The Drone Debate: Critiquing the Stimson Report Card

One of the more interesting facts related to the debate over the U.S.’s use of drones as an important part of an overall counter-terrorism strategy is found in a Pew Research Center poll from less than a year ago.  That poll shows that overall Americans strongly support drone strikes, and that such support is even more robust among those with higher levels of education.  This suggests to me that people who educate themselves about drone operations come to value their effectiveness and their ability to limit civilian casualties.

As more information has come out in recent years I’ve come to believe – as I’ve argued elsewhere – that in important ways, the drone debate is largely (albeit not completely) over, as even critics seem to be conceding that the facts are simply not supporting their original contentions.

Into this changed environment comes, however, a just-released report by the Stimson Center that seeks to resuscitate controversy by attacking the Obama administration’s drone policies, and particularly as to the alleged lack of transparency.  Given that the poll numbers indicate that the public is satisfied with the administration’s efforts at transparency (such as the President’s 2013 National Defense University speech and the accompanying fact sheet), along with reports about strong, bipartisan support in Congress (including among those with access to classified material), who is it, exactly, that Stimson thinks needs more transparency?

Consider this rather detailed list of just some of the information that Stimson demands to be released in the name of transparency:

  1. Approximate number of strikes carried out by the military
  2. Approximate number of strikes carried out by the CIA
  3. General location of strikes
  4. Number of those known to have been killed
  5. Organizational affiliation of those known to have been killed
  6. Number of civilians known to have been killed
  7. Identities of civilians known to have been killed

It is amazing to me that Stimson does not seem to appreciate that this level of detail would be extraordinarily helpful to adversaries seeking to gauge U.S. capabilities and to devise counters to them.  It also seems they are oblivious to the fact that much of the reason for using drones in the first place is because enemy leaders burrow themselves into some of most inaccessible places on the planet.  Thus, for example, one wonders how Stimson thinks the U.S could obtain the “identities of civilians known to have been killed” absent having a ground force fight its way to (and from) the site of a strike and physically examine the bodies.  If it was realistic to do so, why does Stimson think a strike would be conducted on the first place?

Transparency for the sake of transparency carries the real risk of undermining the weapon’s effectiveness, and in doing so, putting civilians at risk.  In the President’s 2013 speech, he publicly declared that no operations will take place absent a “near certainty” that there would be no civilian casualties, something that not only does the law not require, but that also gives adversaries a game plan for avoiding drones strikes, that is, to simply surround themselves with civilians.   Yet despite this significant – and operationally costly – disclosure, Stimson still complains about transparency with respect to operations that former acting director of the CIA Michael Morell said in his 2015 book were “the single most effective tool in the last five years for protecting the United States from terrorists.”

It is puzzling that Stimson’s 2016 report does not even seem to recognize the analyses of material found in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.  In her examination of that material in a March 2015 Foreign Affairs article (“The Bureaucracy of Terror”), Jennifer Williams finds that “documents support the argument that U.S. President Barack Obama and other proponents of the drone program have made that the strikes are effective and that the U.S. drone program is heavily constrained.”

I also think that transparency is a two-way street.  In that respect here’s the kicker: I was on one of the working groups for the original Stimson drone report that was issued in 2014.  However, I was not allowed to see that report or the 2016 “report card” before they were issued.  Had I been able to do so, I could have offered for the group’s consideration an array of information (to include data bout the significant decline in significant decline in civilian casualties from the strikes in recent years) that brings into question the assertions in the both the 2014 and 2016 reports.

For more on this I invite you to take a look at my post on over on Lawfare (“A Report Card on the Stimson Report Card”).

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