pakistani support—or at least the support of the Zardari government—the Obama Administration quietly decided last March to allow the Pakistani government to nominate some of its own targets. The U.S. has been and is involved in killing not just Al Qaeda figures, but Pakistani targets—people like Taliban leader Beitullah Mehsud who are enemies of the Pakistani state.
Are there any safeguards that prevent the U.S. from carrying out political vendettas for top Pakistani officials?
Well, the problem with this program is that it’s invisible; I would guess there must be all kinds of legal safeguards, and lawyers at the C.I.A. are discussing who we can kill and who we can’t, but none of that is available to the American people. It’s quite a contrast with the armed forces, because the use of lethal force in the military is a transparent process. There are after-action reports, and there’s a very obvious chain of command. We know where the responsibility runs, straight on up to the top of the government. This system keeps checks on abuses of power. There is no such transparency at the C.I.A.
How does the continued collateral damage from Predator drones square with General Stanley McChrystal’s order to the military to lay off the air strikes in Afghanistan and avoid civilian deaths?
Well, you could argue it either way. There is less collateral damage from a drone strike than there is from an F-16. According to intelligence officials, drones are more surgical in the way they kill—they usually use Hellfire missiles and do less damage than a fighter jet might.
At the same time, the fact that they kill civilians at all raises the same problem that McChrystal is trying to combat, which is that they incite people on the ground against the United States. When you’re trying to win a battle of hearts and minds, trying to win over civilian populations against terrorists, it can be counterproductive. That’s why [the former Petraeus adviser and counterinsurgency theorist] David Kilcullen wrote, “Every one of these dead non-combatants represents an alienated family, a new revenge feud, and more recruits for a militant movement.”
Are people in Pakistan scared to move around because of the drones?
According to some recent studies, terrorists are scampering around only at night and accusing each other of being spies and informing on one another. So it’s had the desired effect in unravelling terror cells.
If the C.I.A. doesn’t have experience killing people, who is piloting the drones?
It doesn’t take as much talent or experience or training to pilot a drone as it does to pilot a real plane. The skills are much like what you need to do well in a video game. And the C.I.A. has outsourced a lot of the drone piloting, which also raises interesting legal questions, because you not have only civilians running this program, but you may have people who are not even in the U.S. government piloting the drones.
You mention in your piece that drone pilots, who work from an office, suffer from combat stress.
Someone sitting at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia, can view and home in on a target on the other side of the world with tremendous precision, even at night, and destroy it. Peter Singer, who wrote a book on robotic warfare, said that cubicle warriors experience the same stress as regular warriors in a real war. Detached killing still takes a tremendous emotional toll inside our borders.
Why do you think the Obama Administration chose to rely more on drones?
Basically because they can. It’s sort of the least bad option. They can’t get into the tribal areas of Pakistan where a lot of Al Qaeda suspects are thought to be hiding, but they can see them with these drones. So it’s the only way they can get at them.
But there are all kinds of unintended consequences. For one thing, these missile strikes could scatter Al Qaeda, and cells could move to other parts of Pakistan, maybe down toward Karachi, where the population is denser. There have been reports of people already starting to move there.
Also, if the United States can legally kill people from the sky in a country that we’re not at war with, other countries will argue they can do the same thing. And the people using those joysticks in Langley and the deserts of Nevada could now be considered under international law to be engaged in warfare, which means they can legally be retaliated against. It’s a new horizon.
What would the outlines of a more transparent drone program look like?
Michael Walzer, the political philosopher, has noted that when the United States goes about killing people, we usually know who they can kill and where the battlefield is. International lawyers are calling for a public revelation of who is on this list, where can we go after them, and how many people can we take out with them. They want to know the legal, ethical, and political boundaries of the program.