To launch our fall 2013 season, I opened and framed the Intelligence Squared U.S. debate on the Obama administration’s use of drone warfare. Let’s take a closer look at both sides of the debate.
“Remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, have been the centerpiece of America’s counterterrorism toolkit since the start of the Obama presidency, and the benefits have been clear. Their use has significantly weakened al Qaeda and the Taliban while keeping American troops out of harm’s way. But critics of drone strikes argue that the short-term gains do not outweigh the long-term consequences—among them, radicalization of a public outraged over civilian deaths. Is our drone program hurting, or helping, in the fight against terrorism?”
— Intelligence Squared U.S.
John Donvan: So at “Nightline,” we’ve always said sometimes we work on some stories for months, and then suddenly the day we put it on the air, something breaks that makes it very relevant. And we say, “Well, the news gods have smiled on us today.” It’s not in a happy way, but there’s a real timing relevance to what we’re doing tonight, isn’t there?
Robert Rosenkranz: Yeah, of course there is. There’s a presidential address this evening, and it concerns obviously Syria, where if there’s any action taken at all, probably will involve drones. Drones are in active roles now in Yemen and Somalia. So it is an extremely timely issue.
John Donvan: So looking at this argument, these two teams we know have actually lived this in ways that they’ll reveal very, very directly. Some have sent them, and some have been near or close to the receiving end. The side that’s arguing in support of drone warfare, actually, in our case, the side arguing against the motion, the side that is enforcing it and standing up for drone warfare, what arguments do they have going for them?
Robert Rosenkranz: Well, I think their best argument is that it has been highly effective. It has killed a lot of terrorists. And it does it in a very precise way because these unmanned aerial vehicles can provide surveillance for many, many hours, days, coordinate with other forms of intelligent cell phone intercepts and really identify targets to a degree of precision that no other weapon system can do. So it’s very accurate. It minimizes collateral damage to civilians, does not eliminate it. And, of course, it keeps the U.S. operators many, many thousands of miles out of harm’s way.
John Donvan: And the side arguing against it, what do they have to put forward here?
Robert Rosenkranz: Well, I think their best point of view is that this just doesn’t feel like conventional warfare. These are not soldiers on a battlefield. These are individuals on a kill list. They’re targeted. They feel like assassinations. And it raises questions about the morality, about the legality, who is it that approves these targets, how are they vetted, how precise is that process? What are the legal safeguards around it? And particularly when the administration reserves the right to kill American citizens abroad with this program, it just shows how difficult and problematic the legal environment is around these issues.
John Donvan: And the nice thing about our debaters tonight, none of this is theoretical for them. So let’s bring them out. And thanks to Bob Rosenkranz for that introduction.