When they first came on the scene, armed drones seemed like a welcome alternative to boots on the ground or indiscriminate bombings of potential terrorist strongholds. The stealthy, targeted attacks against terrorist compounds were high tech, clinical and clean. But they aren’t without challenges, and President Donald Trump is rolling back many of the responsible precautions in place.
The unmanned aerial vehicles also avoid much “collateral damage” as the United States attempts to stop those who would harm our country or citizens. Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama made extensive use of this new, deadly tool — but not without criticism as word of mounting civilian casualties spread and the lack of any kind of oversight grew increasingly worrisome. Obama oversaw 10 times the number of airstrikes as Bush.
Obama did finally make commendable efforts to limit the use of drone strikes, pledging that they would only be used against imminent threats by a terrorism suspect who could not be captured — and only when risk to civilians from strikes was as minimal as possible.
Still, Obama earned ongoing scrutiny and criticism for his administration’s reliance on drones, especially against U.S. citizens abroad, such as the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who went to college at Colorado State University and lived in Denver for a time. A CIA drone strike killed him in Yemen in 2011.
Trump, who seems unable to find value in anything his predecessor did, has been eroding Obama-era limits and constraints on the use of drones. He lifted the restrictions on CIA drone strikes last March, and now his administration is considering a broad overhaul of the rules Obama put in place.
According to The New York Times, two specific rules may be relaxed. Instead of only being able to target high-level terrorists who pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, the military and CIA will be able to attack rank-and-file jihadists. Another rule requiring high-level vetting for any attack would be jettisoned, giving field commanders more leeway.
The administration would keep the Obama-era constraint requiring “near certainty” that no civilian bystanders would be killed in a drone attack. That’s wise, both from a humanitarian and strategic vantage, but the other suggested changes have sparked grave concern.
Widening acceptable targets from top-level terrorists and imminent threats to “couriers, bodyguards, or propagandists” will inevitably result in more civilian deaths, warned Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic. “Al-Qaeda and ISIS are dangerous abominations,” he wrote. “Fighting them is just, even if the fight involves the inadvertent killing of innocents, but only if due care is taken to avoid those deaths whenever possible. The entire history of the CIA suggests that it is not an organization one can trust to use lethal force with sufficient prudential and moral restraint, particularly when it needn’t risk its personnel or even public scrutiny to kill.”
While we have consistently supported the limited use of drones in the war against terrorists, the Trump administration must better justify increased risk to innocent civilians and removing civilian oversight of the military from decisions about drone attacks.
Drones can be an effective weapon in the battle to keep Americans safe. But without clear guidelines, active oversight and transparency, there is a great risk that the drone program will become an American shame.