Obama’s report card on drone policy reform

It has been a year since President Obama admitted in a speech that he had come to see armed drones “as a cure-all for terrorism.” Drone strikes, he almost seemed to lament, had the effect of “shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites.”  

Although some critics suggested that the speech “further confused both domestic and international audiences,” Obama did outline a list of policy goals for the drone program “going forward.”  Perhaps as an occupational hazard of my day job (I teach at Cornell), I will take this opportunity to grade the president on progress towards those goals.

1.  “Extend oversight of lethal actions outside of warzones that go beyond our reporting to Congress.”

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Over the last year, efforts to increase oversight have run into roadblocks.  A number of examples illustrate this point.  Last November 2013, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to increase oversight of armed drones, specifically requiring the CIA to declassify the number of people killed or injured in U.S. drone strikes.

By April 2014, the Senate had removed this provision from the intelligence bill.  Instead, the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, indicated that the executive branch was (still) trying to find ways to “provide the American people more information about the United States’ use of force outside areas of active hostilities.” 

In the meantime, the House has introduced bipartisan legislation to require annual report on the number of combatants and civilians killed or injured annually.  As a Center for Naval Analysis argued, even if we don’t see a normative reason to report on civilian casualty assessments, there are instrumental reasons, since this will “help ensure that official US statements reflect operational realities, helping to guard the credibility and reputation of the US.”  Otherwise, the experience of US assertions being at odds with open source data on drone strikes undermines American credibility, and indicates a sense that the government is fudging the numbers. 

Other efforts to increase oversight have also fallen short.  In February, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) sought to increase oversight in Congress beyond the intelligence committees but as the LA Times put it, “Levin’s plan ran aground on the Washington shoals of secrecy and turf.” The CIA was prohibited from briefing the armed services committee amid concerns that oversight by an additional 26 senators and 62 House members (the armed services committee) would compromise the sensitive nature of drone strikes.

Overall grade:  F

2.  “The use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy…success…will require resources…foreign assistance.”

While there are a number of ways the government must discuss a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, the most visible indicator of whether non-military approaches are being deployed are the resources, which Obama himself points to.  How do those commitments look? 

In spring 2013, Obama submitted the budget request for the following fiscal year:  $51.85 billion.  The total request was 0.8 percent less than the FY2013 post-sequester funding of $52.24 billion.

What can we say specifically about foreign assistance programs? As the Congressional Research Service reports, the request for foreign aid programs in fiscal year 2014 was $35.1 billion, 1.5 percent higher than FY2013. But read the fine print.  This 2014 estimate includes funding for food aid programs that are not currently funded through foreign operations accounts.  When that funding is excluded, the FY2014 foreign operations request was more than 2 percent lower than the estimated spending in FY2013.  Security assistance was down 6 percent compared to FY2013, export promotion decreased 5.9 percent.  In a good news story, multilateral assistance increased by 9 percent.

Overall grade:  C.

3.  “I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.”

In July of last year, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) of the House Intelligence Committee, proposed an amendment to Defense appropriations, co-sponsored by Rep Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), that would have essentially created a sunset clause on the AUMF by cutting off funding after 31 December 2014.  The amendment failed by a vote of 185 to 236. 

In October 2013, the White House justified its deployment of Navy Seals to Somalia “under legal authorities granted to the Department of Defense by the Authorization to Use Military Force (2001) against Al-Qa’’ida and its associated forces.”

Since then, the only high level attention towards the AUMF has been from Michael Lumpkin, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict, who testified that “the AUMF has served us very well and gives the department the ability to do what’s necessary.  Currently, however, I think we’re at a point where the AUMF—at some point we need to relook at it.”

That point has not been reached.

Overall grade:  F

4.   Close “a facility (Guantanamo) that should have never have been opened.”

Here some progress has been made.  In December 2013, the Senate passed a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would remove some impediments to repatriating detainees.  As the Congressional Research Services put it, the NDAA allowed “the Executive greater flexibility in determining whether to transfer detainees to foreign custody” but still extended the “blanket prohibition on transferring detainees” through 2014.  This is not equivalent to closing Guantanamo except in that a slow trickle of repatriations would eventually amount to having an empty facility. 

Overall grade:  C+

To be fair, Obama set the bar fairly high back in May 2013.  And, there may be progress behind the scenes, but closed door discussions have little influence in the court of public opinion.  So to judge him on his own terms, and based on observable evidence, his last year would not have earned a passing grade. 

Kreps is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and assistant professor of Government at Cornell University.