Technology & Trade

Is Obama’s Transparency on Drone Policy Too Little, Too Late?

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By Ellen Laipson: 

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles for lethal purposes has generated passionate debates about how this not-so-new technology has changed the rules of war, creating a demand for new global norms. On the domestic front, drone technology raises difficult public policy issues related to commerce, ethics, air safety and good government. The Obama administration’s recent decisions to release its policy guidance for drone use and civilian casualty data will help temper public misgivings, but the debate will continue. 

Last week, the Obama administration indicated that it will release the policy guidance used by U.S. national security agencies for use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the war against terrorism. This is an important and overdue step in aligning the administration’s words on transparency with its deeds. President Barack Obama has long sought to revise practices and presumably restrain the use of drones in the ambiguous battlefields of Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya, and perhaps elsewhere in the Sahel and Southwest Asia. But the government bureaucracy has resisted, for legalistic and security reasons. Even on the domestic policy front, where the debate is not about targeted killing but about airline safety and commercial rights, a surprising amount of secrecy surrounds the discussion of drones. 

Unfortunately, the inability to explain to the American public why, how and how often drones are being used as weapons has taken its toll. The secrecy surrounding drones is part of the post-9/11 canon that asks the public to trust the government to define the proper line between security and personal privacy, as in the Apple vs. FBI case; or to ensure that the lethal use of drones is managed with the right set of checks and balances to minimize collateral damage and avoid other possible abuses. But there is a trust deficit that must be acknowledged. 

Citizens and consumers want to have it both ways. They want the government to keep the threats far away, and they often support what it takes to have robust military and intelligence capabilities. But at least some portion of the public is profoundly uneasy with what appears to be broad authority to use drones, with no obligation to report, after the fact, on their use and impact. Concerned citizens are left to wonder whether to believe the sometimes sensational reporting on mistaken strikes on wedding parties, and other human tragedies allegedly caused by drone strikes. Government press spokespeople do not seem to quell these questions and concerns by simply dismissing such stories wholesale. 

At another level, there are new policy dilemmas for the military and intelligence professionals who conduct these operations, from surveillance, targeting and planning to remotely guiding the armed and unmanned platforms to fire. There are real worries about the morality of no-risk war: When the safety of U.S. troops is assured, does it make the military more willing to use force? There are also troublesome questions raised about collateral costs of striking the terrorists, who are often operating in civilian space. 

George Brant’s Off Broadway play “Grounded,” staged last year with Anne Hathaway playing the anguished UAV pilot, captured some of these moral dilemmas on a very intimate, human scale. While spared the physical dangers of manned flight, some pilots report a moral and philosophical distress in such one-sided combat. As the play’s director, Julie Taymor, put it, the pilots might be physically safe, but their minds are not. 

In 2014, the Stimson Center released a report that called for more transparency, oversight and accountability in the use of drones; assurances that the administration is weighing the costs and benefits of their use; and work to develop international norms for the use of force outside traditional battlefields. The task force included former military, intelligence and legal experts, who were surprised to find such strong consensus among them about the need for some policy adjustments. 

Last month, Stimson offered a report card on the administration’s efforts to reform its drones policy, and the grades were quite low. The news of a pending release of a key policy document and more data on drones related casualties should bring at least the transparency grade up a bit, but the bottom line is that the White House has found it harder than expected to implement reforms. There are probably some legitimate security concerns, accompanied by an equal dose of bureaucratic resistance to change. 

Thoughtful and respected national security figures with first-hand knowledge of the drones program and the existing policy parameters are confident they suffice to ensure that drones remain a precise and useful tool that improves counterterrorism capabilities. Most recently, former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden has defended drones as less costly than the alternatives, both in their financial price tag and casualty toll. He is trying to narrow the knowledge gap between the public and the government: Investigative journalists report hundreds of civilian deaths from drones in just one arena—tribal Pakistan—while administration officials speak of “single digit” casualties in congressional testimony.
The drones debate will surely continue, with no easy resolution in sight. Legal scholars will spend years determining whether the international norms on the rules of war can and should be amended to address the amorphous categories of unmanned vehicles and borderless conflict. In fact, some will regret that the enthusiasm with which drones were embraced as a U.S. counterterrorism tool had the unintended consequence of making them attractive and quickly available to both states and nonstate actors, including America’s adversaries. 

But technology moves faster than the norm-setting process, which requires both cumulative empirical data and political will. The administration’s new steps will help increase public understanding of this tool and the rules that govern its use. The policy document will probably raise new criticisms and concerns, but that too is part of the process. 

Ellen Laipson served as president and chief executive officer of the Stimson Center from 2002 to October 2015. She now is president emeritus and distinguished fellow.

This piece was adapted from an article that originally ran in World Politics Review, March 8, 2016

Photo credit: U.S. Government Work via Flickr

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