The Bush administration used to say that the people we captured at Guantanamo Bay were "the worst of the worst." Either that statement was grossly dishonest or the Bush administration was indescribably reckless: The vast majority of those released -- more than 800 people -- were released without charge or trial and have not subsequently gone on to be involved in terrorist activity. Of the remaining prisoners at Gitmo, the largest single group are those the U.S. will release without charge. Part of the reason so many of those we capture turn out not to be bad guys is that we pay bounties to local Afghan warlords, which gives them an incentive to capture any hapless soul in exchange for cash.
At any rate, if our track record for detaining suspected terrorists is far more miss than hit, it stands to reason that our record with drone attacks might not be particularly good either. The drone program seems to work similarly -- locals are paid to guide the drones. (Maybe I'm wrong, and the drone attacks are super accurate and the U.S. isn't making similar mistakes, but we really don't know.)
The U.S. has certainly had some success in taking out high value targets, but the drone attacks cause a significant number of civilian casualties and may be illegal. Part of the reason we continue to be able to use them is that they seem to create a negative feedback loop -- terrorizing the Taliban into wreaking havoc on the local population, its cruelty mitigating any blowback for the U.S. as a result of the drone attacks themselves.
What I'm getting to is that I think it's a mistake for liberals to simply assume that the drone attacks are always accurate for the sake of responding to conservative arguments about the Obama administration being "weak on terror." Marc Thiessen wrote an incredibly ill-informed op-ed for Foreign Policy arguing that the drone attacks were hampering U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities because the government was no longer torturing suspected terrorists, and Matthew Yglesias and Steve Benen mocked him for saying essentially "the Obama administration is too good at killing terrorists."
There is however, a serious ethical dilemma here involving the degree to which the U.S. is relying on potentially illegal drone attacks and the human suffering they cause, both as result of civilian casualties and because of the possibility that mistakes are being made. This shouldn't be papered over simply because doing so allows liberals to show how tough Obama is being. We know that the drone attacks have killed terrorists, but we don't really know how many of those killed have been terrorists. We do know use of drones has risen dramatically.
A brief point about Thiessen's op-ed: The drone attacks are the "actions" taken as a result of acquiring "actionable intelligence." It's fair to assume that the reason they're being used so often is because the U.S.' intelligence-gathering operation in Southeast Asia has improved (certainly al-Qaeda seems to think so), not as a simple replacement for torture.
The fact that Thiessen is making money off of a book defending and promoting torture like a seventh-degree O.J. Simpson shouldn't dissuade liberals from asking the right ethical and legal questions about the drone program and its potential consequences.
UPDATE: Snowpocalypse kicked me off the interwebs yesterday, and I see Spencer Ackerman raised a similar concern, writing that "I just don’t want everyone’s heckling to entail an uncritical embrace of drones."
-- A. Serwer
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