The administration has said that its covert, targeted killings with remote-controlled aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and potentially beyond are proper under both domestic and international law. It has said that the targets are chosen under strict criteria, with rigorous internal oversight.
It has parried reports of collateral damage and the alleged killing of innocents by saying that drones, with their surveillance capabilities and precision missiles, result in far fewer mistakes than less sophisticated weapons.
Yet in carrying out hundreds of strikes over three years — resulting in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths in Pakistan — it has provided virtually no details to support those assertions.
In outlining its legal reasoning, the administration has cited broad congressional authorizations and presidential approvals, the international laws of war and the right to self-defense. But it has not offered the American public, uneasy allies or international authorities any specifics that would make it possible to judge how it is applying those laws.
The rapid expansion in the size and scope of the drone campaign as the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been winding down has led to increased criticism from human rights and international law experts, many of whom dispute the legal justification for the program.
The criticism has struck a chord inside an administration that prides itself on respect for international law, and it has intensified an internal debate over how much information can and should be revealed.
“Everybody knows we’re using drones,” said a senior U.S. official familiar with the program, one of several who agreed to discuss intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity. “On the other hand, we’re doing it on a pretty systematic and standardized basis. Why don’t we just say what those standards are?”
In Pakistan, at least 240 CIA drone strikes have been reported since 2009. The CIA and the U.S. military carried out strikes this year in Yemen and Somalia, with at least two U.S. citizens among those killed.
As armed drones become “an increasingly usual tool of war,” said a second official, the public and U.S. allies have a right to ask “who makes these decisions. How are they made? Is there any sort of court or something that reviews them? Should there be?”
Even outside experts who believe the program is legal find the secrecy increasingly untenable. “I believe this is the right policy, but I don’t think [the administration] understands the degree to which it looks way too discretionary,” said American University law professor Kenneth Anderson.