By Rachel Stohl:
During the Obama presidency, the U.S. drone program has been a topic of significant debate, with critics calling into question the program’s overall efficacy and highlighting the threat lethal drones pose to innocent civilians. Civilian casualties have raised a number of legal and ethical questions regarding use of this technology, particularly outside of active combat zones. Central to this debate is the secrecy surrounding the U.S. lethal drone program, including a lack of official information on casualty figures and accountability for mistakes.
The United States’ drone program has been responsible for more than 500 strikes in numerous countries where the United States is not engaged in active combat—such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen—even though the majority of drone missions overall have been for non-lethal purposes, such as surveillance and reconnaissance. To date, U.S. drone strikes are believed to have resulted in between 500 and 1,000 civilian deaths by some estimates. Estimates of strikes and casualties are all based on unofficial data, as the Obama administration has provided few details on its lethal drone program and has been loathe to acknowledge the extent to which civilians have been injured or killed by U.S. strikes. In a May 2 interview with CNN, Obama commented on increased drone use during his presidency, stating that “It became so easy to use [drones] without thinking through all the ramifications.”
This piece was originally published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 16, 2016