The Killing Machines

Mark Bowden, at The Atlantic writes:

Unlike nuclear weapons, the drone did not emerge from some multibillion-dollar program on the cutting edge of science. It isn’t even completely new. The first Predator drone consisted of a snowmobile engine mounted on a radio-controlled glider. When linked via satellite to a distant control center, drones exploit telecommunications methods perfected years ago by TV networks—in fact, the Air Force has gone to ESPN for advice. But when you pull together this disparate technology, what you have is a weapon capable of finding and killing someone just about anywhere in the world. An excellent long form piece on the drone program by the U.S. Government. You owe it to yourself to read this to be better informed as to how these are being used. One gem from the article that caused me to have newfound respect for Petreaus:

Cameron Munter, a veteran diplomat who was the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 2010 to 2012, felt that weight firsthand when he tried to push back. Munter saw American influence declining with nearly every strike. While some factions in the Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence believed in the value of strikes, the Pakistani public grew increasingly outraged, and elected officials increasingly hostile. Munter’s job was to contain the crisis, a task complicated by the drone program’s secrecy, which prevented him from explaining and defending America’s actions.

Matters came to a head in the summer of 2011 during a meeting to which Munter was linked digitally. The dynamics of such meetings—where officials turned to policy discussions after the legal determination had been made—placed a premium on unified support for policy goals. Most participants wanted to focus on the success of the battle against America’s enemies, not on the corrosive foreign-policy side effects of the drone program.

At the decision meetings, it was hard for someone like Munter to say no. He would appear digitally on the screen in the Situation Room, gazing out at the vice president, the secretary of defense, and other principals, and they would present him with the targeting decision they were prepared to make. It was hard to object when so many people who titularly outranked him already seemed set.

By June of 2011, however, two events in Pakistan—first the arrest and subsequent release of the CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who had been charged with murdering two Pakistanis who accosted him on the street in Lahore, and then the Abbottabad raid that killed bin Laden—had brought the U.S.-Pakistan partnership to a new low. Concerned about balancing the short-term benefits of strikes (removing potential enemies from the battlefield) and their long-term costs (creating a lasting mistrust and resentment that undercut the policy goal of stability and peace in the region), Munter decided to test what he believed was his authority to halt a strike. As he recalled it later, the move played out as follows:

Asked whether he was on board with a particular strike, he said no.

Leon Panetta, the CIA director, said the ambassador had no veto power; these were intelligence decisions.

Munter proceeded to explain that under Title 22 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, the president gives the authority to carry out U.S. policy in a foreign country to his ambassador, delegated through the secretary of state. That means no American policy should be carried out in any country without the ambassador’s approval.

Taken aback, Panetta replied, “Well, I do not work for you, buddy.”

“I don’t work for you,” Munter told him.

Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped in: “Leon, you are wrong.”

Panetta said, flatly, “Hillary, you’re wrong.”

At that point, the discussion moved on. When the secretary of state and the CIA director clash, the decision gets made upstairs.

Panetta won. A week later, James Steinberg called Munter to inform him that he did not have the authority to veto a drone strike. Steinberg explained that the ambassador would be allowed to express an objection to a strike, and that a mechanism would be put in place to make sure his objection was registered—but the decision to clear or reject a strike would be made higher up the chain. It was a clear victory for the CIA.

Later that summer, General David Petraeus was named to take over the intelligence agency from Panetta. Before assuming the job, Petraeus flew from Kabul, where he was still the military commander, to Islamabad, to meet with the ambassador. At dinner that night, Petraeus poked his finger into Munter’s chest.

“You know what happened in that meeting?” the general asked. (Petraeus had observed the clash via a secure link from his command post in Afghanistan.) “That’s never going to happen again.”

Munter’s heart sank. He thought the new CIA director, whom he liked and admired, was about to threaten him. Instead, Petraeus said: “I’m never going to put you in the position where you feel compelled to veto a strike. If you have a long-term concern, if you have a contextual problem, a timing problem, an ethical problem, I want to know about it earlier. We can work together to avoid these kinds of conflicts far in advance.”

Petraeus kept his word. Munter never had to challenge a drone strike in a principals’ meeting again during his tenure as ambassador. He left Islamabad in the summer of 2012.