President Barack Obama’s disclosure last month of the death of two hostages in a January drone strike offered the public a brief glimpse of the tragic consequences of the government’s clandestine drone killing program. We cannot know how commonplace these kinds of civilian casualties are because of the government’s selective secrecy on the program. But now, Congress has an opportunity to weigh in.
The Drone Reform Act, introduced last week by Republican Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida, offers one step toward addressing these concerns by consolidating authority for drone strikes in the Department of Defense — and removing it from the CIA. The move would bring sunlight to the shadowy program and encourage accountability for wrongful drone deaths. It is a move the president himself has called for, and one that is long overdue.
A turf war between the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees may be to blame for congressional inaction on the issue. In the aftermath of the hostage killing, Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is reasserting the need to get the CIA out of the drone killing business. Meanwhile, Richard M. Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees the CIA, is implying that the U.S. government would prefer for the drone program in Pakistan to remain secret, and therefore with the CIA. But while Congress feuds, there are real consequences to these ongoing strikes — for people living under drones and for accountability.
When Obama declassified the January strike that took the lives of an American and an Italian, he said the victims’ “families deserve to know the truth” because “the United States is a democracy committed to openness in good times and in bad.”
In fact, this was the first time the Obama administration had admitted and apologized for a civilian killing from drone strikes. Ordinarily, government officials speaking on condition of anonymity only share the “good news” about the program. They claim it is both “precise” and “effective.” Yet government officials represent in the courtroom — and in response to press questioning about reports of civilian deaths — that they can neither confirm nor deny even the fact the CIA is involved in specific drone strikes as the program is classified.
In a 2013 report, Amnesty International presented evidence undermining that claim. One case we documented: Mamana Bibi, a grandmother killed by two Hellfire missiles while gathering vegetables in North Waziristan in October 2012. The United States government has never confirmed or denied her death.
The Obama administration has an obligation to acknowledge and provide redress to Bibi’s family and offer compensation to the families of other civilians killed or injured in Pakistan. It also has an obligation to ensure strikes are conducted with the standard of care that comes with meaningful oversight and accountability.
The CIA is designed to ignore these obligations entirely. Reportedly, Senate Intelligence Committee staff review footage of each CIA drone strike. But classified review of the CIA’s evidentiary record — no matter how rich — is oversight at its most feeble. Intelligence committee staff simply cannot hold the CIA’s feet to the fire. The classified nature of CIA strikes means their questions — and the CIA’s answers — are not open to public scrutiny, let alone public outrage.
Moreover, the CIA has shown that it will try to circumvent congressional oversight. As recently as last year, the CIA reportedly broke in to the computer systems of its overseers in the Senate Intelligence Committee, obstructing the committee’s work on its groundbreaking report on the CIA’s secret detention and torture program.
Of course, the military has a record of committing violations in the shadows, too, such as torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. U.S. special forces also have a dismal record on accountability. But in response to public pressure, the Defense Department has developed rules and policies designed to require investigation of abuses.
In contrast, though the CIA likely follows rules to mitigate civilian casualties, it evidently does not have protocols for openly investigating its human rights abuses or reporting them to most members of Congress or the public. And the CIA continues to refuse a candid reckoning with its recent history of torture.
The families of civilian drone victims deserve the truth about what happened to their loved ones, and that truth should be shared with the U.S. public. The Drone Reform Act would bring us closer to ending the secrecy — and dishonesty — about U.S. drone strikes.
Zak Newman is policy coordinator in the Security with Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA.