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Transparency, Oversight of US Drone Program Debated

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Pamela Dockins
— President Barack Obama's use of unmanned drone attack planes as part of a wider U.S. counterterrorism strategy is facing growing scrutiny. Some critics say the program increasingly lacks oversight and transparency. Analysts have mixed views on whether the program has evolved from its intended mission.

Republican Senator Rand Paul has stepped up his criticism of Obama's use of drones after using the issue to temporarily hold up John Brennan's confirmation as head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Paul told the Conservative Political Action Conference on Wednesday that his chief concern is the limit of presidential powers.

"The filibuster was about drones, but also about much more. Do we have a Bill of Rights? Do we have a constitution and will we defend it?" asked Paul.

On VOA's Encounter program, analysts debated whether the Obama administration has allowed the drone program to move beyond its original mission. The Atlantic Council's Danya Greenfield said the original counterterrorism goals were very specific.

"When the drone program was initiated, there was a fairly stringent criteria that had to be met - essentially that the person targeted had to be planning or involved with imminent attacks, that they had to be un-apprehendable, and consistent with the rules of war," said Greenfield.

Greenfield said that has changed.

"Now what we are seeing is an expansion into what’s been called signature strikes. So, instead of targeting an individual based on a specific set of intelligence and their identity, they are being targeted based on suspicious behavior or a series of actions that might be suspicious, and where the identity of that individual is not necessarily known.  And, I think this leaves a lot of room for mistakes in terms of intelligence and targeting," said Greenfield.

Thomas Lynch of the National Defense University disagrees. In his view, the U.S. drone program needs to move forward.

"I think it is high time, and welcomed time, for the administration to evolve the program, to look at it moving forward," he said.

Lynch said the targeted strikes have been very effective in regions including the Horn of Africa, Somalia and Yemen. He said the exception is Pakistan.

"I have been one advocating suspending drone strikes in Pakistan because in that case, I thought the weight of animosity in the Pakistani populace of 180 million people was, after a certain number of al-Qaida operatives had been killed and eliminated by about 2011, that that weight was disproportionate to what we were getting out of it," he said.

The U.S. strategy is under scrutiny in Pakistan, where covert U.S. drone strikes have been reported in the tribal region along the Afghan border. A United Nations team investigating civilian casualties from the strikes says Pakistan considers the use of U.S. drones on its territory a violation of its sovereignty.

In a March 14 report, team lead Ben Emmerson also said Pakistan considers the drone campaign counterproductive and believes it can perpetuate terrorism in the region. The development indicates that debate over the costs and benefits of the program is likely to continue.

Obama has pledged to continue to engage Congress on counterterrorism efforts.

In his State of the Union speech in February, the president said he would do so to ensure that the "targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists" remained consistent with U.S. laws and its system of checks and balances.

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