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Obama administration falls short on promise, remains secretive about drone program

| Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, 7:03 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Six months after President Obama vowed to change his administration's approach to lethal drone missile strikes, the pace of aerial attacks has fallen sharply, in part because of stricter targeting criteria. But thus far, a blanket of secrecy about the campaign has remained firmly in place.

The Democrat-led Senate Intelligence Committee voted on Nov. 5 to require that the administration disclose how many civilians and militants were killed by drones each year. That tally has not been made available.

The panel also voted to impose additional intelligence demands before the White House could authorize a drone strike against a U.S. citizen or resident alien. Drones have killed five Americans since 2002, but only one, al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki, was officially marked for death.

“The American people should be given basic facts about mistakes when they are made, and they should also be given the rules that the government must follow when targeting and killing an American involved in terrorist activities,” committee member Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement.

The proposed restrictions, which are part of a broader intelligence bill, might not survive. Republicans on the Senate panel voted for the bill, but most opposed the drone amendments. And key lawmakers in the GOP-controlled House oppose the provisions.

The White House has yet to take a position.

Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the administration has been transparent concerning drones.

“The president has committed to undertaking these activities with the greatest possible transparency, and we will continue to share as much information as possible with the American people, Congress and the international community,” she said.

In a May speech at National Defense University, Obama said he had signed a policy directive that set new standards before the White House would approve targeted killing by drones.

Obama said the CIA had to show that a proposed target posed a “continuing imminent threat” to Americans, rather than a “significant threat,” which was the previous standard. In addition, no attack would be ordered without “near certainty” that civilians would not be harmed, Obama said.

The number of strikes had fallen before May, but the new rules served to further reduce the frequency.

The Long War Journal, which tracks drone attacks through news reports, has recorded 22 strikes this year in Yemen, down from 42 last year. It has counted 25 in Pakistan, down from 46 last year and a peak of 117 in 2010. A single strike has been reported this year in Somalia.

Harold Koh, who served as State Department legal advisor in Obama's first term, said in an email that the targeting standards have “disciplined” the drone program.

But Koh, now a professor at Yale Law School, said he has seen “little or no movement” on making the program more transparent, a goal he believes is necessary to boost the program's legitimacy abroad.

In May, White House aides indicated that the Pentagon would take over at least some covert drone operations from the CIA. The military operates under different legal statutes than the CIA, and can provide more information to the public.

That plan has stalled, however, because of logistical, bureaucratic and legal concerns.

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