Obama outlines hopes for legacy on drone strikes

Obama outlines hopes for legacy on drone strikes
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President Obama on Thursday said he hoped to leave behind a formalized process for conducting drone strikes and releasing information to the public, a peek into his aspirations to confront an issue over which he has been dogged by human rights advocates.

In remarks at the University of Chicago, Obama acknowledged that “there wasn’t enough of an overarching structure” behind the secretive targeted drone program early in his term.

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But by the time a new president takes office next year, he said, stiff rules will be in place for conducting strikes and holding the government accountable. 

“My hope is that by the time I leave office, there is not only an internal structure in place that governs these standards that we’ve set, but there is also an institutionalized process whereby the actions that the U.S. government takes through drone technology are consistently reported on an annualized basis," he said.

The comments shed light on the internal struggle within the Obama administration to come to grips with the drone program and the legacy that Obama may leave behind. Obama came to office promising to break with the secret laws and expansive executive authority that characterized the George W. Bush administration. Yet despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize, he has been criticized by some for increasing the use of drones, which are estimated to have killed more than 2,400 people outside of declared war zones.

“It’s fair to say that, in the first couple of years of my presidency, the architecture — legal architecture, administrative architecture, command structures — around how these were utilized was under-developed relative to how fast the technology was moving,” Obama said during a question-and-answer session with law students.

In recent years, the administration has made efforts to formalize the process about when drone strikes can legally be used, including in missions targeting American citizens.

“The reason this is really important to me ... is there is a lot of misinformation about this,” Obama said on Thursday. “We anguish over this in a very serious way. But what I do think is a legitimate concern is the transparency issue.”

Last month, the White House peeled back the curtain further by promising to annually disclose how many people have been killed by U.S. drone and counterterrorism strikes. The measure seemed designed with an eye on Obama’s legacy and continuing discomfort with critical national security powers that are still largely secret.

Obama defended the accuracy of the drone program but said there is "no doubt" some civilians have been killed.

“It is not true that this has been this sort of willy-nilly, ‘Lets bomb a village.’ That’s not how folks have operated,” he said. “What I can say with great certainty is that the rate of civilian casualties in any drone operation are far lower than the rate of civilian casualties that occur in traditional war.”