Drone transparency is Obama’s primary concern

Obama’s inability to have yet acted on promises to better transparency for UAV strikes is drawing criticism from many senior officials, the issue, as such, is threatening to mar the President’s reputation

  • By Matthew Timms | Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

Having watched Mr Al-Qaeda gaily wave his children off to school, hang the washing out, collect his online shopping and take the dog for a walk, Mr “high-value” is shortly thereafter obliterated – along with faithful Spot – by a guided missile eerily uncommitted to paper and painstakingly adorned with stars and stripes. It’s an unlikely story, though nonetheless one that can be neither confirmed nor denied under an Administration to have severely neglected drone strike disclosure.

Like-stories of little Jimmy America manning drones from a sunny California office have commonly plagued public forums in the perseverance of a distinctly lax drone policy, and will continue to do so until the necessary legal changes are made to vastly improve operational transparency.

Civilian casualties
Amid a growing accumulation of drone critics, the President, in February, sought to assure both Congress and the public of his plans to lessen any such justification for wild speculation. Obama pledged to the State of the Union of his intentions to ensure “our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists” is in alignment with American laws and “even more transparent to the American people and the world.” Though not having uttered the word ‘drone’ at any such point, the President appeared to answer many of the questions being asked of the US military’s favourite toy.

As Obama is yet to make good on his vague assurance of transparency, the vitriol is mounting on US claims to have “decimated Al-Qaeda ranks” incurring gross and unnecessary civilian casualties. As such, many are left wondering of the extent to which drone strikes are indeed successful in eliminating “extreme threats to the state” without impacting on innocents. The inexistence of an outright policy to neither confirm nor deny civilian casualties – otherwise termed collateral damage – means that those concerned are without legitimate assurances of drone strikes having not caused unwanted deaths.

The New America Foundation has, in this vein, compiled a database of drone strikes drawn entirely from news accounts. The resulting database indicates for an estimated 1963 to 3293 people to have been killed in Pakistan since 2004, of whom 430 to 635 are assumed to have been civilian casualties. Though those related to the project claim for improvements to both intelligence and munitions to have vastly reduced civilian deaths from 40 percent through Bush’s rule to “low single digits” now, it’s no less the case that these figures are indeed estimations.

Senior criticism
As the present drone policy perseveres to the detriment of US credibility, the list of critics has expanded to include those occupying – or to have occupied – senior legal positions. Harold Hongju Koh, previously the State Department’s top lawyer, said at a meeting of the American Society of International Law: “The administration is hurting itself by lack of transparency,” whereas former Defence Department legal counsel Jeh Johnson recently stated that: “[The US government] fails to officially confirm many of its counterterrorism successes, and it fails to officially confirm, deny or clarify unsubstantiated reports of civilian casualties. Our government’s effort in preserving the safety of the people risks an erosion of support by the people.”

Former director of policy planning at the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, cites the issue as one capable of tarring Obama’s legacy. “The idea that this president would leave office having dramatically expanded the use of drones – including [against] American citizens – without any public standards and no checks and balances … that there are no checks, and there is no international agreement; I would find that to be both terrible and ultimately will undermine a great deal of what this president will have done for good.”

The stature of those issuing criticisms is highly indicative of the precedence proper military force is to take in determining Obama’s will to instill positive change. Though drone strikes are a proven and effective weapon against terrorism, the President is to adhere to a strict policy of transparency if he is to deter from more so undermining his credibility.