President Obama Wants More Drone Transparency, Congress Misses an Opportunity

drone aircraft

On May 28, President Obama acknowledged the need for increased transparency about the administration’s national security activities, particularly with regard to lethal strikes by drone aircraft. However, Congress recently missed an opportunity to bring about such disclosure.

In his commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy, President Obama stated that he believes “we must be more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out.” In an interview with NPR, he reiterated his desire to make sure “that people have a sense that when we use drones, we do so lawfully in a way that avoids civilian casualties and in ways that are appropriate.”

We agree that our government should not keep its operating law and policy secret from the public.  And as we noted last year, the president’s efforts to increase transparency had “been least evident in the national security arena.” We hope the president’s statements this week, along with the administration’s recent decision to release an important memo describing the authority for the government’s drone strike program, indicate an increased emphasis on openness.

Disappointingly, though, the House let an important opportunity for increased transparency pass. On May 30, the House was scheduled to consider the next Intelligence Authorization Act (H.R. 4681). We joined other transparency groups in supporting an amendment to bring needed transparency to the use of remotely piloted aircraft. Sponsored by Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC), the amendment would have required the administration to publicly report the number of deaths, both combatant and civilian, attributed to remotely piloted aircraft strikes. The House Rules Committee chose not to allow a floor vote on the amendment.

Greater disclosure about the government’s targeted killing program is necessary to ensure that our national security agencies adhere to the rule of law and that citizens are able to hold public officials accountable.

While this amendment would have been a welcome step toward greater openness, the debate will certainly continue. As President Obama recognized, transparency will ensure citizens can exercise the oversight sorely needed for the targeted killing program. We urge Congress and the administration to continue work to restore transparency and accountability to our national security policy.

This post has been updated since its original publication date.

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