In this history of the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) use of drones for targeted killing, Christopher J. Fuller provides a compelling—and somewhat revisionist—narrative, suggesting the presence of a high degree of consistency in US counterterrorism policy from the Reagan administration onwards. Fuller argues that the drafting of National Security Decision Directive 138 (NSDD 138) determined the core elements of US counterterrorism policy—namely the treatment of terrorism as a national security issue (rather than a matter for law enforcement), as well as a willingness to pursue terrorists pre-emptively across national borders and to act lethally—which provided the backbone for the CIA-led use of lethal drones under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations (p. 22). Fuller provides a powerful counterpoint to the common argument that the CIA's activities were militarized following the September 11 attacks, highlighting that the creation of the agency's Counterterrorism Center (CTC) in 1986 already carried the seeds of covert, lethal counterterrorism. See it/shoot it charts the drafting of NSDD 138 under President Reagan (chapter one), the creation of the CTC (chapter three), and the selection of lethal drones as the pre-eminent tool for President Obama's threefold strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan (chapter six). Fuller focuses on the bureaucratic struggles which, he argues, delayed the enactment of the principles of NSDD 138, yet ultimately led to the fulfilment of its vision. Chapter four introduces the book's main theoretical device—the ‘covert action pendulum’ (p. 130)—which describes how the CIA regularly swings from increased covertness to more risk-averse policy and greater oversight. However, this formulation is somewhat analytically limited and fails to unite all parts of the book. Despite this, Fuller's conclusion that the CIA operates most effectively within clear legal and ethical limits is certainly pertinent (p. 175). The pendulum, in Fuller's view, explains many of the weaknesses of US counterterrorism in the 1990s, as the fierce backlash from the Iran-Contra scandal introduced a risk-averse culture throughout the Agency which—combined with a lack of clear directives from the Clinton administration—prevented the formation of a coherent counterterrorism strategy. Two central features stand out in Fuller's account of the development of US counterterrorist policy. First, his narrative rejects ‘structural’ factors (p. 151) in counterterrorism policy-making, emphasizing instead the role of ‘the personal preferences of senior government officials’ (p. 72). Thus the first chapter is organized around portraits of key actors in Reagan's National Security Council. Most prominent are the authors of NSDD 138: Secretary of State George P. Shultz, ‘arguably the forefather of the concept of the War on Terror’ (p. 28), Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey and Oliver North, who characterized himself as the National Security Council's ‘de facto counterterrorism coordinator’ (p. 37). Later chapters focus on Duane Clarridge, first director of the CTC, Richard A. Clarke, President Clinton's counterterrorism adviser, and John O. Brennan, who was President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, later CIA director, and who is considered the ‘architect of the Obama Administration's drone campaign’ (p. 210). Second, the history of the CIA's drone programme is marked by bureaucratic stalemates. See it/shoot it highlights the traumatic role of terrorist attacks in addressing ethical, legal and political controversies and in forcing changes in policy. Dilemmas—such as the conflict between law enforcement and military approaches to counterterrorism (prior to NSDD 138), and the legality of killing terrorists in light of the presidential ban on assassinations—are not so much resolved as bypassed in the aftermath of major events such as the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and of course the September 11 attacks. This narrative, according to which policy dilemmas were not so much resolved through deliberate decisions as ignored following major attacks, also highlights the obvious absences of this book. Fuller devotes very little attention to tracing the substantial debates surrounding the most controversial elements of current US counterterrorism policy. For instance, he takes ‘pre-emption’ at face value as a central tenet of US policy, but does not discuss the debates surrounding the distinction (and conflation) of pre-emptive action and preventive action (p. 30). Similarly, while he outlines the concerns which led to President Obama abandoning the Bush-era extraordinary rendition programme, readers may wish for more detail on the legal foundations which justified a policy which favoured killing terrorists over attempting to capture them. These are essential features of drone-led counterterrorism and they are not fully explained in this book. Fuller's thesis—that the extensive use of lethal drones by the CIA during the ‘war on terror’ represents the execution of principles drawn up under the Reagan administration—is well argued and provides a clear thread to his book. Fuller gives a vital history of the development of drone warfare, which should be essential reading to scholars of intelligence studies, counterterrorism and contemporary war studies among others. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. 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International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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