The Obama administration has not yet answered concerns regarding the secrecy, legality and efficacy of the drone warfare program. During the presidential elections, to avoid leaving business unfinished, a last-minute effort surfaced in the White House to create a secret rule book for targeted killing. Although Barack Obama retook the White House, the rule book is still being written, and the American people must work quickly to bring drone warfare out of the darkness and into public view. There are many reasons for this.
The first concern is secrecy. Drone strikes and targeted kill lists are highly classified by the U.S. military and Central Intelligence Agency. This makes it difficult to discern the true effects of their use in warfare. Keeping all the details in the shadows also creates confusion among media outlets and human rights organizations, which are attempting to calculate precise casualty statistics. Current figures from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism range anywhere from 472 to 885 civilians killed in Pakistan, to 60 to 163 in Yemen since 2002. This high level of secrecy results in inaccuracy, to say nothing of the psychological damage done to innocent bystanders and the physical destruction of infrastructure created by the air strikes. The denial that follows from the CIA only further frustrates foreign onlookers and civilians on the ground.
The second concern is legality. While there hasn’t been much chatter on the home front, the U.S. has yet to convince other nations that drone warfare and targeted killing are legal under international law. Just last month the United Nations made public that it will be setting up an investigative unit within the year to research specific drone attacks.
Under the rules of International Humanitarian Law, targeted killing is only lawful when met by three requirements: 1) The target is directly participating in the hostilities; 2) the use of force is proportionate; and 3) precautions are taken to minimize harm to civilians. Ambiguous terminology raises questions: How are we sure they are direct participants? What is proportionate use of force? What is acceptable harm to civilians? It may not take lawyers and policymakers long to develop calculated justifications to rationalize and defend U.S. military operations, but there must be accountability somewhere along the way, and long before the order to “fire.”
The third concern is efficacy. Even if all legal avenues have been addressed, the question remains: Does drone warfare create a safer environment and keep Americans out of harm’s way? If the goal was, as George W. Bush vowed, “to rid the world of evil-doers,” it is not clear we came even marginally close to success. In conventional warfare, nations would fight one another and the war would end when a leader either surrendered or claimed defeat. It is baffling that U.S. war policy is still derived in this fashion. The United States military, coupled with the support of the CIA counterterrorism forces, has eliminated countless militant leaders, but the war wages on. One kingpin after another has been toppled, but the replacements are relentless and, in some cases, more terrifying than their predecessors. Clearly, the game has changed, yet we are still trying to wage war using archaic tactics masked by expensive, remote-controlled weapons.
Even more disconcerting is these targeted attacks are being executed in our name, by the United States of America, without the consent of the American people. American principles and values are at stake. Military policy has always been public knowledge. Yet, the CIA, which is supposed to be an intelligence gathering agency, is waging secret wars. Moreover, Mr. Obama has classified more documents in his tenure than any other president in American history.
Before the Obama administration expends more effort and tax dollars justifying drone warfare, Congress and the American people need to start soliciting the White House for appropriate disclosure of all previous drone strikes. Exposing the attacks will create an open dialogue and bring these covert operations out of the shadows and into the limelight. When it comes to rule books and kill lists, oversight is not optional, it’s demanded.
Allyson Mitchell is a graduate student at George Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.