Amid Errors, Obama Publicly Wrestles With Drones’ Limits
WASHINGTON — He looked down at his text, but seemed to drift away from it. He had planned to say something about the drone strike that killed two hostages by mistake, about how the tragedy would be reviewed.
Then President Obama paused and recalled that someone had just asked him how he absorbed such awful news. “We all bleed when we lose an American life,” he said. “We all grieve when any innocent life is taken. We don’t take this work lightly.”
A day after announcing the deaths of the hostages, an American and an Italian, Mr. Obama found himself on Friday at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in McLean, Va., and he was in a ruminative mood. “These aren’t abstractions, and we’re not cavalier about what we do, and we understand the solemn responsibilities that are given to us,” he told the intelligence professionals.
“And our first job is to make sure that we protect the American people,” he said. But, he added, “We have to do so while upholding our values and our ideals and our laws and our constitutions and our commitment to democracy.”
Rarely has a president wrestled with the grim trade-offs of war as publicly and as agonizingly as Mr. Obama has over the last six years. He wanted to get away from the messy ground wars that his predecessor waged in Iraq and Afghanistan and institute a seemingly cleaner, more exacting form of war, one waged only when there was “near certainty” that civilians would not be hurt.
But the strike that killed Warren Weinstein, a 73-year-old American aid worker, and the Italian hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto, 37, in January underscored that there is no such thing as near certainty in war, even one waged with precision instruments like the drones swarming the skies of places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The only near certainty of war is that innocents die and that presidents have to live with the consequences.
“I think he’s deeply conflicted,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “This is a president who won a Nobel Peace Prize and who understands the moral imperative of avoiding any civilian casualties, but who also takes his duties as commander in chief to protect the country very seriously. Those counterpressures are enormously difficult.”
Since 2004, the United States has carried out more than 400 drone strikes inside the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Leon E. Panetta, who served Mr. Obama as C.I.A. director and then as defense secretary, said the president was especially engaged in counterterrorism operations and wanted regular briefings, always asking about civilian casualties. “You hit some of these targets, and you get a lot of people in a shot, and what you wind up doing is asking yourself, ‘Is every one of those guys you get a bad guy?’ ” Mr. Panetta said.
And yet, for all of Mr. Obama’s achingly public struggle over the right approach to terrorism and war, he does not seem likely to overhaul his drone-oriented strategy. Reviews of the strike that killed the hostages may yield better ways to conduct the war — officials were already talking about forming a “fusion center” that would link agencies to deal with hostage situations — but aides gave no sense that Mr. Obama would embrace a wholesale shift.
“These kinds of counterterrorism operations have diminished the effectiveness of Al Qaeda,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “This kind of pressure has been effective in enhancing the national security of the United States.”
Aides say that the president views the strikes as a critical tool in confronting Al Qaeda in dangerous and remote regions such as the one where Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto died. They argue that the practice has undermined Al Qaeda’s ability to plot and execute attacks against the United States, recruit followers and operate a military organization.
At the same time, the use of unmanned aircraft seems to appeal to Mr. Obama’s desire to steer clear of freewheeling military engagements in favor of technology-driven precision strikes that minimize harm to bystanders. But he is aware — and increasingly open to acknowledging in public — that the standard of “near certainty” for avoiding such collateral damage, which he laid out in a 2013 speech on drone policy, is difficult to achieve.
“Narrowly tailored counterterrorism operations are the kinds of operations that do the most to reduce the risk of civilian casualties,” Mr. Earnest said. “But necessarily, these kinds of operations are contemplated in regions of the world where absolute certainty is just not possible.”
Weighing the inherent risk to civilians against the potential national security benefits of such strikes is among the most difficult exercises Mr. Obama has to go through, Mr. Earnest said.
Mr. Panetta, who personally approved drone strikes, said there were no other options for hunting down terrorists in the forbidding tribal regions of Pakistan, where the central government has little authority, that would not cause far greater civilian losses.
“What do we bring to bear?” he asked. “B-2 bombers? I don’t think so. F-16s? Pakistan’s never going to allow that. Troops on the ground? We tried, and Pakistan was upset about that. So we were left with that single weapon to go after the targets. Yes, it is precise. Yes, it is effective. But at the same time, like any other weapon of war, you can wind up hitting targets that were not intended.”
A former top Obama administration official who was at the president’s side through many national security decisions said Mr. Obama was hardly squeamish about them, pointing to the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
But the success of drone strikes in minimizing civilian casualties — or at least shrouding them from the public — may have lulled the president and his team into a false confidence in their precision warfare. “Maybe we get a little cocky and think that we’re better than we actually are,” the former official said.
Mr. Weinstein’s death caused some in the White House to question whether the president’s policy was being followed. “It makes you wonder whether the intelligence community’s definition of near certainty is the same as everybody else’s,” said a senior administration official. “But the near certainty standard is the best possible standard.”
Mr. Obama had an opportunity on Friday to meet with some of the people in charge of meeting that standard. Already on his schedule, even before the news about Mr. Weinstein, was a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, an initiative enacted in response to intelligence failures before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
He praised the intelligence professionals for their work even as he reflected on the costs. “This self-reflection, this willingness to examine ourselves, to make corrections, to do better, that’s part of what makes us Americans,” Mr. Obama told them. “It’s part of what sets us apart from other nations. It’s part of what keeps us not only safe but also strong and free.”
Source: New York Times
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