Photo of drone from Stimson Center task force report on US drone policy

A global security think tank in Washington, DC, has released a report on President Barack Obama’s drone policy. It raises several concerns about the erosion of “sovereignty norms, blowback and the potential for never-ending war and suggests the administration has fought what amounts to a “multi-year covert killing program.” But what is most remarkable is that this critique of drone policy is coming from a task force filled primarily with former military and national security officials.

The Stimson Center put together a task force consisting of ten members including: Gen. John P. Abizaid, former commander of US Central Command; Ret. Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, who once commanded 20,000 US and coalition forces in Afghanistan; John B. Bellinger III, who served as legal adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from April 2005 to January 2009 and legal adviser to the National Security Council at the White House from February 2001 to January 2005.

Also on the task force: Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr., former Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs; Mary “Missy” Cummings, one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots; Dr. Janine Davidson, who served as director for stability operations capabilities in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict; and Peter Lichtenbaum, who served as Vice President for Regulatory Compliance and International Policy at BAE Systems, Inc., one of the largest defense contractors in the world.

Philip Mudd, former deputy director at the FBI and former deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA, and Jeffrey H. Smith, former General Counsel of the CIA, are on the task force as well. (Additional background: Mudd is known to have been involved in the CIA’s torture program. Smith has argued CIA officers responsible for torture shouldn’t be prosecuted.)

These are people who believe in the project of American superpower and have at one time or another participated in US empire-building. Nonetheless, they, like President Barack Obama, consider themselves pragmatists when it comes to defense and security. They don’t think the Obama administration’s policy is pragmatic or sensible enough.

“While tactical strikes may have helped keep the homeland free of major terrorist attacks, existing evidence indicates that both Sunni and Shia Islamic extremist groups have grown in scope, lethality and influence in the broader area of operations in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Furthermore, US targeted strikes also create new strategic risks. These include possible erosion of sovereignty norms, blowback and risks of a slippery slope into continual conflict,” the task force concludes in their report [PDF].

The task force also is concerned that “for the most part the identities of those targeted and the basis for their targeting have not been disclosed.”

“Details relating to incidents that may have involved civilian casualties also have not been disclosed,” the report highlights. “In formal court filings, the administration continues to state that it will neither confirm nor deny particular strikes, or even the existence of such strikes as a general matter.

“We recognize that US officials frequently have compelling reasons to refrain from providing some of this information to the public, and we believe that US government decision-makers make targeting decisions in good faith and with genuine care. Nonetheless, we are concerned by the continuing lack of transparency relating to US targeted killings.”

The task force worries that “the criteria used to determine who might be considered targetable” remain unknown to the public. It also is “difficult to understand how the US government determines the ‘imminence’ of unknown types of future attacks being planned by unknown individuals.”

And, if that doesn’t convince one that Obama has adopted a devil-may-care policy when it comes to targeting and killing people, this should:

…From the perspective of many around the world, the United States currently appears to claim, in effect, the legal right to kill any person it determines is a member of al-Qaida or its associated forces, in any state on Earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret evidence, evaluated in a secret process by unknown and largely anonymous individuals — with no public disclosure of which organizations are considered “associated forces” (or how combatant status is determined or how the United States defines “participation in hostilities”), no means for anyone outside that secret process to raise questions about the criteria or validity of the evidence, and no means for anyone outside that process to identify or remedy mistakes or abuses. US practices set a dangerous precedent that may be seized upon by other states — not all of which are likely to behave as scrupulously as US officials…

This is coming from a task force that includes former CIA, FBI, Pentagon, State Department, and legal advisers who served in President George W. Bush’s administration. Although none reject the idea of pursuing a “war on terrorism,” which by its nature calls for perpetual war, they find Obama’s policy to be too radical.

That does not mean there are not parts of this report that are problematic. The task force attempts to dispel the “misconception” that drones are turning killing into a “video game.” They do not bother to cite actual drone operators, who have said that this is what it feels like to them.

“We disagree with those critics who have declared that US targeted killings are ‘illegal,’” the task force declares. They then proceed to admit it has become difficult to apply the law of armed conflict to drone strikes.

Given the proud history the Stimson Center has of embracing pragmatism, it would seem that this position is held partly because they think drones are here to stay. So they probably think: What is the point of calling drone strikes illegal? It is best, to them, to develop rules and regulations that make the strikes more acceptable, which is really twisted when one thinks about it.

Finally, there is a section in the beginning of the report where the task force indicates it chose to overlook an array of issues: the use of drones in domestic airspace, privacy concerns related to drone use, the potential future use and development of autonomous, human-out-of-the-loop weapons systems, the precise scope of the 2001 Congressional Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), the lethal targeting of US citizens and the numerous nonlethal commercial uses of drone technologies.

The task force claims they ignored these issues to keep the report “brief” and because there will be “potential future reports” that examine these issues. However, in general, it would seem like these are the most pressing issues in US drone policy today. How could any report on drone policy ignore or overlook these issues and be considered credible?

Yes, the report examines how the Obama administration has used drones for “targeted counterterrorism strikes,” but that’s only part of US drone policy. To truly examine the dangerous trajectory of policy one has to get into privacy, drones in US airspace, whether one accepts the world is a battlefield like the Obama administration does, and the targeting of US citizens, which we now know involves the legal argument that government officials have legal authority in some instances to engage in murder.

The task force instead opted to address the “defense utility, national security and economics” of drones, “ethics and law,” and “export controls and regulatory challenges” in the abstract sense.

Overall, there may be a reason why the task force focused on drones more generally and one of their sharpest critiques was the “slippery slope” being created by the United States. Their chief objective is maintaining American superpower and “leadership” in the world. As it stands, US drone policy is seriously jeopardizing the future by fueling sectarian violence and sending a message to other countries that there are very few rules they have to abide by if they want to use drones.