US President Barack Obama, who vastly expanded US drone strikes against terrorism suspects overseas under the cloak of secrecy, is now openly seeking to influence global guidelines for their use as China and other countries pursue their own drone programs.
The US was the first to use unmanned aircraft fitted with missiles to kill militant suspects in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
However, other countries are catching up. China displayed its interest in unmanned aerial vehicles at an air show in November last year. State-run newspaper the Global Times said China had considered conducting its first drone strike to kill a suspect in the 2011 murder of 13 Chinese sailors, but authorities decided they wanted the man alive so they could put him on trial.
“People say what’s going to happen when the Chinese and the Russians get this technology? The president is well aware of those concerns and wants to set the standard for the international community on these tools,” said Tommy Vietor, who until earlier this month was a White House spokesman.
As US ground wars end — over in Iraq, drawing to a close in Afghanistan — surgical counterterrorism targeting has become “the new normal,” Vietor said.
Amid a debate within the US government, it is not yet clear what new standards governing targeted killings and drone strikes the White House will develop for US operations or propose for global rules of the road.
Obama’s new position is not without irony. The White House kept details of drone operations — which remain largely classified — out of public view for years when the US monopoly was airtight.
That stance is just now beginning to change, in part under pressure from growing public and US Congressional discomfort with the drone program. US lawmakers have demanded to see White House legal justifications for targeting US citizens abroad, and to know whether Obama thinks he has the authority to use drones to kill Americans on US soil.
On Friday, a three-judge federal appeals court panel unanimously ruled that the CIA gave an inadequate response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking records about drone strikes. The CIA had said it could neither confirm nor deny whether it had drone records because of security concerns.
The judge who wrote the ruling said that the president had publicly acknowledged that the US uses drone strikes against al-Qaeda.
Strikes by missile-armed Predator and Reaper drones against terrorism suspects overseas began under former US president George W. Bush and were expanded by Obama.
The ramp-up started in 2008, the last year of Bush’s term, when there were 35 air strikes in Pakistan, and escalated under Obama to a peak of 117 in 2010, according to the Long War Journal.
That jump in use of armed drones resulted from the authorization to use “signature” strikes, which allowed targeting terrorism suspects based on behavior and other characteristics without knowing their actual identity, a US official said on condition of anonymity.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said the administration is committed to explaining to Congress and the public as much as possible about its drone policies, including how decisions to strike are made.
James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said other countries have unarmed reconnaissance drones.
Beijing says it has an armed drone, but “we don’t know if it works,” Lewis said.
“Getting agreement on the applicability of existing humanitarian law to the new technologies is crucial,” he said, because China and Russia do not endorse applying laws of armed conflict to new military technologies.
One of the Obama administration’s goals is to “regularize” the drone program, making it more a part of accepted US practice in the future, Lewis said.
While the Obama administration moves toward refinement and transparency of standards, drone strikes continue to spark outrage in the countries where they are conducted. Washington has sought to portray civilian casualties from drone strikes as minimal, but groups collecting data on the attacks say they have killed hundreds of civilians.
A UN human rights investigator who is looking into drone strikes worldwide on Friday said the US campaign had violated Pakistan’s sovereignty.