Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, NBC News Chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel aired a report on the Obama administration’s drone program and discussed with host Chuck Todd how it will become a point of debate down the road in a similar manner as the Bush administration’s interrogation program.
Engel named the use of drones as the weapon of choice in the War on Terror under President Obama. The problem, Engel says, is that no one is sure how many innocent civilians versus insurgents have been killed out of the reported 3,500 who have died in drone strikes.
In an interview during Engel’s report, critic of the drone program and Council on Foreign Relations fellow Micah Zenko said, “In U.S. public opinion, there is greater support for killing people than torturing them.”
Zenko explained that 70 percent of Americans support the drone program because they believe that drone strikes are more surgically precise and therefore can discriminate between an insurgent and a civilian, something he says couldn’t be further from the truth. Furthermore, what the general public doesn’t realize, he says, is that most of the targets are picked based on “much less information” than those who the U.S. captures and interrogates.
In fact, Zenko charged that the CIA backs the hands-off drone program specifically to avoid being prosecuted for torture. He said their response to the recent report makes this clear.
Engel revealed that estimated totals show 50 drone strikes occurred under President Bush, and nearly 400 under Obama. In 2013, President Obama said, “The use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists. Our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute.”
But now that the Obama administration is jumping on the previous administration for its secret interrogation techniques and the fact that drone strikes aren’t always as surgical as they’d have us believe, Engel warns, “They would do well to keep in mind that old saying about glass houses and stones.”
After the report, Engel told Todd about “signature strikes,” something he says are “the most morally problematic” for the Obama administration:
There’s a desire right now to criticize the previous administration for its morally questionable practices. This administration is carrying out some morally questionable practices — signature strikes are those.
Engel goes on to explain the difference between the two different kinds of drone strikes. One is following a known terrorist target and follow them for weeks or months until the right location is found and a strike is ordered to kill them. The other is a signature strike — a kill order of an unknown target simply because they have the signature, or profile, of a terrorist.
Todd interjected, “So this is where we’re going to find out 10 years from now, we could be finding out we droned innocents.”
Engel concurred and said he knows that those in charge of this program are already concerned about future prosecutions.