Bring Drone Warfare Out of the Shadows


The White House has ordered a review of U.S. policy on using drones to kill terrorism suspects in foreign countries. The goal should be to provide greater transparency about America’s reliance on such aircraft, without compromising their value to national security.

Over the past decade, drones have played an increasingly significant role in military and intelligence operations against members of al-Qaeda, Islamic State and affiliated terrorist networks, particularly in areas where the U.S. has a minimal troop presence. President Barack Obama’s administration conducted at least 550 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia alone. The use of drones increased during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, but the U.S. has since disclosed less information about both the frequency and consequences of the strikes. A 2019 executive order waived the requirement that intelligence officials publicly report the number of strikes conducted outside of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, as well as estimated militant and civilian casualties from those operations.

A degree of secrecy about counterterrorism operations is justified, but the government’s obfuscation about drone strikes harms the national interest. It limits the ability of lawmakers and the public to evaluate the effectiveness of the program and hold officials accountable for its costs. As more countries and nonstate actors acquire drone technology, this lack of transparency damages America’s credibility abroad and undermines efforts to establish international standards for regulating its export and use.

The Biden administration should resume an annual public accounting of drone strikes, including those conducted outside of traditional war zones. Congressional leaders should be briefed on all drone operations by both the military and the CIA. The U.S. also needs to rededicate itself to limiting civilian casualties by restoring some Obama-era guardrails — including the requirement that drone operators have a “near certainty” that civilians would not be in harm’s way, a standard reportedly lowered under Trump. The administration should commit to gathering and publishing data promptly on the death toll caused by drone strikes. 

In striving for greater transparency, however, Biden needs to resist excessive constraints on how drones are deployed. He should maintain Trump’s policy of allowing top counterterrorism officials to authorize strikes without explicit presidential approval — an improvement over Obama’s process, which required that targeting decisions be vetted by the White House. Biden can promote accountability by placing the drone program under the direct authority of the secretary of defense, while requiring that military and intelligence officials consult with the relevant U.S. ambassador before launching strikes in a given country.

With the U.S. seeking to hold down military expenditures and extricate its troops from long-running conflicts, drones are likely to become even more critical to the fight against terrorist threats. That’s all the more reason to bring them out of the shadows — and ensure their continued use remains consistent with the country’s values.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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