Jason Ditz vs. Richard Perle Debate Drones in Pakistan

This week BBC hosted a short debate between our news editor Jason Ditz and prominent neocon Richard Perle, on the subject of drone strikes in Pakistan. To listen to the audio, click here. Below is the transcript:

Host: Now last night we were reporting a US drone strike in Pakistan had killed Al-Qaeda’s second in command.  That’s Abu Yahya al-Libi.  Today the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the use of drone strikes in Pakistan will continue despite protests.  The increasing use of these strikes has led to one Middle East policy advisor in the US to call President Obama George W. Bush on steroids.  So are they an effective surgical way to remove Al-Qaeda top brass in the War on Terror, or is it morally questionable for US officials to act as a judge, jury and executioner.  Richard Perle served as assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan and is now a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, is a think tank.  And Jason Ditz is the news editor of web site Antiwar.com.  Good morning to you both gentlemen. 

Richard Perle: Good morning.

Jason Ditz: Good morning.

H: Listen, let me just start off with Richard.  And for people who don’t know, explain exactly what a drone attack is.

RP: Well it’s an attack mounted by an unmanned vehicle, which is generally controlled from a distance.  In some cases a drone flying over Pakistan can be controlled from the United States.  And when there is good quality intelligence, not perfect, but good quality intelligence that indicates the presence of terrorists who we would not hesitate to engage in combat on the ground, the order can be given to fire a missile at the terrorist or the compound in which they’re located.

H: Last year there was the terrible incident in November where US forces with a drone accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.  In general how successful have drone attacks been? 

RP: Well on the whole they’ve been quite successful.  The list of Al-Qaeda leadership that have been killed by drones is now quite long.  But beyond the immediate effect of killing an Al-Qaeda operative is the knock-on effect which is that they’re forced to operate very differently and sub-optimally.  That is to say they have to operate furtively, they have to remain in hiding, they are living in constant fear of detection and therefore destruction.  And so it significantly inhibits their capacity to carry out acts of terror against civilians, which is what they do when they’re not under attack.

H: Let me bring in Jason Ditz, the news editor of web site Antiwar.com.  Jason, what was your reaction when you heard the number two in Al-Qaeda had been killed by a drone.

JD: Well, for one thing this isn’t the first time that we’ve heard that.  We’ve heard several times these same people getting killed over and over and then reemerging alive and well a few months later showing up in the media.  And while these drone strikes have managed to kill roughly 50 named people over the last almost four years, they’ve killed over 2,000 overall, and the vast majority of these people have never been identified beyond vague comments that they were suspects and we’ve never seen any evidence to indicate that this overwhelming majority of the people killed were anything but innocent bystanders. 

H: What is the legality of a strike in Pakistan?  What rights do the US have to send drones into another country that they’re not at war with?

JD: Well I think that’s certainly a major question because this, in theory, a drone strike shouldn’t be any different from any other military strike.  It’s just a different means to conduct a military strike.  In practice these drones are not being run by the military, they’re being run by the CIA, and we’ve transitioned from a nation of civil law to a nation that was operating under military rules of engagement to now just a president ordering summary executions on basically a whim. 

H: For Richard Perle, how does the US justify this legally?

RP: Well if the question is what legality surrounds an attack on Pakistani territory, it’s important to remember that Pakistan has an obligation to make sure that its territory is not used by military forces who are then conducting attacks in another country.  And the Pakistani authorities have been unable to do that.  So I think this has to be regarded, should be regarded as self-defense in circumstances in which Pakistan is unable to control its own territory. 

H: Jason, self-defense.  Do you accept that?

JD: Not at all.  I think that what we’re doing here is trying to expand the war in Afghanistan across the border into Pakistan and we’re doing so without having the inconvenience of having military rules of engagement.  What we’re doing in Pakistan is lobbing missiles practically at random near as anyone can tell, killing at best one in about 40 people is somebody that they’ve ever heard of and that they have a name for.  The rest of the people, who knows who they killed.  And in practice what it’s doing is not only morally reprehensible, it’s just practically a disaster.  It’s completely ruined the US relationship with Pakistan. Between the drone strikes, the attack on the Pakistani military basis, the Raymond Davis fiasco last year.  Our relationship with Pakistan has never been worse.

H: Do you accept those stats?

RP: Jason, I can’t allow those numbers to stand unchallenged.  If you’re saying only one of the 40 people have been killed in these attacks is a terrorist, I don’t know how you hope to prove that.  I don’t believe that’s true.

JD: What I’m saying is that only one of the 40 people killed has ever been named.  We don’t know who these other roughly 2,000 people are at all.  We’ve never had a name for any of these people.

RP: The attacks have been aimed at concentrations of terrorists.  And I suppose it is possible there are people hanging around terrorist headquarters who are not themselves terrorists.  But to the degree it is humanly possible we have vetted these attacks extremely carefully.  As for the relationship with Pakistan, Pakistan is a country that has just sentenced to 30 years in prison a man who helped us locate Osama Bin Laden.  So I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the Pakistanis in this situation.  And lastly we are not extending the war to Pakistan.  We would be delighted if the war were limited to Afghan territory.  But those who are waging the war against us and against the government in Afghanistan who are using sanctuaries in Pakistan to protect themselves and that is simply unacceptable.  But if they remain within Afghanistan you don’t have the issue you’ve just been raising.

H: Yes.  Dr. Shakil Afridi I think is the man who was jailed for 33 years and had helped the CIA track down Osama Bin Laden.  I mean Jason, when you’re hearing that intelligence is working and tracking down Osama Bin Laden, then why wouldn’t you believe that the intelligence in incidences like this is correct?

JD: Well once again, what we did in Pakistan with the CIA, tracking down Osama Bin Laden was great.  But the way we tracked him down was reprehensible.  This doctor, this supposedly innocent doctor that’s been sentenced to this one sentence for treason didn’t just stumble on Osama Bin Laden’s house.  He conducted a phony vaccination program that supposedly vaccinated scores of children and instead was collecting their DNA samples to test them to see if they were relatives of terrorists.  Now this setback…

RP: There was…

JD: This set back humanitarian missions in Pakistan for decades.

H: Let’s hear Richard’s response to that.

RP: There was in fact a real vaccination program and the idea of conducting this intelligence operation at a suspect compound which turned out to house Osama Bin Laden was tacked on.  So what this man has been sentenced for is the assistance he gave in locating Osama Bin Laden.  I’m very happy we located Osama Bin Laden, I’m happy that attack was successful.   It could not have happened with the degree of certainty that we were looking for.  You know if we were as careless as he is suggesting, we wouldn’t have needed DNA in order to come to a conclusion.  We simply would have attacked it on the basis of the information we had prior to that last confirming evidence. 

H: Richard Perle, thank you very much for joining us this evening as Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan and a big thanks to Jason Ditz, News Editor of web site Antiwar.com.  I’m sure this will be a story that we continue to cover in the months ahead.

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Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com.