Unaccountable Power: Drone Warfare Under the Obama Administration

Senate Chambers Minneapolis Minnesota State Capitol Capital Building.
Senate Chambers Minneapolis Minnesota State Capitol Capital Building.

On April 1, at the University of Pennsylvania, C.I.A. Director John Brennan made this statement:

I know there are a lot of reports about hundreds upon thousands of innocents who have been killed as a result of these strikes...I can tell you with great confidence that those are exceptionally exaggerated reports... the number of civilians killed relative to the number of terrorists killed is a very small portion.


For many months, there has been a steady stream of national newspaper reports about manned and unmanned American airstrikes against "militants" in a growing number of countries outside the established war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria. But little or no information on collateral damage.

In early March, the attacks on Somali training camps were among the largest in a string that have claimed some of the Shabab's's top leaders in recent years, according to the Pentagon.

In late March, the U.S. killed "dozens" when targeting an Al Qaeda in Yemen camp -- "consistent with international law" per the Pentagon spokesman. It was claimed that the "kill" hindered planned attacks against "U.S. persons" -- the same language being used to describe the current airstrikes on an ISIS camp in eastern Libya.

At War, Anywhere, Anytime?

Is the U.S. at war with the Shabab, or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)? This rather important question was spotlighted by Charlie Savage in the New York Times of March 15: "Is the U.S. Now at War With the Shabab? Not Exactly."

The continuing hits on human targets across a wide geographical band of countries, east to west, point to an under-appreciated fact about post-9/11 life: We can wake up on a given morning and discover that America is already at war with yet another Islamist group in yet another part of the world -- based not on Congressional deliberation but on an executive branch decision that such a group is an associated force of Al Qaeda or ISIS.

The Absence of Checks and Balances

A striking parallel fact is that very few in Congress seem to care enough to publicly object or raise questions, including the chairmen and ranking minority members of the armed services and foreign relations and intelligence committees -- in both the Senate and the House.

They are all reconciled to -- if not entirely comfortable with -- clandestine war fought by the United States in quite a few countries across the globe from Pakistan to Yemen to Libya -- to Cameroon? -- from South Asia to the Middle East to North Africa.

War-making is one area where there are few complaints about President Obama acting upon a very broad interpretation of executive authority that at times stretches the law and the Constitution beyond recognition.

Beyond the Reach of the Law

The 15-year-old Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the sponsors of the September 11, 2001, terrorist assault upon the U.S. is cited by the Administration as covering the attacks on the Shabab in Somalia and ISIS in Libya -- a long way from Afghanistan.

Obviously, these official explanations and rationalizations can be used to "boot strap" any executive deployment of Special Forces military advisers, or C.I.A. paramilitary personnel, into legalistic authority for a direct combat role.

In the global war on terrorism, the checks and balances on power written into the Constitution have long since given way to a unitary form of government under which several hundred civilian and military bureaucrats -- at the National Security Council, and in the C.I.A., Defense, State and Justice departments -- decide on the use of military force by the United States. (See the perspective-altering book by Michael J. Glennon, National Security and Double Government, Oxford University Press, 2015.)

Commander-in-Chief Brennan

For example, President Obama has delegated grave signature strike decisions -- using Hellfire missiles over a large swath of territory -- to director John Brennan at the C.I.A., who sets the stage for "eyes in the sky" drone attacks in Pakistan -- that, incidentally, resulted in the killing of Western hostages in early 2015. Ditto: Yemen.

It came across as pious arrogance when the President told a news conference last week (April 1, Reuters) that there had been "legitimate criticism" of the legal framework for the drone strikes, generally, and there was "no doubt that civilians were killed that shouldn't have been." President Obama often covers for Brennan, and grants absolution.

Faux Oversight

Note the ostrich-like vision of Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who tried to bury and coverup the Senate "torture report" of 2014:

I believe we do an incredibly effective oversight job on all of the C.I.A.'s programs. And there is no program that receives the level of oversight as the ones we carry out in Pakistan.

(McClatchy, April 29, 2015) Burr recently claimed:

The majority of every day is consumed in reading the overnight intel reports (and) meeting with foreign leaders - from presidents to chiefs of their intelligence community,

(Tim Funk, "Burr's Washington Profile on Rise as Chairman of Senate Panel That Focuses on Terrorism," Charlotte Observer, February 20, 2016.)

Who is the overseer, and the oversee-e?


We should not abandon the chase to run down and kill Islamic State "headchoppers," and other radical Islamic extremists. But it must still matter under what authority -- where and when, and against whom -- our government goes about making war outside of the major war zones.

Intelligence reports -- and prayer -- are simply not enough in the closed world of the national security state. Congress, do your job!