Obama’s New Drone Policy Is a Step Forward for Transparency

For Hussein Ahmed Saleh Bakr, April 19, 2014, began like any other day. The 24-year-old Yemeni laborer was on his way to work in central Yemen with his father, uncle, and nine others.

Suddenly, an armed U.S. drone, unseen in the morning sky, fired missiles at the car behind them. Shrapnel from the explosion hit Hussein’s truck, killing his family members and two other passengers, and injuring five others.

They were killed only because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hussein, his family, and his fellow passengers had no ties to terrorism whatsoever.

“None of us—all passengers of the car—had anything to do with al-Qaeda or any other organization. No committee has come to us to investigate the incident,” Hussein told researchers from the Yemeni human rights organization Mwatana for a joint report with the Open Society Justice Initiative after the attack. “We want fair compensation for us because we are poor families. We want the perpetrators of this crime to be held accountable for what they have done.”

Hussein’s story raises questions about the U.S. government’s reliance on armed drones as a central tool for counterterrorism operations in places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. His story also offers powerful evidence for why U.S. drone strikes, the overwhelming majority of which are conducted in secret, need to be more transparent and accountable.

Earlier this month, Obama’s director of national intelligence took a step towards making this happen by releasing estimates of the number of combatants and civilians who have been killed by U.S. drones since 2009. President Obama also signed an executive order requiring future presidents to release similar information annually. 

Human rights advocates, journalists, and others question the accuracy of the government’s civilian casualty numbers. Nevertheless, the release of this data will provide the American people the basic information needed for a thoughtful debate about the ethics, efficacy, and wisdom of the administration’s drone policy.

Of course, the civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes are more than just statistics. They are real people with families, stories, and dreams for a better future. They live in fear that they or their loved ones could be killed at any moment by an armed drone.

President Obama’s executive order outlines a process by which the U.S. government must review and investigate incidents of civilian harm, taking into account information from all available sources, including civil society organizations. According to the executive order, the U.S. government must acknowledge responsibility for civilian deaths and injuries and provide redress to the victims and their families. This policy will mean a great deal to people like Hussein, whose families suffer the consequences from U.S. drone strikes long after the smoke clears.

The impact of drone strikes on civilian communities, including economic hardship, displacement, trauma, stigma, and retaliation, gets little attention in policy debates about counterterrorism. When policymakers fail to pay attention to civilians affected by drone strikes, they risk alienating the very communities they need to support in order to address the threat posed by violent extremism around the world.

Mohammed Nasser al-Jarrah, another witness to a drone strike in Yemen, sums up how such strikes can exacerbate feelings of alienation and resentment toward the United States. “Our villages are poor—no education, no hospitals, no roads, nor any services,” he says. “Of all the progress and advances in the modern world, only these deadly missiles reached us.”

Taken together, the release of the civilian casualty estimates and the executive order on civilian protection are an important step on the path to greater transparency and accountability in the U.S. lethal drone program. Future disclosures—provided they contain more detailed information—will allow a more informed debate about U.S. policy on armed drones among administration officials, Congress, and the public.  

While many aspects of U.S. counterterrorism operations are still secret, and many questions remain, these new steps will hopefully give victims, like Hussein, and their families some of the answers that they seek about why their family members were killed.

In his speech at the National Defense University in May 2013, President Obama said that the decisions we make about our use of drones “will define the type of nation—and world—that we leave to our children.” The Obama administration should continue to release more information about the U.S. drone program in order to make that world a more open and transparent place.

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Nice diplomatic flare around a weapon delivery platform. There was a time when diplomacy didnt mean targeting a missle.

I agree with valid points mentioned, but if we don't use drones, and put 'boots on the ground', we will likely have more US soldiers killed, and possibly similar, or even more 'innocent' civilians killed from land incursions with troops, helicopters, or soldier fired ground missiles.We need to contain ISIS, and prevent them killing even more innocent civilians...unfortunately, in all wars, poor folks get in the way, and end up killed. In this case, does the ends justify the means? Doing nothing allows ISIS to terrorize and subjugate large swaths of territory. What is best strategy to defeat them?

innocents get killed in war all the time...does it matter if its via a drone, or ground troops calling in helicopter support, or artillery shells. Its hard to root out the evil that is ISIL without harming the people we wish to protect and liberate. But if we do nothing, how many more innocents will be brutalized by them? There is no easy answer, and transparency is a good thing...but sometimes a few need to be harmed to protect the many. At least we are trying to minimize harms and unintended consequences to civilians, and offering compensation. Why don't these folks ask ISIL for same compensation if their family is killed by that side?

ISIS will not be defeated by drones or troops if we do not ask Saudi Arabia government to stop funding extremist.

we should've much more demanding with Quatar, Saudi Arabia to start with. We should impose sanctions to these countries as well since it is proved they are terrorist sponsors

The root cause of the terrorism is the offending social systems that need to be rectified first. For example value trading, interest based lending etc are wrong or negative tools of economics, Until unless we shift to a value culture platform, all these adverse matters is likely to contine.

The peace that we all time seek, will remain so long as inequities that define our societies continue to widen. War is not just a phenomena that is incidental without background. Over time and space, several dynamics come into interplay being a fertile source of conflict. Societies and especially their respective leadership, whether conventional democracies or traditional arrangements, are most culpable to the extent the continued use of drones. The subjects of governance must seek more accountability from their institutions of leadership to negotiate peace differently and by coercion by use of such lethal instrument that waste human population beyond any conceivable morals.

Drones kill too many innocent civilians, which only makes people who are directly affected even more angry and likely to join extremist groups as a means of seeking revenge or retribution. Bombing people using drones is not an effective means of fighting terrorists because there is too much collateral damage - too many non-target innocents die or are injured - it is not a good solution. It must stop.

Sadly, there are always unforeseen casualties. Drones save American lives.

The villains are from Daesh.

Stop all the wars, leave countries alone. If there is a human rights issue in a country then the UN and Nato should deal with it, NOT the USA. The USA has it's own issues and should mind it's OWN damn business.

Drone Warfare: A Cowardly Means By Which To Commit Murder.

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