On Thursday, President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a major speech in Washington about his administration's counterterrorism policies, focusing on the rationale and legal framework for the controversial CIA drone program and his plans to wind down the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
So we thought it might be useful to examine some common myths about the drone program and the prison population at Guantanamo.
1. Drone strikes largely target the leaders of terrorist groups that threaten the United States.
In fact, of the thousands who have been killed in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, only 37 were leaders of al Qaeda or affiliated organizations, according to a tally by the New America Foundation. And even if we add to that list the leaders of the Taliban who have been killed in drone strikes, only 2% of the victims of the CIA strikes in Pakistan have been militant leaders.
The drone program, which began more than a decade ago as a tool to kill leaders of terrorist groups, has evolved today into a counterinsurgency air force whose principal victims in Pakistan are lower-level members of the Taliban.
2. Drone strikes target specific terrorists who pose some kind of imminent threat to the U.S.
Obama's top counterterrorism adviser and now CIA Director John Brennan said in a speech last year that "in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives -- the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al Qaeda terrorists."
That's only partly true, because the CIA has also has occasionally conducted "signature strikes" against groups of men who display a particular behavioral "signature" that indicates they may be militants. In these cases, the targeter does not know the identity of the persons in the drone cross hairs.
3. Drone strikes kill a lot of civilians.
That was certainly once the case. Under President George W. Bush, the proportion of those killed by drones in Pakistan who were identified in reliable news reports as civilians or "unknowns" -- people who were not identified definitively as either civilians or militants -- was around 40%, according to data assembled by the New America Foundation.
But the civilian and "unknown" casualty rate from drone strikes has fallen steadily over the life of the program. Under Obama that number has fallen to 16%. And in 2012 it was around 11%.
In 2012, 2% of the drones' victims were characterized as civilians in news reports and 9% were described in a manner that made it ambiguous whether they were militants or civilians.
And in 2013, civilian casualties are at their lowest ever. That is partly the result of a sharply reduced number of drone strikes in Pakistan -- 12 so far in 2013, compared with a record 122 in 2010 -- and also more precise targeting. According to data collected by the New America Foundation, three to five "unknown" individuals have been killed so far in drone strikes in 2013. Two other organizations that track the CIA drone program in Pakistan, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Long War Journal, report zero to four civilian deaths and 11 civilian deaths respectively.
4. The United States has no reason to worry about the legal framework governing drone strikes because it is so dominant in drone technology.
Only three countries currently are confirmed to possess armed drones -- Israel, the United Kingdom and the U.S. But some 80 countries have drones, according to a count by the New America Foundation, and a number of them may already be able to arm them.
In February, a Chinese state-run newspaper reported that the Chinese government had contemplated deploying an armed drone in a remote, mountainous area to kill a drug lord, but decided instead to capture him.
Iran unveiled what it claimed was its first armed drone in 2010.
During a speech last week at the New America Foundation, the U.N. special rapporteur for counterterrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, estimated that "within a matter of certainly a year or two, other states will be deploying the technology, and within five years or so we will see a number of states and possibly nonstate actors deploying similar types of combat technology."
Emmerson also pointed out that the rapid proliferation of drone technology means whatever legal framework the United States puts together to justify its targeted killing campaign "has to be a framework that we can live with if it is being used by Iran when it is deploying drones against Iranian dissidents hiding inside the territory of Syria or Turkey or Iraq." A sobering and instructive thought.
5. The Pakistani government gives a wink and a nod to the drone program, providing tacit approval for its continuation.
It is true that Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf quietly agreed to allow the CIA's targeted killing campaign to begin in 2004. But the program has become deeply controversial and unpopular in Pakistan because of the perception that it kills many civilians and that it erodes Pakistan's national sovereignty.
In April 2012, the Pakistani parliament voted unanimously to rescind any previous permission that had been granted by the government for the CIA to conduct the targeted killing program.
During Ben Emmerson's visit to Pakistan in March to discuss the CIA drone program with top officials, the point made to him "consistently, right across government, at the highest level and throughout, was that there is no continuing consent to the use of drones on Pakistani territory."
The next Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was elected on May 11 with a clear mandate, has urged an end to the drone strikes, telling reporters, "Drones indeed are challenging our sovereignty. Of course we have taken this matter up very seriously. I think this is a very serious issue, and our concern must be understood properly."
6. Obama is soft on terrorists.