It’s clear that throughout the Obama administration, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, more commonly known as drones, have been at the forefront of debate on America’s national security and foreign policies.
I will first note that drone technology is not new. While Obama has faced this debate head-on, drones have been around since long before he was elected into office in 2008. The CIA had been flying unarmed surveillance drones since 2000, and armed drones since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Unmanned drones are “piloted” by a crew at a military base that analyzes the photographic images sent back from the drones to decide on an action to take. Essentially, drones are controlled remotely, enabling killing of individual targets that is almost risk-free militarily and potentially automatable. The military can send a remote-controlled drone to perform dangerous maneuvers that would place an American life at risk if attempted with more conventional methods. President Obama defended his use of drones in his 2013 speech on counterterrorism by claiming that the alternatives – special operations, conventional airpower or missiles – are much less precise and lead to many more casualties than drone strikes.
With machines doing the dangerous and dirty work of war for us, what could go wrong? Analysts continually debate the efficacy and precision of drones, but the real area in question should be the (lack of) checks and balances on the use of drones. The ease with which drones can be fired creates a system lacking in emotional attachment, accountability and oversight. This is a dangerous situation that undermines the democratic institutions of checks and balances in the United States.
Just this past week on April 3, the House introduced a bipartisan bill entitled the “Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act” to address the gaps in oversight of the current U.S. drone policy. This legislation would increase the transparency of drone use by requiring a report on the number of combatants and civilians killed or injured in drone strikes each year since 2008 and annual reporting going forward.
This bill is the first step in the right direction for U.S. military policy. It is a large improvement upon the Department of Justice’s white paper on drones. This paper provided a legal justification for potential future drone strikes on an individual, even an U.S. citizen, if the situation meets three criteria: the individual is an imminent threat of violent attack, capture is not possible and U.S. action is consistent with the law of war.
However, what qualifies as an imminent threat? Who determines the feasibility of capture? Who makes these subjective decisions? The white paper clearly argues that the President has the inherent right to “respond accordingly” to situations in any manner for the self-defense of the nation. The document even further notes that “there exists no appropriate judicial forum to evaluate these constitutional consideration,” because in the view of the DOJ, national security is a matter to be dealt with by the legislative and executive branches. While effective drone strikes must have the advantage of surprise, the accountability of the government cannot be sacrificed simply for the speed of response.
The ideas in this paper compromise the system of checks and balances that the U.S. is founded upon. Separation of power is crucial for preventing the corruption that so often results with unlimited or unchecked power. The new House bill, the “Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act,” has the beginnings of a better system of accountability. Requiring the government to report the number of casualties resulting from drone strikes helps “narrow the perception gap” between what is reported or assumed, one of the creators of the bill claims.
Up until now, there have been only estimates of deaths from drone strikes from organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The lack of accurate data means that the public cannot form fully informed views on the costs and benefits of American drone policy. The availability of hard data is critical in order to legitimize American military actions for other countries and to ensure that no one branch of government monopolizes military decision making on drones.
Drones themselves are not undemocratic, but the current system of secrecy and opaque decision-making is questionable. Drones have the potential to do great harm, which is why separate branches of the U.S. government must carefully monitor their use. There are undeniable benefits of using unmanned aircraft, but the government, especially President Obama, must stay vigilant to ensure that the ends really do justify the means.
Contact Aimee Trujillo at aimeet “at” stanford.edu.