Drones: An Outlier in a Transparent Presidency
President Obama is quite literally writing his legacy on the use of force during his second term. According to media reports, the administration is codifying the hows and whys of its drone policy in a handbook. The assumption is that the United States will put into doctrine what it has already created in practice: new rules for a new global reality with a newish technology.
Leave aside for a minute the fact that there already exists a rulebook governing drone use, called international law. If the new rulebook clarifies some of the outstanding questions surrounding U.S. drone use, if its elements show an adherence to international laws (both in practice and in spirit), and if the whole of the rulebook considers the precedent it will set for the rest of the world, then this is an effort that should be welcomed, because the explanations about covert drone use coming from top officials have so far been less than explanatory (Jeh Johnson's recent remarks being the exception, though they're still short on detail).
The modern-day creation of the drone – an unmanned airplane supported by a massive network of remote operators – is not the problem. It was only a matter of time before a sophisticated military found a way to take itself off the battlefield yet keep the ability to strike where and when it wishes. Used in specific military circumstances – in a full-scale combat theater like Afghanistan, for example, and with solid intelligence feeding into precise targeting – drones have the potential to minimize collateral damage.
Yet in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, the United States is using drones outside recognized combat theaters, with operations cloaked in secrecy. In these circumstances, good intelligence is dodgy, and there is little way to assess civilian harm post-strike. As a result, operators can't fully understand the negative impact of such strikes on the local population. Who is targeted, why, how and what civilian protection measures are put in place are unknown to anyone but a tight inner circle of policy makers – an about-face for a president who pledged a transparent government in his first term. And Congress is following his lead, reviewing high-level targets but avoiding the tough questions about the program's protocols or its repercussions.
The backlash against this particular use of drones is coming from human rights groups, think tanks, legal analysts and civilian populations themselves in places where drones are operating – the latter being the very same people the United States needs on its side in the fight against terrorism. It's little wonder that these populations are chanting "death to America." Their communities have been turned into combat zones, with no military in sight. They don't understand what will get them killed, and they live in constant, paralyzing fear. If a family member is indeed killed, there is no one to tell, no recourse and no explanation available other than an occasional denial from U.S. officials that it ever happened. America is not showing her best side when an Afghan civilian harmed by U.S. military operations can receive help but a Pakistani civilian harmed by a CIA drone strike cannot.
In defending national security, some degree of secrecy is expected, but the basic facts here are unnecessarily obscured. It's a surprising black hole for an administration that has otherwise been excellent on other human-rights and rule-of-law issues.
For the record, my outstanding questions should be simple to answer. (The military does it all the time in other contexts.) These questions include:
- How can covert drones conduct proper investigations into civilian harm post-strike?
- Without investigations on the ground, how can anyone truly know how many civilians have been killed?
- What is the administration's definition of a civilian?
- How does targeting based on behavior – so-called signature strikes – adhere to international law? Can civilians protect themselves from this behavior-based targeting?
- What kind of training do covert drone operators receive on civilian protection?
The answers can make the difference between ordinary civilians living or dying. When asked whether covert drones strikes are subjected to the same civilian protection standards used in, say, Afghanistan, senior officials offer statements of reassurance that amount to "just trust us."
There are bigger strategic questions, too, like whether drones are the panacea for terrorism that the administration and the American public appear to believe they are, or whether the short-term benefits of such strikes will turn rank, producing more active vitriol against America and becoming a long-term liability for national security. And not long from now, it shouldn't come as a surprise when America's less-beloved contemporaries begin using drones outside recognized battlefields and similarly withholding explanations of who is being targeted, how and why.
For better or worse, rulebook or not, President Obama is cementing his legacy and a global precedent for the use of force. The promise he made in his first term is one that should define what happens next: "Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."
By Sarah Holewinski, executive director of Center for Civilians in Conflict. This article was originally published January 16 by The Huffington Post, and is also included in InterAction's series of guest opinions by NGO leaders on ways to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective.