President Obama is on pace to leave a flawed legacy on America’s use of drones. Near the midway point of the president’s second term, a task force of senior military and intelligence officials from the Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton administrations recommended eight steps that would make America’s drone policy more transparent, accountable and consistent with long-term U.S. national security goals. Eighteen months later, the Obama administration has made little to no progress on achieving those goals. Now, as the clock winds down on the president’s time in office, there is still an opportunity to enact reforms that establish a sensible and comprehensive U.S. drone policy.
In 2014, I served as project director for the Stimson Center’s nonpartisan task force reviewing U.S. drone policy. Co-chaired by retired Gen. John P. Abizaid, the former head of United States Central Command, and Rosa Brooks, former counselor to the under secretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama administration, the task force took a comprehensive view of the United States’ lethal drone program by examining national security goals, foreign policy ideals and commercial interests related to the growing demand and use of unmanned systems. The report detailed eight recommendations to help guide U.S. drone policy for this administration and the next. The recommendations focus on improving oversight, accountability and transparency; developing forward-looking international norms relating to the use of lethal force in nontraditional settings; devising sound export control and research and development policies; and developing drone standards for domestic and international use.
A year and a half later, there has been little progress in achieving these goals. In fact, when viewed as a report card with a letter grade of “A” representing a completed goal and “F” representing no discernable progress made, the administration’s grade card is underwhelming — filled with C’s, D’s, and F’s. Notably, the administration receives a failing grade in the category of developing more robust oversight and accountability mechanisms for targeted strikes outside of traditional battlefields due to the administration’s continued opposition to release pertinent information on the justifications underlying the U.S. drone program and lack of an independent commission to review U.S. lethal drone policy. Additionally, several categories receive a grade of “Unknown” — including the recommendation to conduct a strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of the role of lethal drones in targeted counterterrorism strikes — due to the secrecy surrounding the drone program. But there are brighter spots, particularly with regard to some progress on a new export policy as well as steps toward adopting rules and regulations for the use of drones in U.S. airspace.
With less than a year left to make final policy changes, the administration would do well to focus on ensuring that the drone program is viewed with greater confidence globally, sets a positive precedent and helps develop appropriate international norms and standards. President Obama could take three meaningful steps during his remaining time in office to fulfill these goals.
First, to support calls for greater transparency, the administration should release, in full, 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.” Currently, only a fact sheet on the policy guidance is available publicly. Releasing this information will provide — or at the very least allow the American public, as well as our global partners and allies to understand — the basic framework for U.S. drone strikes and answer significant domestic and international criticism.
Similarly, the administration should provide the domestic and international legal framework for the U.S. drone program, including the release of the legal memosundertaken by the Office of Legal Counsel, the CIA and the Pentagon that contain the government’s interpretations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law and how they apply to lethal drone strikes. The release of these memos will provide sought-after explanations of the legality of U.S. drone use and operations, which in turn can lead to greater accountability and a more coherent international precedent.
Third, the administration should provide historical data — even in aggregate and after strikes have occurred — on the specific details of U.S. drone strikes, including the number of strikes in a particular location, the number of casualties and who conducted the strikes. Such data will allow a greater understanding of the impact and efficacy of the U.S. drone program and allow for the undertaking of a detailed cost-benefit study of the program.
During his final months in office, President Obama can and should prioritize establishing a sustainable U.S. drone policy. This policy would better balance legal and ethical frameworks with national-security and foreign policy concerns — especially in light of heightened insecurity and increased military actions around the globe. Time is running out to do so.
Rachel Stohl is the director of the Conventional Defense program at the Stimson Center and the primary author of the recently released report “Grading Progress on U.S. Drone Policy.”
This piece originally ran in USA Today, February 23, 2016