By Maya Kushner

Government use of drones for surveillance and national security activities has captured headlines for years now. Recently, President Obama has shifted his position and made unifying the drone program a priority, because even though it is referred to as a drone “program” in the media, it is far from having a cohesive structure. The use of drones is a contentious issue within the government, pitting agencies against each other. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which is in control of the drone program, and the Department of Defense are lobbying for greater use, while the Department of Justice and the State Department are arguing for more restraint.

In the U.S., the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, dates back to the 1960s, but their utility has changed dramatically in the last decade. Drones were first used exclusively for surveillance and spying on the military maneuvers of enemy states. Most recently, armed drones have been used to carry out targeted killings of actual and suspected terrorists, wherever they may be located.

The program has grown drastically in the last few years. For example, the U.S. carried out 45 drone and other airstrikes in Pakistan under the presidency of George W. Bush, compared with 117 in 2010 alone under President Barack Obama. The nature of the program changed as well. Armed drones were initially used to kill high-ranking officials of Al Qaeda when the target was first clearly identified on the ground. The use expanded into “signature strikes,” when locations would be targeted based on a “signature” of a known individual on the “kill list” – for example if a vehicle known to be used by the targeted individual would be parked outside of a location, the drone would strike without verification that the individual was at the location. The term “signature strike” was then expanded even further, to include “signature” behavior of terrorist groups – thus a drone strike may target a group of unnamed military-aged males, carrying weapons, and congregating in an area known for its high terrorist activity.

Such wide use of drone strikes is possible because the government has no set rules on when drones can be used. The Obama Administration is seeking to set a drone policy that would restrict and clarify the rules for drone use. There are several factors to consider in making this policy. First, drones and drone strikes have been highly instrumental in finding and eliminating high-ranking terrorist officials. In September of 2011 a drone strike in Yemen killed a senior Al-Qaeda recruiter, Anwar Al-Awlaki. In October of 2011, a drone strike, along with a French warplane, detoured and scattered the convoy of Muammar Gaddafi, which lead to his capture and death. And the May 2011 attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound, which lead to his death, heavily relied on intelligence collected by a drone. This utility and effectiveness supports creating a flexible policy to allow broader drone use.

However, drone strikes also have many negatives. The one discussed most often in the media is civilian casualties. These casualties occur when civilians are present in the area of a drone strike – which was the case when two families died in the first drone strike under the Obama Administration. A second negative is that the rush to manufacture and deploy drones has led to technological glitches, which has made the drones somewhat unreliable – the Air Force has acknowledged that over a third of their Predator drones have crashed. Another issue with drone strikes is that their use may be counterproductive. The strikes are carried out in order to destabilize and reduce terrorist organizations. However, the casualties and devastation caused by the strikes has been used as a major recruiting tool by the terrorists, and Al-Qaeda membership in Yemen has actually expanded since the time that drone strikes began in that country.

Finally, there are legal questions. First, these military actions are carried out without any declaration of war and likely violate the sovereignty of the nations where the drone strikes occur. The Obama Administration maintains that the strikes are legal given Congressional authorization for military actions passed in the wake of September 11 attacks, as well as general principles of self-defense, but this rhetoric does not find much support outside of the United States. Second, there is speculation that drone strikes are sometimes used to kill targets to avoid detention and the judicial process even though these options are feasible. This speculation is especially high surrounding the Obama administration, as President Obama promised to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, failed to do so, and has been very reluctant to add any detainees to the prison. The third pressing legal question is: what happens when the target is a U.S. citizen? This was the case with Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen placed on the “kill list” and killed by a drone. It is clear that Al-Awlaki was vehemently anti-American and was working with Al-Qaeda, so the U.S. had a valid security interest in eliminating him. But prior to being killed by the drone, Al-Awlaki was neither stripped of his U.S. citizenship nor afforded the due process rights granted to him by the U.S. Constitution. In killing him with a drone strike, the Obama administration effectively circumvented U.S. law.

To his credit, President Obama is trying to address some of the concerns surrounding drone strikes by unifying the drone policy, and has called upon Congress to assist in this process. Yet the proposal remains vague since much of the drone program is classified. In fact, the first time the government has officially acknowledged the use of armed drones was a few months ago – on April 30, 2012 in a speech by the Homeland Security Advisor, John Brennan. It is rumored that the current rule book on drone strikes is so highly classified that it is hand-carried from office to office instead of being sent by email.

The continued secrecy is a double-edged sword. Not only does it hamper Obama’s efforts to unify the policy, but it also hampers the administration’s ability to dispute any of the existing misinformation, such as civilian casualty numbers that may be exaggerated by terrorist groups to further their own recruitment cause. But the fact that the government finally confirmed the use of armed drones, as well as Obama’s discussion of the program in interviews, for example on CNN and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, shows that the veil of secrecy is slowly lifting and soon the American public will be able to have a more informed dialogue about pros, cons, and the direction of this program.