Drones: From bad habit to terrible policy

February 4, 2014

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently lambasted legislation that may prevent the White House from transferring the lethal drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department. The provision is in a classified part of the bill, so the public may never know what it says.

This culture of secrecy underscores the reality that real drone reform is on the verge of conclusively failing to launch. Despite months of political fury and negative press, the drone program and its worst impulse — to kill without accountability for who is killed and why — are poised to become a permanent part of the way the United States conducts counterterrorism.

If there is to be any real reform on drone strikes, it must come this year — while the revelations over National Security Agency surveillance are keeping heat on the White House. Secrecy is the common denominator of the criticism the White House faces on both issues. President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on transparency and reform will always trigger cynicism so long as his administration’s practices of official secrecy continue.

In May 2013, the White House responded to criticism about secrecy — including a filibuster by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — by releasing a “fact sheet” on its “policy standards” for drone strikes. It detailed the administration’s aspirations for a contained drone program. But the document does nothing to allay concerns that when push comes to shove, the United States will bend the legal rules: using elastic and unconventional legal definitions to permit expansive and potentially unlawful killings.

It has been a year since a leaked Justice Department memo on the killing of U.S. citizens sparked a political firestorm. The public reaction to that was as fierce as the fury over NSA surveillance is now. Yet the drone reform scorecard remains dismal. Most members of Congress have never seen the government memos describing the legal justifications for killings. We do not know how many memos exist and which issues they cover. Relatively few Congress members have even seen the memos that specifically authorize the killing of U.S. citizens.

The administration, meanwhile, refuses to officially acknowledge nearly every drone strike — even the December 2013 strike that killed at least a dozen members of a wedding party in Yemen and caused an uproar in that country and internationally.

After Obama’s speech last May on national security, vocal critics like Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Paul should have pushed for greater White House concessions. Instead, their focus — and the country’s — shifted to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance programs.

Today, surveillance is the most potent symbol of government secrecy gone haywire. Yet drone killings continue and, despite official secrecy, they are increasingly notorious around the world.

When Amnesty International issued a report last fall about potentially unlawful drone strikes — including the killing of a grandmother and a 14 year-old boy —secrecy was so entrenched that the government would not even acknowledge responsibility for the strikes. Government spokespeople clumsily parried reporters’ questions, restating the president’s pledges to avoid killing civilians and refusing to discuss “specific operations.”

That made it look like the government had something to hide. Perhaps it did.

Far more credible than the president’s promises of transparency would be actual accountability. The White House should declassify drone operations once they are completed — as is the case with many military operations — and come clean about who has been killed and why. The White House can immediately commit to full, prompt and impartial investigations of all credible allegations of potentially unlawful killings.

Members of Congress, who have sent the administration nearly two dozen requests for information on drone strikes prior to this year, should renew their demands. They should not just seek the legal memos on killings, but push for administration officials to testify in an open hearing, answering specific questions about the legal rules in place, the identity of those killed and the impact of drone strikes.

The Senate and House Intelligence committees, which have more access to information than the rest of Congress, should to the greatest extent possible make the results of their investigations into the drone program public.

Secrecy about drone killings is about to transform from a bad habit into a terrible tradition — one the United States may keep for another generation at least, and export to the dozens of countries now acquiring drone technology.

Congress and the White House should end the secrecy — before it becomes too ingrained to end.


PHOTO (TOP): A supporter of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, an Islamic organization, shouts slogans during a protest against U.S. drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal region in Karachi, November 8, 2013. REUTERS/Athar Hussain

PHOTO (INSERT): An X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft comes to a stop after landing on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, July 10, 2013. REUTERS/Rich-Joseph Facun


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