Drone Casualty Data Highlights the Limits, and Downsides, of Transparency

Drone Casualty Data Highlights the Limits, and Downsides, of Transparency
Pakistani protesters rally against recent U.S. drone attack in Pakistani territory, Lahore, Pakistan, June 10, 2016 (AP photo by K.M. Chaudary).

The Obama administration recently released government information about civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes targeting terrorists and violent extremists. The data was long-promised and long-awaited, but its release nevertheless received a tepid response from advocates for greater transparency. While the administration deserves some credit for finally acting on its own pledge, it’s clear that total transparency on this and other security issues is not an easy bar to clear. What’s more, it may not resolve disputes over policy and in some cases is not even desirable.

Upon taking office, U.S. President Barack Obama set as an early goal “an unprecedented level of openness in government,” and listed three commitments to that end: transparency, participation and collaboration. Transparency, according to the White House website, promotes accountability and informs citizens. The administration pledged to “disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.”

The importance of greater transparency is clearly becoming more fully embraced by the bureaucracy, as a new White House fact sheet updating the progress made to date, particularly with respect to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), makes clear. Even the intelligence community now provides an annual report about its efforts to be more transparent. The latest iteration, its third, was released about a month ago, and offers metrics about the use of certain national security authorities related to surveillance. It provides the numbers of requests for surveillance and the number of targets affected, without revealing any of the particulars about the people and places being investigated or the reasons for the surveillance.

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