Evaluating the Obama Administration’s Drone Reforms

Insights From a CFR Workshop

January 31, 2017



Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, serve a host of military functions. Although they are predominantly used for surveillance, they are also increasingly used as remotely operated weapons platforms. The United States’ lead and still-predominant role in the use of lethal drones makes it crucial for the country to help develop and enforce global norms shaping their use.

In December 2016, the Council on Foreign Relations convened current and former government officials and outside experts in Washington, DC, to evaluate the Barack Obama administration’s drone strike reforms. The policy and legal framework governing the use of lethal drones in the fight against terrorism is especially important as President Donald J. Trump and his administration take office.

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In its waning months, the Obama administration published the policies and procedures that had come to govern its use of lethal drones for so-called targeted strikes in non-battlefield settings (namely Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia). Making the legal framework for strikes public, participants agreed, would help institutionalize those procedures before Obama left office.

Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to increase transparency, significant issues remain. Moreover, it is unclear how the principles and limitations of the drone program—including the requirement of an imminent threat and near certainty about the identity of targets—will survive in the Trump administration.

The summary, which you can download here [PDF], features the discussion’s highlights. The summary reflects the views of meeting participants alone; CFR takes no position on policy issues.

Framing Questions for the Meeting

The Obama Reforms: What Has Been Done?

How are armed drones a unique weapons platform? What were the major drone strike reforms announced and implemented during the Obama administration? How were they received within the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)? What measures were particularly effective, and why?

Will the Obama Drone Reforms Last?

Were the reforms specific to one president and his senior aides, or have they been institutionalized? How might President Trump's approach to the use of lethal drones differ from Obama's? Which of Obama's reforms are likely to be maintained, and are any permanent? To what extent were the decisionmaking processes and targeting criteria personalized to Obama?

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Defense Technology

Counterterrorism Efficacy and Strategy

How does the tactic of drone strikes fit into a broader counterterrorism strategy? Have they been effective, and are they the best option for combatting terrorism? Do Obama's reforms present an obstacle to counterterrorism operations? How do U.S. rules shape or influence the use of lethal drones by other states, if at all?

What Remains to Be Done?

What changes are still needed? What measures should remain? Is the existing congressional legislation, namely the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, sufficient legal cover for contemporary operations? Should authority for drone strikes remain split between the CIA and the Pentagon? Should U.S. armed drone export policy be revised?

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