This week, the U.S. government announced that it is launching an investigation into the December drone strike that killed between 11 and 17 people in the Al-Bayda province in central Yemen. Community members and news reports have claimed that the people killed in the strike were part of a wedding procession. Certainly an investigation into civilian deaths is a good step, but a lack of transparency on the U.S. targeted killing program continues.
As Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian has reported, since May 2013, the number of deaths from U.S. drone strikes has dropped dramatically. But according to other news reports, since that time, the number of possible drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, or Somalia has been between two and 12 per month. Despite this, and promises of increased transparency, the Obama Administration still keeps the public in the dark, not just on the details of specific strikes, but also on its specific legal justification for the strikes.
The administration has promised more transparency, released some justification for targeting American citizens (like Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American involved with Yemen’s Al Qaeda branch, killed by drone attack in September 2011) and others, and released a fact sheet based on the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) on the United States use of force outside areas of active hostilities. But the full Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos, and full PPG that justify killing both non-Americans and Americans in far-flung places around the world remain secret.
Indeed, even a list of the groups that the U.S. government is targeting is secret. Asked for a list of the groups that the United States is at war with, administration officials have responded either “We don’t have one,” or a simple “No.”
But the fact that the White House spoke at all about the strike in Yemen is another indication that it may be taking steps, albeit small, to be more transparent. In the PPG fact sheet, the administration outlines the criteria that “must be met before lethal action can be taken,” including “Near certainty that non-combatants will not be killed or injured.” The administration has also promised to investigate cases where civilians have been harmed by targeted strikes.
About the investigation into the strike (one of three in Yemen that month alone), White House National Security Staff Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said,
“Before we take any counterterrorism strike outside areas of active hostilities, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set. And when we believe that civilians may have been killed, we investigate thoroughly.”
The administration should be praised for these efforts, but at the same time, the chances of the public seeing the results of the investigation seem slim, given its track record, and that’s a problem. The public needs to see the result of this investigation, and any other investigation the U.S. does into drone strike casualties, especially in the wake of reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights, all questioning the legality of the strikes.
The bottom line is that for all of the Obama Administration’s promises and efforts about transparency, the public still doesn’t know who we’re at war with, or the legal justifications for the targeted attacks that continue in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.
The Obama Administration needs to release the OLC memos and Presidential Policy Guidance, along with any other legal or policy guidance that supports the targeted killing program. It also needs to tell the public which groups it is targeting, release any results of post-strike investigations, and be as transparent as possible about drone strikes.
Human Rights First, along with nine other human rights groups, has written to President Obama, asking him to address these issues. You can read the letter here, and the follow-up letter here.