The secrets are out. Today, The Intercept published a series of articles allegedly based on leaked documents that expose the inner workings of the lethal drone program. While we are not in a position to independently verify them, they underscore the Obama administration’s long-standing failure to bring transparency to the drones program. Here are three reasons this is such a big deal:
1. There is new evidence that aspects of the drone program may be unlawful.
International law requires that lethal force be used outside of specific recognized zones of armed conflict only when it is strictly unavoidable to prevent an imminent threat to life. But these new disclosures emphasize what Amnesty has long argued: that the administration’s policies amount to a radical re-interpretation of established standards governing the use of force. The leaks show that after strikes are approved, there is a 60-day window for them to be carried out. It is difficult to imagine a truly imminent threat that lasts for two months.
2. There is now even more cause for concern about the identity of those killed in drone strikes.
Amnesty has documented instances of potentially unlawful killings by drone strike, including a woman killed in front of her grandchildren. And journalists have tried to keep count of precisely who dies by drone strikes, but this is a near-impossible task, as the administration has largely refused to identify the victims.
If confirmed, the Intercept’s revelations paint an alarming picture. According to the documents, during one five-month stretch, 90 percent of those whom the U.S. government killed by drone strike were unintended targets. The documents also show that those killed by strikes are considered an “enemy killed in action” even if they were not the intended target, unless evidence emerges after their death to prove otherwise. This is completely inconsistent with the administration’s policy guidelines, announced in May 2013, stating that drone strikes will only occur with “near certainty” that there will be no civilian casualties.
3. This sort of information is the type of transparency that President Obama has been saying he supports.
He has promised to make the drones program “more transparent to the American people and the world” because “in our democracy, no one should just take my word for it that we’re doing things the right way.” Now the Obama administration must own what that the article reveal: a lethal drone program responsible for apparently unintended killings, and which appears to operate outside the established international legal norms.
Today’s articles show that the “global war on terror” did not end with the George W. Bush administration. Instead, under the auspices of the wide-ranging 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the Obama administration continues in many ways to to operate as if the entire world is a battlefield. An endless war paradigm persists, and drones are its new soldiers.