Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Did Obama keep his drone promises?

By Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland
October 25, 2013 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator UAV assigned to the California Air National Guard's 163rd Reconnaissance Wing flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California, on January 7, 2012. A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator UAV assigned to the California Air National Guard's 163rd Reconnaissance Wing flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California, on January 7, 2012.
HIDE CAPTION
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama spoke six months ago of changes to the U.S. drone war programs
  • Peter Bergen says strikes have decreased, but there are still civilian casualties
  • He says a board should be created to review drone strikes afterward
  • Bergen: U.S. needs to fix its drone program and work with other nations on standards

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Jennifer Rowland is a graduate student at Harvard University's Kennedy School.

(CNN) -- On May 23, President Barack Obama gave a major speech at the National Defense University in Washington stating his intention to recalibrate his counterterrorism strategy, which is now largely defined by a covert CIA drone program that has come under increased public and congressional scrutiny over the past couple of years.

The speech did little to illuminate details of the CIA drone program of the future, and the President was careful to emphasize that the United States would continue to reserve the right to use force "against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people." But the overarching theme of Obama's remarks was one of increasing restraint in U.S. national security policy.

Obama also said: "Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set."

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

So has anything changed in the past five months?

A study of drone strike activity since May 23, tabulated by the New America Foundation from news reports, provides some answers. The Obama administration has cut the number of CIA drone strikes considerably in Pakistan and has slightly slowed the number of strikes in Yemen.

At the same time, the targets of the drone strikes have increasingly tended to be the leaders of al Qaeda or affiliated groups rather than mere foot soldiers. Nevertheless, the drone program continues to involve a number of civilian casualties and not enough has been done to make it as transparent and legally sustainable as the President has promised.

There were just 10 drone strikes in Pakistan during the past five months; an average of one strike every 15 days. In the year before Obama's speech, drone strikes happened every eight days.

The average death toll of the most recent strikes in Pakistan is about six, which is about the same as the average death toll over the year before Obama's May speech, indicating that changes to the program have not included restricting the sizes of those groups of suspected militants that are being targeted.

According to media reports, four top militant leaders were killed in strikes in Pakistan and Yemen since the May speech, which is a much higher rate of "high-value" targeting than was seen previously. Just seven militant leaders were reported killed in the 44 strikes that took place during the year before Obama's keynote speech on terrorism.

Why have drones killed civilians?

The pace of drone strikes fell in Yemen after Obama's speech, too, but not as sharply as it did in Pakistan. Since May 23, there have been 12 strikes in Yemen; an average of about one strike every 13 days. Over the previous year, a strike occurred about once every 10 days.

As in Pakistan, the size of the groups targeted in Yemen has remained about the same after Obama's speech. The average death toll resulting from those 12 strikes was 4.5, while the average death toll over the year prior was about six.

Starting in 2009, the civilian casualty rate from drone strikes has been on a markedly downward trajectory in Pakistan.

That trend has continued into 2013, during which no civilians have been confirmed killed in Pakistan, according to the New America Foundation study. Similarly, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based organization that tracks drone strikes, also found no civilian casualties in Pakistan so far this year.

But a 10-year-old boy was killed in a drone strike in the Yemeni province of Al Jawf on June 9, and two civilians were reported killed in Yemen on August 8.

Reports on CIA drones released Tuesday by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch highlight some of the civilian casualties that have been caused by drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen over the past several years.

The Amnesty International report recounts a strike in October 2012, in which a 68-year-old woman, Mamana Bibi, was killed by a drone as she picked vegetables with her grandchildren, a number of whom were injured in the attack. The report observed "Amnesty International is seriously concerned that these and other strikes have resulted in unlawful killings that may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes."

But even these on-the-ground investigations cannot bring to light the full extent or impact of the U.S. drone campaign. Only greater transparency on the part of the government can do that. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed a century ago, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

How to proceed then?

Perhaps the most practical idea to make the drone program as accountable as possible is to set up a U.S. government body that is independent of the CIA and the Pentagon and that would conduct an after-action review of drone strikes to ensure that the victims of the strikes were not civilians and did indeed pose some kind of threat to the United States.

It is human nature that if you know someone is grading your homework, you are likely to be more careful about how you perform.

The creation of such an independent body would also allow the payment of compensation to any civilian victims of CIA drone strikes, a system that already exists in the U.S. military, which has a mechanism in place to compensate the civilian victims of its drone strikes in conventional war zones such as Afghanistan.

Such a move would ensure that the families of injured children -- such as those identified in the Amnesty International report released on Tuesday -- could afford medical care without having to sell their land or other property.

And more broadly, it's a fact that international law often lags behind advances in the conduct of warfare. It took, for instance, until 1925 to ban the use of chemical weapons, despite their widespread use a decade earlier.

Similarly, the law today has hardly kept up with what drones allow the U.S. to do, such as assassinate individuals a world away by remote control.

One could imagine some future Geneva Convention-like protocol that would govern the world's use of drones. On the left, such a development might be unpopular, as it would seem to codify the use of drones and the rights of states to attack terrorist groups outside of their borders. On the right, this could also be controversial, as it might seem to constrain American power.

However, the fact is that the U.S. government needs to do some hard thinking about this issue as the monopoly that the United States, Britain and Israel have had on armed drones has evaporated.

Early this year, the China disclosed that it had planned to assassinate a notorious drug lord hiding in a remote mountainous part of Southeast Asia with an armed drone but opted to capture him instead.

Just as the U.S. government justifies its CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen with the argument that it is at war with terrorists such as al Qaeda and its affiliates, one could imagine that China might strike Chinese Uighur separatists in exile in Afghanistan with drones under the same rubric, or that Iran -- which claims to have armed drones -- might attack Iranian Baluchi nationalists along its border with Pakistan.

The United States, which has long been the guarantor of international order, should make its drone program as transparent and accountable as feasible and also start doing the hard work of creating some kind of international consensus about the future use of armed drones.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT