The resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus provides the Obama administration and Congress an opportunity to take a hard look at what the agency does and what it needs to be doing. Particularly the use of unmanned aerial drones.
In recent years, the CIA has effectively become the Department of Drone Strikes. There are important and difficult legal debates about the use of drones. There are also questions about their efficacy.
The use of drones has been an important tool in American efforts to counter-terror around the world. But their use is not without consequences. Drone strikes appear to exacerbate instability in Pakistan and a drone strike that killed many civilians appears to have helped set off violence in Yemen.
Beyond specific instances of reactions to drone strikes, they may not be the most effective counter-terror tool. The CIA and administration would be wise to heed the old adage, “When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
The fact that the president has an enormous bureaucratic and technical apparatus at his disposal to deliver these strikes creates incentives to do so. But this may come at the expense of other useful tools. For example a recent study I co-authored that used a sophisticated computer model to analyze the behavior of the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai assault and a major international security threat, found that fostering internal dissent may be a more effective approach to reducing the organization’s violent activities then traditional military counter-terror tools.
Even more creative would be identifying key members within a social structure and encouraging them to become U.S. supporters or at least be neutral. These approaches would require a great deal of creativity and take longer for bring benefits then drone strikes, but they have enormous long-term potential to provide sources of intelligence and influence. These strategies would require creative thinking.
The CIA had shown a great deal of creative thinking in the past few years. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden was one example; another was the effort to track down Yemeni al-Qaeda chieftain Anwar al-Awlaki. Adopting a more subtle approach is well within the CIA’s capabilities but it will not offer the quick political pay-off of drone strikes.
General Petraeus’ exit from public life is a sad end to an otherwise impressive career. But it creates an opportunity to take a hard look at the operations of an agency central to the American counter-terror efforts and to re-shape it towards longer-term needs.