For our October 2016 update on the presidential candidates, click here.
By Arthur Holland Michel
Isobel Coen contributed to research for this story.
In the crowded presidential primary field, the use of drones for targeted killing has received very little attention compared to issues such as immigration reform, income inequality, and climate change. And yet whoever succeeds President Obama in 2017 will play a direct role in U.S. counterterrorism operations that will likely include targeted drone strikes outside of conventional battlefields, in places like Pakistan and Yemen. We have looked at each of the current primary candidates to discern their positions on drone strikes. Some have explicitly stated a position, while others have expressed opinions about broader counterterrorism strategies and the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
According to a national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, a majority of the U.S. public supports U.S drones strikes. A higher proportion of Republican respondents, about 74%, support U.S. drone strikes, while about 52% of Democrats approve of the strikes. These statistics are largely mirrored in the primary candidate field. Every Republican candidate who has expressed a position in detail supports the use of drones for targeted killing to at least a limited degree. Five GOP candidates believe that Obama’s limited airstrikes will not be enough to counter the the threat of terrorist groups, and contend that these operations must be supplemented either with the expanded use of airstrikes or by ground troops. Meanwhile, six candidates across both parties support drones strikes but have expressed concerns about their strategic impact, their legality, and their implications for civil liberties. Only two candidates, Democrat Lincoln Chafee and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, fully oppose the use of drones for targeted strikes.
Jeb Bush’s limited statements on Obama’s drone use suggest that he believes that the surgical air campaigns of the current administration should be expanded and should include ground operations.
In his candidacy announcement in June, he contended that President Obama’s “phone-it-in foreign policy” will leave “a legacy of crises uncontained. Violence unopposed. Enemies unnamed. Friends undefended. And alliances unraveling.” Bush then went on to add that “This supposedly risk averse administration is also running straight in the direction of the greatest risk of all, military inferiority.”
In statements and speeches, Bush has advocated for more substantive military intervention in Syria and Iraq. “We can’t do it by drones,” he told a group of reporters in Arizona in May. “We have to be there to train the military and to do the things that are being done right now. And I believe that if we had stayed the course in that, if we do, we will be successful.”
Ben Carson has proposed using armed drones on the U.S.-Mexico border. At a campaign event in Arizona, he told supporters, “I’m suggesting we do what we need to do to secure the border whatever that is.” Adding, “You look at some of these caves and things out there – one drone strike, boom, and they’d [be] gone.”
In a subsequent interview with CNN, Carson clarified his position. “I said that drones are excellent for surveillance. You know, along that border, we have miles and miles of fences. And, you know, I went there last week and didn’t see any Border Patrol people. And those fences are so easy to scale. It is almost like not having a fence there. So, drones can help with the surveillance. In no way did I suggest that drones be used to kill people. And I said that to the media at the time. I said, you guys are—some of you are going to go out and say Carson wants to use drones to kill people on the borders.” He added, “it’s possible that a drone could be used to destroy the caves that are utilized to hide people. Those need to be gotten rid of.”
Rand Paul supports the use of drones for targeted killings of al-Qaeda and affiliated combatants, but opposes the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens.
In March, 2013, Sen. Paul delivered a 13-hour filibuster during the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA Director to protest the U.S. targeted killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, and to warn against the possible use of lethal drone strikes against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. “I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court,” Paul said.
In May, 2014, Paul wrote an op-ed for The New York Times calling for the release of classified Office of Legal Counsel memos on targeted killing operations. “In battle, combatants engaged in war against America get no due process and may lawfully be killed. But citizens not in a battlefield, however despicable, are guaranteed a trial by our Constitution. No one argues that Americans who commit treason shouldn’t be punished. The maximum penalty for treason is death. But the Constitution specifies the process necessary to convict.”
Paul supports the use of drones for targeting individuals who are actively engaged in hostilities against the United States. In an interview with Fox and Friends following the deaths in a U.S. drone strike of a U.S. citizen and an Italian citizen being held hostage in Pakistan, Paul said, “I do think that there is a valuable use for drones and as much as I’m seen as an opponent of drones, in military and warfare, they do have some value,” Paul said. “I think this is a difficult situation. You have hostages being held; some of them are American. You have people holding hostages; some of them are American. I’ve been an opponent of using drones [against] people not in combat. However if you are holding hostages, you kind of are involved in combat. So I look at it the way it is in the United States. If there’s a kidnapping in New York, the police don’t have to have a warrant to go in.”
Like Paul, Ted Cruz supports the use of drones for targeted killings except in cases where the target is a U.S. citizen. Cruz has also raised concerns about the impact of drone warfare on foreign policy decisions.
In March, 2013, during a hearing with then-Attorney General Eric Holder, Cruz pressed Holder to say whether it would be constitutional for the U.S. government to conduct a lethal drone strike on a U.S. citizen suspected of being a terrorist (Holder’s response was that it would not). Shortly after, Sen. Cruz joined Sen. Paul in proposing an amendment (to a government spending bill) prohibiting targeted drone strikes against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, unless that person is about to inflict “serious bodily injury” on another person. The amendment didn’t pass.
In response to a question at a Foreign Policy Initiative event in December of last year, Cruz outlined his position on drones in greater detail: “Drones, it seems to me, are a tool. They are a tool that can have beneficial impacts in particular allowing us to project force without risking U.S. soldiers. But there are dangers as well. I am concerned, A, domestically, about the use of drones here at home.” Cruz continued, “I’m worried about what I would call video game warfare,” adding, “it’s cleaner and more antiseptic and I worry from a national security standpoint, just how much intelligence we’re losing if someone is in fact a serious terrorist, a terrorist leader, there are serious benefits if it is possible to apprehend that individual, and interrogating, finding out what else they’re working with, what plans are in place, who their contacts are…When you send a drone out, and just push a button, both of those benefits are lost. So I think we need to have a lot more thinking on the proper use of drones as a tool in warfare.”
Graham supports targeted drone strikes, and has advocated a policy of their use against al-Qaida and ISIS.
In a speech in February, 2013, Graham stated that even though “We’ve killed 4,700,” in strikes, drones are “a weapon that needs to be used.” “We don’t have any troops in that area,” he said, referring to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “So that’s where al-Qaeda and terrorists groups like the Akani Network and Al-Shabaab are residing, very remote regions. These drones can stay in the air for up to 24 hours and we can monitor people’s movement on the grounds.” He continued, “Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of al-Qaeda.” Addressing the targeted killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki, Graham said, “We’re not fighting a crime, we’re fighting a war. I support the president’s ability to make a determination as to who an enemy combatant is. It’s never been done by judges before. I support the drone program.”
Earlier this year, in a speech at the Iowa Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner, Graham reiterated his position in support of targeted strikes. “If I’m president of the United States and you’re thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL — anybody thinking about that? I’m not gonna call a judge. I’m gonna call a drone and we’re gonna kill you.”
Kasich supports the use of targeted drone strikes, but believes that drone operations should be moved from CIA to the Pentagon.
At a New America event in April, Kasich said, “I would not have [the targeted killing program] in the CIA. I would have it located in the Pentagon.” He continued, referring to the CIA, “They’re not the target experts. The experts in targeting is the Pentagon, the Air Force. The CIA’s supposed to give us the intelligence to figure out whether the targeting makes sense…I’d use CIA intelligence and I’d be extremely careful when I used it.” In April, speaking with CNN, Kasich said, “I don’t believe the drone program ought to be run out of the CIA,” adding, “the CIA is an intelligence-gathering operation. The operation, the drone program, should be operated exclusively out of the Pentagon,” he added.
Rubio supports the use of drones for targeted killing but has expressed concerns about the long-term strategic effects of the program.
“I think the American drone program is an important program, which I’m supportive of if used appropriately,” Rubio told The Tampa Bay Times after joining Sen. Rand Paul’s 2013 filibuster against targeting U.S. citizens with drones. “My biggest problem with the drone program is we no longer interrogate terrorists. Right now we’re not getting any information from terrorists because the first option is to kill them.” He added, “I’m not necessarily concerned about the drones being misused tomorrow but I do think that debate is important so we can set clear parameters. You don’t know what that issue will look like 10-20 years down the road.”
In May 2013, Rubio co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Angus King that would require an independent review for any proposed drone strike that would target a U.S. citizen. According to a statement issued by Sen. Rubio’s office, the Targeted Strike Oversight Reform Act of 2013 (which later became an amendment, and died in Congress) was aimed at “improving the balance between keeping our country safe from terrorists who plot against our people, and the accountability and oversight that are touchstones of our constitutional democracy.”
Speaking to reporters in June 2014, Rubio said that he supports the use of drone strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a means of disrupting the creation of a safe-haven for groups plotting to attack the U.S. “I think that [using drones against ISIS] is a very serious consideration that I would explore. Obviously, there are limitations on how much you can do,” Rubio explained, adding, “I don’t think that troops are the best way to do it at this point…But I do think that we have to have every option at our disposal, and that includes both missile strikes and air strikes against ISIL.”
George Pataki supports the use of drones for targeted killing, and has indicated that he endorses targeted strikes against U.S. nationals.
In an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Pataki said, “I think what Great Britain just did in using drones against British terrorists was the right thing. I think what we did in using the drones against Al-Maliki [and] Al-Iraqi was the right thing. If they are overseas enemy combatants engaged in terror, we should do everything in our power to kill them.”
Santorum has expressed support for targeted strikes against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, but opposes the use of drones against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. Furthermore, Santorum believes that President Obama’s targeted killings alone are not enough to counter terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
In an interview with Fox News in February 2013, Santorum argued that it is hypocritical for the Obama administration to give suspected terrorists civilian trials, while at the same time killing individuals suspected of terrorism in drone strikes. “If that American citizen is in theater, is in Afghanistan or was in Iraq or in a theater of operation where there is active hostility going against the United States, and there’s American citizen, you know, in the mountains of Afghanistan, then I think that policy makes sense…If that citizen—if that person’s here in the United States, obviously, we shouldn’t be able—shouldn’t be able to kill an American citizen here in the United States, you know, because of that suspicion. And I would have—I would have a much higher threshold of doing so in countries outside of the theater of operation.”
Santorum has contended that Obama’s targeted killing campaign is too “timid.” In an interview with Joe Scarborough in May, 2013, Santorum said, “The drone policy is one policy. What we’ve seen is an administration that has refused to confront radical Islam, that has — that embraced the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — and now you can see the consequences of that and you can see what has happened there.”
In a speech in February, Santorum argued that Obama’s current strategy against ISIS, which relies on targeted strikes, needs to be expanded to include ground troops. Santorum proposed deploying 10,000 U.S. troops to Iraq and Syria.
Gilmore supports the use of targeted drone strikes, but has argued that ground troops are necessary to win the fight against ISIS.
When Gilmore was asked on Fox News in July whether he would support “the sort of drone secret warfare, intelligence, CIA warfare that Barack Obama favors,” Gilmore responded, “Well, I think that the secret warfare is helping but it’s not going to solve the problem. I would favor taking specialized United States troops.”
In a conversation with Newsmax TV in April, Gilmore said, “It’s a straightforward thing, anybody that joins the military or the guerrilla operations of people who are enemies to the United States are traitors. And by putting themselves on the battlefield in this guerrilla war, they do subject themselves to being either taken back, which would be good, or killed by a drone strike.” Gilmore added, “The President says that he takes responsibility—what does that mean? It means, I guess, that he’s going to have to explain why the collateral damage is justified under these circumstances. It reawakens the entire debate on the question of how you deal with the guerilla warfare of al-Qaeda.”
Trump has not outlined a specific counterterrorism policy, but he has advocated for expanded airstrikes against the Islamic State.
Jindal has contended that the Obama administration has not done enough to eliminate terrorist groups.
In an interview with CNN in June, Jindal said, “I don’t think he’s gone far enough, in terms of hunting down and killing not only ISIS and other Islamic terrorists,”
Sanders supports the limited use of targeted drone strikes, but believes that collateral damage, when it occurs, is detrimental to U.S. interests in the region.
In an interview with ABC in August, Sanders, who described military intervention as “a last resort,” said, “I think we have to use drones very, very selectively and effectively. That has not always been the case.” He explained, “What you can argue is that there are times and places where drone attacks have been effective.” Sanders continued, “There are times and places where they have been absolutely counter-effective and have caused more problems than they have solved. When you kill innocent people, what the end result is that people in the region become anti-American who otherwise would not have been.”
In a conversation with the Iowa Press last month, Sanders reiterated his position. “I am concerned. I think we have seen situations where drone attacks have ended up doing us a lot more harm than good…When they can be effective, that’s good, but I think when they are killing, as they have done, innocent people—we’re seeing women and children being killed—that is not a good thing and it turns people against the United States. I think you’ve got to be very selective in that area.”
Clinton supports the use of targeted drone strikes, and says they were one of the most effective counter-terrorism strategies during her time in the Obama administration.
As secretary of state, Clinton was involved in the Obama administration’s targeted killing campaign in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. In her memoir, Hard Choices, she writes, “President Obama would eventually declassify many of the details of the program and explain his policies to the world, but in 2009 all I could say was ‘no comment’ whenever the subject came up.”
In remarks at the Global Counterterrorism Forum in Turkey in July 2012, Secretary Clinton asserted, “We will always maintain our right to use force against groups such as al-Qaeda that have attacked us and still threaten us with imminent attack,” adding, “In doing so, we will comply with the applicable law, including the laws of war, and go to extraordinary lengths to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life.”
In an interview with the Guardian in July 2014, Clinton said, “Clearly, the efforts that were made by the United States, in cooperation with our allies in Afghanistan and certainly the Afghan government, to prevent the threat that was in Pakistan from crossing the border, killing Afghans, killing Americans, Brits and others, was aimed at targets that had been identified and were considered to be threats. The numbers about potential civilian casualties I take with a somewhat big grain of salt because there has been other studies which have proven there not to have been the number of civilian casualties. But also in comparison to what? The Pakistani armed services were always saying, ‘Well, let us bomb these places.’ That would have been far more devastating in terms of casualties. But of course anyone who is an innocent bystander, especially a child, who’s caught up in any operation against terrorists, that is a cause of great concern and it is a cause of real disappointment and regret on our part.”
O’Malley has not voiced outright opposition to the use of drones for targeted killing, but has called for the policy to be scrutinized.
In April, following the deaths in a drone strike of an American and an Italian being held hostage by the Taliban, O’Malley said, in a statement, “There will and should be much discussion in the coming days and weeks about examining the military and intelligence parameters that need to define our nation’s use of drones.”
O’Malley has called for a foreign policy that reduces the emphasis on military power and instead focuses on diplomacy and international collaboration. “We may have the most sophisticated military in history,” O’Malley wrote in an op-ed for Time, “but we do not have a silver bullet for these problems. So we must pursue a more collaborative, proactive, and farsighted foreign policy.”
Chafee opposes the use of targeted drone strikes, and has linked the administration’s targeted killing program to anti-American sentiments in Muslim-majority countries.
In his campaign announcement speech, Chafee said, “Extrajudicial assassinations by drone strikes are not working. Many blame them for the upheaval in Yemen. And Pakistan is far too important a player for us to antagonize with these nefarious activities. They are not worth the collateral damage and toxic hatred they spread—let’s stop them.”
Webb has not explicitly supported or opposed the use of drones for targeted killings, but he has challenged unilateral military actions by the Obama administration.
In 2012, Sen. Webb introduced legislation that would have required congressional approval for foreign military interventions. “When should the president have the unilateral authority to decide to use military force,” Webb said, “and what is the place of the Congress in that process? Year by year, skirmish by skirmish, the role of the Congress in determining where the U.S. military would operate, and when the awesome power of our weapon systems would be unleashed, has diminished.”
In a 2013 op-ed for The National Interest Magazine, he wrote, referring to U.S. airstrikes in Libya in 2011, “The inherent right of self-defense allows the president, as commander in chief, to order strikes anywhere in the world against legitimate terrorist targets if the country in which they operate either cannot or will not take appropriate action itself. But this is a different concept than unilaterally commencing hostilities in situations that do not directly threaten our country. When we examine the conditions under which the president ordered our military into action in Libya, we are faced with the prospect of a very troubling, if not downright odd, historical precedent that has the potential to haunt us for decades.”
Stein strongly opposes the use of targeted drone strikes.
In a 2012 debate organized by Democracy Now!, Stein said, “No matter who is sitting in the Oval Office, we need to be standing up and demanding the kind of foreign policy we deserve. That is, a foreign policy based on international law and human rights. The drone wars are dreadful. It is said that they are actually 2% of their victims are thought to be key operatives within al-Qaeda or associated groups, so the vast majority of the people who are being killed are not significant operatives.”
Candidates who have not expressed explicit positions, to our knowledge:
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