US Drone Policy Goes from Bad to Worse: The Stimson Center Report 2018

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Every two years, the Stimson Center Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, directed by Rachel Stohl, issues a pamphlet of recommendations to the U.S. government on the use of weaponized UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft). Over the course of the past six years, it has become all too clear that no one in the government actually reads these reports, and the tone of the latest installment in the series, “An Action Plan on U.S. Drone Policy: Recommendations for the Trump Administration,” understandably conveys frustration.

The first report, issued in 2014, seemed to be filled with optimism and congeniality, and the second report (actually called by the Task Force a “Report Card“), issued in 2016, offered a gentle admonition of the Obama administration for its failure to make its policies and practices transparent or to produce anything even approaching international norms for the use of the new technology.

Now the task force seems to have thrown caution to the wind, recognizing that the Trump administration could not care less what the Stimson Center has to say. Despite the failures of the Obama administration to heed most of the recommendations of the first report, as reflected in that administration’s poor “grades” in the second report, it has become increasingly clear that the Trump administration has no intention even of showing up for school: “U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration has thus far been defined by uncertainty coupled with less oversight and less transparency.”

Critics of the U.S. government’s drone program (myself included), have explained in meticulous detail how the entire institution of premeditated, intentional, extrajudicial assassination of persons (usually able-bodied Muslim males) suspected of possibly plotting possible future terrorist attacks–or simply being potentially capable of doing so–rests upon a lamentable framework of linguistic legerdemain. People may despise President Trump, but no one with any familiarity with the history of the use of lethal drones can deny that the “killing machine” is President Obama’s lasting legacy.

What is good about the 2018 Stimson Center report is that the authors explicitly articulate criticisms diplomatically skirted in the earlier reports, particularly the first one, which was produced under the guidance of a variety of industry and military experts and expressed general agreement with them that the use of lethal drones was morally and legally permissible.

Four years later, perhaps out of exasperation, the Stimson Center has finally decided to voice some serious objections to what has been going on for the past sixteen years. Consider these examples:

Currently, the U.S. drone program rests on indistinct frameworks and an approach to drone strikes based on U.S. exceptionalism. Ambiguity surrounding U.S. drone policy has contributed to enduring questions about the legality, efficacy, and legitimacy of the U.S. drone program.

This one is buried in a footnote (#1), but is noteworthy:

Although not included in this report, the lethal targeting of U.S. citizens is a critical aspect of this conversation. In 2014, the Obama administration released a Justice Department memo articulating its legal justification for targeting an American citizen abroad, Anwar al-Awlaki. The memo, released to the public following lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times, argues that U.S. citizenship did not make Anwar al-Awlaki immune from the use of force abroad and that the killing of a U.S. citizen by the U.S. government is authorized by the law of war under a public authority exception to a U.S. statute prohibiting the foreign murder of U.S. nationals.

Or consider this zinger:

By requiring some connection to an imminent threat, a “near certainty” of the presence of the targeted subject, and no perceived risk of civilian casualties, the PPG [Presidential Policy Guidance] was at least intended to minimize civilian harm. Nevertheless, some elements of the PPG — such as the requirement that a threat be both continuing and imminent — seem inherently contradictory, and many critics of U.S. drone strikes have questioned whether strikes outside areas of active hostilities are lawful.

Another one:

The U.S. government’s refusal to release information about the targets of its drone attacks and the difficulty in accessing the locations where U.S. drone strikes have occurred have made it difficult for third parties to assess the legality of specific attacks.

While there is consensus that the United States is engaged in an armed conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, critics of U.S. policy and practice argue that U.S. drone strikes to conduct targeted killings outside these areas should be governed not by the law of armed conflict but by the stricter requirements of international human rights law, which permits killings of individuals only to prevent an imminent threat to life.

I am not sure why Syria is included in the list as a U.S. war zone, alongside Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is good to know that the Stimson Center is at least considering criticisms brushed aside by everyone in the government and given short shrift in the 2014 report. Better late than never. Perhaps they have been reading some of the critical books which have been rolling out in a steady stream since 2015?

Another possibility is that they no longer feel the need to hold back as they did during the Obama administration because, well, Trump is president. They may as well express all of their concerns so that at least they will seem to have been on the right side of history, even if no one in either administration took seriously anything they ever said. That may sound harsh, but I cannot help thinking that if the 2014 report had been less conciliatory, then perhaps it would have garnered more attention from the press, and there might have been some sort of public debate over the abysmal practice of assassination by remote control.

By now, euphemistically termed “targeted killing” is considered perfectly normal by nearly everyone (save radical book authors, antiwar activists, and libertarians), and rolling back Obama’s radical expansion of executive power will be all but impossible to effect, except, perhaps, if “The Resistance” somehow succeeds in removing Trump from office. But wait: then Mike Pence will be president! Does anyone truly believe that Pence would be more willing than Trump to cede power? No, it is the nature of power-seeking individuals (above all, politicians) to amass power until it is taken from them.

Given that “The Resistance” recently acquiesced in the bestowal upon Commander-in-Chief Trump of a $700+ billion defense budget, I don’t see the practice of drone assassination being curtailed anytime soon.  Particularly since the Pentagon produces projections for funding which extend ahead for the next twenty-five years, effectively locking in place what they have done and are doing, thereby ensuring that there will be even more of the same. As missile-equipped UAVs continue to be produced and distributed in a dizzying flurry, and more and more operators are trained to kill, enticed by lucrative salaries and benefits packages, the hit lists will grow longer as well. Given the nature of lethal creep, I predict that some of the unarmed military UAVs already hovering in US skies will be weaponized for use in the homeland. Recall the case of Micah Johnson, who was blown up by the Dallas police using an explosive-equipped robot.

So, yes, things have predictably gone from bad to worse, for lethal creep leads to further lethal creep, with no real end in sight. The 2018 Stimson Center report observes that the Trump administration is currently rolling back “restraints” and “guidelines” said to have been implemented during the Obama administration. Among the changes being considered are:

  1. Expanding the targets of armed strikes by eliminating the requirement that the person pose an “imminent threat,”

  2. Loosening the requirement of “near certainty” that the target is present at the time of the strike to a “reasonable certainty,” and

  3. Revising the process through which strike determinations are made by reducing senior policymaker involvement and oversight in such decisions and delegating more authority to operational commanders.

Hooah! MAGA! USA! USA!

In all seriousness, the Obama administration’s “restraints” were never anything more than an effort to quell criticism. Smile politely and gush about “just war theory,” and people will leave you alone, Obama learned from his targeted killing mentor, John Brennan. “Infeasibility of capture” was always a farce (see the cases of Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden). And “near certainty”? Why don’t we ask Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto about that one? Or, for that matter: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki?

The fundamental point cannot be overstated: by redefining “imminent threat” as no longer requiring “immediacy” and asserting the right to kill anyone anywhere deemed dangerous by a secretive committee of bureaucrats using deliberations conducted behind closed doors and never shared with the public (invoking State Secrets Privilege), the Obama administration paved the way to the latest slide down a slippery slope to even more wanton state homicide.

During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Obama has been reveling in portrayals of himself as some sort of saint by “The Resistance” and the adoration of throngs of people who find him dignified and “presidential” next to his successor. But Obama’s own erection of a U.S. killing machine, and normalization of the insidious policy of summary execution by lethal drone outside areas of active hostilities, even of U.S. citizens, will haunt humanity for decades to come.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump hugs a U.S. flag as he takes the stage for a campaign town hall meeting in Derry

 

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EPIC FAIL: The Stimson Center Report Card on US Lethal Drone Policy

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It has been two years since the US government-commissioned Stimson Task Force on US Drone Policy issued its first report in 2014. I found the text of that document rather gentle on the drone warriors, but was not too surprised to find the group affirming the right of the US government to use remote-control killing technology in its counterterrorism initiatives. After all, some of the task force members were involved in the drone industry and so could not be expected to object to the very idea of targeted killing. Given that the authors of the report were selected by the government to assess the government’s own program, it was something of a relief to find that there was any significant criticism at all. There seemed to be hope that the Obama administration would take appropriate actions in response to the Stimson Report recommendations:

1. Conduct a strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of the role of lethal UAVs in targeted counterterrorism strikes

2. Improve transparency in targeted UAV strikes:

a. Acknowledge use of lethal force in foreign countries, both to Congress and to the American Public

b. Release information on:

i. Approximate number of strikes carried out by the military

ii. Approximate number of strikes carried out by the CIA

iii. General location of strikes

iv. Number of those known to have been killed

v. Number of civilians known to have been killed

vi. Identities of civilians known to have been killed

c. Order preparation and public release of a detailed report explaining legal basis under domestic and international law of U.S. lethal drone program

3. Transfer general responsibility for lethal drone strikes from the CIA to the military

4. Develop more robust oversight and accountability mechanisms for targeted strikes outside of traditional battlefields

a. Create a nonpartisan independent commission to review lethal UAV policy

5. Foster the development of appropriate international norms for use of lethal force outside of traditional battlefields

6. Assess UAV-related technological developments and likely future trends, and develop an interagency research and development strategy geared toward advancing U.S. national security interests in a manner consistent with U.S. values

7. Review and reform UAV-related export control rules and FAA rules

8. FAA should accelerate its efforts to meet the requirements of the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Bill

 

The recently released “report card” finds that the drone warriors have done nearly nothing to address the concerns expressed in the original report.

 

The Grades:

1. Strategic Review and cost-benefit analysis? Grade: U. Stimson Center finds that there is no evidence that anything has been done on this front.

2. Improve Transparency? Grade: D. Stimson Center finds that only Congressional intelligence committees have been able to review strikes, with continued reluctance to publicly acknowledge the use of UCAVs abroad. The  administration has made nearly no information available on the details of strikes. Little information has been released regarding evidentiary basis for strikes, and usually only under court order.

3. Transfer of responsibility for drone program from CIA to DoD? Grade: D. Stimson Center finds that the administration has done little on this front, and appears to be discussing a dual command structure incorporating both CIA and DoD–in other words, not following the recommendation.

4. Develop robust oversight and accountability? Grade: F. Stimson Center finds that the culture of secrecy continues on, obstructing any efforts at achieving either oversight or accountability. There is no evidence that the administration has worked toward creating an independent commission to review UCAV policy.

5. Develop international norms? Grade: D. Stimson Center finds that little has been done to foster international norms, although “principles for proper use” were issued as part of the revised US drone export policy.

6. Develop strategy to advance U.S. security in a manner consistent with U.S. values? Grade: U. Stimson Center finds no evidence that the US government has conducted strategic analysis of the use of lethal drones.

7. Produce an Export Policy? Grade: C. Stimson Center affirms that the US government has developed a policy for the exportation of drones.

8. Accelerate FAA efforts to meet the requirements of the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Bill? Grade: C. Stimson Center finds that the US government has been slow to adopt rules regulating the use of civil drones in US airspace.

 

My Conclusion: The US drone program is no more transparent than it was five years ago, when Anwar al-Awlaki and his son were executed by the US government in Yemen. There is no accountability for the deaths caused by the drone warriors. Now that drones are being exported not only by the United States, but also Israel and China, it seems safe to say that the genie let out of the bottle by Barack Obama when he chose to normalize assassination through the use of this new technology will be very difficult, if not impossible, to control.

There are no international norms governing the use of lethal drones, beyond the protocols already enshrined in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions, all of which have been abandoned by the drone warriors, setting a danger precedent likely to be followed by future political leaders, as has already been done by British Prime Minister David Cameron, among others.

The use of lethal drones to kill potentially dangerous persons, including citizens, suspected of possibly conspiring to commit possible future crimes against the state remains and will remain President Obama’s lasting legacy.

 

To access PDF versions of the complete reports, click on these links: Stimson Center Report 2014Stimson Center Report 2016: Grading Progress on U.S. Drone Policy

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A Letter from Four Former Drone Operators with Echoes from the Stimson Center Report

 

Former drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant has given interviews all over the world about his involvement in the US government’s drone program or “killing machine”, as it has been aptly labeled by some. He has not always met with sympathy from interviewers and commentators. I was especially struck by the antagonistic stance of one BBC reporter, Stephen Sackur, whose questions often hinged on questionable facts which he had accepted as the gospel truth. Here’s a YouTube video of the interview:

Where, for example, did the notion that Anwar al-Awlaki gave advice to the 9/11 attackers come from, if not from a myth fabricated for the public to rationalize the US citizen’s summary execution without trial in Yemen? For those who missed it, including Stephen Sackur, here’s what Anwar al-Awlaki said in an interview with National Geographic News on September 28, 2001:

“My worry is that because of this conflict, the views of Osama bin Laden will become appealing to some of the population of the Muslim world. Never in the past were there any demonstrations raising the picture of Osama bin Laden–it has just happened now. So Osama bin Laden, who was considered to be an extremist, radical in his views, could end up becoming mainstream. That’s a very frightening thing, so the US needs to be very careful and not have itself perceived as an enemy of Islam.”

 In an interview on October 31, 2001, by Ray Suarez for PBS, Anwar al-Awlaki said:

“Our position needs to be reiterated, and needs to be very clear. The fact that the US has administered the death and homicide of over 1 million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the US is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians, does not justify the killing of one US civilian in New York City or Washington, DC.”

It is possible, of course, that this was all a part of a grand and sneaky scheme on the part of Al-Awlaki to pretend to condemn the attacks which he “in fact” helped to orchestrate. It is also logically possible, I suppose, that the 9/11 hijackers attacked the United States because “they hate us for our freedom.” Far more probable—and logically tenable—is that 9/11 was blowback for the 1991 Gulf War and related US interventions, especially in Muslim lands, abroad.

Likewise, more probable than the conspiracy theory according to which Al-Awlaki was only pretending to denounce the attacks of 9/11 is the version of the story ably relayed by Jeremy Scahill in Dirty Wars: that the Muslim cleric was radicalized by the actions of the US government itself, which in aftermath of 9/11 did precisely what Al-Awlaki counseled against, by waging what could be reasonably interpreted as a war on Islam.

By executing Al-Awlaki, rather than indicting him and allowing him to stand trial, the US government effectively etched its own version of what transpired onto the tablets of history. Reporters such as Stephen Sackur simply assume that the US government version of the story is true, without doing so much as a cursory Google search to find out what Al-Awlaki was doing and saying back in 2001.

It is more than a little disturbing that so many journalists and reporters have uncritically parroted, replicated and disseminated whatever the US drone warriors say, even as they regularly contradict themselves and completely re-write the story of what they have done as circumstances dictate. Was Osama bin Laden armed when he was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan? The initial official story was that he was killed by Navy SEALS in legitimate self-defense, armed as the mastermind was with an AK-47. Later versions—some from the US government—have offered very different accounts of what transpired.

The obdurate refusal on the part of mainstream journalists to go beyond the official stories shared (and often “leaked”) by the government reveals that the Fourth Estate has effectively forsaken its democratic raison d’être–just as surely as US congresspersons did when in October 2002 they renounced their right and responsibility to check the power of the executive to wage war at his caprice. The result? The 2003 invasion of Iraq, and everything to ensue, up to and including the ongoing ISIS-driven quagmire in Syria.

When brave men such as Brandon Bryant step forward to share the ghastly reality of what is being done in the drone program, they are naturally met with skepticism and sometimes ire. Why? Because if what they are saying is true—and there is no compelling reason for thinking that they lie—then the US government has gone morally awry in its politically driven effort to convince citizens that they are being kept safe through a concerted and wide-ranging program of “targeted killing” (formerly known as “assassination”) abroad.

In assessing the credibility of this witness, it is important to bear in mind that Brandon Bryant was not fired from his position. He quit his job and declined even to accept a generous bonus (aka “bribe”) for staying on. Why? Because he could no longer continue in good conscience to do what he had come to believe was wrong.

Here is a recent letter sent to the powers that be by Bryant and three kindred spirits, Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis, and Michael Haas:

    
 
 (source: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2515596-final-drone-letter.html — Contributed by: Ed Pilkington, The Guardian)

 

It is worth pointing out that in the first paragraph of the letter these admirable souls have clearly articulated some of the very concerns aired by the Stimson Center task force in its US government-commissioned report of 2014. One rarely hears mention of it these days, but the administration agreed to subject the drone program to scrutiny by an independent group of academics, industry experts, and former military officers. Unfortunately, no one in power appears to have read the report, which, in addition to advising that lethal drones be taken out of the hands of the CIA, also clearly warns in its Executive Summary:

Blowback: Civilian casualties, even if relatively few, can anger whole communities, increase anti-US sentiment and become a potent recruiting tool for terrorist organizations. Even strikes that kill only terrorist operatives can cause great resentment, particularly in contexts in which terrorist recruiting efforts rely on tribal loyalties or on an economically desperate population. UAV strikes by the United States have also generated a backlash in states not directly affected by the strikes, in part due to the perception that such strikes cause excessive civilian deaths, and in part due to concerns about sovereignty, transparency, accountability and other human rights and rule of law issues.”

Sound familiar? Military and drone program supporters may dismiss out of hand the testimony of former drone operators—writing them off as PTSD victims, disgruntled employees, or simply “bad apples”. But can any of those terms be applied to the Stimson center committee, the members of which were appointed by the US government?

Perhaps Obama, Brennan & Co. (literally) were hoping for a report which would conclude by patting the drone warriors on the back and exhorting them to continue on in their quest to kill brown-skinned suspects wherever they may be said to hide, working from “evidence” furnished by privately contracted analysts with strong reasons of financial self-interest to generate longer and longer kill lists–as long as they can.