Drone technology and the way the United States uses it has the potential to destabilize battlefields, governments and even American democracy, according to a new report by a task force that includes former U.S. military officials.
The report, released by the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, surveyed the Obama administration’s use of drones and concluded that while they can be a powerful and effective force in wars, they can also interfere with the sovereignty of other nations and cause unnecessary conflict abroad. The report also suggested that the Obama administration’s secrecy surrounding U.S. drone programs is to blame for the public’s current misconceptions and fears about the aircraft, which are also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The Stimson report comes more than a year after President Barack Obama promised to curtail and increase accountability on the use of drones during a speech at National Defense University. But little has changed since that speech, and in that time the calls for reform have grown louder. While Obama has faced harsh criticism from human rights activists about his drone programs, the Stimson report added the voices of military officials and members of the defense industry to the national debate.
“We are concerned that the Obama administration’s heavy reliance on targeted killings as a pillar of U.S. counterterrorism strategy rests on questionable assumptions, and risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts,” the 80-page report said.
While critical in several aspects, the report also underscored the role UAVs ought to play in U.S. strategy and said there is a lot of public confusion about their use. The report’s authors, who include retired Gen. John Abizaid, the former head of the U.S. Military Central Command, said that drones could be an effective tool in fighting wars and that much of the fear about them comes from misperceptions rather than actual threat.
The report highlighted the fact that the vast majority of drones aren’t weaponized, and are used for nonlethal means like surveillance. But the authors said that while the technology shouldn't be unnecessarily feared, the potential for misuse, abuse and ethical folly is nonetheless high.
“While we do not believe that UAV strikes cause disproportionate civilian casualties or turn killing into a ‘video-game,’ we are concerned that the availability of lethal UAV technologies has enabled U.S. policies that likely would not have been adopted in the absence of UAVs,” the authors said.
One of the biggest problems, according to the report, is the potential for U.S. drone use to destabilize legal and moral norms worldwide. The authors warned that if the U.S. endorses using drone strikes without the consent of foreign governments, the country risks creating a kind of moral and legal domino effect that could spur other countries to use drones in legally questionable ways.
“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-Qaeda or its associated forces, in any state on Earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret evidence … and with no means for anyone outside that process to identify or remedy mistakes or abuses,” the report said. “U.S. practices set a dangerous precedent that may be seized upon by other states — not all of which are likely to behave as scrupulously as U.S. officials.”
The success or failure of the use of drones hinges not only on how they are used, but also on how the public perceives and influences their use, the report added.
The authors chastised the Obama administration for being overly secretive about its drone programs, a policy they said breeds misconception and fear. They said that more transparency and better, more consistent oversight is needed if the administration wants to ensure that the programs are compatible with American democracy.
Among the panel’s eight recommendations are that all lethal drone programs be carried out by the military and not the CIA, that the Obama administration develop an independent review board to oversee the drone programs and that every drone strike is made public, if not beforehand, then at least after the fact.