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.
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.

A special report

Additional reasons to increase transparency abound.

Presented by

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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