What the John Brennan Hearing Didn't Tell You: Aircraft Carrier-Based Drones Could Expand Covert War Around Globe
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But the lowering financial costs of drones and the possible independence from basing agreements provided by aircraft carriers could come with its own political and strategic costs, especially in those regions where the U.S. drone program is most active.
According to a June 2012 Pew Poll, 74% of poll respondents in Pakistan considered the U.S. “an enemy.” Only 50% of respondents favored U.S. efforts to provide humanitarian aid in areas of high extremist activity, down from 72% in 2009.
A Stanford/NYU report, “Living Under Drones” noted that civilian casualties caused by drones are probably higher than acknowledged by the U.S. government and various forms of emotional and psychological burdens are imposed on civilians in areas where drones are deployed.
In an interview with Reuters, General Stanley McChrystal, the former head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, raised concerns about the effect of drone attacks on public opinion in Pakistan.
“The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes...is much greater than the average American appreciates,” said McChrystal. “They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
During Brennan’s confirmation hearing, senators mostly shied away from asking him questions about the strategic implications of drone strikes. When questioned by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Brennan responded that non-militants in areas where drones operate “have welcomed the work that the U.S. government has done.”
While senators did push for greater transparency in revealing the administration’s legal reasoning behind the program, they mostly fell short of calling for tighter legal frameworks for the use of drone strikes.
The lack of legal rigor in the drone program will only grow more problematic as drones become cheaper and the technology develops, warns Pillar.
“Insofar as costs are dropping, it makes the establishment of a firmer legal regime all the more important. The very cheapness of them makes it politically more difficult to establish such a regime. […] There simply isn't a political constituency clamoring on this issue about a stronger legal regime.”
Secretive overseas military actions that result in the deaths of “high level” targets without compromising the security of U.S. forces or creating a wider military commitment have led to little domestic political blowback for the Obama administration.
But as drone strikes become the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy, U.S. public opinion may be shifting.
A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released last week revealed that 48% of Americans believe it is illegal for the U.S. government to target its own citizens with overseas drone strikes. Just 24% agreed with the U.S. attorney and the Obama administration that such strikes are legal.
“Every expansion of [drone] capacity should bring with it a greater sense of urgency about secrecy, transparency and the failure so far of Congress, at least publicly, to take a role in overseeing this,” said Naiman.
“The increased range of choices for the executive to conduct war actions without going through the war hoops is very scary. I hope that news [about the technological advancements of the drone program] will push members of Congress to get more vocal and impose some oversight on this technology.”