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The Foreign Policy Essay: Just How Effective is the U.S. Drone Program Anyway?

Rachel Stohl
Sunday, May 31, 2015, 10:00 AM
Editor’s Note: Drones and their use have long fascinated and frustrated many of us at Lawfare. Part of the fascination stems from the new ground being broken, both technologically and especially at the policy level. The frustration, however, comes in part from the same source: data are often lacking, and it is difficult to make definitive arguments as a result.

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Editor’s Note: Drones and their use have long fascinated and frustrated many of us at Lawfare. Part of the fascination stems from the new ground being broken, both technologically and especially at the policy level. The frustration, however, comes in part from the same source: data are often lacking, and it is difficult to make definitive arguments as a result. Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center argues that the lack of transparency is costing the drone program potential support and calls on the Obama administration to let the sunshine in.


On April 23, President Obama addressed the nation to reveal a tragic mistake that killed two humanitarian aid workers, American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto. In his remarks, President Obama stated that “Based on information and intelligence we have obtained, we believe that a U.S. counterterrorism operation targeting an al Qaeda compound in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region accidently killed Warren and Giovanni this past January.” The White House press secretary also announced that two additional Americans, Ahmed Farouq and Adam Gadahn, were killed via U.S. counterterrorism operations “in the same region.” Farouq was killed in the same strike that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto and Gadahn was killed in a separate operation. Both Farouq and Gadhan were known as members of al Qaeda, but had not been specifically targeted in either of the strikes. While these announcements represent an uncommon acknowledgement of casualties from drones, notably absent from these remarks was the acknowledgement that Weinstein and Lo Porto were indeed killed by a drone strike, the specific location of the strike, and which government agency was responsible for conducting the strike. Even in a moment of apparent transparency, the U.S. government was opaque. Rachel Stohl photoPresident Obama said that he revealed the strikes because “the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve to know the truth… and because even as certain aspects of our national security efforts have to remain secret in order to succeed, the United States is a democracy committed to openness in good times and in bad.” Yes, the families deserve to know the truth, and there are times when—for national security reasons—operations and missions do need to be classified. However, after more than 10 years of use, the U.S. drone program remains so shrouded in secrecy that we do not have enough information to make an educated assessment of its effectiveness even though the program’s existence is well known and its effectiveness is being constantly debated in the media. Even more frustrating is that it has been two years since President Obama’s speech at National Defense University where he promised greater transparency, accountability, and oversight and one year since his West Point speech where he reiterated this commitment. Those outside tight government circles have repeatedly asked the administration if a critical analysis of the U.S. drone program exists. If such an analysis has been conducted, its results remain classified and questions about the program’s goals, effectiveness, and the standards by which such judgements and decisions are made remain unanswered. In his statement, Obama claimed that the most recent operation “was fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region.” Yet what these guidelines entail is unknown to those outside a small circle. Obama blamed the mistake on the “fog of war,” but a complete lack of clarity over decisions, processes, and overall evaluations makes such a statement impossible to corroborate or discredit. Without a clear understanding of the drone program’s strategy, goals, and metric(s) used for evaluation, internal and external experts alike cannot make informed assessments regarding the program’s efficacy or develop recommendations about the continuation of the program. In his address, the president promised that the United States “will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, and any changes that should be made. We will do our utmost to ensure it is not repeated. And we will continue to do everything we can to prevent the loss of innocent lives—not just innocent Americans, but all innocent lives in our counterterrorism operations.” But for years, innocent civilians have been killed around the world with seemingly little concern for those that are not Americans or western civilians. An estimated over 3,500 deaths in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have been largely unacknowledged by the United States and few or no apologies have been made when tragic accidents resulting in civilian casualties are realized. However, the inability to accurately compile this data with verified sources using consistent methodologies means that this figure could be vastly under/over-estimated. Irrespective of the actual casualty figures, a lack of acknowledgement of civilian casualties and targeting mistakes undermines global confidence in the U.S. drone program, creates discord amongst U.S. allies and partners, and fuels criticism of what might be an effective counterterrorism tool. To date, the United States has done little to explain its use of and rationale for lethal drone strikes to even its closest partners and allies. European Union (EU) countries in particular have welcomed the U.S. promise of greater transparency and the EU resolution on drones obliges countries, in the event of civilian casualties, to undertake independent investigations, provide public explanations of those incidents, and, when applicable, provide redress to families of the victims. Since the initial media flurry over the president’s announcement on April 23, much of the public attention on U.S. drone policy has waned. Although the incident was tragic, the American public is focused on other issues, glad that the strikes are “over there” and keep the “bad guys” away from U.S. soil. In fact, a new poll from AP-GfK that was conducted April 23-27, in the days immediately after President Obama’s announcement, found that 60% of Americans favor U.S. drone strikes to target members of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, and 60% of those in favor support strikes even when Americans are at risk of being killed. With significant support from the U.S. public, the Obama administration feels little pressure to change its policy. Even members of Congress who have expressed concern over the lack of oversight and accountability are often too preoccupied by other priorities, including battles over the budget and preparations for a new campaign season, to take action on an issue that has little salience with the majority of their constituents. The Stimson Task Force on U.S. drone policy, for which I served as project director, released a report in June 2014 calling on the Obama administration to develop a comprehensive drone policy and provided short- and long-term recommendations to improve transparency, oversight, and accountability of the drone program. These recommendations—which range from transferring general responsibility for lethal drone strikes from the CIA to the military to reforming export control and FAA rules—are pragmatic, and although some may require congressional action and/or changes to the bureaucracy, others allow the administration to ensure that its legacy on drones reflects a broader strategic consideration of the utility and efficacy of drones for counterterrorism efforts. In announcing the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, President Obama said that he had called for “a full review of what happened.” Will this review and its results be public and demonstrate a measureable change to the U.S. drone program? Or will the review simply focus on this one strike and not draw larger lessons? A public and strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of lethal drone strikes would be a welcome first step and could provide clarity on the goals and strategic objectives of the U.S. drone program in the future. The United States can also improve transparency over the drone program, which would help build international confidence in the legitimacy of the U.S. drone program and help advance domestic and international oversight and accountability efforts. At a basic level, transparency could include an official interpretation of the domestic and international legal framework for the U.S. drone program, rather than simply more high-level administration statements that create more questions than answers amongst allies and provide a credible defense to allegations of abuse. More specifically, the administration should provide historical data, even in aggregate and after the strikes have occurred, concerning the conduct and results of U.S. strikes to allow for better understanding of how the U.S. drone program is carried out—including the number of strikes in a particular location, the number of casualties, and who conducted the strikes. With transparency comes the opportunity for greater oversight and accountability, which would demonstrate a fulfillment of the commitments promised by the President in his NDU and West Point speeches. Provision of data can reveal significant errors or whether strikes are achieving mission objectives. When an objective analysis is made, the program can be altered and improved to satisfy overarching strategic goals. Time is running out for the Obama administration to make good on its promises surrounding the U.S. drones program. Within that framework, drones should not be the strategy, but instead a tactic of specific U.S. counterterrorism and strategic military aims. If President Obama can achieve an overall drones strategy that reflects the values of transparency, accountability and oversight in the final two years of his presidency, it will engender greater confidence in the U.S. program, set a positive precedent, and develop norms and strategies for the future.


Rachel Stohl is senior associate with the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the nonpartisan Stimson Center and was project director of Stimson’s Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy.

Rachel Stohl is the director of the Conventional Defense program at the Stimson Center and the primary author of the recently released report "Grading Progress on U.S. Drone Policy."

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