Today, the ACLU’s National Security Project filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking information about the U.S. government’s use of armed drones to target and kill individuals in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. As has been widely reported in recent investigative pieces and news articles, the Obama administration has stepped up the use of drones to target individuals not only in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan and perhaps other countries that are not active theaters of war. The strikes are reportedly being carried out both by military forces and the CIA.
The use of unmanned drones to target and kill individuals is a profoundly new way of waging war. For the first time, military and intelligence officers can observe, track, and launch missiles at targeted individuals from control centers located thousands of miles away, without any significant U.S. presence on the ground. The technology also permits the United States to target individuals nearly anywhere in the world.
Currently, reports of the number of civilian casualties vary widely, from the dozens to the hundreds. There is also growing concern that drones could be used to target individuals who are criminal suspects who should be arrested and tried in civilian courts rather than legitimate military targets, and could thereby amount to unlawful extrajudicial killings. Serious issues have also been raised about the wisdom of using drones on policy and moral grounds.
The ACLU believes that the use and proliferation of this tactic must be the subject of public scrutiny and debate. But the government has released essentially no information about the legal basis of and limits on the drone program, or its scope and consequences. The public has been kept in the dark and is therefore unable to assess the wisdom or legality of the strikes. Commentators on all sides agree that these are not questions that should be decided solely by technocrats behind closed doors.
In order to fill this void, the ACLU is asking the government to release basic information about its use of drones to execute targeted killings. In particular, we are seeking information about the legal basis for the drone program, including who may be targeted and the geographical limits on where drone strikes may occur. We are also asking for information about the scope and consequences of drone strikes, including a breakdown of the number of people killed, including the civilian casualty toll and the number of people killed who were fighters of the Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda in Afghanistan, or who had some other affiliation or status.
We hope that the Obama administration will live up to its professed commitments to transparency and openness in government and release this essential information in a timely manner.