Drone dependency

A piece by David Ignatius from the Washington Post

A drone debate, of sorts, took place behind the scenes in preparation for a speech last Friday by John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser. He argued that U.S. legal authority to use force against al-Qaeda wasn’t “restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan” but could be expanded to other theaters “without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time.”

On the eve of Brennan’s speech, the New York Times reported a split within the Obama administration. The Pentagon’s general counsel, Jeh Johnson, was said to have urged broad targeting against groups anywhere that are aligned with al-Qaeda, while the State Department’s legal adviser ,Harold Koh, reportedly recommended a more limited rule that, outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, would authorize targeting only individuals actually plotting to strike America.

These disagreements were resolved by Brennan’s speech, which took a hard-line view. Brennan conceded that some key allies, though “converging” toward U.S. legal arguments, “take a different view of the geographic scope of the conflict, limiting it only to the ‘hot’ battlefields.”

Here’s the real question, according to current and former officials: As the United States steps up Predator attacks over Yemen and Somalia, should it adopt the same “signature” targeting it uses over Pakistan? Under this approach, the drones can strike al-Qaeda training camps and fighters not on the list of specific targets compiled by the CIA. The signature approach is more aggressive, but it risks creating what terrorism analyst David Kilcullen calls “accidental guerrillas” — and thereby widening the war.

To understand the debate, some background is useful. The CIA’s legal authority (it conducts attacks over Pakistan and will probably have similar responsibility in Yemen and Somalia) dates to a lethal covert-action “finding” signed days after Sept. 11, 2001. The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center compiles a list of approved targets, usually numbering less than several dozen, based on intelligence that they pose a serious, continuing threat to the United States. That list is reviewed every six months, and names come on and off.

Legal review is done by the CIA’s general counsel, who in turn consults with the White House counsel. Signature targeting was added in 2008, using the same 2001 presidential finding, which was renewed by President Obama in 2009. The rules call for notifying the National Security Council (including the attorney general) if a U.S. person is a target. Such a broader review apparently took place when Anwar al-Aulaqi, a U.S. citizen in Yemen who is a seniorofficial in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was added.

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