WASHINGTON — President Obama took pains to place the new restrictions on targeted killings he announced Thursday into the context of a broad reappraisal of the nation’s anti-terrorism effort.
Drones are not “a cure-all for terrorism,” he said in his speech at the National Defense University. They are not always “wise or moral,” he said. “All wars must end.”
But a large measure of expediency helped push those principles along, former U.S. officials and analysts say.
The five-year surge in missile strikes that Obama authorized after inheriting the program from President George W. Bush already has accomplished most of what it could, the analysts say.
“We’re running out of viable targets,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former CIA assistant director for analysis. “To just keep slinging drones for the sake of slinging drones becomes counterproductive.”
At the same time, the political and international backlash against drones has grown. And many experts believe drone attacks have become a recruiting magnet for new terrorists.
The drone program “has long been a declining asset,” said historian Matthew Aid, whose 2012 book, “Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror,” looked deeply at drone operations. “Lately, it’s been mostly killing small fry. And the national security establishment has started to turn against it.”
By the time Obama made his announcement of more restrictive, targeting rules for drone strikes, the pace of such attacks had already declined sharply. So far this year, 13 attacks have taken place in Pakistan, just a little more than two per month, on average, down from a peak of nearly 10 a month in 2010, according to the Long War Journal, a website that tracks drone strikes using media reports. The site reports 10 strikes so far this year in Yemen, where 42 took place last year. Strikes in Somalia have always been infrequent.
To be sure, few national security officials believe the drone program should be shelved entirely, which is why Obama’s speech included a vigorous defense of it.
Drone strikes have killed “dozens of highly skilled Al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives,” he said. “Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.”
But what had been a loosely coordinated program run mainly by the CIA — the standards for which had already been tightened in the last year — now will evolve into a different sort of enterprise, officials said, one subject to more review across the government and controlled mainly by the military.
Obama left it to aides to address the details, and the targeting changes hinge on subtleties of language. Where once the U.S. would mount a drone operation against someone who posed “a significant threat,” now the standard is a “continuing and imminent threat.”
And while a threat to “U.S. interests” formerly sufficed to justify a strike, now the threat must be to “U.S. persons.”
The rules still give the president plenty of leeway.
The Obama administration’s definition of “imminent,” for example, is not the one found in Webster’s. A Justice Department white paper relating to the targeting of U.S. citizens said an imminent threat does not require “clear evidence that a specific attack … will take place in the immediate future.”
Although the new guidelines still give the administration considerable flexibility, external pressure increasingly has been constraining the drone program.
Congress, which had supported the strikes for years, has been holding hearings in recent months questioning their legal underpinnings. In April, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard moving testimony from a Yemeni journalist, Farea al-Muslimi, who spoke of a drone-fired missile that hit his village and killed a local extremist whom he believed could have been captured easily.
Other countries that cooperate with the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have long quietly disagreed with the Obama administration’s legal justification for many of the strikes. But now the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, is investigating whether some of the attacks amounted to war crimes.
And concern has been expressed by notable U.S. figures, including former Gen. Stanley McChrystal and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, that the program’s strategic value was waning. Its success in killing mid-level terrorists is now outweighed by the hatred it evokes in Muslim countries, they and others say.
“The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates,” McChrystal said in January. “They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
“You can’t fight terrorism by trying to kill everybody, and you can’t fight terrorism on your own,” said Richard Barrett, a former United Nations coordinator on counter-terrorism. “You need moral standing and international credibility, and I think drones work against that.”