The Situation Room, a commander-in-chief with rapidly graying hair, a cluster of grim-faced men and women debating the ethics and the legality of a killing. This is how the Obama administration has for years sought to portray its notorious global drone killing program: cautious, calculated and as conscientious as possible.
The Obama administration just released numbers suggesting this depiction is closer to reality than fiction. It announced that drone strikes in countries excluding Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have resulted in between at least 64 and 116 noncombatant deaths during his administration. The president also issued an executive order effectively directing his successor to do as he is doing, and publish this data going forward.
This is a remarkable shift, even if you’re skeptical of numbers this low. Human rights groups and media have been seeking this information for years. The administration had always refused, citing national security. Instead of openly providing numbers, the administration leaked details about President Obama’s personal involvement in decision-making. The public was asked to trust its law professor president. He was no mere mortal, deigning to play judge, jury and executioner.
Today’s announcement may simply reflect that President Obama doesn’t trust his successors to be as scrupulous as he believes he has been. And no matter how one views the credibility of this data, that’s a good thing: no president should have the authority to kill in secret. President Obama set a harmful precedent of doing just that, carrying out strikes on a kind of global battlefield, spanning Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps places unknown to us. Now, he’s starting to dismantle his own dangerous legacy.
The new executive order means it will be harder for the next president to kill in total secrecy. After President Obama leaves, it will stay in effect unless his successor withdraws it. But to go backward on this commitment to disclose casualties annually, the next president would have to explain why – to a Congress that could be hostile, or simply thirsty for information about how the administration is handling counterterrorism operations.
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Today’s announcements could also have a ripple effect on the dozens of governments currently seeking to acquire drone technology. Obama’s use over the last seven years set a disastrous global precedent: using a new weapons technology as an excuse to kill in secret and without regard for international law. Today’s developments are an incremental but important step away from the notion that new technology is a license for secrecy – one that was all the more frightening because lethal autonomous robots and weaponized artificial intelligence, though still smacking of science fiction, are actually on the horizon.
The downside, though, is that the drone data could be completely misleading – and provide a veneer of legitimacy to unlawful killings. While Amnesty International has not compiled overall data on drone killings, we know that the law professor president depiction is, at best, only a part of the truth. There are reports of hundreds of unidentified people killed in apparent “signature strikes,” where targeting decisions were made on the basis of patterns of behavior rather than identification of a specific individual. Amnesty International and other groups have also documented so-called rescuer strikes, where the US killed or injured individuals who were trying to help the victims of an initial strike.
We don’t know how the US counted individuals killed in these strikes, or the basis for those decisions. But if the US presumptively counted all of them as “noncombatants”, its data could be dramatically skewed. Indeed, without more information about the government’s standards, it’s impossible to reliably assess this data – or know whether it includes potentially unlawful killings like those we documented, such as the 2012 killing of a woman who was gathering vegetables in her family’s mostly vacant field. If the Obama administration is serious about transparency, it should finally confirm or deny the killings we documented, and say whether it counted these individuals as “noncombatants”.
The drone numbers could also wrongly obscure how entrenched and systematic impunity has become. The CIA, an agency with an extremely poor record of accountability to the public, is still conducting strikes. Indeed, it is remarkable that on the heels of its abusive program of torture and secret detention under former president Bush, the CIA was entrusted with the authority to conduct hundreds of drone strikes, killing thousands of people. Its continued role is likely one reason we aren’t getting fuller answers to our questions about drones.
Today’s disclosures aren’t enough to guard against future abuse by the CIA or other government agencies. Congress, while welcoming the transparency, should scrutinize the drone casualty numbers. And the drone data should not be the government’s last word on the impact of drone strikes: it should acknowledge, apologize and compensate civilian victims.
The communities that live at the other end of drone fire already suffer a peculiar invisibility in the US public’s understanding. Media reports use sanitized terms like “compound” and “convoy”. Raw numbers, like today’s, could contribute to this process of erasure: we have numbers to assign to the people who were killed, and now the government has assigned categories to them, but no names. Without more, theirs are just the lives of others.