President Barack Obama has failed to fulfill his repeated promises to end the “culture of secrecy” that has defined his administration’s use of drones to target Islamist extremists overseas, according to a damning report issued Tuesday by a leading Washington think tank.
The review by the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan research organization, gives the Obama administration an “F” for failing to provide a clear legal justification for its use of drones to kill al Qaeda or Islamic State extremists in countries where the United States is not at war. And the administration also receives an “F” for failing to ensure strong oversight and accountability for the secret program, which has become a signature of Obama’s tenure. There are also “Ds” and “unknowns” awarded to the White House on other aspects of the drone program.
“The lack of action reinforces the culture of secrecy surrounding the use of armed drones,” according to the report. “With a year remaining in this administration, this is the last chance to place the program on firmer footing and ensure that it is on a more transparent and accountable track for the next administration.”
America’s use of armed drones as an instrument of war began under former President George W. Bush, but greatly accelerated under Obama, who saw the unmanned, robotic aircraft as an ideal way of killing enemies in remote parts of the world without having to send in ground forces on risky missions. Bush ordered about 50 drone strikes, but under Obama’s watch, there have been roughly 500 strikes. While Bush had used armed drones mostly in Pakistan, Obama has deployed them in Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, with at least six American citizens among the many hundreds killed. And Obama has also built up a network of about a dozen drone bases abroad, from Niger to Kuwait. The most recent strike came on Monday, when a U.S. drone fired four missiles at suspected militants in the Kurram region of Pakistan.
Obama had promised more openness and scrutiny for U.S. drone strikes in a speech in May 2013, which White House officials at the time portrayed as a major shift away from a state of perpetual secret war against terrorists. Administration officials had suggested at the time that the Pentagon would take over the bulk of the drone operations from the CIA, a move that would have made the strikes more transparent. That shift has never materialized, and key aspects of the drone program — including who makes the call to kill individual militants and using what criteria — remain classified.
While the number of strikes has declined in Pakistan and Yemen, meanwhile, the tactic remains a pillar of Obama’s counterterrorism strategy and a lightning rod for criticism at home and abroad.
“The rhetoric has not matched the reality with regards to the U.S. drone program,” Rachel Stohl, the author of the report, told Foreign Policy. “At this point, with this many years behind us in the drone program, saying, ‘Just trust us,’ isn’t enough any more.”
The highest grade the Obama administration earned in the report was a “C” for its efforts to adopt guidelines for exporting drone technology to other countries.
When asked about the report, Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told FP the Obama administration is “committed to being as open and transparent as possible when it comes our counterterrorism operations.”
Administration officials regularly insist that the U.S. drone program is an effective tool that is more precise than using ground troops or larger-scale bombing with manned aircraft. But critics argue that the administration needs to publicly release the criteria used to decide which militants to kill and consider whether taking out extremists is worth the civilian casualties caused. More broadly, some critics — both Democrats and Republicans — say the United States would be better served capturing and interrogating militants than simply killing them from above.
In 2013, the administration released an unclassified summary of its policy guidelines for the use of force in counterterrorism operations, but it’s not clear what agencies are involved, whether those guidelines have been carried out, or in which countries they have been applied, according to the report.
When administration and intelligence officials say the drone strikes are effective, Stohl said it’s not clear what underpins their claims. “How are they evaluating that? How are they determining whether or not this program has had this desired outcome?” she said.
The efficacy of the strikes and the quality of the intelligence behind them have come under repeated criticism in recent years, particularly after the Jan. 15, 2015, raid that killed missing U.S. aid worker Warren Weinstein and an Italian colleague, Giovanni Lo Porto, who were being held hostage by al Qaeda in Pakistan. U.S. intelligence agencies did not know the hostages were at the site, and it took them weeks to confirm their deaths. U.S. officials also later acknowledged that drone strikes in the same month had killed two American members of al Qaeda, but the CIA did not identify the militants in advance or intentionally go after them.
The Weinstein family, which has been sharply critical of the FBI’s handling of the case, issued a statement on Monday saying it had yet to be compensated for the bombing raid, and their attorney alleged the government had “stonewalled” Weinstein’s wife over the terms of the payment.
The number of civilians killed or wounded in the strikes has also generated controversy and raised concerns that the operations foment more violent extremism directed at the United States. The Obama administration has insisted only a small number of civilians have been inadvertently killed in the strikes. Independent estimates from the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal, which are based mainly on local media reports, have put the number in the hundreds, ranging from about 300 to more than 900 between 2004 and 2014. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates several thousand civilians have died in the drone bombing raids.
The report card issued Tuesday also took the administration to task for failing to show global leadership in coming up with international rules for the use of armed drones outside of traditional battlefields. Dozens of countries now have fleets of unmanned aircraft, and at least nine governments have armed drones: China, France, Iran, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Britain, and the United States. The report said Washington’s reliance on secretive drone strikes could lead other countries to cite the U.S. raids as justification for their own unilateral strikes, without a clear basis in international law.
The report card followed up on a 2014 study by the Stimson Center — which was drafted by former military officers, diplomats, and Pentagon officials — that called on the administration to introduce more transparency and restrictions on the use of drones for “targeted killings.”
That report was significant for its pragmatic tone and for the background of its authors, which included retired four-star Gen. John Abizaid, the former head of U.S. Central Command, and Rosa Brooks, a former senior Pentagon legal advisor.
This story was updated at 7:09 a.m. EST.
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