When will the White House tell us the whole truth about drone killings?

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Source: The Guardian

By Naureen Shah

The Situation Room, a commander-in-chief with rapidly graying hair, a cluster of grim-faced men and women debating the ethics and the legality of a killing. This is how the Obama administration has for years sought to portray its notorious global drone killing program: cautious, calculated and as conscientious as possible.

The Obama administration just released numbers suggesting this depiction is closer to reality than fiction. It announced that drone strikes in countries excluding Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have resulted in between at least 64 and 116 noncombatant deaths during his administration. The president also issued an executive order effectively directing his successor to do as he is doing, and publish this data going forward.

This is a remarkable shift, even if you’re skeptical of numbers this low. Human rights groups and media have been seeking this information for years. The administration had always refused, citing national security. Instead of openly providing numbers, the administration leaked details about President Obama’s personal involvement in decision-making. The public was asked to trust its law professor president. He was no mere mortal, deigning to play judge, jury and executioner.

Today’s announcement may simply reflect that Obama doesn’t trust his successors to be as scrupulous as he believes he has been. And no matter how one views the credibility of this data, that’s a good thing: no president should have the authority to kill in secret. Obama set a harmful precedent of doing just that, carrying out strikes on a kind of global battlefield, spanning Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps places unknown to us. Now, he’s starting to dismantle his own dangerous legacy.

The new executive order means it will be harder for the next president to kill in total secrecy. After Obama leaves, it will stay in effect unless his successor withdraws it. But to go backward on this commitment to disclose casualties annually, the next president would have to explain why – to a Congress that could be hostile, or simply thirsty for information about how the administration is handling counter-terrorism operations.

The announcements could also have a ripple effect on the dozens of governments currently seeking to acquire drone technology. Obama’s use over the last seven years set a disastrous global precedent: using a new weapons technology as an excuse to kill in secret and without regard for international law. Today’s developments are an incremental but important step away from the notion that new technology is a license for secrecy – one that was all the more frightening because lethal autonomous robots and weaponized artificial intelligence, though still smacking of science fiction, are actually on the horizon.

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