In the last decade, the U.S. has launched over 400 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; seventy-five percent of them have been during the presidency of Barack Obama, and estimates indicate that they have killed over 3,000 people since 2004, including 546 to 1,105 civilians. Despite the scale of the drone strike program, the U.S. government refuses to provide official details about these attacks or any estimates of total civilian casualties, and the legal standards for lethal targeting with drones remain unclear. As President Obama begins his second term, he owes the American public more information about the global campaign of drone strikes he has carried out in its name.
The lack of transparency surrounding drone targeting operations results in part from the culture of secrecy of the two covert bodies that conduct most drone strikes, the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), neither of which had been tasked with a campaign of lethal attacks on this scale before. Their drones are touted as a weapon of high precision, but reports continue to indicate that they are killing the wrong people—civilians, including children. Since drone strikes often occur in inaccessible areas where objective on-the-ground reporting is extremely limited, it is nearly impossible for journalists to fully and accurately assess the facts of any individual strike. It is thus incumbent on the government to investigate claims of civilian harm and provide detailed, official accounting of these strikes.
Media reports that document drone strikes typically cite unnamed government sources for estimates of casualties, including how many can be characterized as “militants.” These articles provide no definition of the term, though the New York Times reports that several Administration officials suggest that it effectively includes “all military-age males in a strike zone.” Critics contend that this expansive definition is a deceptive means of reducing the number of civilian deaths reported.
Nongovernmental “tracking organizations” aggregate the data about casualties published in the media, but with substantial discrepancies in the number of deaths and civilian casualties. A recent Columbia Human Rights Clinic report entitled Counting Drone Strike Deaths found both a pattern of inadequate corroboration regarding drone strike reporting and systematic underreporting of civilian deaths by two of the three main tracking organizations. Because media reports then present tracking organizations’ counts as fact in the absence of government data, questionable estimates end up informing the policy debate.
Far too little is known about drone strike targets, the effectiveness of the strikes, or the impacts on civilians. Recent reports by law clinics at Stanford, New York University (NYU), and Columbia have attempted to remedy some of these gaps. Stanford and NYU’s Living Under Drones report has given a public voice to people in affected communities, and a report by Columbia’s Human Rights Clinic and the Center for Civilians in Conflict entitled The Civilian Impact of Drones has underscored the civilian protection limitations and public accountability gaps of current U.S. practice. These reports elucidate critical concerns about drone strikes, but they do not relieve the Obama Administration of its duty to inform the public about the numbers and identities of people killed in America’s name, nor of the obligation to provide an explanation of the targeting process, its legality, and institutional checks and balances.
The Administration emphasizes that drone strikes are conducted “in full accordance with the law,” but the lawfulness of strikes cannot be openly assessed without greater transparency. Media reports indicate that President Obama makes the final call about additions to targeted kill lists—now likely to continue for another ten years in the form of a “disposition matrix”—and often about individual strikes, and that he takes this moral responsibility quite seriously. Nonetheless, the lack of clear standards for targeting undermines the rule of law and creates a potentially dangerous precedent for subjective decision-making about targeting.
A full explanation of the criteria used to evaluate drone strikes and targeting lists would not compromise national security. Instead, it would legitimize drone strikes under certain conditions and formalize the process, while setting an example for other nations with this technology. The Obama Administration should create a special interagency task force to evaluate U.S. drone strikes and the targeting process, detail the relevant legal standards, provide accurate data on casualties, and investigate specific claims of civilian harm.
Having taken credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama must now make good on the nobler national security pledge he announced at his inauguration nearly four years ago: to “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Achieving this goal requires that we bring drone strikes out of the shadows and under the rule of law, subject to the sunlight of informed public debate and the democratic process.