The use of unmanned aerial vehicles for lethal purposes has generated passionate debates about how this not-so-new technology has changed the rules of war, creating a demand for new global norms. On the domestic front, drone technology raises difficult public policy issues related to commerce, ethics, air safety and good government. The Obama administration’s recent decision to release its policy guidance for drone use will help temper public misgivings, but the debate will continue.
Last week, the Obama administration indicated that it will release the policy guidance used by U.S. national security agencies for use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the war against terrorism. This is an important and overdue step in aligning the administration’s words on transparency with its deeds. President Barack Obama has long sought to revise practices and presumably restrain the use of drones in the ambiguous battlefields of Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya, and perhaps elsewhere in the Sahel and Southwest Asia. But the government bureaucracy has resisted, for legalistic and security reasons. Even on the domestic policy front, where the debate is not about targeted killing but about airline safety and commercial rights, a surprising amount of secrecy surrounds the discussion of drones.
Unfortunately, the inability to explain to the American public why, how and how often drones are being used as weapons has taken its toll. The secrecy surrounding drones is part of the post-9/11 canon that asks the public to trust the government to define the proper line between security and personal privacy, as in the Apple vs. FBI case; or to ensure that the lethal use of drones is managed with the right set of checks and balances to minimize collateral damage and avoid other possible abuses. But there is a trust deficit that must be acknowledged.