(Photo illustration by Foreign Affairs. Image courtesy Reuters)
Concerns abound about the secretive nature of U.S. drone programs. Even among those who support the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in counterterrorism efforts, there are frequent calls for more transparency, greater accountability, and better oversight. Seldom, though, have commentators distinguished between these seemingly interchangeable words or described what any of them would look like in practice. In fact, increasing transparency is not the only path to accountability. The United States should instead aim for better oversight, modeling a review process on the United Kingdom's Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. Doing so would be consistent with democratic ideals as well as with U.S. foreign policy objectives.
First, imagine that the government opted for full transparency in its drone programs. That would certainly make the government more accountable, with no special oversight system needed. Officials would release all the necessary information for citizens to assess the ethics of the programs themselves. This would include answers to such questions as: What crimes have targeted individuals allegedly committed? What threats do they pose? Who else might be harmed in a drone attack? How feasible are non-lethal options such as capture? In practice, though, full transparency is neither morally nor strategically ideal. For one, the government has a duty to protect its civilian informants, so there is risk in revealing the government's sources of information. And potential targets could adjust their behaviors were capture proposals to be debated openly. That would make it all the more difficult for the government to use non-lethal options to round up suspects.
So how much transparency is enough? How can citizens know that the state is not overselling the sensitivity of details that it chooses to withhold? This central dilemma has not been resolved. Well-intentioned legal efforts undertaken by the ACLU and others to force openness about the drone program have only led the government to dig in its heels. It refuses to formally declassify even widely known facets explained, Washington fears a slippery slope toward full transparency in the courts that might render one of its most potent counterterrorism weapons unusable.
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