Obama didnt do enough to curtail Americas drones. Now expansion under Trump could have devastating consequences, writes Brett Max Kaufman
For more than a decade, the worst-kept secret in the world has been the fact that the Central Intelligence Agency owns and operates lethal drones outside of recognized battlefields abroad. Newspapers blare it from their headlines. Legislators discuss it on television. Foreign governments protest it through press releases. And, of course, human beings witness it through the death and destruction foisted upon their communities.
Still, according to the US government and the federal courts, the CIAs operation of drones to hunt and kill terrorism suspects a campaign that has killed thousands of people, including hundreds of children, in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia remains an official secret.
Toward the end of the Obama administration, the president moderately circumscribedthe agencys role in executing lethal strikes abroad, in part to increase public transparency. Compared to the US military (which also uses lethal force abroad), the CIA is relatively less accountable to policy makers, members of Congress, and the American public. With a diminished role in targeted killings, it appeared then that the CIAs official secrecy was becoming less important to the overall drone program. But as critics warned could happen, President Trump quickly lifted many of the late-Obama-era limits while ramping up the governments use of lethal drones abroad and reportedly putting the CIA back in the drone business.
For the worlds most notorious spy agency, official secrecy what Obamas own stymied Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, called a fiction of deniability in a 2013 case concerning drone transparency and the CIA is exceedingly convenient. By both law and custom, covert actions taken by the CIA are not generally acknowledged by government officials after they happen. And without such acknowledgment, the public is left without meaningful information concerning what the government is up to, even when those actions are documented to have taken innocent lives.
All of this has made the agency an attractive vehicle, to those so inclined, for carrying out legally and morally questionable programs in the name of national security. Some of the agencys greatest hits include helping to spark a coup against a democratic government in Iran, supporting torture and assassinations through the Phoenix Program in wartime Vietnam, and domestically spying on Americans involved in the peace movement during the 1960s.
Considering that history, it is no accident that when President Bush decided to carry out a campaign of extraordinary rendition and torture at black sites around the globe, he looked to the CIA. The same goes for President Obama, who inherited a targeted killing program from the prior administration, then vastly expanded it. The Bush administration carried outroughly 50 attacks that killed around 500 people; under Obama, the government conducted more than 500 strikes that killed more than 3,000.
With the help of thenchief counterterrorism advisor (and newly anointed Resistance hero) John Brennan, Obama not only ramped up the use of drones for targeted killings but effectively institutionalized them, channeling what had been mostly ad hoc decisions about who to kill and where into a systematized process, complete with Orwellian nomenclature like disposition matrix (ie, kill list) and direct action procedures.
Obamas effort to impose rules and procedures upon the drone program included the enactment, by executive decree, of standards very loosely analogous to international law requirements that apply in war time to lethal strikes. Those standards were vague, and the ones upon which they were based were never meant to apply in countries in which the US is not at war. In addition, how the government actually applied the standards, and what evidence was required to satisfy them, was shrouded in secrecy. Indeed, it refused to release the standards until litigation brought by the ACLU forced their release in 2016.
After Brennan became CIA Director, according to reports, Obama reportedly shifted at least some authority for carrying out many drone strikes away from the CIA to the military, both to make targeted killing strikes more centralized and accountable internally, and to permit the government to defend strikes that came under scrutiny from foreign allies, the media, and rights organizations.
But all of Obamas changes were, in one critical way, fundamentally deficient. Because all of them were imposed through executive orders, they would do little to bind his successors. Lo and behold, President Trump promptly loosened the killing rules and exempted certain geographic regions from their coverage. He also quickly gave the CIA renewed authority to conduct strikes against suspected terrorists without the involvement of the Pentagon. Now, he has apparently determined to further reassert CIA control over lethal drones by establishing the agencys own drone base in Niger, broadening the agencys lethal reach into Libya and other parts of Africa.
That decision is an ominous reversal of the agencys formerly declining role in targeted killings abroad. Because the CIA tries to shield information about its covert actions, including through the egregious use of blanket can neither confirm nor deny responses to public records requests, the re-expansion of the CIA drone program will lead to even greater secrecy at a critical moment. Strikes in Somalia and Yemen have increased threefold under President Trump. These strikes are already destabilizing an important part of the world, and they are causing more civilian deaths for which the government will refuse to answer. The CIAs authority to reach into new regions is sure to cause even more.
Trumps move is, moreover, a crucial reminder that lasting restraints on presidential power must come from Congress and the courts, not executive promises that can easily be undone. Critics of Obamas use of drones asked his supporters, who were often silent about targeted killings carried out under his watch, to consider whether they would trust his successor with the same awesome, lethal powers over targeted killings abroad. Trumps most recent moves have made those warnings all too prescient with devastating consequences for civilians, and Americas moral standing, around the world.
Brett Max Kaufman is a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, where he works on issues related to national security, surveillance, privacy and technology