George Mathew, CEO of Kespry, shows a drone to President Donald Trump during the "American Leadership in Emerging Technology" event in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 22, 2017.

George Mathew, CEO of Kespry, shows a drone to President Donald Trump during the "American Leadership in Emerging Technology" event in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 22, 2017. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Trump’s Secret War on Terror

Drone strikes continue and spread—away from public scrutiny or Congressional oversight.

President Donald Trump has dramatically expanded the war on terror. But you—and perhaps he—would never know it.

Since he came into office, Trump has reportedly abandoned Obama-era rules governing the use of drones in non-combat theaters such as Somalia and Libya. Whereas Obama operationally expanded but bureaucratically constrained drones’ use, from what we can tell, Trump’s new rules instead vest strike decisions with military commanders, without requiring approval from the White House.

Superficially, this approach may have some logic to it. Use of drones, like most all counterterrorism efforts, is complex and multifaceted, requiring a careful balancing of military necessity with concepts of morality, legality, and fair play in war-making. Behind closed doors, the Bush and Obama administrations spent a great deal of time learning critical lessons on their employment as these newer platforms were tested on battlefields unlike any the United States had fought on before (as we’ve explored in greater depth elsewhere). The Obama team did, ultimately, show some of their work, disclosing in part the hard-earned legal and policy framework governing the drone program, their decision process, some strike data, and their own accounting of civilian casualties. We were both involved, from 2013 through 2015, in developing, implementing, and refining this policy during our time with the National Security Council. The parting message: The policy may need to evolve, but this is precedent worth building on.

Trump seems to have declined, instead “trusting his generals” to guide his strategy. According to leaks to The New York Times and other outlets, last fall he introduced a new policy that moved responsibility for counterterrorism operations outside traditional war zones to lower-level commanders, and lowered the threshold for such strikes. (Targets are no longer required to pose a “continuing, imminent threat” to the United States, but rather may be lower-level foot soldiers, and there is purportedly no longer a requirement for “near certainty” that the target be on-site for strikes.) But this is all just conjecture, as apart from unauthorized disclosures made to media outlets, Trump is shieldingeven the broad contours of his new drone guidelines, his overall strategy, and some relevant data on operations from the American people. Without such information, the voting public cannot make informed decisions as to whether they are comfortable with their government’s new approach.

During the George W. Bush presidency and the first term of Obama’s presidency, the government disclosed virtually nothing publicly about the extent to which the U.S. government was using drone strikes to kill terrorist targets. That began to change in 2013, when Obama, believing in the value of the drone program but also in the need to gain long-term international and domestic legitimacy through increased transparency, undertook efforts to disclose more about the program, its implementation, and his views on the strategy that guided it. This path toward transparency culminated in the public release, toward the end of Obama’s second term, of the previously highly classified rules that Obama established in 2013 for drone strikes outside of active war zones, and of government assessments regarding civilian and combatant casualties resulting from such strikes. From the lack of information provided by the Trump administration about its use of armed drones, it seems that Trump has decided to recoil back to the pre-transparency days in which the government made public little, if anything, about the program.

Wide-scale use of armed drones as a counterterrorism tool has always been alluring. In terms of the evolution of military capabilities, drones are not a terribly unique platform, given the broader trend in warfare to make it easier, cheaper, and less risky to project power. But drones have a futuristic mystique that makes them attractive and a flexibility that lets them be the answer to previously unanswerable questions. Employed properly, their use means less risk to U.S. troops, lower potential for civilian casualties, and lower monetary costs. With drones, the U.S. government can observe and even kill terrorists who were previously safe from the long arm of the American military—for example, if the terrorism target was taking refuge in a heavily fortified compound in a conflict zone. And drones allow the American government to act without many of the downsides of using more traditional military power.

But with these benefits come real risks, including most notably, as Obama stated, that “the very precision of drone strikes and the necessary secrecy often involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites.”  

To guard against drones’ becoming what Obama feared could be an overused “cure-all for terrorism,” the former president heavily regulated their use outside of active war zones and eventually shared the applicable policy frameworks and limited strike data with the public. Executive branch officials like us took pride in fastidious adherence to these administrative rules. The process both provided a healthy level of rigor to strike decisions and constrained the availability of drone strikes in certain borderline cases, like when intelligence pinpointing the location of a high-value terrorist target was strong but not overwhelming. High-level bureaucrats from across numerous agencies spent endless hours in the White House Situation Room, and in bunker-like offices suitable for classified information back at their home agencies, designing the drone policy from the ground up, considering proposed drone strikes and whether they met the standards Obama set, even on occasion proposing tweaks to those rules when they thought necessary to meet operational exigencies. Where public scrutiny was not initially encouraged, significant bureaucratic scrutiny was installed through a labyrinth of top secret policies and rules.

But in so doing, senior officials almost certainly sacrificed the solution Obama had suggested was possible to manage drones’ siren song: a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. The tactics of drone operations were all-absorbing: the definitions, the target approvals, the moralistic but private debate. Managing their use left little space for broader questions in the Situation Room of whether objectives were actually being met, or the price of failure, or whether non-military efforts would be more appropriate.

The narrow objective for drone strikes, of course, is to kill the terrorists who are targeted and, thus, remove them from the battlefield. By that standard, the program may be deemed a success insofar as, according to government-released statistics, the program has resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 combatants. It is worthwhile to note, however, that there is significant gap between how the government and NGOs investigate and calculate combatant and civilian casualties in the aftermath of strikes, which results in estimates from NGOs of far higher numbers of civilian casualties (and correspondingly lower combatant casualties).  

But there has been insufficient attention, both within government and from NGOs, in assessing the broader-view net result of the drone program; said differently, and channeling former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, are we killing more terrorists than we are creating? While effective at killing their intended targets, drones on the flip side have also been used by terrorists as a recruitment tool and can generally fuel anti-American sentiment around the globe, particularly in regions where U.S. drones fly (and strike) regularly.

Congress should have prompted a clearer reckoning, but they were equally taken in. The focus of congressional interest in the drone program centers on the cool stuff—who is being targeted, what their importance is, and the particular drone platforms and weapons that are used. This emphasis on the tactical over the strategic creates the same blind spots in congressional oversight as the policy-management approach pursued by the Obama administration. Officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would think of themselves as operators for a moment; they were wannabe-Jack Ryans, trained to sit at a desk, but sucked into the drama of operations. Moreover, Congress’s institutional ability to adequately oversee the drone program is constrained due, among other things, to classification rules that limit public discussion and the ability of Congress to impose funding restrictions over the program.

Accepting the narrative that the prior White House was overly involved in operational matters relating to individual drone strikes, the Trump administration discarded the Obama-era micromanagement. Some Obama-era officials cautiously embraced this shift. They were hopeful that delegation would allow the senior Trump national security team the bandwidth to take a keener look at counterterrorism strategy and potentially offer greater emphasis on partnership approaches or non-military tools in governance and development, such as better understanding the root causes of violent extremism, supporting civil society, and other initiatives designed to address those underlying forces. It may be too soon to tell whether this optimism was justified, but many of the prerequisites are publicly missing.

It is entirely unclear whether the Trump administration has developed comprehensive counterterrorism strategies for hot spots such as Iraq and Syria and West Africa; they either don’t exist or have been shielded from the public as part of the broader trend by the Trump administration away from transparency about military activities. Though secrecy is hardly new in national security, this president exults in it. “We no longer tell our enemies our plans,” the president proclaimed during his State of the Union, and the rest of his bureaucracy has taken the philosophy to heart, hiding once-public details on troop commitments, strike data, and more.  

To be sure, the government has provided little public information about the drone program throughout its use as a counterterrorism tool. But Trump appears to be reversing the trend toward transparency that Obama started pressing in the closing years of his presidency. At the same time, media reporting indicates counterterrorism operations broadly and terrorism strikesspecifically have been expanding with little public notice or congressional engagement.

Keeping information about its counterterrorism policy, operations, and strategy limited to vague signals and leaks erodes traditional means of democratic oversight. It also risks signaling to the world that such drone operations are taking place outside the bounds of traditional norms and laws on use of force and should remain behind closed doors; other international drone users will surely take note.

Congress can fill the gap, enhancing its oversight over the drone program by, for example, consolidating oversight that is currently disbursed across several committees, each of which jealously guard their piece of the drone program, or by redoubling its efforts to independently evaluate claims of non-combatant casualties that result from U.S. strikes.

But in the absence of that, the result is a dangerous information vacuum for a highly complex, morality-straddling, multifaceted use of deadly force by America around the world. From what we know from leaks, consequential decision-making regarding drone strikes has been delegated down into the bowels of executive branch agencies without the watchful eye of politically accountable administration leaders; Congress is largely sidelined; and the American public is kept intentionally in the dark. Drones as a platform did not force this dynamic, but lowering the perceived cost of U.S. military operations lowered the expectation to fully engage in debate about such activities, and diminished the perceived need to take stock of success or failure. The result is that unmanned now means unmanaged, un-overseen, and unaccountable.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.