Trump examines a drone in 2017.

Trump examines a drone in 2017. Evan Vucci/AP

Trump’s Secret War on Terror

Drone strikes continue and spread—away from public scrutiny or congressional oversight.

President Donald Trump has dramatically expanded the War on Terror. But you—and perhaps he—would never know it.

Since he came into office, Trump has reportedly abandoned Obama-era rules governing the use of drones in noncombat theaters such as Somalia and Libya. Whereas Obama operationally expanded but bureaucratically constrained drones’ use, from what we can tell, Trump’s new rules instead vest military commanders with strike decisions , without requiring approval from the White House.

Superficially, this approach may have some logic to it. Use of drones, like most counterterrorism efforts, is complex and multifaceted, requiring a careful balancing of military necessity with concepts of morality, legality, and fair play in war-making. Behind closed doors, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations spent a great deal of time learning crucial lessons about their employment as these newer platforms were tested on battlefields unlike any the United States had fought on before (as we’ve explored in greater depth elsewhere). The Obama team did, ultimately, show some of its work, disclosing in part the hard-earned legal and policy framework governing the drone program, its decision process, some strike data, and its own accounting of civilian casualties. We were both involved, from 2013 through 2015, in developing, implementing, and refining this policy during our time with the National Security Council. The parting message: The policy may need to evolve, but this is precedent worth building on.

Trump seems to have declined, instead “trusting his generals” to guide his strategy. According to leaks to The New York Times and other outlets, last fall he introduced a new policy that moved responsibility for counterterrorism operations outside traditional war zones to lower-level commanders, and lowered the threshold for such strikes. (Targets are no longer required to pose a “continuing, imminent threat” to the United States, but rather may be lower-level foot soldiers, and there is purportedly no longer a requirement for “near certainty” that the target be on-site for strikes.) But this is all just conjecture, as apart from unauthorized disclosures made to media outlets, Trump is shieldingeven the broad contours of his new drone guidelines, his overall strategy, and some relevant data on operations from the American people. Without such information, the voting public cannot make informed decisions as to whether they are comfortable with their government’s new approach.

During the George W. Bush presidency and the first term of Obama’s presidency, the government disclosed virtually nothing publicly about the extent to which the U.S. government was using drone strikes to kill terrorist targets. That began to change in 2013, when Obama, believing in the value of the drone program but also in the need to gain long-term international and domestic legitimacy through increased transparency, undertook efforts to disclose more about the program, its implementation, and his views on the strategy that guided it. This path toward transparency culminated in the public release, toward the end of Obama’s second term, of the previously highly classified rules that Obama established in 2013 for drone strikes outside of active war zones, and of government assessments regarding civilian and combatant casualties resulting from such strikes. From the lack of information provided by the Trump administration about its use of armed drones, it seems that Trump has decided to recoil back to the pretransparency days in which the government made public little, if anything, about the program.

Wide-scale use of armed drones as a counterterrorism tool has always been alluring. In terms of the evolution of military capabilities, drones are not a terribly unique platform, given the broader trend in warfare to make it easier, cheaper, and less risky to project power. But drones have a futuristic mystique that makes them attractive and a flexibility that lets them be the answer to previously unanswerable questions. Employed properly, their use means less risk to U.S. troops, less potential for civilian casualties, and lower monetary costs. With drones, the U.S. government can observe and even kill terrorists who were previously safe from the long arm of the American military—for example, a target taking refuge in a heavily fortified compound in a conflict zone. And drones allow the American government to act without many of the downsides of using more traditional military power.

But with these benefits come real risks, including, most notably, as Obama stated, that “the very precision of drone strikes and the necessary secrecy often involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites.”  

To guard against drones’ becoming what Obama feared could be an overused “cure-all for terrorism,” the former president heavily regulated their use outside of active war zones and eventually shared the applicable policy frameworks and limited-strike data with the public. Executive-branch officials like us took pride in fastidious adherence to these administrative rules. The process both provided a healthy level of rigor to strike decisions and constrained the availability of drone strikes in certain borderline cases, like when intelligence pinpointing the location of a high-value terrorist target was strong but not overwhelming. High-level bureaucrats from across numerous agencies spent endless hours in the White House Situation Room, and in bunkerlike offices suitable for classified information back at their home agencies, designing the drone policy from the ground up, considering proposed drone strikes and whether they met the standards Obama set, even on occasion proposing tweaks to those rules when they thought they were necessary to meet operational exigencies. Where public scrutiny was not initially encouraged, significant bureaucratic scrutiny was installed through a labyrinth of top-secret policies and rules.

But in so doing, senior officials almost certainly sacrificed the solution Obama had suggested was possible to manage drones’ siren song: a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. The tactics of drone operations were all-absorbing—the definitions, the target approvals, the moralistic but private debate. Managing their use left little space for broader questions in the Situation Room about whether objectives were actually being met, or about the price of failure, or about whether nonmilitary efforts would be more appropriate.

The narrow objective for drone strikes, of course, is to kill the terrorists who are targeted and thus remove them from the battlefield. By that standard, the program may be deemed a success insofar as, according to government-released statistics, the program has resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 combatants. It is worthwhile to note, however, that there is significant gap between how the government and NGOs investigate and calculate combatant and civilian casualties in the aftermath of strikes, which results in estimates from NGOs of far higher numbers of civilian casualties (and correspondingly lower combatant casualties).  

But there has been insufficient attention, both within the government and from NGOs, in assessing the broader-view net result of the drone program; said differently, and channeling former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, are we killing more terrorists than we are creating? While effective at killing their intended targets, drones on the flip side have also been used by terrorists as a recruitment tool and can generally fuel anti-American sentiment around the globe, particularly in regions where U.S. drones fly (and strike) regularly.

Congress should have prompted a clearer reckoning, but it was equally taken in. The focus of congressional interest in the drone program centers on the cool stuff—who is being targeted, what their importance is, and the particular drone platforms and weapons that are used. This emphasis on the tactical over the strategic creates the same blind spots in congressional oversight as the policy-management approach pursued by the Obama administration. Officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would think of themselves as operators for a moment; they were wannabe Jack Ryans, trained to sit at a desk, but sucked into the drama of operations. Moreover, Congress’s institutional ability to adequately oversee the drone program is constrained due, among other things, to classification rules that limit public discussion and Congress’s imposition of funding restrictions for the program.

Accepting the narrative that the prior White House was overly involved in operational matters relating to individual drone strikes, the Trump administration discarded the Obama-era micromanagement. Some Obama-era officials cautiously embraced this shift. They were hopeful that delegation would allow Trump’s senior national-security team the bandwidth to take a keener look at counterterrorism strategy and potentially offer greater emphasis on partnership approaches or nonmilitary tools in governance and development, such as better understanding the root causes of violent extremism, supporting civil society, and other initiatives designed to address those underlying forces. It may be too soon to tell whether this optimism was justified, but many of the prerequisites are publicly missing.

It is entirely unclear whether the Trump administration has developed comprehensive counterterrorism strategies for hot spots such as Iraq and Syria and West Africa; they either don’t exist or have been shielded from the public as part of the broader trend away from transparency about military activities. Though secrecy is hardly new in national security, this president exults in it. “We no longer tell our enemies our plans,” the president proclaimed during his State of the Union address, and the rest of his bureaucracy has taken the philosophy to heart, hiding once-public details on troop commitments, strike data, and more.  

To be sure, the government has provided little public information about the drone program throughout its use as a counterterrorism tool. But Trump appears to be reversing the trend toward transparency that Obama started pressing for in the closing years of his presidency. At the same time, media reporting indicates that counterterrorism operations broadly and terrorism strikes specifically have been expanding with little public notice or congressional engagement.

Keeping information about its counterterrorism policy, operations, and strategy limited to vague signals and leaks erodes traditional means of democratic oversight. It also risks signaling to the world that such drone operations are taking place outside the bounds of traditional norms and laws on use of force and should remain behind closed doors; other international drone users will surely take note.

Congress can fill the gap, enhancing its oversight over the drone program by, for example, consolidating oversight that is currently disbursed across several committees, each of which jealously guards its piece of the drone program, or by redoubling efforts to independently evaluate claims of noncombatant casualties that result from U.S. strikes.

In the absence of that, the result is a dangerous information vacuum for a highly complex, morality-straddling, multifaceted use of deadly force by America around the world. From what we know from leaks, consequential decision making regarding drone strikes has been delegated down into the bowels of executive-branch agencies without the watchful eye of politically accountable administration leaders; Congress is largely sidelined; and the American public is kept intentionally in the dark. Drones as a platform did not force this dynamic, but lowering the perceived cost of U.S. military operations lowered the expectation to fully engage in debate about such activities, and diminished the perceived need to take stock of success or failure. The result is that unmanned now means unmanaged, un-overseen, and unaccountable.