A Lot Could Go Wrong Here

Congress must demand transparency about Obama’s new policy to expand exports of armed drones.

By March 4, 2015 | 12:45 p.m. EST + More

Last month the Obama administration rolled out a controversial new policy designed to expand the number of countries that are eligible to buy armed drones from the United States. Congress should take the lead in vetting this new approach to ensure that it advances U.S. interests and complies with international law.

One of the most important things about the new policy is that its full details are classified. The Aerospace Industries Association, whose members have a vested interest in expanding drone exports, has requested a classified briefing on the new policy. Ironically, if this request is granted, we could end up in a situation in which drone manufacturers know more about U.S. policy than most members of Congress do. Job one for Congress must be to demand more transparency about what the new policy does and does not entail.
The first problem is that U.S. standards on the use of drones are themselves inadequate. As a recent essay by drone policy expert Sarah Knuckey has noted, “The United States has not yet done enough to demonstrate to the international community that its extraterritorial attacks comply with the law, and its drone practice to date has not been a model that other states should follow.” In short, we need to get our own house in order before our government puts itself forward as a leader in establishing appropriate global standards for drone use.

The second set of problems is rooted in the history of U.S. arms exports. Once the United States supplies weaponry to a nation or group it has very little control over how that weaponry is used. U.S. arms supplied to anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan ended up in the hands of violent jihadis, some of whom ended up as founding members of al-Qaida. Large amounts of U.S. weaponry supplied to Iraqi security forces has ended up in the hands of Islamic State group. And Middle Eastern allies from Bahrain to Egypt to Saudi Arabia have used U.S-supplied weapons to put down democracy movements. Yet these are precisely the kinds of regimes that Washington may be tempted to supply drones to for use in the war on the Islamic State group.

What can Congress do to head off the potentially negative consequences of the new drone export policy? For starters, members should demand that as many details of the new policy as possible be declassified, so the public can assess what is being done in its name. If the administration denies this request, any member who requests it – not just members of the intelligence committees – should be briefed on all aspects of the new approach. Relevant committees, from intelligence to foreign relations to armed services, should hold hearings on U.S. policies on drone use and export. And, as appropriate, legislation should be put forward to curtail or roll back the most dangerous elements of the new policy.

The time for Congress to weigh in on drone policy is now, before the administration’s approach becomes standard practice. Deciding who gets armed drones is one of the most important foreign policy decisions the Obama administration will make, and it should be subjected to appropriate scrutiny.


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