Former Obama Official Defends Drone Program, Calls For More Transparency

Former DNI Dennis Blair

Former Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair (ret.) today defended the role of drones in the United States’ foreign policy toolkit, before calling for greater transparency in the programs that utilize them.

Speaking on a Council on Foreign Relations conference call with scholar Michael Zenko — who recently published a report on reforming drones’ use — Blair said that drones should be thought of as “long-range snipers, in the military sense.” Despite his support, he recognized the limitations. “I’m not as much a believer that drones are ‘wonder weapons’ as other people,” Blair made clear.

More concerning to both Zenko and Blair was the way in which the use of unmanned aerial vehicles — the technical name for drones — goes unexplained to the public and that the justification for their role in targeted killing is tightly held. That combination negatively impacts the U.S. mission in the countries it is trying to impact, Zenko argued. “Drones are the face of U.S. foreign policy” in Pakistan and Yemen, he said. “We allow the Taliban, and the Pakistani [intelligence agency], to tell the story of how our drones are being used.”

The majority of criticism of the Obama administration’s drone program from Zenko and Blair centered on the targeted killing component. On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that a new “playbook” is being developed to codify the ways in which targeted killings are decided upon and conducted:

Among the subjects covered in the playbook are the process for adding names to kill lists, the legal principles that govern when U.S. citizens can be targeted overseas and the sequence of approvals required when the CIA or U.S. military conducts drone strikes outside war zones.

U.S. officials said the effort to draft the playbook was nearly derailed late last year by disagreements among the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon on the criteria for lethal strikes and other issues. Granting the CIA a temporary exemption for its Pakistan operations was described as a compromise that allowed officials to move forward with other parts of the playbook.

While Zenko and Blair both welcomed the playbook concept in theory, they both had their reservations about the scope of the document. “A classified ‘playbook’ does not reassure the American people, who I think are the primary ones that need to be convinced that their government is doing the right thing,” said Blair. Zenko in turn called a playbook that did not cover Pakistan at all “useless,” as 85 percent of targeted killings in non-battlefield areas have taken place in Pakistan.

Asked about the split between drone programs operated by the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, Blair said that he strongly believes a great majority of the use of drones should be used by military forces. At present, the Defense Department operates armed drones openly, using them for strikes in areas such as Yemen. These strikes are included in reports to Congress under the War Powers Act, leaving a paper trail for their use.

The CIA run program in Pakistan falls under aims to be covert, with the entire program classified. This distinction, Blair said, allows Pakistan to have the best of all worlds on the program, allowing the United States to take care of shared militant threats while vehemently denouncing the United States.

What Blair’s looking for isn’t greater review of the program, though. There’s plenty of that, he said, as there are internal review methods within the Executive Branch, as well as reports to Congress from both Defense and the CIA regarding the programs. What’s needed instead is more transparency and investigation into the programs. The goal, according to Blair: “Remove not the secrecy, but the mystery of these things.” Blair’s thinking coincides with several major newspapers who are suing for greater transparency, as well as former Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson.