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America’s drone program needs to keep flying

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Published : 2014-02-18 19:33
Updated : 2014-02-18 19:33

There is much we don’t know about the American citizen who is the target of a potential U.S. drone strike in Pakistan. He is believed to be associated with al-Qaida. He reportedly has been involved in plotting attacks against the United States. His name hasn’t been revealed, but we imagine he is avoiding rooftops and other open-air venues that have proven fatal to other terror chiefs.

What we know is that U.S. government officials have been debating since last summer whether to authorize a strike against the man. What’s taking so long? If he poses an imminent threat, this debate should take hours or days, not months.

There’s a lot of speculation about this saunter to judgment.

It could be that the United States still is deciding whether it is lawful to target this American citizen on foreign soil. Under a new drone policy announced by President Barack Obama last year, the Justice Department now reviews decisions to add Americans to overseas drone target lists.

Officials still may be building a convincing case that the suspect is a serious threat to American security, even though one former U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal that the CIA already has concluded that he meets the criteria for a drone strike.

Another possible reason for delay: The strike would need to be launched by the CIA, not the Pentagon as U.S. leaders prefer, because Pakistan refuses to allow open American military action on its territory.

The danger: One of America’s most effective anti-terrorist programs may be strangled by red tape.

At a congressional hearing last week, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said: “Individuals who would have been previously removed from the battlefield by U.S. counterterrorism operations for attacking or plotting to attack against U.S. interests remain free because of self-imposed red tape.”

The new rules, Rogers said, “are endangering the lives of Americans at home and our military overseas in a way that is frustrating to our allies and frustrating to those of us who engage in the oversight of our classified activities.”

We can’t think of a more dangerous prospect than U.S. drones tangled in bureaucracy and political second-guessing, missing the chance to eliminate al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists.

Last May, Obama defended the extraordinarily effective drone program while promising to narrow its scope and increase oversight and transparency. We supported that decision. But we also warned: The United States risks losing the advantage of surprise if individual drone strikes become entangled in slow-motion bureaucracy back home. We fear U.S. warriors shrinking from what in effect are battlefield decisions because they have one eye on Congress, or judges, or some other overseer who is not their commander in chief.

Granted, American officials need to choose targets carefully in Afghanistan and Pakistan because drone strikes are politically unpopular and pols aren’t keen on allowing bases for American drones.

Pakistan’s top leaders have loudly denounced drone strikes as a violation of their country’s sovereignty. When a U.S. drone strike killed Pakistan’s Public Enemy No. 1 terrorist last year, Pakistan’s interior minister official called it ― astonishingly ― “the murder of all efforts at peace.” Never mind that the Taliban used those alleged peace negotiations to rearm and launch even deadlier attacks against Pakistan security forces and citizens.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai also has spoken out against drone strikes. Karzai has refused to sign a security agreement negotiated last year by the U.S. and his government. Obama has threatened to yank all American troops by the end of the year, including a counterterrorism force, if Karzai doesn’t sign. Better strategy: Wait until a new president is elected in April. He’ll sign.

If the U.S pulled its forces from Afghanistan, drone bases in that country likely would have to be shuttered. Al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists across a wide expanse of mountainous territory on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border could stop nervously glancing at the skies.

That’s why the drones need to keep flying. If they’re in the cross hairs, so is the security of America and its allies.

Editorial

(Chicago Tribune)

(MCT Information Services)

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