x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

As US drone monopoly frays, Obama seeks global rules

US president, who vastly expanded US drone strikes against militant suspects overseas under the cloak of secrecy, is now openly seeking to influence global guidelines for their use as China and other countries pursue their own drone programmes.

A US Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned drone flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California.
A US Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned drone flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California.

WASHINGTON // President Barack Obama, who vastly expanded US drone strikes against militant suspects overseas under the cloak of secrecy, is now openly seeking to influence global guidelines for their use as China and other countries pursue their own drone programmes.

The United States was the first to use unmanned aircraft fitted with missiles to kill militant suspects in the years after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

But other countries are catching up. China's interest in unmanned aerial vehicles was displayed in November at an air show. According to state-run newspaper Global Times, China had considered conducting its first drone strike to kill a suspect in the 2011 murder of 13 Chinese sailors, but authorities decided they wanted the man alive so they could put him on trial.

"People say what's going to happen when the Chinese and the Russians get this technology? The president is well aware of those concerns and wants to set the standard for the international community on these tools," said Tommy Vietor, until earlier this month a White House spokesman.

As US ground wars end, counterterrorism targeting has become "the new normal", Mr Vietor said.

Amid a debate within the US government, it is not yet clear what new standards governing targeted killings and drone strikes the White House will develop for US operations or propose for global rules of the road.

Mr Obama's new position is not without irony. The White House kept details of drone operations, which remain largely classified, out of public view for years when the US monopoly was airtight.

That stance is just now beginning to change, in part under pressure from growing public and congressional discomfort with the drone programme. US legislators have demanded to see White House legal justifications for targeting US citizens abroad, and to know whether Mr Obama thinks he has the authority to use drones to kill Americans on US soil.

On Friday, a three-judge federal appeals court panel unanimously ruled that the CIA gave an inadequate response to a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking records about drone strikes. The CIA had said it could neither confirm nor deny whether it had drone records because of security concerns.

The judge who wrote the ruling noted that the president had publicly acknowledged that the United States uses drone strikes against Al Qaeda.

Strikes by missile-armed Predator and Reaper drones against militant suspects overseas began under former president George W Bush and were expanded by Mr Obama.

The ramp-up started in 2008, the last year of Mr Bush's term, when there were 35 air strikes in Pakistan, and escalated to a peak of 117 in 2010, according to The Long War Journal.

That jump in use of armed drones resulted from the authorisation to use "signature" strikes, which allowed targeting militant suspects based on behaviour and other characteristics without knowing their actual identity, a US official said on condition of anonymity.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said the administration is committed to explaining to Congress and the public as much as possible about its drone policies, including how decisions to strike are made.

"We are constantly working to refine, clarify, and strengthen the process for considering terrorist targets for lethal action," Ms Hayden said.

The administration recognises "we are establishing standards other nations may follow," she said.

James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said other countries, including Russia, have unarmed reconnaissance drones. China says it has an armed drone, but "we don't know if it works", he said.

"Getting agreement on the applicability of existing humanitarian law to the new technologies is crucial," he said, because China and Russia do not endorse applying laws of armed conflict to new military technologies.

One of the Obama administration's goals is to "regularise" the drone programme, making it more a part of accepted US practice in the future, Mr Lewis said. "This is going to be part of warfare."