EPIC FAIL: The Stimson Center Report Card on US Lethal Drone Policy


It has been two years since the US government-commissioned Stimson Task Force on US Drone Policy issued its first report in 2014. I found the text of that document rather gentle on the drone warriors, but was not too surprised to find the group affirming the right of the US government to use remote-control killing technology in its counterterrorism initiatives. After all, some of the task force members were involved in the drone industry and so could not be expected to object to the very idea of targeted killing. Given that the authors of the report were selected by the government to assess the government’s own program, it was something of a relief to find that there was any significant criticism at all. There seemed to be hope that the Obama administration would take appropriate actions in response to the Stimson Report recommendations:

  1. Conduct a strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of the role of lethal UAVs in targeted counterterrorism strikes
  2. Improve transparency in targeted UAV strikes:
    1. Acknowledge use of lethal force in foreign countries, both to Congress and to the American Public
    2. Release information on:
      1. Approximate number of strikes carried out by the military
      2. Approximate number of strikes carried out by the CIA
      3. General location of strikes
      4. Number of those known to have been killed
      5. Number of civilians known to have been killed
      6. Identities of civilians known to have been killed
    3. Order preparation and public release of a detailed report explaining legal basis under domestic and international law of U.S. lethal drone program
  3. Transfer general responsibility for lethal drone strikes from the CIA to the military
  4. Develop more robust oversight and accountability mechanisms for targeted strikes outside of traditional battlefields
    1. Create a nonpartisan independent commission to review lethal UAV policy
  5. Foster the development of appropriate international norms for use of lethal force outside of traditional battlefields
  6. Assess UAV-related technological developments and likely future trends, and develop an interagency research and development strategy geared toward advancing U.S. national security interests in a manner consistent with U.S. values
  7. Review and reform UAV-related export control rules and FAA rules
  8. FAA should accelerate its efforts to meet the requirements of the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Bill

The recently released “report card” finds that the drone warriors have done nearly nothing to address the concerns expressed in the original report.

The Grades:

  1. Strategic Review and cost-benefit analysis? Grade: U. Stimson Center finds that there is no evidence that anything has been done on this front.
  2. Improve Transparency? Grade: D. Stimson Center finds that only Congressional intelligence committees have been able to review strikes, with continued reluctance to publicly acknowledge the use of UCAVs abroad. The administration has made nearly no information available on the details of strikes. Little information has been released regarding evidentiary basis for strikes, and usually only under court order.
  3. Transfer of responsibility for drone program from CIA to DoD? Grade: D. Stimson Center finds that the administration has done little on this front, and appears to be discussing a dual command structure incorporating both CIA and DoD–in other words, not following the recommendation.
  4. Develop robust oversight and accountability? Grade: F. Stimson Center finds that the culture of secrecy continues on, obstructing any efforts at achieving either oversight or accountability. There is no evidence that the administration has worked toward creating an independent commission to review UCAV policy.
  5. Develop international norms? Grade: D. Stimson Center finds that little has been done to foster international norms, although “principles for proper use” were issued as part of the revised US drone export policy.
  6. Develop strategy to advance U.S. security in a manner consistent with U.S. values? Grade: U. Stimson Center finds no evidence that the US government has conducted strategic analysis of the use of lethal drones.
  7. Produce an Export Policy? Grade: C. Stimson Center affirms that the US government has developed a policy for the exportation of drones.
  8. Accelerate FAA efforts to meet the requirements of the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Bill? Grade: C. Stimson Center finds that the US government has been slow to adopt rules regulating the use of civil drones in US airspace.

My Conclusion: The US drone program is no more transparent than it was five years ago, when Anwar al-Awlaki and his son were executed by the US government in Yemen. There is no accountability for the deaths caused by the drone warriors. Now that drones are being exported not only by the United States, but also Israel and China, it seems safe to say that the genie let out of the bottle by Barack Obama when he chose to normalize assassination through the use of this new technology will be very difficult, if not impossible, to control.

There are no international norms governing the use of lethal drones, beyond the protocols already enshrined in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions, all of which have been abandoned by the drone warriors, setting a danger precedent likely to be followed by future political leaders, as has already been done by British Prime Minister David Cameron, among others.

The use of lethal drones to kill potentially dangerous persons, including citizens, suspected of possibly conspiring to commit possible future crimes against the state remains and will remain President Obama’s lasting legacy.

To access PDF versions of the complete reports, click on these links: Stimson Center Report 2014; Stimson Center Report 2016: Grading Progress on U.S. Drone Policy

Laurie Calhoun, a philosopher and cultural critic, is the author ofWe Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age(Zed Books, September 2015; paperback forthcoming in 2016) andWar and Delusion: A Critical Examination (Palgrave Macmillan 2013; paperback forthcoming in 2016). Visit her website.

2 thoughts on “EPIC FAIL: The Stimson Center Report Card on US Lethal Drone Policy”

  1. Under the self-proclaimed “most transparent administration in history”? Imagine that!

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