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The Drone Program Could Be Putting the Whole World at Risk

Brett Max Kaufman,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Center for Democracy
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June 26, 2014

The Obama's administration's lethal drone program threatens to set a "dangerous precedent" for other nations to follow and to put the United States on a "slippery slope" toward perpetual war, according to a bipartisan panel that includes former military leaders and national security officials.

That's one of the central messages in a new report issued today by the Stimson Center, a global-security think tank — just days after a federal appeals court shone a light of transparency on an overly expansive government memo authorizing the killing of a U.S. citizen.

In its 77-page report, the panel also warned that the program threatens to undermine international law norms and create overwhelming "blowback" in foreign nations where U.S. drones are used for targeted killing. And the report sharply disapproved of the government's excessive secrecy over legal standards and data regarding casualties, including of civilian bystanders, caused by American drone strikes abroad.

Many of the panel's recommendations echo the ACLU's longstanding criticisms of the government's drone program. Consistent with the Stimson task force's call for significantly increased transparency for targeted killing strikes, we have — both in litigation and in the halls of Congress — called for far greater information from the government about who it is killing, where it is doing so, and on what legal basis. The panel also joined our call for a transfer of responsibility over drone strikes from the CIA to the military. And, like the panel, we have also called on the executive branch to develop more robust and effective oversight and accountability mechanisms for drone strikes outside of traditional battlefields.

Unfortunately, the report suffers from a few flaws. For instance, the report eschews nuance when it characterizes drone critics as "declar[ing]" that targeted killings are "illegal." In fact, most critical groups — the ACLU among them — acknowledge that in narrow circumstances, the use of lethal force can comply with U.S. and international law. Indeed, the very purpose of the growing calls for transparency surrounding legal and factual information about the program is intended to make clear whether and just how well U.S. drone strikes do comply with the law.

Further, the report suggests that drone strikes do not "cause disproportionate civilian casualties" — but, again, it's impossible for the Stimson task force or anyone else to evaluate that sort of claim without the basic information the U.S. government has refused to provide.

Still, even if we cannot endorse its every word, the new report is an important contribution to the ongoing debate about targeted killing. While the drone memo released this week outlined the expansive authority the government claims for itself to kill American citizens far from any battlefield — an authority that is far more expansive than permitted by U.S. and international law — the Stimson task force's report helpfully broadens the conversation about the drone program to its effects on the rest of the world. The panel's leading recommendation pointedly questions why the government has yet to conduct a "serious cost–benefit analysis" of the lethal force program "on terrorist organizations, affected communities, public opinion, litigation, defense policy and government cooperation with allies and partner nations."

More than a decade into this drone war, it is astounding that the government has yet to conduct such a review — particularly in light of the numerous reports and investigations (by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others) raising serious and credible evidence that American drone strikes have devastated communities, caused the deaths of at least hundreds of innocent people, and fostered intensifying anti-American resentment.

The report's genesis was in President Obama May 2013 speech, in which he articulated tightened standards for drone strikes and promised to reevaluate them in light of the administration's overall counterterrorism strategy. Since that speech, the public has seen little evidence of increased transparency about any aspect of the program.

Here's hoping the Stimson report — together with this week's court-ordered release of the "drone memo" — will help spur the kind of meaningful changes that President Obama signaled he would undertake more than a year ago.

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