When a U.S. drone strike killed five members of the Manthari family in Yemen in late March 2018, the U.S. Defense Department reported that terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were killed and that civilians were not present at the attack. The Manthari family shares a different story. According to relatives, tribal leaders, and human rights groups, the men killed were innocent civilians, and family members are now demanding compensation and that the U.S. government clear the names of those killed.
In the first year of the Trump administration, the plight of the Mantharis is not unusual. In 2015, then-candidate Trump said he would target terrorists and their families, and three years later he appears to be living up to that promise. Innocent civilians are experiencing the effects of President Trump’s approach, witnessing an increase in drone strikes and living with the consequences of potential mistakes. Verifying the legitimacy of such strikes is increasingly difficult, as the Trump administration moves away from policies and practices intended to bring greater transparency and accountability to the U.S. drone program.
Secrecy surrounds the U.S. drone program, and under the Trump administration, that veil of secrecy has become even more opaque, making it difficult to ascertain the scope, efficacy, and legitimacy of U.S. strikes and the underlying frameworks that guide decisions to use lethal force.
The Trump administration has demonstrated a continued commitment to the use of military force, including armed drones, to advance U.S. military and national security objectives. Yet with this continued—and at times escalated—use of lethal drone strikes, the administration appears to be reducing the transparency of and accountability for the U.S. drone program.
Trump administration officials have reportedly undertaken or considered several changes, including increasing the tempo of strikes and expanding the geographic scope for drone operations. Furthermore, the administration is delegating more strike-decision authority away from the White House to military operators. This includes lowering the decision-making thresholds required to take lethal action against terrorism suspects outside of war zones and broadening the CIA’s role in conducting lethal strikes. These changes have led to a drone policy that is less restrained, less transparent, and less accountable.
In addition, these changes are occurring behind closed doors, compounding challenges to the legitimate and responsible use of armed drones that supports broader U.S. objectives. Without a more transparent and accountable U.S. drone policy, America risks undermining national security interests, foreign policy objectives, and commercial opportunities.
Over the last year, I worked with a study group of eleven experts to examine some of these challenges and offer recommendations for improving U.S. policy and practice. The resulting report, launched in June, was An Action Plan on U.S. Drone Policy, which identifies clear steps the Trump administration can take to ensure a comprehensive U.S. drone policy that advances security interests while maintaining foreign policy ideals.
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The United States has an opportunity to be a leader in developing appropriate policy frameworks to guide the transfer and use of armed drones and can set a responsible international precedent. Such an approach is particularly important, as the United States influences the actions of its allies, partners, and even its enemies concerning their drone use.
There is still time for the Trump administration to ensure that it puts the U.S. drone program on firmer footing. The action plan includes recommendations for both the Trump administration and for Congress to improve U.S. drone policy and ensure that the drone program is transparent, accountable, sustainable, and lends credibility and legitimacy to U.S. actions abroad.
For example, Americans need to know if the U.S. drone program is achieving its strategic objectives. It’s not enough to say America is killing more terrorists. Instead, policymakers need to better understand the long-term impacts of the U.S. drone program. Also, America must do better to acknowledge and address civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes. If the United States makes a mistake, it has to acknowledge it and make amends.
Americans also need to know what policies, principles, standards, or procedures guide the U.S. drone program, and the administration should publicly release any revisions to these policies and procedures. Additionally, it is essential that the United States upholds international human rights law and international humanitarian law. This should be done while also setting a legitimate precedent regarding lethal drone use. Finally, Congress must also do better to exert its oversight responsibilities and demand greater transparency to help bring the U.S. drone program out of the shadows.
The United States has an opportunity to exert leadership and establish an appropriate and responsible policy on armed drones. A U.S. drone policy that values human rights, the rule of law, and good governance would not only be consistent with protecting U.S. national security interests but could help further U.S. foreign policy ideals and principles.
Rachel Stohl is managing director at the Stimson Center and was the project director for An Action Plan on U.S. Drone Policy.