Behind the Closed Doors of ‘Terror Tuesdays’: American Drone Strikes and the Need for Transparency - by Alexis Sher
One of the greatest complexities in the world of counterterrorism is the balance between effective tools to ensure security and transparency. In his presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised what the nation had hoped for: a counterterrorism program built on legitimacy and transparency that simultaneously vowed to dissolve heightening terrorist threats. However, for a candidate whose campaign was founded on transparency, President Obama shocked the world with his provocative and aggressive use of the armed drone, a large-scale covert program that was one of the most intricate facets of the Obama administration. For eight years the administration failed to uphold its promise of transparency by refusing to publicly release information as to who was a legitimate target, how that was decided, what legal framework covered the warfare, and accurate reports of ‘collateral damage’. The United States government should be predisposed to publicly disclose information regarding armed drone strikes because it would ensure accountability, confirm that the United States is abiding by international law, ease international hostility towards the nation, and avoid establishing a dangerous precedent for other state and non-state actors possessing drones.
Instead of concealment and, therefore, alienation, openly disclosing information about civilian casualties in armed drone strikes would hold the United States government accountable for its operations. Like the armed drone’s physical separation from combat, killing from the sky and then refusing to recognize accountability alienates the United States. International Humanitarian law states, “The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack.” (Byers). However, the Obama administration repeatedly swept civilian casualties under the carpet, therefore not holding themselves accountable for the losses and alienating themselves from their own actions. For example, President Obama implemented a counting method for civilian casualties that assumed that all military-age males in an area of known terrorist activity pose a threat. This rendered the formula for counting civilian deaths skewed towards producing low numbers. A deteriorating accountability recklessly widens the limit as to who the United States can kill, since, when no one is held accountable, one can act as they wish outside a framework of limits. Not only would the nation take responsibility for its actions by publicly revealing what deaths have been caused by drone strikes, but it would inspire future steps toward establishing procedures to prevent civilian harm and promote investigations into collateral damage. Most fundamentally, it would ensure that America, the pioneer in human rights, would hold itself accountable for killing people from the sky.
Publicly disclosing the explicit legal justifications behind America’s drone program would also ensure that the government is abiding by international law, putting global skepticism to rest. On Tuesdays, more than 100 members of the government’s national security team sat at a round table and “decide[d]who [was] the next to die”. (Becker/Shane). Acquiring the name “Terror Tuesdays,” the team implemented a nominations process that involved reading suspects biographies and providing President Obama with a nomination for the next victim of a drone strike. The controversy over this process was prompted by the government’s refusal to answer the public’s questions regarding the legality behind it. Because so little was revealed about the drone program’s legality, some legal scholars argued that the program was not legal at all.
Perhaps the greatest debate behind the legality of the United States’ drone program arose when an American drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen believed to be responsible for recruiting in al Qaeda. Killed without a proper trial guaranteed by the United States Constitution, human rights organizations demanded that the Obama administration disclose its legal reasoning behind the drone strike in order to assess the precedent that the government had established. The Justice Department refused to publish the legal memo that justified his killing, simply stating that its practice of targeted killings in non-battlefield settings is consistent with all domestic and international laws. This is not to suggest that the United States announces a targeted killing before it occurs. That would be hinder the efforts of American counterterrorism. However, the government should reveal the legal justifications behind killings and information about drone-strike victims to ensure that the strikes were well founded. When the government refuses to prove its commitment to international law, a growing number of people then conclude that the program is illegal, expanding, and will likely result in consequences regarding the soundness of the nation’s counterterrorism policies and reputation.
When President Obama entered the office, one of his most resolute foreign policy goals was to better the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. However, his commitment to drone strikes made it impossible to forge a progressive relationship with Muslim countries. Drone strikes are widely opposed by the citizens of important allies: polls reveal overwhelming opposition to U.S. drone strikes with Turkey at 81 percent to Spain at 76 percent. One former senior military official argued, “drone strikes are just a signal of arrogance that will boomerang against America.” (Becker/Shane). Not only does secrecy lead to an unfavorable opinion from international allies and therefore risk restrictions, but some studies suggest that it indirectly increases the number of militants who, fueled by false reporting of collateral deaths, radicalize. The U.S. government should reject secrecy to not only dissolve heightening hostility but also to prevent any impediments on the program from other countries and the possibility of “blow-back” within insurgent networks.
With global progress in armed drone development, the United States should be more transparent with its armed drone strike program in order to avoid setting a dangerous precedent for other state and non-state actors equipped with drones. It is estimated that the number of states that have acquired a drone system has grown from forty-one in 2005 to seventy-six in 2012. Arguably, the U.S. policy on drone strikes establishes a powerful precedent for other states and non-state actors: it proves that a secret, global killing without disclosing legal justifications and accurate collateral damage reports and disregard of sovereign borders is both legitimate and credible. It is indisputable that the proliferation of armed drones used with no transparency or limits would create an unstable and unpredictable world. In 2012, John Brennan warned the nation about the proliferation of drones stating, “If we want other nations to use these technologies responsibly, we must use them responsibly.” Perhaps, the Obama administration should have practiced what they preached.
The United States’ armed drone program is perhaps the most disturbing, covert, yet fascinating national security program in all of history. Yet its secrecy embraces weighty concerns for the future of counterterrorism. This is not to suggest that the government should dedicate themselves to entire transparency in the armed drone program. In many circumstances, confidentiality is needed to protect national security and governmental affairs. However, there is precise information that, through being revealed, would not compromise national security. Most basically, secrecy puts the reputation of the United States, a nation that prides itself on justice, transparency, and the right to life at stake.
Michael Byers, War Law (New York, NY: Grove Press, 2005). 116.
Joe Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret “Kill List” Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will”.