Letter to the Editor: Where Luke Hartig and I Agree on Drones (it’s more than you might think)

Luke Hartig’s critique of my essay, “Body Counts Are Terrible Way for the Public to Assess US Counter-Terrorism Operations” is a thoughtful one, and I urge everyone to read it in conjunction with mine. Hartig, who is no ordinary blogger having served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, makes a number of statements that suggest to me that our views have some real commonality.

For example, I said in my post:

I agree that it is vitally important in democracy to keep the public informed, but giving the public raw numbers of deaths – “body counts” in essence – in isolation from other key factors essential to determining the propriety of the use of force will likely cause more confusion that clarity.

I still think that, and – importantly – Hartig insists in his rebuttal that it never was his position that body counts should be given to the public in isolation from other key factors.

I really welcome that clarification to my post. In my opinion the difficulty is, however, that the rescinded section of the Obama-era Executive order basically did just that – it provided numbers in isolation from the other factors. It did not (and, really, could not given the classification inevitably involved) mandate detail as to the particular strikes that caused the casualties, even as the reports did attempt to explain in broad terms the methodology the government used, and generally why its numbers may differ from those of nongovernmental organizations.

I also still agree with Bobby Chesney (as cited in my post) that under current law Congress will get most of the information – to include the classified information necessary for a legal and policy assessment – but Hartig is nevertheless very right to argue that the public needs more information as well. In fact, Hartig makes some points no one should miss when he says:

I have called for a comprehensive dialogue with the American public not just about the toll of specific strikes but also the policy and legal frameworks underpinning those operations, why such operations are still necessary 17-plus years after 9/11, and why we are still putting U.S. troops in harm’s way to achieve our objective. My intent is to shore up support for the program, not undermine it. I consider the drone program to be critical to our national security and believe that only through much more comprehensive transparency can the public properly understand it, reject the common myths about our operations, and have some trust in the program.

Actually, I’m in agreement with Hartig on all of that except possibly the very last statement about the public “trust in the [drone] program.” If he is referring to the drone program, it seems that Americans rather strongly approve of the program.

While we still may disagree as to how and what information should be provided to the public, my sense is that Hartig and I are in violent agreement that, as he says, a “robust debate on the parameters of transparency around U.S. counterterrorism operations is warranted “

 

IMAGE: A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), carrying a Hellfire air-to-surface missile lands at a secret air base in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

 

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About the Author(s)

Charles J. Dunlap, Jr.

Professor of the Practice of Law and Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School He retired from the Air Force in 2010 as a Major General.