The Intercept's "Drone Papers" Won't Do Much for Transparency

American drone policy is too entrenched to meaningfully change anytime soon.

Earlier this month, the Intercept released “The Drone Papers,” a series of reports that provide details on the U.S. drone program in Somalia and Yemen. The papers highlight a number of aspects regarding the United States’ use of armed drones in counterterrorism operations, including insights on the administration’s “kill lists,” the chain of command for targeting decisions and various shortfalls in intelligence. The documents represent the most substantial revelations about the U.S. drone program despite President Obama’s stated commitment to greater transparency about U.S. drone policy.

In the short term, the Drone Papers renew questions about many of the administration’s claims surrounding the lethal drone program and may help reignite calls for greater transparency and increased oversight. But it is unlikely that the documents will result in any considerable changes in the ways in which U.S. drone operations are conducted or the extent to which U.S. policy on drones is disclosed. This reality is particularly likely for two key reasons: general public support for the drone program and lack of Congressional and administrative action towards greater transparency and accountability.

Despite many strategic and tactical criticisms, the U.S. drone program remains broadly popular among the American public. According to a May 2015 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Americans support U.S. drone strikes to target extremists. This figure is similar to that found in a February 2013 poll, where 56 percent of the public expressed approval for U.S. drone strikes, and reflects relatively constant support for the U.S. drone program over the last two years. The American public also appears to support the killing of an American citizen with drones if that person has joined a terror organization, according to a May AP-GfK poll.

With the exception of a few members of Congress, lawmakers have generally been unwilling to change U.S. drone policy. Increasing partisan rhetoric and the lack of cooperation from the Obama administration to be open and forthcoming about drone operations have stonewalled even well-intentioned congressional efforts. The documents included in the Drone Papers also do not largely reveal information about the CIA-run program in Pakistan, which is even more secretive than the military-led lethal drone operations, has itself faced criticism for its complete lack of oversight and has been the focus of significant Congressional debate.

Despite the apparent unwillingness to change course, there are some initiatives that the administration could undertake to improve overall transparency of the drone program. In June 2014, the Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy identified eight recommendations to improve U.S. drone policy and that would allow the administration to better align with stated national security goals and foreign policy values.

The recommendations offer concrete suggestions to overhaul U.S. drone policy in order to: improve oversight, accountability and transparency; encourage the development of international norms on the use of lethal force in nontraditional battlefields; develop export control and research and development policies; and establish regulations and standards for domestic and international drone use.

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