Amazon is facing a firestorm of criticism over its plans for a drone-to-door delivery system by 2015, since it could mean millions of drone flights over U.S. soil. Yet a deadly drone program continues beyond American borders, with global implications that the White House appears to be ignoring despite mounting congressional concern.
The United States has used drones to kill thousands of people in Pakistan and Yemen. In nearly all cases, the White House has refused to provide the names and identities of those killed, or openly investigate potentially unlawful deaths. This is not just morally unsettling. It sets a dangerous precedent for the estimated 86 other countries that have acquired drone technology.
One example is the October 2012 killing of a grandmother in Pakistan named Mamana Bibi. Her grandchildren recounted in painful detail to Amnesty International the moment when Bibi, who was gathering vegetables in her family’s fields, was blasted to pieces before their eyes by Hellfire missiles, in a drone strike that appeared to be aimed directly at her. More than a year later, Bibi’s family has yet to receive any acknowledgment from the U.S. government, let alone justice or compensation for her death.
The White House has neither denied Amnesty International’s account of this and other killings nor committed to investigate the cases. One State Department spokesman told reporters that the United States has casualty counts and collects extensive information about who is being killed, but cannot provide it publicly. In other words, the administration knows exactly whom it is killing, but refuses to say whether this grandmother was among them.
Last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., successfully pushed to include in the annual intelligence authorization bill a requirement that the administration report on who is being killed in drone strikes going forward. The House Intelligence Committee considered a similar measure, but did not approve it. Neither measure goes far enough in requiring the administration to acknowledge and investigate past potentially unlawful killings, but they put significant pressure on the White House.
When the bill goes to the floor next year, Congress can send a powerful signal to the White House that its continued secrecy is damaging and unacceptable. Indeed, when the United States fails to openly engage with reports of potentially unlawful killings from U.S. drone strikes, it guts its authority to condemn future unlawful use of lethal force by other governments. It sets an example not only for this rapidly proliferating technology — in the last month, Iran and Pakistan have announced their own drone development — but also for whether governments need to investigate credible reports of civilian casualties and other potentially unlawful deaths.
The U.S. government’s own practices show there is an alternative. In Afghanistan, a top U.S. military commander publicly apologized for the reported killing of an Afghan toddler from a suspected drone strike last month and pledged to investigate it. There is no moral justification for treating cases across the border in Pakistan or in Yemen any differently, even if there are different strategic factors.
President Barack Obama pledged transparency and commitment to the rule of law more than six months ago in a speech at National Defense University. Yet since then, the White House has pointedly refused to provide any new information about the drone campaigns it conducts in Pakistan and Yemen.
The blatant mismatch between rhetoric and reality could owe to the Obama administration’s entanglement in a “global war on terrorism” model inherited from the Bush administration. Though different in key respects, the Obama administration’s legal theories treat the world as a global battlefield where lethal force can be used against al-Qaida and an undisclosed list of “associated forces” anywhere, any time. Secrecy is a part of this global killing program, even as it grows too notorious to plausibly call it a secret.
The White House can still change course and set the example it would want the rest of the world to follow. It should publicly commit to investigating credible reports of potentially unlawful killings,and hand over drone video footage and audio feeds to independent, security-cleared investigators. It should provide the names and identities of people killed to Congress and enable real oversight. There is still time to remake Obama’s drone legacy — the one he will leave not only to the next president, but to the world.
Naureen Shah is advocacy advisor to Amnesty International USA.