President Barack Obama this week pledged transparency in the way the U.S. military wields its drones in a bid to transcend one of the most uncomfortable charges leveled against his administration: that it has indiscriminately killed countless people around the globe, and hardened terrorists and ordinary people alike in a stealth war played out with armed, unmanned drones.
But if Obama's speech at the West Point commencement was aimed at getting past such accusations, it quickly provoked another: The president is being less transparent in his promises of transparency.
“We've heard these promises of more transparency around drone strikes many times now,” Sara Knuckey, director of the Initiative on Human Rights Fact-Finding at New York University School of Law, told the International Business Times in an e-mail. “Last year, many thought that these words might signal the start of real, meaningful shifts in practice. But a year later, transparency has not improved.”
The West Point speech marked the fourth time Obama or a member of his administration has promised greater transparency on the drone program. He made the same promise in his 2013 State of the Union speech, then again the following May at National Defense University in Washington. A National Security Council spokesperson gave similar assurances to Congress during hearings on the nomination John Brennan as director of the CIA.
Yet each promise has failed to change the basic facts on the ground, say critics. Yemen has seen aggressive firing of drones, primarily against terrorist targets, according to the New America Foundation. Drone strikes have continued in Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan, though in slightly smaller numbers, said Emily Schneider Research Associate, International Security Program, new America Foundation, citing the organization’s drone database which is populated using local news sources.
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In total, 2,400 people have died from drone strikes in the five years since Obama took office, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit journalism organization.
As the President offered his latest assurances of transparency, some experts wondered whether such a goal is even possible given the military drone program is in essence a covert operation. How can the government be transparent about its top-secret use of an aircraft specifically designed to be unseen?
The administration offers an answer: By disclosing its activities after the fact. The administration has not promised to announce its intentions to use drones, including when and where, or to provide details about how it decides to do so. But even that standard brings skepticism from those who have long criticized the administration for failing to reign in drone strikes.
“We do not have improved transparency on who can be killed, where, and on what basis, on the numbers of civilians killed, about the facts of individual strikes, on the steps taken to provide redress to civilians harmed,” Knuckey said.
Controversy over the drone program boiled over last year after military top brass concluded the secrecy surrounding drone attacks in places such as Yemen had only garnered more support for al Qaeda, essentially increasing the number of U.S. enemies.
This change in policy is a world away from when Obama stood in front of a stunned audience at his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2009 and defended U.S. military aggression overseas. Among his words, Obama said as head of state he reserved “the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation” and he believes “force can be justified on humanitarian grounds.”
The president’s comments Wednesday appeared to take U.S. foreign policy in a different direction, as Obama announced $5 billion to help fight new terrorist threats but stressed "a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable.” He outlined a new approach to counterterrorism that will be more about country-to-country partnerships than the use of unilateral force. Such partnerships will likely be more attractive given budget constraints that will come with military sequestration in 2016.
A proposal calling for more drone transparency, beginning with Yemen, will soon make its way to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel started a renewed push on the issue when he, backed by Gen. Lloyd Austin, called for more open discussion on drone strikes after they occur, especially when enemy combatants issue what U.S. officials view as false propaganda. Should Hagel approve it, the proposal will go to the White House National Security Council for approval.
Obama’s comments about drone transparency during the last 18 months coincide with declining drone use by the military -- in some areas. Pakistan has seen no drone strikes in 2014 and Yemen has seen a slight decrease.
In Yemen, drone strikes declined from 36 May 2012 to May 2013 to 29 since the president’s 2013 speech, noted Emily Schneider. While this represents a nominal drop in strikes, Schneider doesn’t believe it represents a change in policy. “There’s not really been a change in Yemen,” she said. “Civilian casualties have actually remained steady.”
According to Schneider, the crux of the transparency issue is with the CIA. The military is generally held to account for its actions, whereas the CIA -- which is responsible for most drone strikes -- has been able to operate under the cloak of national security.
However, rather than end drone strikes altogether, which some thought would be the case, Obama wants to hand over control of the strikes to the military.
As for what transparency means, Schneider said, “It could mean that they will be more upfront about the strikes or it could mean transparency about targeting mechanisms -- who they are targeting and why, especially in terms of U.S. citizens. However, it’s more likely to be transparency about the process behind targeting, the legal mechanism, proportionality and necessity, and not really ‘we’re planning on targeting this specific person.’”
“As the president made clear, we take extraordinary care to make sure that our counterterrorism actions are carried out in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law and that they are consistent with U.S. values and policy,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said. “Of particular note, before we take any counterterrorism strike outside areas of active hostilities, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set.”