The new face of a faceless global war: drones and the CIA.
Legally, the U.S. military needs the consent of the host government to wage a drone war. * The CIA doesn't. The war can be euphemized as intelligence gathering and "covert action." Nor does Yemen have to host the drones. We can fly them over the border, as in Pakistan. We already launch drone missions over Yemen from Djibouti. Now, according to reports, we're building a CIA base outside Yemen from which we can run a drone war in that country without its approval. U.S. officials are keeping the base's location secret, but the logical guess is Saudi Arabia, where the drones' intelligence-gathering network will be headquartered. Presumably, the base will support a bigger drone fleet than the Djibouti airfield, where limited runway capacity has constrained the number of drone missions.
We're also flying killer drones over Libya. But there, we're waging an open military conflict in concert with NATO. What's significant about Pakistan and Yemen is that they're off the books. We use drones instead of ground troops. We don't even send pilots who can be shot down. We put the CIA in charge of the war so we don't have to respect the laws of war. * And we build bases outside the country so we can conduct the entire operation by remote control, except for the collection of targeting intelligence, which we leave to the CIA.
To top it off, we put the former director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, in charge of the military. And we put our top general, David Petraeus, in charge of the CIA. The CIA and the drones are the team of the future. They're the new face of a faceless war.
None of this is diabolical. It's evolution. Al-Qaida, with its network of terrorist cells diffused among failed states, is an organism well-designed to evade conventional warfare. We, in turn, are evolving to fight the new threat. In a world of political chaos, waning American power, unstable allies, untrustworthy friends, and enemies who obey no rules, we're developing a new kind of war that we can wage from regional air bases with killer machines in the air fed by covert human networks on the ground. And the scary thing isn't that it might work. The scary thing is that it might not.
Clarification, June, 23, 2011: The Obama administration says that all its drone strikes respect the laws of war and that the U.S. military can legally wage a lethal drone campaign in a country without the consent of that country's government. Specifically, State Department legal adviser Harold Koh said last year that
it is the considered view of this Administration … that U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war. …
[A]s a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaida, as well as the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the horrific 9/11 attacks, and may use force consistent with its inherent right to self-defense under international law. …
[I]n this ongoing armed conflict, the United States has the authority under international law … to use force, including lethal force, to defend itself, including by targeting persons such as high-level al-Qaida leaders who are planning attacks. … [W]hether a particular individual will be targeted in a particular location will depend upon considerations specific to each case, including those related to the imminence of the threat, the sovereignty of the other states involved, and the willingness and ability of those states to suppress the threat the target poses.
On this view, when a state is unwilling or unable to deal with people within its borders who threaten the U.S., both the Department of Defense and the CIA can legally use drones or other lethal force against those people, in the name of self-defense, even without that state's consent.
(Readings I recommend: David Axe at Danger Room reports that Libya has captured a U.S. helicopter but no pilot, because the helicopter is a drone. Kenneth Anderson at the Volokh Conspiracy says the CIA is trusted to run drone wars because it's good at gathering target intelligence on the ground. Micah Zenko in the New York Daily Newsworries that CIA control of wars will evade congressional oversight. Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast warns that "If the CIA, based on its own intelligence, can launch a war or wars with weapons that can incur no US fatalities," we could end up " permanently at war." Charli Carpenter and Lina Shaikhouni in Foreign Policy argue that the drones and CIA control are tangential to a more central question: " the summary execution of suspected criminals without evidence or trial, in complete secrecy." Robert Chesney at Lawfare replies that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan don't violate the U.N. Charter because they target an area where " the writ of the Pakistani government does not run.")
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Leon Panetta and Gen. David Petraeus by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.