Demystifying the drone strikes

Recently, during an off-the-record briefing for reporters, a sen- ior Obama administration official declared: "If there are Predator operations in Pakistan, I would argue that the collateral damage is negligible at most, and that reports of intensified damage are a myth."

After a half-decade and some 125 unmanned U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, it is remarkable that the Obama administration maintains the false notion that such operations remain secret and are therefore beyond public debate. It is past time for the White House to provide some transparency over what CIA Director Leon E. Panetta (without acknowledging their existence) describes as "the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership."

In defending these ongoing drone strikes, consider the following three notions:

First, the drone strikes in Pakistan are no longer "covert actions," defined by law as "activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly." There is countless published evidence that demonstrates the apparent U.S. role, as well as slips of the tongue by current officials that have repeatedly (if accidentally) acknowledged that role.

In addition, while they are characterized as "CIA-operated," drone strikes are done in close coordination with other government agencies as well as private contractors. According to journalist Noah Shachtman, "the U.S. Air Force also plays an important role in the drone missions over Pakistan," by overseeing all armed drone operations in the Middle East, and even loaning its own drones to the CIA when needed. Furthermore, it has been revealed that contractors working for Xe (formerly Blackwater) provided security at the bases in Shamsi, Pakistan, from where some of the drones operate, and even loaded them with precision-guided missiles and bombs.

Second, by maintaining that the well-known program is secret, administration officials believe that they neither have to defend nor answer to criticism of their use. For over five years, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have refused to answer any such questions in an open forum. In lieu of answers, they have simply provided a parade of glowing off-the-record endorsements that emphasize their inevitability, near-infallibility and hearty support from the Pakistani government.

In fact, several debates have emerged about the drone strikes, including whether it is better to kill suspected terrorists or attempt to detain them to gather intelligence, how many Pakistani civilians have been wrongfully killed, whether they help swell the ranks of the Taliban, and if these strikes are even legal under international law. Under current policy, none of these important issues can be addressed head-on by any U.S. government officials.

Third, by maintaining their secrecy, administration officials can bypass any discussion of how the drone strikes fit within the context of the other elements of national power utilized in Pakistan - no small matter since the United States has provided Islamabad almost $18 billion in aid and security assistance since Sept. 11, 2001, with another $3 billion requested for the upcoming fiscal year. Also, despite the long-standing need for a comprehensive strategy to reduce al Qaeda safe havens there, the United States only recently developed a civil-military "Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy," with lines of operation for relevant U.S. government agencies. It is essential for policymakers to describe, and for all agencies to understand, how the tactic of escalating drone strikes fits within this comprehensive strategy.

It is necessary to emphasize that no U.S. citizen or government employee should take it on their own initiative to leak or reveal any activity of the U.S. government that is properly labeled as a "covert action." It is the proper role of the White House to decide when and how to reveal the details of highly classified national security programs.

Striking the proper balance between secrecy and transparency is never easy, but given the numerous unanswered questions, misperceptions among Americans and Pakistanis, and importance of U.S. drone strikes in the war against al Qaeda, greater transparency must take precedence. If they are really the "only game in town," then it is all the more reason to acknowledge, defend, debate and potentially adjust the way they are used.

Micah Zenko, a fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.