The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Virtually no progress’ on making Obama’s lethal drone strike policy more transparent, report says

A MQ-9 Reaper drone taxis at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan in this December 27, 2009 photo. (Efren Lopez/U.S. Air Force via Reuters

Almost three years after President Obama highlighted the United States’ growing dependence on drone strikes to prosecute its wars, his administration’s policy on their use remains largely obscure, according to a new report published by the Stimson Center.

In May 2013, in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., Obama announced that “clear guidelines, oversight and accountability” would dictate his decisions on the use of lethal force–including drone strikes–in the pursuit of the United States’ enemies across the globe. In June 2014, the Stimson Center, a D.C.-based think tank, created a drone task force composed of former generals and policy experts that outlined a series of recommendations which it said would make the administration’s drone policy more transparent and accountable.

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From July 2014 to December 2015 Stimson monitored the Obama administration’s progress towards implementing meaningful drone policy reform and has since released a “report card” on the administration’s policy changes or lack thereof.

The administration received a failing grade in three areas that all centered around transparency. Since the Stimson task force’s recommendations, there has been little released on the legal guidelines that govern drone strikes and the strikes themselves, according to the report. Additionally, there has been almost no change to drone strike oversight and accountability.

“Little progress has been made during the past year and a half to enact reforms that establish a more sensible U.S. drone policy consistent with America’s long-term security and economic interests,” said Rachel Stohl, the report author and project director of Stimson’s drone task force, in an emailed statement. “The lack of a clear drone policy risks leaving a legacy on drone use that is based on secrecy and a lack of accountability that undermines efforts to support the international rule of law.” 

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A focus of the report centers around folding the CIA’s drone program into the Pentagon’s. This has been a contentious issue in Congress, and lawmakers have proposed multiple bills to ensure that drones are only operated by military personnel. Although there have been some attempts to create a dual Pentagon-CIA drone command in recent months, the report notes there has been no concrete progress. Currently, U.S. drone strikes are carried out by a array of forces, including Joint Special Operations Command, the Air Force and the CIA.

Going forward, the report proposes six concrete steps to put future administrations on a firm footing when it comes to drone policy, including releasing historical strike data of past drone strikes and providing the legal framework for drone strikes outlined in a currently classified Presidential Policy Guidance.