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June 27, 2014

Stimson Center Releases Report on Drone Policy

By John Rodriguez

This week, the Stimson Center  released an important report on drone policy.  The report is a product of the Stimson Center’s Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, which includes prominent former government officials, and is co-chaired by General John Abizaid, former CENTCOM commander. The report finds that the ease of targeted killings with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) “may create a slippery slope leading to continual or wider wars.”  These lethal strikes with UAVs risk eroding sovereignty norms and increasing anti-U.S. sentiment. Furthermore, while UAVs are an effective tactical tool there has been inadequate strategic analysis conducted to determine if the long-term consequences of lethal UAV operations outweigh the near-term tactical advantages.

The report also calls on the administration to be more transparent about lethal UAV operations, correctly saying that the current level of secrecy poses “challenges to democracy and the American system of checks and balances.”  Especially because the “covert or unacknowledged nature of most UAV target strikes also makes it difficult for Congress to perform its vial oversight functions.” While the administration recently released a redacted 2010 Office of Legal Counsel (OLC)memo detailing the rationale behind the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awalaki, an American citizen, the “memo ultimately fails to deliver what the American people deserve to know” said Human Rights First’s Raha Wala.  The OLC memo doesn’t explain the legal basis for the hundreds of lethal strikes conducted overseas; nor does it clarify what constitutes an “imminent threat.”  

The responsibility for lethal UAV strikes should be transferred from the CIA to the military, but the move wouldn’t necessarily lead to more transparency.  U.S. military operations under the purview of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) can also be conducted with limited public oversight, so transfer of responsibility must also be accompanied by more publically released information.

The report also calls on the U.S. to “develop more robust oversight and accountability mechanisms” and “foster the development of appropriate international norms for the use of lethal force outside of traditional battlefields.”  While we agree that the U.S. must clarify how lethal UAV strikes fit under international humanitarian law, human rights law, and domestic law, the report dangerously conflates all terrorist or security threats with armed conflict. 

It is also alarming to hear the report claim that “the changing nature of modern conflicts and security threats has rendered [legal norms governing armed conflicts] almost incoherent in practice.”  Rather, the United States must first determine whether it is actually in a non-international armed conflict since according to the International Committee for the Red Cross’s 2008 Opinion Paper: “In order to distinguish an armed conflict, in the meaning of common Article 3, from less serious forms of violence, such as internal disturbances and tensions, riots or acts of banditry, the situation must reach a certain threshold of confrontation.” 

As Human Rights First’s Daphne Eviatar wrote in Just Security, “war is an exceptional circumstance that may have been appropriate after the massive scale of the 9/11 attacks, but is not a productive response to every terrorist threat around the world.”  Unfortunately “the availability of lethal UAV technologies has enabled U.S. policies that likely would not have been adopted in the absence of UAVs.”  This report is an important step forward in reevaluating U.S. lethal UAV operations and Human Rights First encourages the administration to take immediate action on the recommendations.