Michael V. Hayden, who directed the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005 and the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009, is speaking at Stevens Institute of Technology Wednesday. Since I might not get the chance to ask Hayden questions in person, I’m posing a few here.
In his new book Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, Hayden defends his actions—and, more broadly, the actions of the U.S.—since 9/11. He advocates “playing to the edge,” which apparently means skirting the boundaries of legal and ethical rules.
Reviews in The New York Times and The New Yorker focus on Hayden’s involvement in “warrantless surveillance” and “enhanced interrogation,” otherwise known as torture. I’d like to ask Hayden about drones. In a recent New York Times essay, “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare,” Hayden writes:
“The [drone] program is not perfect. No military program is. But here is the bottom line: It works. I think it fair to say that the targeted killing program has been the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict. It disrupted terrorist plots and reduced the original Qaeda organization along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to a shell of its former self. And that was well before Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011… Unmanned aerial vehicles carrying precision weapons and guided by powerful intelligence offer a proportional and discriminating response when response is necessary. Civilians have died, but in my firm opinion, the death toll from terrorist attacks would have been much higher if we had not taken action.”
First, some data on civilian deaths. Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, has compiled data on drone strikes from several independent sources. He estimates that U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have killed 3,875 people, including 470 civilians.
Zenko conjectures that Hayden, while director of the CIA, “personally authorized an estimated 48 drone strikes, which killed 532 people, 144 of whom were civilians. At 27 percent, this is more than twice the 12 percent of estimated civilian deaths from all of the U.S. drone strikes conducted through January 2016.”
Zenko’s estimates—which exclude data on strikes in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya--are based on reports by nonprofit groups such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which in turn are based on reports from human-rights groups, government officials, media and other sources. The estimates are almost certainly too low, because not all attacks and casualties come to light.
A 2012 report by scholars at Stanford and New York University on drone strikes in Pakistan rejects the claim that drones are “a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the U.S. safer.” Based on “more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting,” the report concluded:
*while civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians.
*US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted- for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.
*Serious concerns about the efficacy and counter-productive nature of drone strikes have been raised. The number of “high-level” targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%. Furthermore, evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks… Drone strikes have also soured many Pakistanis on cooperation with the US and undermined US-Pakistani relations.
*current US targeted killings and drone strike practices undermine respect for the rule of law and international legal protections and may set dangerous precedents… As drone manufacturers and officials successfully reduce export control barriers, and as more countries develop lethal drone technologies, these risks increase.
In 2013 Barack Obama pledged to increase “accountability” and “transparency” of drone operations. The President has failed to fulfill this promise, according to “Grading Progress on U.S. Drone Policy,” a report released last month by another security think tank, the Stimson Center. The report follows up on an earlier one chaired by former U.S. Army General John Abizaid.
The Obama administration “continues to oppose releasing any public information on the U.S. lethal drone program, obstructing efforts to develop greater oversight and accountability mechanisms,” the new report states. It adds that “the lack of a clear U.S. [drone] policy risks damaging consequences for the United States, at home and abroad, and undermines efforts to support the international rule of law.”
Together, the Stanford/NYU and Stimson reports suggest that drone attacks may be exacerbating rather than quelling Muslim militancy and harming rather than enhancing U.S. security. So here is my first question for Hayden: What hard evidence is there that drones are making us safer? [See Post-postscript for Hayden’s response to my question about drones.]
My next question bears on Hayden’s ties to defense contractors. Hayden is a principle of the security-consulting firm Chertoff Group, founded by former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff; and he serves on the board of Motorola Solutions, which recently invested in the drone manufacturer CyPhy Works.
Zenko, the security analyst, says Hayden should have disclosed these ties in his recent Times essay. “[A]ny such strong defense of a government program by a former government official,” Zenko writes, “should mention the potential conflicts of interest when the author is employed by corporations that provide analytical, technical, and/or logistic support for the U.S. military, intelligence community, and homeland security agencies.”
I’m not sure disclosure goes far enough. So here is my next question: Is it ethically appropriate to promote a weapons program that might financially benefit you?
And here is my final question for Hayden: Shouldn’t the U.S. set a higher moral example for the rest of the world than “playing to the edge”?
Postscript: On March 30, I am bringing two other experts on counterterrorism to Stevens Institute. Political scientist John Mueller and risk-assessment engineer Mark Stewart will discuss their new book Chasing Ghosts: Policing Terrorism.
Post-postscript: During the Q&A after his talk, I asked Hayden whether armed drone strikes might do more harm than good. I mentioned the Stanford/NYU study, which found that drone attacks in Pakistan incited Muslim militancy and hatred of the United States. Hayden replied that casualties from drone strikes have been overstated, and that he has seen no evidence correlating U.S. attacks to increases in Muslim militancy and violence (a claim I find hard to believe). Repeating the conclusion of his Times oped, he said armed drones should be used sparingly, “with a dial, not a switch.”
See also this terrific account by my Stevens colleague Alex Wellerstein, the renowned nuclear historian, of his encounter with Hayden. Here is Alex’s wrap-up: “What I did respect about Hayden is that he was willing to engage. He didn’t really shirk from questions. He also didn’t take the position that everything that the government has done, or is doing, is golden. But most important, for me, was that he took some rather nuanced positions on some tough issues. The core of what I heard him say repeatedly was that the Hobbesian dilemma — that the need for security trumps all — could not be given an absolute hand in the United States. And while we might disagree on how that works out in practice, that he was willing to walk down that path, and not merely be saying it as a platitude, meant something to me. He seemed to be speaking quite frankly, and not just a party or policy line. That’s a rare thing, I think, for former high-ranking public officials (and not so long out of office) who are giving public talks--usually they are quite dry, quite unsurprising. Hayden, whether you agree or disagree with him, is neither of these things.”