US at crossroads on drone ops

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Story highlights

  • Presidential policy guidance on drone use was released into public domain this month
  • Luke Hartig: It's time for the President to think about how we want to wage drone operations going forward

Luke Hartig is a fellow at New America and executive director of the Network Science Initiative at National Journal. From 2010-2016, he served in counterterrorism policy positions at the White House and the Department of Defense, most recently serving as senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)While much of the debate over America's security policy during this presidential campaign has centered on the response to specific attacks -- Brussels, Orlando, Nice -- a remarkable thing happened earlier this month. Quietly, without much attention, the Obama administration released an important policy document into the public domain, one that has previously been classified at the highest levels, but which was released with surprisingly few redactions.

It's probably not surprising that the document didn't generate many headlines. Released under pressure from litigation, the Presidential Policy Guidance "Procedures for Approving Direct Action Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities" is a bureaucratic sounding paper.
    But the content of the document -- otherwise known as the PPG, provides the first comprehensive articulation of one of the United States' most controversial policies: the use of drones.
    Luke Hartig
    The PPG has been driving US policy since 2013. In May of that year, President Barack Obama gave an ambitious speech in which he used the PPG to help make the case for an effective, just and legitimate framework for conducting drone strikes and capture operations against terrorist threats. The PPG lays out Obama's rigorous standards regarding the prevention of civilian casualties and only striking those who pose an imminent threat to Americans. It also offers pages of meticulously detailed prescriptions for the bureaucratic, legal and operational process for the use of force -- including which specific senior officials from across the government review proposals to capture or kill terrorists and what factors they are to consider.
    It is difficult to overstate the importance of the PPG, both for its high standards and its rigorous approach to reviewing operations.
    I joined the White House's National Security Council staff two weeks before President Obama approved the PPG, and I coordinated implementation of the policy in Yemen and then globally during my three years at the White House.
    The President had aggressively targeted al Qaeda, and the United States was increasing the number of drone strikes. But Obama brings a strong sense of morality and interest in the long game in foreign policy, and so was perhaps the ideal president to lead the administration's effort to set a governing framework for operations outside traditional war zones.
    But three years on, we are at a natural crossroads. It is therefore time for the President to think about how we want to wage drone operations going forward.
    For a start, this should entail an immediate review of the PPG with the goal of streamlining and shortening the approval process for lethal action. This is necessary because the threat from extremists is perhaps worse today than when this document was drawn up. When the PPG was written, ISIS didn't exist in its current form. Now the group has established eight branches. And despite suffering leadership losses, al Qaeda remains a potent threat as well. Meanwhile, the Edward Snowden disclosures (made shortly after the release of the PPG) and encrypted communications technologies have complicated US government efforts to detect and disrupt attacks before they take place.
    We know from 15 years of targeting terrorists that success depends on aggressive network-based approaches that rapidly remove leaders and their successors. This, in turn, calls for even more expeditious approval of targeting proposals. The next President should therefore delegate full authority to his or her secretary of defense to approve drone strikes against terrorists, rather than subjecting such proposals to review by senior officials across the government. Our counterterrorism professionals have deeply ingrained the PPG's high standards into their practices and culture such that we can streamline the approval process without compromising standards.
    Second, the next President should double down on transparency, both in discussing the results of operations and the legal and policy framework. The recent move to acknowledge specific strikes in Yemen, along with Libya and Somalia, and to release aggregate statistics on US strikes since 2009 are steps in the right direction. But much more needs to be done to allow for greater dialogue on specific strikes and to further the legitimacy of these operations. And this can only occur if the next President commits to working through the legal and policy complexities that make additional transparency so difficult.
    Finally, the next President should commit to robust, formal dialogue with outside critics. The US government's relationship with the media and human rights groups on drone strikes is fraught, with critics lambasting the continued lack of transparency and questioning the underlying legal framework. Many counterterrorism professionals, for their part, are wary of scrutiny from outside critics, most of whom have no experience with the program and are perceived as quick to cite shortcomings but rarely laud success.
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    One way to begin bridging this gap would be to implement the recommendation from a 2014 bipartisan drone task force to establish an independent commission to oversee drone policy. Such a committee -- properly staffed with experts from the human rights, military, intelligence, and legal and policy communities -- could increase the diversity of views provided to the President and just as importantly, create a mechanism for greater mutual understanding among the various communities involved in US drone policy.
    As the recent attacks have shown, we're a long way away from defeating ISIS and al Qaeda, and the next President will need to consider a full range of options for addressing terrorist threats. Taking clear steps to improve the effectiveness, transparency and legitimacy of our drone operations ought to be at the top of that list.