Let’s pause there.
That narrative gets at least one thing right: The Obama administration’s approach to drone killings was much worse early on than after his concerted efforts to reform it.
But the narrative is misleading, too.
Shortly before Obama took office, leaving his job as a United States senator, a CIA drone strike on a funeral in Pakistan killed as many as 41 civilians, an incident that apparently wasn’t enough to cause him to rethink the wisdom of the U.S. approach.
President Obama presided over a drone strike for the first time shortly after taking office, on January 22, 2009. The strike missed its target, and Newsweek reported that Obama was made aware almost immediately that innocents died in the attack. By the end of 2009 the CIA had already conducted its 100th drone strike in Pakistan.
The following year, a significant escalation in the drone war occurred not because “this technology really began to take off,” to repeat Obama’s construction, which seems to assign responsibility for targeted killings to drones themselves, but in part because of a deliberate response to a suicide attack on a U.S. outpost in Afghanistan that killed multiple CIA officers, prompting an unnamed official to tell The Guardian, “This attack will be avenged through successful, aggressive counterterrorism operations." Many were cross-border drone strikes targeting the Taliban. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism later reported in its retrospective timeline, “2010 was to be the bloodiest year of drone strikes in Pakistan.”
Many innocents were killed.
It is impossible to know exactly when Obama recognized the need to get the drone program “in a box” and to introduce “checks and balances,” as he put it, or how he ever imagined the earlier status quo could end in anything but excessive killings.
In any case, Obama chose to allow the CIA, a secretive entity with a long history of unjust killings, to carry out strikes; he chose to keep the very fact of drone killings classified, deliberately invoking the state-secrets privilege in a way guaranteed to stymie oversight, public debate, and legal accountability; and he chose to permit killings outside the greater Afghanistan war zone, in countries with which the U.S. was not at war. Those choices made more unjust killings predictable and inevitable.
That should have been obvious to a former senator and constitutional law expert who knew, among other things, that the CIA had recently run an illegal torture program. The CIA then got carried away with the power to kill in secret in multiple countries.
Obama couldn’t foresee that?
Many others could.
That more checks and balances were needed from day one was a no-brainer. Yet reporting by the New York Times suggests that Obama was directly complicit all along in efforts to obscure the true costs of drone strikes to innocents. As the newspaper put it on May 29, 2012, in a major investigative article:
Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent…
The newspaper went on to speculate that “this counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year, Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the ‘single digits’—and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda.”