Why the U.S. Needs to Stop Shrouding Its Drone Program in Secrecy

Total transparency would force officials to consider their kill decisions more carefully.
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President Obama meets with national security officials in the Oval Office. (White House/Reuters)

On January 20, 2017, a new president takes office. She is knowledgeable about foreign affairs, has experience making tough decisions under pressure, and has a more finely tuned moral compass than the average commander-in-chief. But most striking is a unique ability she possesses: the power to secretly kill any individual simply by closing her eyes, concentrating for ten minutes, and willing it. Ayman al-Zawahiri? Dead on inauguration day -- a heart attack, by outward appearances. Somali pirates on a ship in the Gulf of Aden? Six killed, and not even the freed hostages can explain why they just kept dropping dead, one by one.

That night, after the new president goes to sleep, it transpires that you alone, among all the people on earth, learn of her power: that she can direct it with total precision, but cannot, for some reason, target anyone inside the U.S. Then you are given a choice. Snap your fingers that moment and anonymously strip her of the power to kill in secret -- or do nothing, in which case you'll lose all knowledge of her ability. For 8 years, she'll use it in secret, or not, as she sees fit.

What would you do?

Most people I confront with this question briefly flirt with what the world might be like if a benevolent force quietly killed all the murderous tyrants and terrorists. Then they shudder at the amount of unchecked power the president I described would possess, see the huge risks, ponder human nature, and say they'd snap. History teaches that humans are made of crooked timber. Deep down, we know that no one who'd exercise the power to kill in secret can be trusted with it.

President Obama isn't quite able to kill with his mind, or without anyone knowing. The kill list he maintains and the drone strikes he approves must be carried out by subordinates. The buzz of the drone and the explosion of the Hellfire missile alerts people on the ground to what happened. Insofar as they're able, journalists and human rights groups track the strikes and the casualties. And Congress is briefed about drone strikes (how thoroughly we do not know).

But if he can't keep his semi-targeted killing habit entirely hidden, the opaqueness surrounding the program, and the fact that strikes occur in remote areas of countries about which Americans care little, is corrosive to moral behavior. Ponder a reality in which information could be shared with all Americans -- what if Obama was forced by Congress to share, after every lethal drone strike, a detailed summary of the evidence against the people killed, as well as photos of the dead innocents, and brief statements from their next of kin. Does anyone doubt that, with that kind of public accountability built into the system, the total number of innocents killed would be far less than it is now?

Transparency wouldn't make every drone strike moral, but it would almost certainly cause national security officials to make more moral decisions about drone strikes. No surprise that the drop in civilian deaths by drone over the last two years coincided with more transparency from the Obama administration and international efforts to document deaths of civilians, including women and children.

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Additional reasons to increase transparency abound.

The Obama administration's refusal to make public all of the legal reasoning it relies on for its targeted killing program is an especially alarming transgression. Did America learn nothing from the Bush years, when the secrecy afforded to OLC opinions enabled a program of prisoner torture, justified by legal memos that were mocked and discredited as soon as they were publicly released?

Secrecy deprives government of strategic advice and criticism from experts outside the security clearance bubble, making for less informed, less nuanced decision-making.

Only in secrecy would America absurdly treat all military-aged males we kill as "militants."

Secrecy has permitted the Obama administration to kill a 16-year-old American kid without explaining why, or what went wrong, if that killing was in fact accidental.

Insofar as U.S. citizens are on a kill list that causes them to be targeted far from any battlefield, a clear violation of the 5th Amendment is being perpetrated. Transparency could help enable preemptive legal challenges -- that is to say, it could result in some of the due process accused Americans are being denied.

Secrecy has actually been invoked to get targeted killing cases thrown out of the courts, since it undermines a check at the core of our Madisonian system of government.

Secrecy also undermines the ability of Congress to check and balance the power of the executive branch, as well as the ability of voters to return elected officials to office or oust them from it based upon the actual policies they're implementing.

These cornerstones of American democracy are especially important when it comes to a policy like targeted killing, because while the executive branch, the legislature, and the people all share an interest in protecting the nation from attack, our respective incentives are not perfectly aligned. For understandable reasons, no president wants a terrorist attack to occur on his watch, and the very structure of the office encourages presidents to think in four-year chunks of time. Senators and forward-looking voters operate on different time horizons. It may well be their function to assess and reject a president's approach to targeted killing that slightly reduces the chance of a terrorist attack tomorrow, but hugely increases the blowback we'll suffer five, 10 or 20 years out.

Finally, there is no hiding the fact that America is in the drone strike business. Shrouding our killing in secrecy, rather than forthrightly defending every instance in specific terms, gives the impression that we cannot defend or justify every killing. And we cannot, partly because we know in advance that we need not. Secrecy is making us less moral, less popular, and less able to govern ourselves. In the long run, increased transparency would make us more moral and safer.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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