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U.S. drone policies are still shrouded in secrecy, and the Obama administration has done almost nothing to increase transparency, the report finds. (Photo: AK Rockefeller/flickr/cc)

Obama's Lethal Drone Policies Still Shrouded in Secrecy: Report

Lack of clear drone policy "undermines efforts to support the international rule of law," says new report by peace-focused think tank

Nadia Prupis

The Obama administration has made "virtually no progress" in increasing transparency and accountability in its lethal drone program, and risks far-reaching consequences in the U.S. and abroad without an overhaul of its policies, a new report released Tuesday concludes.

"We should demand more from our leaders in the conduct of war," report author Rachel Stohl told Common Dreams. If someone has to be killed in battle, "we should understand who they were, why they were targeted, what means were taken to address the situation."

Grading Progress on U.S. Drone Policy: Report Card on The Recommendations of The Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy (pdf), conducted by the peace-focused nonprofit think tank Stimson Center, found that the administration has largely failed to release key information about the program, publish a report that details the legal basis for its existence, or develop stronger oversight and accountability mechanisms for targeted strikes "outside of traditional battlefields."

Transparency and accountability "are fundamental to democracy and our role in the international community," Stohl said. "Without setting good standards and norms and establishing a good standard of leadership, the U.S. is allowing others to defer to the policy of saying, 'just trust us.'"

The report by the Stimson Center grades the Obama administration on a dozen policy recommendations issued in 2014 by the center's bipartisan task force on the drone program. Across all categories, the government earned three F's, three D's, and three C's, along with three U's, or "Unknowns," in cases where public information was too limited to assess.

"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 Stohl, who also serves as the task force project director. "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."

In April 2015, following a drone strike in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan that killed two civilians—Warren Weinstein, an American, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian—President Barack Obama announced that he had ordered a "full review of what happened."

As the Stimson Center noted in its report on Tuesday, "it is unclear where this review stands, and whether it will prompt any concrete changes to the U.S. drone program."

In its 2014 report (pdf), which issued the initial recommendations, the Stimson Center noted that "drone strikes in Pakistan had no apparent effect on levels of insurgent violence in Afghanistan," and in fact "could be creating a dynamic in which all insurgent organizations, even those that have few grievances against United States...feel threatened by the drones and seek support from other insurgent organizations that do have as their goal undermining the U.S. position in the region."

At least nine countries are believed to possess weaponized drones, Stimson reported on Tuesday—China, France, Iran, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.—and at least four have used them in combat.

The report card identified six immediate steps the Obama administration could take, without significant cost, to improve its drone policies:

  • 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.
  • Conduct a publicly available strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of lethal drone strikes, particularly in counterterrorism operations.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Propose a revised scope of International Traffic in Arms Regulations/United States Munitions List (USML) coverage for UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles], 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," Stohl said. "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."

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