Thanks, Obama, for That Unaccountable System of Deadly Drone Strikes!

Now that it's in Trump's hands, even the illusion of responsibility is fading.


predator drone
Josh Kroese / Dreamstime

President Donald Trump's administration, specifically the CIA, may soon be unleashing armed drones in airstrikes in foreign countries with much less oversight.

Thank President Barack Obama for that. Obama installed a system of using armed drones to kill foreign targets in the war on terror. Many of these strikes happened in countries in which America was not even at war, such as Yemen and Pakistan.

He justified the secretive system—eventually described in the press as a "kill list"—under the post-9/11 authorization for war against Al Qaeda. The president ran the drone program through the Pentagon and the CIA with no outside oversight, and he resisted any sort of transparency until enough information leaked out about it that he could no longer ignore it.

These drone strikes have been credibly blamed for hundreds of deaths of civilians (including more than 100 children). His administration put the number of civilian deaths much lower, but independent observers have disagreed.

Obama sold this program on the basis of his personal, sober judgment. Once the existence of the kill list became public, there was much concern about the lack of due process, but not a whole lot was done to try to stop it, other than a famous filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in 2013.

Now the program belongs to Trump. Trump critics may worry that his bombastic temperament will lead to bad drone deployment decisions. Well, we probably won't have to worry about that. What we do have to worry about is a complete abandonment of oversight and accountability under a president who is willing to leave these decisions to others.

There were hints earlier in the year that Trump was going to loosen some Obama-era restrictions on CIA drone use. Today NBC is reporting that plans are in the works to cut the brakes and let the drones fly more freely:

[CIA Director Mike] Pompeo has pushed for more freedom of action. He wants Trump to authorize the spy agency to strike targets in Afghanistan, which had long been the domain of the military, a senior U.S. official with direct knowledge told NBC News. The New York Times first reported that news last week.

The White House also is drafting a new written policy on counterterrorist operations outside of war zones that would supercede the so-called drone playbook that the Obama administration had hoped would govern the decisions of future presidents, several officials said.

The drone playbook, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, or PPG, includes a provision that no strike should go forward unless analysts determine that there is a near-certainty that no civilians will be harmed. And it includes a provision forbidding the addition of new detainees to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Trump administration is contemplating removing both of those restrictions, officials involved in the planning told NBC News.

These developments concern human rights activists, who argue that the CIA is less accountable than the military.

"The last thing the U.S. should be doing right now is expanding a global, secret killing program," said Zeke Johnson, senior director of programs for Amnesty International USA. "By its own admission, the U.S. government's use of drones has meant the deaths of civilians and there has been insufficient accountability."

Reason TV warned back in 2012 that the Obama administration's secretive use of drone strikes was bad news and would lead to even worse problems down the line. And here we are, down the line: