Stimson Center Panel Discussion on US Drone Policy

On October 11, 2017, the Stimson Center and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic hosted a panel discussion on past US drone practices, recent developments, and future drone policy under the Trump administration. The discussion was moderated by Rachel Stohl, Senior Associate for the Conventional Defense Program at the Stimson Center. The panelists included Waleed Alhariri from the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, Alex Moorehead from the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and Luke Hartig from the National Journal’s Network Science Initiative.

Mr. Hartig began the discussion by outlining President Obama’s policy concerning drone strikes under the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG). He described four foundational elements that embody the PPG. First is the standard of targeting only continuing, imminent threats to the United States. Second is an emphasis on precision and discrimination toward targets by first assessing the feasibility of capturing the target, followed by the adoption of a “near certainty” standard that civilians will not be harmed by a drone strike. The third element of the PPG is the interagency review process through which different elements of the Executive branch provide independent recommendations regarding the legality and policy implications of a specific strike. Lastly, the PPG was an effort by the Obama administration to create greater transparency in terms of overall drone policy and each individual strike.

Mr. Hartig then describes some of the similarities and differences between President Obama’s drone policy and President Trump’s under the Principles Standards and Procedures (PSP). One of President Trump’s first actions was to place a 180-day moratorium on the Obama-era standards for drone strikes upon taking office. This essentially allowed military commanders to conduct strikes without any civilian oversight or public accountability. Moreover, it is unclear what, if any, standards replaced the Obama-era ones during the 180-day period. As a result, the number of drone strikes increased considerably in areas like Yemen. Mr. Hartig suggests the increased number of drone strikes in Yemen may be related to the Saudi-led coalition’s war effort to support the Hadi government.


President Trump’s revised drone strike policy, as reported by the New York Times, retains some elements of President Obama’s policy. It retains both the “near certainty” standard that civilian casualties will be avoided and the distinction between areas of “active hostilities” and areas outside of active hostilities. The two most dramatic changes in President Trump’s policy concern the elimination of the “continuing, imminent threat” standard (with no replacement) and the removal of the interagency review process. Mr. Hartig suggests these changes will be complicated by changes on the ground in places such as Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. Yemen presents particularly notable concerns about revised drone policy procedures because the United States has provided logistical and military support to the Saudi-led coalition that has committed numerous war crimes.

Mr. Moorehead expressed concern that the Central Intelligence Agency has been given expanded authority to carry out drone strikes. Compared the Department of Defense, the CIA is not obligated to provide any information to the public regarding civilian casualties, intended targets, or its justifications for conducting a strike. While the Department of Defense has not been satisfactorily transparent in a number of instances, the CIA is even less transparent and publicly accountable. Mr. Moorehead also highlighted reports that President Trump will allow strikes to be conducted in new theaters, not previously covered under President Obama’s PPG. He emphasized the need for greater transparency regarding the policies and procedures related to drone strikes. Mr. Moorhead referenced a joint-report released by the Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic and Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies that highlights the value and importance of transparency for civilian populations, counterterrorism efforts, and US foreign policy.

Mr. Alhariri highlighted the impact of US drone strikes in Yemen. The cumulative impact of President Bush and President Obama’s drone strikes in the country produced little positive benefit while significantly alienating the civilian population. Any positive efforts by the US government to create positive relations with the Yemeni population through public works projects and foreign aid were overshadowed by the vast civilian death toll from drone strikes. Yemenis associate the United States with drone strikes that kill relatives, innocent civilians, and “turn weddings into funerals.” Mr. Alhariri also criticized the absence of transparency and accountability regarding civilian deaths in Yemen. When an Italian and US citizen were mistakenly killed in Pakistan by the United States, President Obama issued a public apology, offered monetary compensation, and commissioned a forty-one page report concerning the strike. Yemenis, on the other hand, are offered no explanations, no monetary compensation, nor any opportunity for redress. Mr. Alhariri criticized US policy to invoke the “state secrets” doctrine in some instances, but not others. The policy essentially prevents any Yemenis from holding the United States accountable for the consequences of its drone strikes.

As a result of US policy, Mr. Alhariri notes that drone strikes have become an effective recruitment tool for terrorism in Yemen. Al-Qaeda, for example, uses drone strikes to recruit additional fighters, more than making up for those it has lost via drone strikes. Given the current security vacuum in Yemen, Mr. Alhariri argues US policy has allowed al-Qaeda to become more powerful. Adopting alternative counterterrorism tactics that do not rely as heavily on drone strikes would considerably weaken al-Qaeda’s capabilities while also restoring the United States’ reputation in the eyes of Yemeni civilians.

The panel concluded its discussion by addressing how the proliferation of drone technology could impact international relations. Countries such as China, Russia, and Iran are projected to possess comparable drone technology in the near future. The panelists agree that the United States needs to act as a world leader by creating a precedent for transparency and accountability in drone usage. Otherwise, drone proliferation will create a global regime in which individuals impacted by drone strikes will have no opportunity to hold actors accountable for their actions. President Trump’s new drone policy will further undermine global confidence in the United States as a responsible and transparent global actor.