Obama Administration Receives Poor Grades On Reforming US Drone Policy

Stimson Spotlight

Obama Administration Receives Poor Grades On Reforming US Drone Policy

The Obama administration received poor grades — including three F’s — in a new report card released today evaluating their progress made in implementing nonpartisan recommendations to reform U.S. drone policy. The report released by the nonpartisan Stimson Center titled Grading Progress on U.S. Drone Policy: Report Card on The Recommendations of The Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, comes a year and a half after The Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy recommended eight steps to make America’s drone policy more transparent, accountable, and consistent with long-term U.S. national security interests. The report card release represents the first comprehensive assessment of progress made implementing the recommendations of The Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, which was composed of senior military and intelligence officials as well as legal experts from the Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton administrations.

“Little progress has been made during the past year and a half to enact reforms that establish a more sensible U.S. drone policy consistent with America’s long-term security and economic interests,” said report author and Project Director of the Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drones Policy Rachel Stohl. “The lack of a clear drone policy risks leaving a legacy on drone use that is based on secrecy and a lack of accountability that undermines efforts to support the international rule of law.” 

The report card evaluated the Obama administration’s progress toward a dozen goals — each of the task force’s eight recommendations and four sub-recommendations. The report uses a letter grading scale of A through F, with a grade of A representing that all elements of the task force’s recommendations were implemented and F representing no discernable progress was made. Overall, the administration received three C’s, three D’s, and three F’s. The administration also received three U’s or ‘unknown’— where limited public information available made it not possible to accurately assess if steps had been taken to implement a task force recommendation. View the full report card grades here.

The administration received a failing grade of F in three areas: a lack of progress on releasing information publicly to improve transparency in targeted drone strikes, a lack of progress developing more robust oversight and accountability mechanisms for targeted strikes outside of traditional battlefields, and a lack of progress ordering preparation and public release of a detailed report explaining the legal basis under domestic and international law of the U.S. lethal drone program. The administration received its highest grade of C in three areas: progress made releasing a new export policy on drones, progress toward adopting rules and regulations for the use of drones in U.S. airspace under the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Bill, and progress acknowledging the use of drones strikes in foreign countries.

The report card identified six immediate steps the Obama administration could take without a significant delay or cost to improve U.S. drone policy:

1. Release the Presidential Policy Guidance on “U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities” to provide the basic framework for U.S. drone strikes.

2. Conduct a publicly available strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of lethal drone strikes, particularly in counterterrorism operations.

3. Provide the domestic and international legal framework for the U.S. drone program, including the release of the legal memos undertaken by the Office of Legal Counsel, the CIA, and DoD that contain the interpretations used by the United States with regard to international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

4. Provide historical data, even in aggregate and after strikes have occurred, regarding the specific details of U.S. lethal drone strikes, including the number of strikes in a particular location, the number of casualties, and who conducted the strikes.

5. Set out high-level thoughts on an international law framework for drone use, and a clear and distinct negotiating process to work toward that framework.

6. Propose a revised scope of International Traffic in Arms Regulations/United States Munitions List (USML) coverage for UAVs, in the context of the ongoing USML list reform exercise. 

“There are pragmatic steps that President Obama can take prior to the end of his term to improve America’s drone policy,” said Stohl. “Doing so would set a positive precedent for the next administration and better balance legal and ethical frameworks with national security and foreign policy concerns. But time is running out.” 

The report card represents the independent analysis of the Stimson Center. It was based on input from task force members, but does not reflect the view of every task force member and was not “endorsed” by the task force as a whole. The task force’s 2014 report — Recommendations and Report of The Task Force On U.S. Drone Policy — can be read here.

Founded in 1989, the Stimson Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank devoted to addressing transnational challenges in order to enhance global peace and economic prosperity.