Trump Drone Policy Taking Shape

Rachel Stohl
The Stimson Center

Less than two months after taking office, U.S. President Donald Trump’s approach to drone strikes appears to be taking shape. Although the Trump Administration has yet to articulate a comprehensive drone policy, recent actions and reports demonstrate Trump’s intentions to roll back some of the procedures and restraints put in place by the Obama Administration.

Early in his tenure, former U.S. President Barack Obama cultivated a policy for the use of armed drones that was based largely on rhetoric and characterized by secrecy and limited accountability. Under Obama, the number of drone strikes increased and targeted strikes were launched in countries where the U.S. was not at war, such as Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, or places deemed “outside areas of active hostilities.” In 2013, the Obama Administration established rules to guide counterterrorism operations and drone strikes in these theatres, which were outlined in the Presidential Policy Guidance. The document revealed the procedures for the use of force against terrorist targets “outside areas of active hostilities” and provided a requirement of “near certainty” that civilians will not be killed in targeted strikes.

Acknowledging that armed drones were an appealing option but one that could potentially lower the barriers of entry into conflict, Obama did take steps, albeit belatedly, to strengthen the policy framework underpinning the U.S. use of armed drones. Some of these steps included improving transparency and oversight regarding the drone program and transferring authority to conduct drone strikes from the CIA to the Department of Defense as part of the effort to limit civilian casualties.

By the end of the Obama Administration, the CIA and the Defense Department reportedly adopted a system of shared responsibility for the drone program and cooperated in conducting strikes. The CIA’s role largely consisted of gathering intelligence, locating suspected terrorists, and providing this information to the military, which then conducted the actual strikes. However, this plan repeatedly met bureaucratic roadblocks that prevented the permanent transfer of responsibility.

In the final years of his administration, Obama took steps to articulate his approach to the use of armed drones. A policy established by the U.S. government in February 2015 regarding the export of military and commercial drones highlighted U.S. concerns about a wider number of countries gaining access to drone technology and identified “principles for proper use” for countries seeking to acquire U.S. drones. These principles served as the basis for the U.S. State Department’s development of the 2016 joint declaration on drone exports and subsequent use. In July 2016, the Obama Administration released the first official information on civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone strikes, as well as an executive order requiring an annual release of civilian casualty data.

Although the Obama Administration did not put the U.S. drone program on as firm a footing as had been desired, the Trump Administration may be positioning itself to dismantle Obama’s limited policy infrastructure. Reports indicate that the Trump Administration has reestablished CIA authority to conduct lethal strikes, perhaps reflecting an inclination toward a more hands-on CIA role in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and other areas where counterterrorism operations are priorities.  

In addition, recent actions by the Trump Administration also demonstrate a greater willingness to increase the number of places categorized as “areas of active hostilities,” a list which thus far includes Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. On March 12,  Trump granted a Pentagon request to declare parts of three provinces in Yemen as areas of active hostilities, where looser battlefield rules apply. The President also signed a similar directive for Somalia on March 29. These new designations could allow for intensified operations with greater U.S. engagement and higher risk to those on the ground. It is possible that both Yemen and Somalia are test-cases to determine whether the Obama Administration’s rules should be permanently lifted.

Furthermore, concerns have arisen that the Trump Administration may rescind or relax certain standards for drone strikes, including the necessity for targets to pose a “continuing and imminent threat.” Indeed, more than three dozen national security leaders have cautioned the Trump Administration against expanding the standards for use of force in counterterrorism operations, and for good reason. Trump’s short-term strategy of increasing strikes and lowering the threshold for U.S. engagement may put the U.S. at greater risk for blowback and could compromise Washington’s ability to develop partnerships and cooperation with affected countries. Removing such policy constraints also risks undermining U.S. credibility in establishing a legal international precedent for drone use.

Yet, the Trump Administration seems willing to roll back the threshold on the level of acceptable civilian casualties and accept heightened civilian risks when conducting drone strikes. In a program that has already been met with suspicion and criticism, the current Administration seems committed to changing the rules guiding U.S. counterterrorism operations and the use of armed drones to presumably allow for greater flexibility in action.

While the Obama Administration did begin to implement some welcome changes to improve transparency and accountability with respect to the U.S. drone program at the end of its tenure, Trump’s current initiatives could undo these important improvements and result in a dangerous precedent for lethal drones. The risk of such actions are particularly noteworthy as lethal drone technology and global use continue to proliferate. Without a respect for the international legal frameworks already in place, the United States may inadvertently create an international precedent for drones that undermines U.S. priorities and the rule of law.

The Author is Rachel Stohl

Rachel Stohl is a senior associate with Stimson's Managing Across Boundaries Initiative. Prior to joining Stimson she was an associate fellow at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, from 2009-2011.  Stohl was the consultant to the UN ATT process from 2010-2013 and was previously the consultant to the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on the Arms Trade Treaty in 2008 and the UN Register for Conventional Arms in 2009.

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