The Council on Foreign Relations issued a report this week calling for fundamental reforms in US drone policies, surfacing sharp differences in official circles in response to widespread questioning and protest. Micah Zenko writes in the Council Special Report that the Pentagon and CIA use the term “bug splat” in referring to their civilian collateral damage methodology. The acronym MALE is employed to describe “medium altitude long-endurance” drone technologies of the future.
More substantively, the CFR report recommends:
That the Obama administration’s targeted-killings policy be limited to individuals with a “direct operational” role in terrorist plots against the US;
Ending the so-called “signature strikes” against individuals or groups who the White House says, “bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run,” and which define all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants;
Far greater transparency and accountability in the definitions of civilian casualties, including aggressive congressional oversight.
The report concludes that of 3,000 killed in drone attacks so far, “the vast majority were neither al Qaeda nor Taliban leaders,” a major difference from the low-to-zero civilian casualty estimates by the Obama administration, including newly-recommended CIA chief John Brennan.
Significantly, Congressional progressive leader Keith Ellison published an op-ed calling for Congressional hearings in the Washington Post.
Congress is sharply criticized in the CFR report for its failure over the past ten years to hold a single public hearing on any aspect of the so-called non-battlefield targeted killings. Staffs of the foreign affairs committees “have little understanding of how drone strikes are conducted within the countries for which they are responsible for exercising oversight.” Judiciary committees are “repeatedly denied access to the June 2010 Office of Legal Counsel memorandum that presented the analysis of the legal basis” for the drone killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in September 2011.
A citizen call for congressional hearings could trigger a response as the new legislative session gets underway in Washington next month. President Obama himself, in an October interview with Jon Stewart, called on Congress to offer “new legal architecture” in order to “rein in” the growing powers of the executive branch in the drone age. The CFR report is likely to shape the terms of the debate ahead.
The report credits protests by human rights, peace advocates and journalists for causing a “major risk” of operational restrictions on drones, and draws parallels with the widespread questioning that undermined the Bush-era torture policies and warrantless wiretapping.
“The current trajectory of US drone strike policies is unsustainable,” the report flatly concludes. Public pressure combined with international condemnation will cause the decline of the program unless there is both reform and confidence-building measures. The report warns that US policies are setting off a dangerous drone arms race. “Without reform from within, drones risk becoming an unregulated, unaccountable vehicle for states to deploy lethal force with impunity.”