The White House’s drone program is not going anywhere.
The Obama administration revealed Thursday that two hostages—including one American—were killed in a counterterrorism incident earlier this year and two other Americans who were known to be working with al-Qaida were also killed, accidentally. The Wall Street Journalreported Thursday that a drone strike was responsible for the casualties.
On Capitol Hill, the incident has brought into sharp focus the unintended consequences and risks associated with the president’s drone program—a cornerstone of his counterterrorism strategy in the Middle East.
Yet, the same Congress that spent years reviewing and chronicling the enhanced-interrogation techniques administered under the Bush administration does not appear to be moved to overhaul the lethal drone program over Thursday’s revelations. Nor, do they seem to think the program is fundamentally flawed in a major way.
“The collateral damage has been extraordinarily low,” says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee. “That is really a fact. I only wish I could tell you what it was. That is the irony here. This is all classified.”
Feinstein says the committee is still reviewing the incident, and other committees will also consider engaging in reviews. But the CIA’s drone program has become such a consequential tool in the country’s war on terrorism that even Republicans who are quick to fault Obama for anything else are extremely hesitant to lodge criticisms against it.
“We made a mistake. You know I have been a big critic of President Obama’s. I am not going to blame him for this. I blame al-Qaida,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Thursday. “We are not going to terminate this drone program. I am sorry these innocent people were killed. I am glad these two Americans collaborating with the enemy were killed. Please understand, we are at war. This is the way war works. It is a nasty, terrible business, but I am in it to win it.”
Unlike so many other foreign policy decisions the president has made, from relaxing relations with Cuba to negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, Republicans are not lining up to attack the president over a program they say has proved to be effective at taking out top targets.
“We are in a war with individuals who are hiding with civilians,” says Republican Sen. James Lankford, a member of the Intelligence Committee. “[The administration] does an extremely good job of trying to check and recheck their systems, and when they do a strike, it is not flippant. They are very, very efficient and very, very careful.”
Even Republican presidential contenders Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have so far resisted the urge to blame the Obama administration for the outcomes of the mission.
“It is a tragedy that these American hostages lost their lives. My prayers and thoughts are with their families,” Paul said in a statement from his office.
Cruz said that blame for the death of the hostages sat squarely with “the terrorists who kidnapped them and forcibly held them in their command center.”
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden—a constant voice of caution when it comes to America’s drone program—said in a statement that he wanted to “learn more about this operation before arriving at any final judgements about how it was carried out.”
As the administration has sought to end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and scale back troops on the ground, drones have become one of the essential tools at the president’s disposal.
“We are still very much in the counterterrorism business, and as long as there are threats around the world, we will continue to be involved in that,” Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, said of the role the drone program fills.
War hawks, like Republican Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, caution that small reforms are fine, but scrapping the program is not.
“Whenever there is an operation like this and something happens, there needs to be review,” McCain says. “But that is not a reason why anyone … would think the drone problem should be abolished. It means it has to be fixed so this doesn’t happen again.”
But while some, like Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, said they believed the Senate should be providing more aggressive oversight over the drone program, senators were short on specifics.
Democratic Whip Sen. Dick Durbin said he spoke with CIA Director John Brennan Wednesday before the administration announced their errors in two separate strikes.
“I asked him, ‘What have we learned from this? How can we do a better job protecting innocent people,’” Durbin recounted.
But while Durbin said the CIA is also conducting a thorough investigation into what went wrong, loss of life is unfortunately part of the equation.
“It’s a tragedy to lose an American and in this case an Italian who were there doing the right thing,” Durbin said. “But we have also—in the past—taken out the heads of terrorist networks who were determined to kill Americans themselves, so it is a tough moral balance to strike in the war on terrorism.”