America’s Troubled Drone Policy: Let the Debate Finally Begin

For John Kael Weston and other men on the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan drone strikes raise many uncomfortable questions. He writes on why we need clearer policy and guidelines for these silent killers.

“Remember the bad guys we killed with the Predator after the Taghaz bombing?”

My Marine friend’s call came late one night in mid-2011 from Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania (home to the U.S. Army’s War College) while I was in Leadville, Colorado. He wanted to vent about drones and our nation’s kill strategy from the sky. An incident two years earlier in a remote stretch of yellow desert in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province stuck with him, gnawing at his conscience.

This war-hardened Marine infantry officer could not shake the image of watching a “guilty” man die, as cameras thousands of feet above beamed live streaming video footage to Camp Leatherneck’s command center. The feed showed how the missile severed both legs of one of the men, who then tried to drag and conceal what was left of himself into the new crater that became his grave. Marines watched from half-a-province away as the man bled to death, nowhere to hide. Those in the White House and Pentagon would be pleased: another kill added to the long list. This time a bullseye from a distance made clean, easy, and effective.

“Let’s talk about it,” I replied. If anyone wanted revenge, we did.

The bad guys, after all, were linked (but not indisputably) to a suicide bomber who blew up two Marines and a Navy Corpsman in a market the day after a Marine commanding general and I had visited them. We shook their hands as they began a new mission at the edge of America’s military empire, overstretched and unforgiving to frontline troops on third tours.

We spent the next couple of hours on the phone, the first of many conversations about drone warfare—its legal complexities, moral dimensions, and our firsthand experiences.


In Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, where I served as a State Department political adviser to a 20,000-strong Marine Expeditionary Brigade, I got used to being briefed frequently on the deadly variety of drone missions. Some succeeded as planned; others did not.

SEAL and DELTA Teams usually received top priority in their hunts for “jackpot” targets and dedicated air surveillance assets. Rarely were missions that resulted in unplanned outcomes—called “dryholes” in frontline lingo—briefed in any detail to us. They should have been. We don’t always get the bad guys in the zero-dark hours after midnight, when civilians die at our hands. This side of the National Security Staff inbox warrants just as much scrutiny as the “HVT” (high-value target) categories.

An Afghan I first met in Khost Province told me recently, “Only few drones get success among the dozens because of either the false time or wrong report.” He believes they should continue to operate but be conducted more carefully, with better intelligence and Afghan leaders helping to frame the issue.

My Marine friend later wrote to me, noting that “innocents are killed on battlefields – always have been and unfortunately always will be – what I am saying about what bothers me goes back to the effect killing has on your psychology, the psychological damage that occurs, damage that can be made worse when killing innocents.”

Despite the effects of PTSD on drone operators stationed in the Nevada desert, the toll remains far greater among Pashtun parents and children. As a former U.S. Government official, I paid blood money (termed “condolence payments” in Pentagon and State Department prose) to families who lost brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters in operations of ours that went wrong. We usually handed over a maximum of $5,000 American dollars per death in Iraq or Afghanistan. It was never easy. And I never knew exactly how Washington priced out their lives.

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Now with our nation’s longest war ending, “kill lists” and bureaucratic memos make an already distant war even more remote—and antiseptic. It is a deceptive picture that obscures the truth. Under both the Bush and Obama Administrations, a slippery slope of self-justifications has become too commonplace. Republican and Democratic in-house lawyers have issued Executive Branch orders in convenient but questionable and euphemistic legalese. Enhanced interrogation techniques. Extraordinary rendition. Enemy combatants. Black sites. Imminent. And so on. Words to confuse the conscience.

It is this gray area that troubles my Marine friend and me. His late-night call extended into an ongoing wider discussion about the courses he is taking at the Army War College. It is there he and classmates study the history and practice of warfare—how Americans fought in the past, present, and how we’re planning to fight into the future. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans like him have seen how detached policy has become from the human costs on the ground. As have I. Memos in Washington do not translate well in places like Helmand. (They didn’t in Iraq, either.)

While we both did not believe the man cut in two by our drone deserved a tactical reprieve or “due process” review on the battlefield, watching men die warps the soul. Intelligence that drives our decisions is never complete, and in his words, “our drone hammer makes everyone look like that nail that needs to be flattened.”

The Marine officer went on to emphasize in a follow-on email, “There is a gap in the system that ensures we are really killing bad guys and not innocents, which of course leads to the fact that hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in World War II on purpose by our government, which then leads to what is the value of human life – one versus ten, us versus them?”

From Washington, drones appear to be an attractive, or possibly cheaper, alternative compared to another war or extending our nation’s longest, in Afghanistan, beyond 2014, the date President Obama has promised to end it. White House spokesman Jay Carney declared this way of warfare as preferable to massed invasions of villages, thereby lessening needless deaths in faraway battlefields.

Having survived Fallujah, Khost, Sadr City, and Helmand myself—plenty of American and Iraqi and Afghan friends did not—I understand Mr. Carney’s logic. Many of us are indeed war-weary and war-wary, especially everyone who served “over there” again and again.

But this quiet war of stealth in the skies above only became a public topic of discussion because of a leaked memo outlining when an American commander in chief can “legally” kill an American citizen and because of ++John Brennan’s nomination to CIA director++[]. Why did it take a leak to get the debate going? What we need is a deeper examination of the pros and cons. Terrorists have been killed, as they should be when we locate them. But so have civilians, more than a few. The overriding question, however, remains: when can U.S. leaders make lethal determinations about citizens outside established due process or legal proceedings?

This overdue debate should be welcomed by Americans. As Oregon Senator Ron Wyden tweeted, “Every American has the right to know when their government believes that it is allowed to kill them.” Achieving the proper balance between rights and security requires active, ongoing discussion, not more secret memos passed between administration lawyers. General Stanley McChrystal has expressed skepticism about drones. In a recent Reuters interview he remarked: "What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world. The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes ... is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one."

Brennan, in contrast, has voiced full-throated support, while current and incoming defense secretaries, Mr. Panetta and Mr. Hagel, have offered vague statements. Secretary of State John Kerry has yet to go on the record in a substantive way.

President Obama’s decision to release information to relevant Congressional oversight committees outlining his team’s legal reasoning—why and when a U.S. citizen might be targeted—should help initiate broad dialogue. Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s “dark side” logic still begs for a small-d democratic airing and key senators seem ready, at last, to ask the hard questions. That is Congress’s crucial balance-of-power role in our democracy.


My Marine friend said neither man killed by our Predator strike that night in Helmand proved to be the intended target. He added, “but they both were bad . . . loaded with weapons, grenades, etc.”

He sounded almost convinced.

Are we?