Washington, D.C. — As night fell on what had been a scorching August day in Hadhramaut, Yemen, in 2012, four large explosions shattered the quiet. When the smoke cleared a few minutes later, Sheik Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a respected and openly anti-extremist cleric, his cousin, a young local police officer named Waleed Abdullah bin Ali Jaber, and three other men, who have been identified in news reports as likely extremists, lay dead — reportedly by an American drone strike.
Late last year I met Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni civil engineer, and came face to face with the very real consequences of drone warfare. Faisal's brother-in-law Salem Jaber and nephew Waleed Jaber were two of the five people killed in the strike. Neither had any terrorist ties. It appears they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Faisal's journey to the United States Capitol was a remarkable pilgrimage to share his family's anguish and to remind us of the human toll of the drone campaign that has been a feature of the war on Al Qaeda since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In a fight against a hidden enemy who operates in lawless safe havens, drones offer many obvious advantages and have taken many dangerous adversaries off the battlefield. But the idea that warfare can be precise, distant or sterile is also dangerous. It can easily blind us to the human cost of those inadvertently killed. And it can cause us to lose sight of the strategic imperative that we not multiply our enemies by causing the inadvertent loss of innocent lives.
There was precious little I could say to Faisal. What I did tell him was that, unlike the terrorists we target, America places a high value on the lives of innocent civilians. I also told him that our personnel make extraordinary efforts to ensure that civilians will not be killed or harmed by any strike. But I could not say whether anyone from the United States government would ever be able to tell him just what had happened, or why.
It has been widely reported that the C.I.A. has been responsible for unmanned drone attacks. Last May, President Obama spoke at the National Defense University to articulate the legal and policy basis of the government's drone program, promising transparency and reform. But the single biggest reform — ensuring that only the Department of Defense carries out lethal strikes — remains stalled by Congressional opposition and bureaucratic inertia.
Those roadblocks must no longer stand in the way of reforms to increase the transparency, accountability and legitimacy of our drone program.
First, Congress needs to get out of the way and allow the president to move the drone program to the Joint Special Operations Command (J.S.O.C.) at the Pentagon. Though it may appear that we'd just be shuffling the chairs, this change would have two benefits: It would allow our other agencies to focus on their core mission of intelligence gathering, rather than paramilitary activities, and it would enable us to be more public about the successes and failures of the drone program, since such operations would no longer be covert.
Some Republicans and Democrats on both the House and Senate intelligence committees argue that the J.S.O.C. lacks expertise in targeting and may cause more collateral damage. But these claims are more anecdotal than evidentiary, and the intelligence committees have yet to be presented with the facts to back them up. They also ignore the joint role that Defense Department and intelligence agency personnel play in identifying and locating targets. These combined efforts would continue, even if the agency pulling the trigger changed.
Second, we must hold ourselves accountable by being more open about the effect of our drone strikes. While there may still be a need for covert drone operations in some parts of the world, greater disclosure would be in our interest. In the absence of official accounts, inflated and often wildly inaccurate assertions of the number of civilian casualties — generally advanced by our enemies — fill the informational vacuum. I've proposed legislation, along with my fellow California Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, to require an annual report of the number of civilian and combatant casualties caused by drone strikes, including an explanation of how we define those terms.
Finally, with regard to the uniquely difficult situation of an American citizen who has taken up arms against his own nation and who cannot feasibly be arrested, the Obama administration must go further to explain what protections are in place to ensure due process for any American who may be targeted. A 2011 strike targeted and killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric and top operative of Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen, and other Americans may be targeted in the future. I've put forward a proposal to require an independent review of any decision to target an American with lethal force. These reports should be declassified after 10 years. Knowing that they'll be made public will help ensure that the task is approached with the appropriate rigor.
The United States is the only country with a significant armed drone capability, but that distinction will not last forever. As other nations develop and deploy these technologies, we will be better positioned to urge their responsible and transparent use if we have set an example ourselves. We must hold ourselves to a high standard and do it in public, not behind closed doors.
That is the commitment the president has made, and it's a promise worth keeping.
Published Thursday, March 13, 2014: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/opinion/let-the-military-run-drone-warfare.html
[Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.]