Yesterday afternoon, the Associated Press reported that the US is currently tracking an American citizen and terrorist suspect in Pakistan. While officials have not confirmed the identity of the man, they described him as an “al Qaeda facilitator” who is currently plotting attacks against the United States. Now the Obama administration is struggling with the question of whether to use the controversial drone program to eliminate him.
Drone strikes, already a hot topic among critics of the Obama administration, become even more complicated when US citizens are involved. Drones under CIA command are reportedly tracking the suspect but cannot launch an attack due to his citizenship. The Pentagon would presumably have the ability to use its own drones, but such an attack would risk reigniting tension between the US and Pakistani governments that has eased somewhat in the past month with regard to drone strikes.
Of course, the argument could be made that there are other ways to extract and perhaps even criminally charge the alleged al Qaeda operative without resorting to drone strikes. However, the government claims that the man is in a remote, well-guarded region that would make capture and extraction extremely dangerous for US troops. Moving ground forces into the area could also prove to be more politically detrimental than the use of drone strikes. In the government’s eyes, the only remaining decision is whether or not to carry out a drone strike.
This would not be the first time US citizens have been targeted by drone strikes. Back in 2011, the government admitted to targeting American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Islamic preacher based in Yemen at the time. Since then, the Obama administration has acknowledged the deaths of at least four American citizens resulting from drone strikes, although al-Awlaki was apparently the only one specifically targeted.
Part of the controversy here is not necessarily this particular target, but rather the Obama administration’s evolving policy toward drone strikes in the Middle East. Back in May, the administration announced that it would start shifting drone strike responsibility away from the CIA in favor of the Pentagon. This policy allows for certain exceptions when necessary, but the CIA’s drone program is supposedly geared mostly toward surveillance at this point.
Not everyone is in favor of this strategy. Last week, Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI) claimed America’s new drone strike policy is “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.”
While the identity of the the current target in Pakistan is still unknown, it seems promising that the debate on whether to authorize a drone strike against him has at least some level of transparency behind it. After all, the public only found out about the al-Awlaki strike after the fact. Considering that transparency was one of President Obama’s stated reasons for shifting drone strike responsibility to the Pentagon, perhaps this shows that the government is starting to put its money where its mouth is. As usual, only time will tell.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research