All the President’s Drones: Obama’s Targeted-Killing Problem

The White House’s secrecy regarding the U.S. drone program has not done it any favors. 

May-June 2015

WHEN THE Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its “torture report” in December 2014, it reignited the battle over the George W. Bush administration’s conduct of the “war on terror.” Unfortunately, the interrogation program was not an anomaly in its lack of transparency. A similar problem exists with the U.S. drone program—which, after more than ten years of use and nearly two years after President Barack Obama’s speech promising greater transparency and accountability, remains shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty.

If an internal critique of the U.S. drone program exists, it has been kept from open discussion and debate. Yet the most basic questions about the program have not been answered: What are the goals of the program? Are drones effective in accomplishing those goals? What metric is used to evaluate their effectiveness? Such queries arise at an important moment in American history. The Obama administration is faced with defining its legacy. The administration, which inherited two wars, has struggled with the dilemma of winding down military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time that threats from new adversaries have created new challenges for U.S. and international security. In response, the administration has relied heavily on the use of drones, which has allowed them to avoid further on-the-ground engagement, but has raised many legal, ethical and strategic questions in the United States and around the world.

Those critical of the U.S. drone program are quite reasonably asking whether strikes—particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen—are achieving measurable gains beyond an estimated four thousand deaths of largely unidentified males. Instead, they argue that continued (and unaccountable) drone attacks are actually alienating foreign populations and governments. Without a reasonable and clear metric, it is impossible to determine whether strikes should be continued, whether the program should be scaled back or even whether it should be halted altogether.

Without a clear enunciation of U.S. drone policy, oversight is inhibited. The result is greater ambiguity. This cycle of uncertainty compromises the ability to determine whether current drone use is effective in accomplishing national-security objectives. As America continues to rely upon air strikes as a central pillar of its counterterrorism strategy—more recently exemplified by its air campaign against the Islamic State—and expands operationalization of drones, it must emphasize developing and releasing clear policy goals that are consistent with U.S. national-security objectives and foreign-policy ideals. Only then can policy makers determine whether current strategy is effective and is achieving long-term goals.


DRONES AND their use by the United States are largely shrouded in mystery. Some see them as an essential counterterrorism tool; others see them as foreshadowing a future out of The Terminator in which drones and autonomous weapons target and fire at will. The White House’s secrecy regarding its drone policy has not done it any favors, and has allowed misconceptions of the program and of drone technology in general to flourish. A prominent example was Senator Rand Paul’s 2013 filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA, in which the senator conjured up a scenario where Americans sitting in cafés might find themselves unexpectedly targeted by Hellfire missiles.

The Obama administration has put forward a wealth of rhetoric supporting the idea of transparency. In his 2013 speech at the National Defense University (NDU), Obama underscored the importance of transparency and accountability for the U.S. drone program. The president pledged to “review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of war zones that go beyond our reporting to Congress.” He also noted that “the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.”

The president raised the issue of effectiveness in his NDU speech, saying that effectiveness should not be confused with good policy or moral decision making. In his words:

As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power—or risk abusing it.

While Obama’s remarks were welcomed at the time, the impact of his words was limited. A year later, when the president delivered a speech at West Point, little outward progress had been made in clarifying U.S. policy. The president echoed his NDU talking points and again highlighted the risks involved in not being clear and transparent about U.S. counterterrorism policy:

But as I said last year, in taking direct action we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is . . . near certainty of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.

In short, the president recognized that not being transparent and accountable could come at a cost and create long-term risks, saying that when the United States “cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion, we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people, and we reduce accountability in our own government.”