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Is The U.S. Drone Program Fatally Flawed?

Adm. Dennis Blair (left) and Gen. Norton Schwartz argue against the motion, "The U.S. Drone Program Is Fatally Flawed" in an Oxford-style debate hosted by Intelligence Squared U.S.
Samuel LaHoz
Intelligence Squared U.S.
Adm. Dennis Blair (left) and Gen. Norton Schwartz argue against the motion, "The U.S. Drone Program Is Fatally Flawed" in an Oxford-style debate hosted by Intelligence Squared U.S.

Armed drones have become a prominent feature of U.S. counterterrorism efforts around the globe. The unmanned aerial vehicles are regularly used to surveil and strike targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and are now being used in similar efforts in Yemen and Somalia.

Some argue that drones are highly effective tools in conflict situations. Drones can conduct long-term surveillance, and when combined with other forms of intelligence, supporters argue, can identify individual targets with a high degree of precision, thereby minimizing harm to civilians. And, because they are unmanned, they can be controlled from great distances, posing little physical risk to their American operators.

Others argue that drone attacks are akin to targeted assassinations and therefore raise legal and moral questions, like how targets are vetted and what legal safeguards exist to protect against the improper targeting of particular individuals? Critics also argue that innocent civilians are often killed or injured in drone strikes. That undermines U.S. foreign policy, critics say, by creating widespread ill will in strategically important countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A group of experts recently faced off over the use of armed drones in a debate for the Intelligence Squared U.S. series. The motion of the Oxford-style debate was, "The U.S. Drone Program Is Fatally Flawed."

Before the debate, the audience voted 23 percent in favor of the motion and 34 percent against, with 43 percent undecided. After the debate, 23 percent still agreed that "the U.S. drone program is fatally flawed," while 64 percent disagreed — making the side arguing against the motion the winners.

Those debating were:


Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. He presently writes for Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, The New York Review of Books, BBC Online, The National Interest and several other academic and foreign affairs journals. Previously, Rashid was the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review for 22 years. He is also the author of four books, including the recently updated second edition of the bestselling Taliban. He appears regularly on NPR, CNN and the BBC World Service. Rashid was educated at Malvern College in England, Government College in Lahore and at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University. His latest book is Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

John Kael Weston represented the United States for over a decade as a State Department official and political adviser to Marine units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to his wartime service — seven consecutive years in Iraq and Afghanistan (2003-2010) alongside U.S. Marines and soldiers in Fallujah, Khost, Sadr City and Helmand — Weston led American efforts in the U.N. Security Council to freeze and block al-Qaida-linked assets. Washington acknowledged his multiyear service in Fallujah with the Marines by awarding him one of its highest honors, the Secretary of State's Medal for Heroism. He has worked closely with a dozen general officers, one-star to four-star in rank. Since leaving government service in 2010, Weston has been a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. He is writing a book on his experience in both wars, including a section on drone warfare, scheduled to be published by Knopf in 2014.


Adm. Dennis Blair (U.S. Navy, retired), was director of National Intelligence from January 2009 to May 2010, leading 16 national intelligence agencies and administering a budget of $50 billion. From 2003 to 2006, he was the president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Defense Analyses. During his 34-year Navy career, Blair served as commander in chief, U.S. Pacific Command; served on guided missile destroyers in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets; and commanded the Kitty Hawk Battle Group. Ashore, he served as director of the Joint Staff and held budget and policy positions on the National Security Council. Blair is a member of Securing America's Future Energy's Energy Security Leadership Council and of the Aspen Homeland Security Council. His latest book is Military Engagement: Influencing Armed Forces Worldwide to Support Democratic Transitions.

Gen. Norton Schwartz (U.S. Air Force), retired as the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force (CSAF) in 2012, after serving for more than 39 years in the Air Force. Schwartz began his service as a pilot with the airlift out of Vietnam in 1975. He helped lead a joint special operations task force during the Gulf War in 1991 and served as the strategic planner for the Air Force, the second-in-command of the U.S. Special Operations Command and the senior operations officer for the U.S. Armed Forces. He was head of U.S. Transportation Command, and was appointed CSAF in 2008. Schwartz made a number of innovations as chief, including shifting emphasis from traditional aircraft to remotely piloted vehicle missions, strengthening execution and oversight of nuclear deterrence activities, as well as a range of still-classified efforts. Schwartz is also the president and CEO of Business Executives for National Security.

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