Fighting war at a remove
Nominations by President Obama of Senator Chuck Hagel and his counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan to head the defence department and CIA respectively are likely to make for lively Senate confirmation hearings. Hagel is under fire from his Republican colleagues on the right for softness in defence of Israel, while Brennan, a career CIA agent whose parents hailed from Roscommon, is likely to take fire from the left.
He is accused of failing to stop Bush-tolerated torture and is seen as central to the oversight of drone-targeted killing of suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and increasingly of their wider use. And he has been closely involved in the militarisation of the CIA, turning the agency from one predominantly engaged in gathering intelligence to one directly involved in combat.
The lack of congressional scrutiny of the drone programme is striking. Questions need to be asked about the dubious ethics of targeted killing of alleged combatants in non-combat situations – widely condemned when the Israelis engage in it – and there are wide concerns, including from the UN rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, that the programme is stretching the rules of war.
There is the issue of whether due care is taken to avoid civilian casualties – at least 473 noncombatants have been killed by CIA-directed strikes since 2004, monitoring groups say. And, whether the US is entitled to use drones without the explicit support of the state in which they are operating – Pakistan says it does not approve but seems tacitly to give the nod to operations. Or, whether the US is entitled in international law to carry out drone operations against threats not to itself directly, but to states like Yemen and Afghanistan.
Currently the CIA is seeking to add a further 10 drones to its arsenal of 30 to 35, according to a report by the Washington Post. There are suggestions some at least might be deployed in north Africa, possibly Libya, against the rising threat of al-Qaeda there. Although the CIA’s armoury is dwarfed by the US Air Force’s 246 Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks and hundreds of other remotely piloted aircraft held by the army, navy and marines, it is the CIA’s use of such weapons in non-traditional warfare against terrorists which is most controversial.
Obama himself, reportedly resisting with Brennan the latitude sought by Defence and the CIA in the use of drones, has acknowledged the need for greater controls. “One of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in but any presidents reined in in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making,” he told one interviewer ahead of re-election. Brennan’s confirmation hearings are a good opportunity to accept such an invitation.