During a public online discussion in January 2012, Barack Obama answered a question about drone strikes. He revealed to "Evan in Brooklyn, New York" that: "Obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan] going after al-Qaeda suspects." That was the first public acknowledgment of targeted killings in "non-battlefield" areas by any US government official. Sixteen months later, in a speech on Thursday to the National Defense University, the president made his first full attempt to place the use of drones on a more defensible, and sustainable, footing.
Moving beyond rhetorical defences to practical reforms is necessary if drones are to form a continued part of the US's counter-terrorism efforts. Recalling how George W. Bush's administration had severe limits placed on its warrantless wiretapping, "enhanced interrogation techniques" and extraordinary rendition policies, Mr Obama seemingly wants to protect drones from a similar fate.
The president was obligated to give his speech because drone strikes have vastly increased under his watch. Since they began in November 2002, in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, the US has conducted approximately 425 non-battlefield targeted killings (more than 95 per cent by drones). Roughly 50 took place during Mr Bush's tenure, and 375 (and counting) under Mr Obama's. They have killed an estimated 3,500 people, 10 to 15 per cent of whom are civilians, according to the averages provided by three databases that track drone strikes. This is the most one-sided war in US history, with no government employee having directly lost their life.
The Obama administration's repeated claim that targeted killings are limited only to al-Qaeda officials and affiliates, who pose an imminent threat of attack on the US homeland, is false. The vast majority have been militants in Pakistan who threaten US troops in Afghanistan, and individuals primarily in domestic insurgencies in Pakistan and Yemen.
Rather than aligning public justifications with operational practice, Mr Obama on Thursday announced two reforms that could improve the transparency and legitimacy of these lethal operations.
First, he promised to make the targeting parameters for all lethal actions uniform. This would end so-called "signature strikes" – attacks on individuals whose behaviour or attributes mean that analysts believe they are dangerous, even if their names are not known. The practice started under Mr Bush in Pakistan and expanded to Yemen under Mr Obama. Limiting future strikes only to named individuals – "personality strikes" – would significantly reduce targeted killings.
Mr Obama has also decided, in principle, gradually to transfer the lead executive authority for targeted killings from the Central Intelligence Agency to the military – a recommendation first made by the 9/11 Commission in 2004. Presently, with a few exceptions, non-battlefield targeted killings are carried out in Pakistan by the CIA, in Somalia by the military and in Yemen by both. Military drone strikes can and have been acknowledged, albeit with very limited information. Under US law, however, covert CIA operations "will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly". This has meant that the US has ceded communications on CIA drone strikes in Pakistan to the Pakistani military and the Taliban, who understandably promote myths and misinformation about them.
By law and customary practice, drone strikes conducted by the CIA cannot articulate, for example, what methods are used to prevent civilians from harm. This sort of information can be made public under the military, if the president and secretary of defence make this a priority.
Mr Obama calls his "the most transparent administration in history", but regarding drone policies this has been a carefully stage-managed transparency: declaring principles and then refusing to answer any follow-up questions. The enduring impact of Mr Obama's speech will not be what he says, but whether the new policies are reflected in how drone strikes are conducted, and whether his administration will finally and faithfully engage with the public, more than a decade after the operations began.
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