Friday, US military officials confirmed that they had launched a drone strike against a leader of the terrorist group, al-Shabob. This was just the latest of thousands of UAV strikes which have been conducted since the start of the War on Terror. An exact number is difficult to calculate, since the program remains largely in the shadows.
One number, at least, has been confirmed by Attorney General Eric Holder. According to a letter Holder wrote to Congress in 2013, four American citizens have been killed in drone strikes since 2009.
A new lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union hopes to make the entire process more transparent, and most importantly, more accountable.
"Over the last few years, the US government has used armed drones to kill thousands of people, including hundreds of civilians," ACLU legal director Jameel Jaffer told the Guardian. "The public should know who the government is killing, and why it’s killing them."
The lawsuit seeks the “release of records pertaining to the US government’s ‘targeted-killing’ program,” and specifically asks for access to the Presidential Policy Guidance. That document serves as a kind of playbook, identifying how, exactly, the US government decides on who it will target as part of its counterterrorism strategies.
"The Obama administration has made numerous promises of greater transparency and oversight on drones," ACLU legal fellow Matthew Spurlock wrote in a blog post on Monday. "But the administration has failed to follow through on these commitments to openness, and it is continuing to withhold basic information."
— ACLU National (@ACLU) March 16, 2015
In part, Spurlock is referring to a series of Freedom of Information Act requests made by the ACLU over the past few years. The requests, seeking information on the drone program, were denied by a slew of federal agencies, including the Departments of Justice, Defense, and State, as well as the CIA.
Spurlock is also referring to President Obama’s early promises to run one of the most open administrations in US history, a promise which seems to have largely fell flat.
One such promise involved a shift in who controls the UAV program. While strikes are currently conducted under both the CIA and a branch of the Pentagon known as the Joint Special Operations Command, the White House has repeatedly stated its intent to take control from the CIA – whose covert nature naturally contributes to the veil of secrecy – and grant it to the Pentagon. For various reasons, that has yet to happen.
The Obama administration has insisted that full disclosure of drone operations would create an unnecessary security risk, and has also assured the public that the new guidance policies have created stronger safeguards against accidental deaths.
But lawyers for the ACLU are unconvinced.
"The categorical secrecy surrounding the drone program doesn’t serve any legitimate security interest," Jaffer told the Guardian. "It serves only to skew public debate, to obscure the human costs of the program, and to shield decision-makers from accountability."
According to a November report by human-rights group Reprieve, drone strikes under President Obama, which targeted just 41 men, killed 1,147 people. With those kind of numbers, the ACLU may have a point.