Obama Set To Reboot Drone Strike Policy And Retool The War On Terror

In a major counterterrorism address today, President Obama is expected to announce a significant shift in the drone policy that has been the cornerstone of his war on terror.

At 2 p.m. ET today, President Obama will address a crowd at National Defense University in D.C. to spell out some of the biggest vagaries of his administration–policies that are central to America’s security and foreign policy that, nonetheless, have been shrouded in official secrecy, opaque statements of accountability, and open-ended legal jargon that leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

In today’s speech, Obama is expected to discuss the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay (which, despite 2008 campaign promises, remains open) and the future of America’s war on terror now that Osama bin Laden has been, how shall we say, rendered irrelevant. But policy wonks and national security nerds are mostly interested in Obama’s spelling out of the legal rationale that will govern lethal drone strikes going forward.

These three topics are deeply intertwined, of course. With the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and a reduced American presence in the regions regarded as power bases for the likes of al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and the Taliban, American security and intelligence forces have only two real options. Strike at suspected terrorists with drones, or somehow capture those suspects and detain them (at some place like Guantanamo).

It would seem that if the war on terror is going to continue (and it is–for another 10 or 20 years according to one recently-quoted Pentagon official) then it seems that either detention or the use of lethal strikes must increase. But that’s not really the case, and in today’s speech Obama is expected to outline why the administration thinks so.

In his first major counterterrorism address of his second term, the President is expected to announce new restrictions on the unmanned aerial strikes that have been the cornerstone of his national security agenda for the last five years. For all the talk about drone strikes–and they did peak under Obama–such actions have been declining since 2010. And it seems the administration finally wants to come clean (somewhat) about what it has been doing with its drone program, acknowledging for the first time that it has killed four American citizens in its shadow drone wars outside the conflict zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, something the public has known for a while now but the government has refused to publicly admit.

The Obama administration will also voluntarily rein in its drone strike program in several ways. A new classified policy signed by Obama will more sharply define how drones can be used, the New York Times reports, essentially extending to foreign nationals the same standards currently applied to American citizens abroad. That is, lethal force will only be used against targets posing a “continuing, imminent threat to Americans” and who cannot be feasibly captured or thwarted in any other way. This indicates that the administration’s controversial use of “signature strikes”–the killing of unknown individuals or groups based on patterns of behavior rather than hard intelligence–will no longer be part of the game plan. That’s a positive signal, considering that signature strikes are thought to have resulted in more than a few civilian casualties.

Reportedly there’s another important change in drone policy in the offing that President Obama may or may not mention in today’s speech: the shifting of the drone wars in Pakistan and elsewhere (likely Yemen and Somalia as well) from the CIA to the military over the course of six months. This is good for all parties involved. The CIA’s new director, John Brennan, has publicly said he would like to transition the country’s premier intelligence gathering agency back to actual intelligence gathering and away from paramilitary operations–a role that it has played since 2001 but that isn’t exactly in its charter.

Putting the drone strike program in the Pentagon also places it in a different category of public scrutiny. The DoD can still do things under the veil of secrecy of course, but not quite like the CIA can (the military is subject to more oversight and transparency than the clandestine services in several respects, and putting drones in the hands of the military also changes the governing rules of engagement).

So what does this all mean for the war on terror? If Obama plans to create a roadmap for closing Guantanamo Bay and draw down its drone strike program, it suggests that the administration thinks we are winning–as much as one can win this kind of asymmetric war. It appears the war on terror is shifting toward one in which better intelligence will lead to more arrests and espionage operations to thwart terrorists rather hellfire missile strikes from unseen robots in the sky.

The drones aren’t going anywhere–they’ll be a key technology piece deployed in those intelligence gathering operations. But much to the relief of drone-strike opponents, it appears America’s policy of using lethal drone strikes to regularly eliminate her enemies–and whoever happens to be standing in proximity–will be put on a much tighter leash. Counterterrorism will go back to being more of a law enforcement exercise than a military “seek and destroy” mission. Lethal drone strikes will still occur, but their more judicious application is a welcome shift in policy for many Americans–and certainly for people in the parts of the world where they have been most prevalent.