President Obama reflected personal and national distress when he announced the inadvertent deaths of two hostages last week.
Pained as the president was, though, he has been careful to support the folks on the firing line. This was his operation. Indeed, after six years in office, what happened was as much the president’s doing as it was anyone’s, and he took responsibility for it. On the specifics of the operation, I am sure he is privately demanding a full accounting, but he has not engaged in any scapegoating publicly.
That task was assumed by elements of the American media whose opinion pieces and editorials seemed to have been copy ready even as the tragic deaths were being announced.
Although the administration has not officially characterized the operations as having been conducted by drones (nor will I, even speculatively), the media quickly assumed as much. And commentary quickly outran the facts as some simply resumed their barely dormant trashing of the whole concept of drones and targeted killings.
Take this question from Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post: “Do we still think drones are a good idea?” He obviously doesn’t, because he describes a “war by assassination” based on intelligence “which can never be perfect.” (Note to Eugene: This does not meet any legal definition of assassination and if perfect intelligence is the prerequisite for action, count America out of the defending itself business.)
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A Bloomberg editorial chafed over “protecting the innocent in Obama’s drone war” and lamented “a breakdown in human intelligence in a region controlled by two allied nations.” (Note to Bloomberg: Neither of those nations has ever controlled the area where this took place.)
The Los Angeles Times piled on the intel failure theme: “another seeming indictment of U.S. intelligence.” (Note to the LA Times: Al Qaeda spared nothing to keep the hostages hidden. That was the only tactical objective they had for them, since discovery would result in their strategic loss. The past is instructive. Our looking for kidnapped New York Times reporter David Rohde was frustrating, even as good intelligence continued to identify for action enemies who had to move and communicate to be successful.)
The New York Times went after the effort’s legal underpinning, characterizing this as “a disturbing reminder of the unintended consequences of an execution program of questionable legality.”
Execution program? Really? I’ve never gone to journalism school, but that sounds like a loaded word designed to inflame rather than inform.
Then the San Francisco Chronicle claimed that “far from being precise weapons, drones are turning out to have an unpredictable and indiscriminate side.” Even usually reliable Steve Coll weighed in: “How can Obama’s choice be squared with the accumulating record of mistakes?”
Mistakes there certainly have been. This is combat, after all. Even the president noted the fog of war.
Yet let me posit a somewhat different position. Targeted killings from unmanned aerial vehicles have been our single most impactful tool in decimating al Qaeda and have been — wait for it — the most precise application of indirect fires in the history of armed conflict.
That’s going to be controversial, so let me offer some support for those assertions. Let me call as a witness the enemy, specifically Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenants as represented by intimate correspondence among them in 2011.
These documents are a mere eight letters from the haul at Abbottabad, Pakistan, a limited release prompted by a court case against an al Qaeda adherent. The letters are remarkable in their candor.
There is a running eulogy of senior al Qaeda figures: “I convey my condolences regarding our great brother Sheikh Said [who] died as a martyr during a spy plane attack We think we must announce his death because he is a senior person “
“The strikes by the spy planes are still going on Our brother Al-sa’di [Ihsanullah] was the latest to become a martyr. He was killed about a week ago, also by air raids The mid-level commands and staff members are hurt by the killings. Compensating for the loss is going slowly.”
“I am informing you about the death of brother Hamzah Al-Jawfi It came at the hands of spy planes in southern Waziristan; others were killed with him but we are not sure who yet.”
“The issue got more complicated after the killing of Muhammad Khan and Brother Mu’awiyah Al-Balushi They went to find out about places and upon their return they were also martyred in an air strike.”
A Bin Laden lieutenant complained after “the killing of twenty brothers in one place on the day of eid” that they had “gathered for the holidays, despite our orders and our emphasizing to avoid gathering in one place but sometimes they discuss matters and take their own decisions.”
And, even if elements of the American press remain skeptical, al Qaeda had learned a healthy respect for the care and selectivity of American operations: “As we see it, based on our analysis, they are constantly monitoring several potential or confirmed targets. But they only hit them if they discover a valuable human target inside, or a gathering, or during difficult times [like revenge attacks, for example].”
I seriously doubt that the last was true, but it didn’t hurt that they thought so.
The perceived ubiquity of reconnaissance and the suddenness of strikes was wearing: “As you know, everybody is threatened — as long as he moves — by a missile.”
And “The strikes by the spy planes are still going on The planes are still circling our skies nearly everyday.”
Folks in the field entreated bin Laden: “We would like your guidance. Especially on this idea: reduce the work; meaning stopping many of the operations so we can move around less, and be less exposed to strikes.”
Then a suggestion: “There is an idea to avoid attrition [the loss of staff, leaders and the organization’s old elites]. The idea is that some brothers will travel to some ‘safe’ areas with their families, just for protection. They would only stay for a time, until the crisis is over, maybe one or two years.” Bin Laden agreed they should take refuge in safer areas and to “calming down and minimizing movement.”
I am sure that the Americans who created those effects are as crestfallen as their president by the result of the recent effort.
But, by all accounts, they did everything right. Multiple sources, a hundred-plus hours of surveillance, reviewing the history of the compounds, patience before striking, after-action coverage to record (and be surprised by) the number of bodies, then even more investigation.
To demand more of them before taking any action is effectively telling them not to act — which is clearly the goal of some of the commentators noted earlier.
Don’t do that. It’s not fair to them. Right now they need your support, on a human and professional level. They deserve it.
And if they opt out or are directed out of this game, you will be decidedly less safe.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask the members of al Qaeda. Or at least the ones that are still alive to talk about it.
• Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at email@example.com.