The administration of President Donald Trump is now considering further expansion of the CIA’s ability to use drones inside and outside war zones. This comes on the heels of an earlier decision to rewrite counterterrorism policies and reinstate the CIA’s ability to engage in drone strikes.
Trump has superseded President Barack Obama’s so-called “drone playbook,” known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, which the Obama administration had hoped would govern the decisions of future presidents.
CIA control of the program means the strikes will remain covert and cannot be discussed, or even publicly acknowledged, by those in the U.S. government. This action is worrisome for those concerned with U.S. citizens’ ability to monitor their government and, more globally, to prevent abuses of power that threaten the rights of people in other societies.
There are further reasons for concern. Reports indicate that the Trump administration is considering other changes to the government drone policy, too, like easing the current “near-certainty” standard intended to protect civilians outside war zones. This move would likely mean more strikes and more innocent civilian deaths, which is cause for worry by those concerned with human rights.
The U.S. government’s drone policy has raised numerous ethical and practical issues, and the debate continues as to whether the program violates international law. A key issue is whether the law of armed conflict, which is less restrictive in terms of the use of lethal force, applies to areas that are not officially war zones. Proponents of drone use argue that the law of armed conflict is applicable while opponents take the opposite position. The Obama administration, and now the Trump administration, have sided with proponents and claim that drone strikes are highly accurate in striking military targets. But are they?
At best, it’s unclear.
In June 2016, after years of refusing to discuss civilian drone causalities, the Obama administration publicly released information regarding the deaths of combatants and non-combatants outside formal war zones for the January 2009 through December 2015 period. According to their calculations, between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants were killed in the strikes, while between 64 and 116 non-combatants were killed. But these figures have been met with intense skepticism. Alternative estimates place the civilian death toll much higher, calling into question the accuracy of these “surgical” strikes.
Do drones increase the safety of U.S. citizens by killing enemies? The answer isn’t as clear as it might first appear.
Even where drone use is effective in surveilling and killing targets identified by the U.S. government, they contribute to a broader sense of terror among the general populace. One potential effect of this drone-created terror is the creation of a new generation of enemies targeting U.S. citizens.
These secondary effects of drone strikes are rarely, if ever, discussed by policymakers, mainly because they fail to consider how drones are perceived by those living in the areas targeted by drones. What American policymakers view as a noble fight against terrorism is viewed by those living in the targeted area as an intervention by a foreign aggressor. The result is discontent — if not outright hatred — for America, which is represented by the drone.
In many ways, little has changed under Donald Trump. He has perpetuated the largely unconstrained drone program established by his predecessors. But Trump’s renewed commitment to drone use as a central feature of U.S. foreign policy offers an opportunity to revisit these issues and consider them in light of American values — including a respect for the person and property of not just American citizens, but of innocent people around the world.
Discarding these values in the name of combating terrorism runs the risk of the United States becoming the very thing it purports to fight against.
Christopher Coyne is an associate director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Abby Hall is an affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center.