WASHINGTON—President Obama’s counterterrorism speech at National Defense University left many questions unanswered on American drone policy. While Center for Civilians in Conflict welcomes his assertions of extensive Congressional oversight for the remote drone program and looks forward to his continuing efforts to make the program more transparent, the President’s speech also raised more questions about civilian casualties.

How is the administration defining “civilian”?

Importantly, President Obama stated that “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.” This is commendable, but we’ve yet to hear exactly how a civilian is defined in these circumstances, especially in an era of signature strikes that target based on behavior not identity.

The definition of a civilian may also complicate President Obama’s calculations about who has been harmed, as the speech referenced the “wide gap between U.S. assessments of [civilian] casualties, and non-governmental reports.” Civilian casualty statistics will vary depending on the definition used of a “civilian” (as opposed to a targetable individual often dubbed a “militant” by US officials). The term “civilian” may exclude people who should not be considered a target under international law. Especially in signature strikes, the identity of the dead is unlikely to have been known in the first place, making it more likely that civilians can be misidentified as combatants. With limited troops on the ground in these areas, investigations are not carried out to verify the status of those killed.

The Obama Administration needs to prove how serious it is about civilian casualties by being clear on who is a civilian and who it considers to be a target.

How is civilian harm being measured? 

The real impact of remote drone strikes on civilian populations is unknown, including by the Obama Administration. Yet a reduced risk for civilian harm is frequently heard as an argument for using drones instead of other weapons platforms, including in the President’s speech. The reality is that there are considerable impediments to knowing the true civilian cost of the current counterterrorism campaign.

Most drone strikes occur in areas largely inaccessible, making it difficult to verify if civilians had been harmed. The lack of conventional U.S. forces on the ground to conduct investigations post-strike means there is little way of corroborating evidence that the strike has indeed succeeded in avoiding civilians. Video surveillance cannot talk to witnesses or dig in the dirt for forensic evidence. A homebound sick child is unlikely to be noted by surveillance conducted prior to a strike, and may again be overlooked as the drone counts the bodies recovered from the rubble from thousands of feet above. Further, civilians have no way of notifying officials of what happened to them and their families; there are no US bases to travel to and no court to file claims.

Are drones safer for civilians than other weapons platforms?

The President noted that “Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage.” Official US statements that drone “precision” is distinct in the history of warfare because drones hit their targets and avoid civilians better than other technologies belies the actual definition of “precision.” Rather, “precision” means that a particular weapon will go where the pilot or operator tells it to go—an ability that is decidedly not unique to drones. In fact, a fighter jet carrying the same missile or bomb as a drone can be just as precise.

A precise weapon can still kill the wrong person or injure civilians. Errors in intelligence, limitations of video surveillance, and a lack of human intelligence from the ground are all factors that can lead a drone to be just as risky for civilians as another weapon with the same bad inputs.

Finally, the President set out only two choices in countering terrorism:  large-scale land warfare or remote drone strikes. Since both use lethal force and thus carry risks for civilians, whatever alternatives to lethal force have been considered and dismissed in favor of remote drone strikes should be made known to the American Congress and public.What do we do next?According to media reports, the Obama Administration has voiced its preference for the Defense Department to control remote drone operations. If this is true, this is a step in the right direction and the program should be moved in its entirety, including operations in Yemen and Pakistan’s tribal areas. While questions arise about the transparency of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the body housed in the Pentagon that would likely oversee these strikes, Congress must insist on full transparency and accountability. In traditional conflict environments, the military is more transparent and self-reflective than the clandestine Central Intelligence Agency. We believe this culture is more appropriate to maintain control of large-scale use of lethal force like the remote drone campaign.In the next phase of the drone program, Center for Civilians in Conflict offers the following recommendations:Congress, exercise your oversight. Know the justification for lethal force and what alternatives were considered, how civilians and combatants are defined, what precautions are taken to minimize civilian harm, and how civilian harm is assessed.

Department of Defense, track and respond to civilian harm caused by drones. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military responded to civilian losses and made amends during regular combat operations. We have no evidence that these procedures are in place for civilian losses outside those combat theaters, but see no reason why civilians harmed by drones should be treated any differently or less humanely based on the weapons’ operating system in use.
Obama Administration, be more transparent about the drone program.  Naturally, some secrecy for national security reasons will be necessary in overseas operations. However, the details we seek would surely not put America’s security at risk.

It is necessary to openly address:

•  How are civilians and civilian casualties defined?

•  How are civilian casualties assessed?

•  What is the definition of a targetable individual?

•  Are drone operators trained in civilian protection and how?

•  How can civilians protect themselves from behavior-based targeting?


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