The Defense Department is pushing for more transparency in providing information on international drone strikes in countries such as Yemen, while still not releasing drone strike data for its continued operations in Afghanistan.
President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel both said last month the department is looking at ways to be more transparent as a way to publicly explain the country’s decision making, provide increased legitimacy for its actions and increase accountability in government.
“I also believe we must be more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out. We have to be able to explain them publicly, whether it is drone strikes or training partners,” Obama said May 28 during a commencement address at the Military Academy in West Point, New York. “I will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts.”
Hagel told reporters May 28 that the military’s transition to transparency is a centerpiece of Obama’s presidency.
“We’re working through that now,” Hagel said while en route to a visit to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. “We’re working with Congress on this. We’re working interagency on this. And that’s something as high a priority for the president as anything else.”
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said May 23 that the department will not “talk process publicly about how and when those decisions are going to be made,” but that the department is “committed” to increasing its transparency.
While this discussion is happening, however, U.S. Central Command and Air Forces Central Command continue to withhold data on drone strikes in Afghanistan, a reversal from a previous policy where AFCENT would publicly announce the total weapons releases from remotely piloted aircraft each month.
In March last year, Air Forces Central reversed its policy of providing the data, which it had previously released to “provide more detailed information on RPA ops in Afghanistan.”
The data first appeared in November 2012, and appeared for three more months before being removed from later releases. Air Forces Central also went back and removed numbers from previously released airpower summaries without notification. U.S. Central Command said in a statement that the decision to remove the statistics was made in collaboration with the International Security Assistance Force because it disproportionately focused on weapons releases solely from drones.
ISAF and CENTCOM officials said the data would be available through the Freedom of Information Act, and an Air Force Times’ Freedom of Information Act request for the data made last Mayis still pending.
The last release with the data showed that of 192 total weapons releases for January 2013, 44 were from drones. There were 494 drone strikes for all of 2012, 294 for all of 2011 and 2,077 for all of 2010.
The most recent release from May 14 showed 115 weapons releases in April and 414 so far in 2014, compared with 2,756 for all of 2013.
The push for more transparency of the armed drone program comes as the Obama administration is pushing to move most, or all, control of the program out of the CIA and into the Defense Department, though the plan has not been finalized.