An Action Plan on U.S. Drone Policy Recommendations for the Trump Administration In focus

Trump administration officials have reportedly undertaken or considered several changes to the U.S. drone program, including:

  • increasing the tempo of strikes,
  • expanding the geographic scope for drone operations,
  • delegating more strike-decision authority from the White House to military operators,
  • lowering the decision-making thresholds required to take lethal action against terrorism suspects outside of war zones,
  • and broadening the CIA’s role in conducting lethal strikes.

In the first year of the Trump administration demonstrated President Trump’s willingness to continue to rely on armed drones to conduct U.S. military and counterterrorism operations around the world. While drone use is expanding under the Trump administration, transparency and oversight of the U.S. drone program appear to be diminishing.

Lower levels of delegated authority for strike decisions could potentially increase the risk of civilian casualties and limited intelligence about the status of individuals killed or injured in strikes may result in the undercounting of civilian casualties.

Such backsliding by the United States is occurring alongside international efforts to advance global standards for the responsible transfer and use of armed drones.

Questions remain about the efficacy of drone operations in achieving broader security objectives, and concerns abound about the negative consequences that could arise from continued use without the development of appropriate international standards to guide drone transfers and subsequent use.

Despite these concerns, the United States has yet to develop a comprehensive U.S. drone policy that is transparent, accountable, and sustainable at a time when lethal drone technology continues to proliferate around the world.

That is why Stimson developed 18 concrete recommendations for ensuring proper use and accountability for drone operations, including the 5 listed below:

  • Publicly release and explain any new policies, principles, standards, or procedures on U.S. drone policy.
  • Retain and adhere to all requirements under Executive Order 13732 on Pre- and Post-Strike Measures to Address Civilian Casualties in U.S. Operations Involving the Use of Force, including to publicly release an annual report on strikes undertaken by the U.S. government outside combat zones, or outside “areas of active hostilities,” and on casualties resulting from such strikes.
  • Undertake a strategic assessment concerning the efficacy and long-term impacts of the U.S. drone program.
  • Adhere to all PPG requirements pursuant to sections 3.C (Interagency Review Process), 3.D (Deputies Committee Review), and 3.E (Presentation to the President and the Principal of the Nominating Agency) when nominating a target for lethal action involving the use of U.S. drones, in order to facilitate a rigorous review of the intelligence underpinning the target package and to ensure that all relevant interagency equities have been considered before undertaking lethal action.
  • Work with recipients of U.S. drone exports to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties by sharing lessons learned, best practices, and greatest risks associated with the use of drones.

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