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Report: Obama Administration Makes 'No Progress' On Drone Program Transparency

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, carrying a Hellfire missile, lands at a secret air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region on Jan. 7.
John Moore
Getty Images
A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, carrying a Hellfire missile, lands at a secret air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region on Jan. 7.

The Obama administration has made "virtually no progress" to increase transparency and accountability for its lethal drone program, a new report has concluded, with only months left to spare before the White House hands control of the targeted killing apparatus to a successor.

The report by the nonpartisan Stimson Center said the administration is failing to release fundamental information about the program or to significantly overhaul it — even after a 2015 strike mistakenly left American contractor Warren Weinstein and Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto dead.

"We have seen relatively few successes," said Rachel Stohl, a researcher at the center. "The administration has been unwilling to provide the number of strikes, even in aggregate; the number of civilian casualties that they estimate that have occurred because of those strikes; the legal justification, unless required by court order, that allows the program to continue; so even on the most basic levels, what is the program doing, we don't know."

A bipartisan task force called on the White House nearly two years ago to reconsider its reliance on targeted killing of suspected terrorists, in part, because the strikes may be doing more harm than good by fomenting hatred overseas. But Stimson researchers said they've uncovered little evidence anything like that reorientation has happened.

A senior administration official told NPR the White House goes to "extraordinary lengths" to avoid civilian casualties.

The official added: "Unlike our enemies, which deliberately and pointedly violate the law of armed conflict, the United States takes great care to adhere to the fundamental law of armed conflict principle of distinction, which requires that attacks be directed only against military objectives and that civilians and civilian objects not be the target of attack."

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At least nine nations now have weaponized drones, and four have used them, the report said. "It's important that the United States establishes good policy and sets an international precedent that demonstrates leadership and responsibility and transparency over the program because other countries are going to follow the U.S. lead," Stohl said.

U.S. government officials have walked a fine line on the drone program, which is supposed to be secret. Former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden addressed the strikes in his new book and an opinion article in the New York Times Sunday, when he wrote: "I think it fair to say that the targeted killing program has been the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict."

Days earlier, lawyers for the Obama administration appeared in an appeals court in Washington, D.C., to fight a demand by the American Civil Liberties Union for legal justifications and "summary strike data," including the numbers and identities of people killed by weaponized drones.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, said the administration can't have it both ways.

"The law of the drone campaign should not be a secret, nor should the CIA be permitted to withhold basic information that would allow the public to understand the implications of the government's policies," Jaffer said. "This is particularly the case since so many senior officials have spoken so freely about drone strikes."

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.