WASHINGTON -- One year ago last Friday, President Barack Obama gave a major address on drones, targeted killing and terrorism. The president and administration officials promised that the drone program would operate within limits protecting civilians, control would be transferred from the CIA to the Pentagon, and a new era of transparency would begin.
The number of drone strikes has fallen since then, but it is far from clear that the drop was a result of a shift in administration policy. Frustrated in part by Congress and the facts on the ground in Pakistan and Yemen, when it comes to drones, Obama has fulfilled few of his promises.
"Unfortunately, I don't think Obama or the administration have done much at all to follow up on the commitments he made in the speech," said Danya Greenfield, chair of the Yemen Policy Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank.
First, the numbers: According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based non-profit, both the number of drone strikes and casualties have declined in the year since Obama's big speech. There were a reported 63 strikes in Yemen and Pakistan between May 23, 2012, and May 22, 2013, and 33 the following year. A minimum of 247 people died in the strikes that occurred in the year before the speech, and a minimum of 161 died in those that occurred the year after.
But Christopher Swift, an adjunct professor in national security studies at Georgetown University, argued the general reduction in drone strikes "has more to do with developments on the ground than it does with any significant change in U.S. policy."
The year before the speech, the Bureau recorded 47 strikes in Pakistan that killed a minimum of 173 people, at least 13 of whom were civilians. In the year after, there were 15 strikes with no reported civilian deaths -- and there has not been a single strike since Christmas Day.
Explanations for the drop vary. Swift believes the number of drone strikes has fallen in Pakistan "simply because we've hit most of the targets we want to hit." Greenfield, meanwhile, says the drop is "an indication that the Pakistani government has been far more resistant." Pakistani elections in May 2013 heralded a new era of rhetorical opposition to drone strikes -- which may have translated into behind-the-scenes pressure on the U.S. government.
In Yemen, by contrast, suspected U.S. drone strikes have actually gone up in the past year, from 16 to 18. (The Bureau reports that the number might actually include some attacks from manned aircraft; there is some uncertainty due to difficulties in reporting from Yemen.) The number of reported deaths has increased from 74 to 96, while the minimum number of civilian deaths has gone from 17 to 19.
Yemen has been engaged in a full-on war against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since April, displacing an estimated 21,000 people. Before then, the U.S. had ramped up its drone war against the Qaeda offshoot -- with the cooperation of the Yemeni government.
"Given that this tool has become sort of a major tool in the execution of U.S. policy in Yemen, in execution of the war on al Qaeda, it becomes harder for the president to control the use," said Nabeel Khoury, a former diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa who is now a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
In both countries the number of deaths per strike has gone up. The number of civilians reported killed per strike has gone down in Pakistan while remaining unchanged in Yemen.
While not commenting on the overall drop in strikes, the administration says it has moved forward in carrying out Obama's promises. Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said in an emailed statement that the administration is implementing a presidential policy directive providing guidelines for drone strikes "in a careful, coordinated, and deliberate manner."
"The death of innocent civilians is something that the U.S. Government seeks to avoid if at all possible," said Hayden. "Our forces go to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties; but when we believe that civilians may have been killed despite these efforts, we investigate thoroughly."
Hayden said that an early June speech by the president's counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco will reveal more about the administration's efforts.
Civilian casualties nevertheless continue to cause the administration headaches. The most fiercely criticized drone strike in recent memory was the December attack on a wedding convoy in Yemen. Twelve men died, but the the target of the strike appears to have escaped unscathed.
The Los Angeles Times reported this month that there was a bureaucratic scuffle between the CIA and the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command over the strike. At the time of Obama's speech last year, anonymous administration officials said he would transfer control for the drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon -- which could arguably lead to greater transparency and accountability.
But Congress has reportedly sought to block that shift, frustrating the White House's intentions. And the Los Angeles Times report that JSOC was behind the wedding strike, meanwhile, complicates hopes that the military will be more responsible than the CIA in carrying out strikes.
The murky conditions behind the strike point to another common criticism of the drone program: the shroud of secrecy the administration has placed over it. While the president never explicitly promised in his May 2013 speech that civilian casualties would decline, he did pledge greater transparency.
"A lot of people read that speech as saying Obama's going to limit the use of drones," said Swift. "What he actually said is we're going to be more clear about the legal regime."
But transparency around drone strikes and their legal footing has barely increased, if it has at all. The CIA's role in drone strikes remains officially unacknowledged. The government has continued to fight in court to keep legal opinions justifying drone strikes from the public. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had to threaten to block Obama's nominee for a federal judgeship to secure the release of a memo supporting a drone strike against a U.S. citizen.
In April, meanwhile, at the administration's behest, the Senate pulled the plug on an effort by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to force the administration to release a count of noncombatant civilians killed in drone strikes. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claimed the casualty reporting would lack crucial context.
"I would give the president an 'F' based on his promises a year ago," said Alka Pradhan, the counterterrorism counsel for the human rights group Reprieve U.S. "He promised more transparency, and in one year of working on this issue, I have seen more secrecy, not less."