University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

David Cortright is Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He is coeditor of Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict (Chicago University Press, 2015) and author of Ending Obama’s War (Paradigm, 2011).

Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and NSA, recently published a New York Times op-ed article claiming that Americans should embrace drone warfare because it helps to keep us safe. The article seriously misrepresents the nature of the U.S. drone warfare program and triggered a number of sharp reactions.

Hayden claims that drones strikes have been extremely precise and that civilian casualties are low, but Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations contests these claims. Using data from non-governmental groups that monitor drone strikes, Zenko calculates that during the time Hayden was director of the CIA he personally authorized an estimated 48 drone strikes, which killed 532 people, 144 of whom were civilians. The civilian death toll in those strikes was 27 percent.

Hayden claims that the targets of drone strikes have been senior figures of Al-Qaeda whose primary motivation was to attack the U.S. homeland. This echoes President Obama’s assertion that drone strikes are directed only at “specific senior operational leaders” of Al-Qaeda and associated forces.

The available evidence suggests otherwise. Analyst Peter Bergen testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2013 that only two percent of drone-related fatalities in Pakistan were senior Al-Qaeda leaders, and that in Yemen only six percent of the victims were identified as senior militants. Many of those killed in these countries were Taliban foot soldiers or Yemeni tribesmen fighting local enemies. They posed no direct threat to the United States.

Reporter Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers reviewed intelligence documents in 2013 and found that very few drone strike victims were al-Qaeda leaders. Landay reported that of the 482 people killed by drone strikes in Pakistan in the twelve months prior to September 2011, only six were identified as top Al-Qaeda leaders—1.2 percent of the total.

In some cases, U.S. officials are not able to identify who they are killing. Zenko notes in his analysis that eight American citizens have been killed in U.S. drone strikes so far, but only one was knowingly targeted: Anwar al-Awlaki. The other seven were not definitively known to have been at the location of the attack.

Hayden’s article ignores the many negative consequences of drone warfare. Faisal Bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni engineer whose family members were killed in a 2012 drone strike, responded to the Times article with a moving letter to the editor: “The drones have ripped our communities apart. They have spread hatred and fanned extremism. They have driven young men into the arms of militant groups, and so make all of us less safe.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, attorney Jesselyn Radack described the Hayden article as “a piece of classic propaganda” based on “biased and misleading information.” Radack represents former drone operators who have criticized the program. She is a former ethics adviser for the Department of Justice who was involved in the drone program. The claimed effectiveness of drones is not credible, she said, given the rise of groups like ISIS. “Drones have created far more militants than they have killed.”

Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, also replied to the Hayden article. In a letter to the Times, Heyns criticized Hayden for misrepresenting “a global targeted killing program carried out according to secret rules and with no real accountability.” He warned that as other countries acquire weaponized drone capability and follow the same approach, the spread of drone warfare will pose significant long-term security risks to the United States and the world.

An analysis by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) chided the Times for not disclosing Hayden’s financial interest in supporting drone programs. Hayden serves on the board of Alion Science and Technology, which is developing drones for the Navy, and is also on the board of Motorola Solutions, which recently invested in a major drone development company.

Hayden notes that drone strikes have killed some Al-Qaeda operatives and have forced militant leaders to hide and alter their patterns of behavior, but this tactical ability to kill certain leaders should not be confused with strategic success. The use of drones and other military means has failed to stem the rising tide of insurgency and violent extremism that continues to threaten the affected countries.

Hayden is asking us to embrace a program that is setting standards for unlawful targeted killing that could spread to other countries and threaten U.S. and global security. Far from making us safe, unrestricted drone warfare is damaging America’s moral standing and contributing to violent radicalization. Instead of self-serving misinformation, we need greater transparency about the use of drone weapons and an honest evaluation of their strategic impacts.