The Presidential Candidates on Drones

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The current U.S. administration’s use of armed surveillance drones for military operations—in particular the hundreds of covert targeted killings that have been conducted outside of declared war zones—is a defining dimension of Barack Obama’s presidency. Since 2009, drones have served as the primary tool in the U.S. war against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, a sharp break from the previous administration of George W. Bush, which placed greater emphasis on capture, rendition, and interrogation of terror suspects. The current administration has also expanded investment in military drone development and procurement programs, and has overseen the reform of policies regulating the export of drones to foreign countries. The executive branch therefore plays a decisive role in determining how the U.S. uses and develops its strike-capable military drones such as the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.

The next president will inherit the counterterrorism policies of the current administration, which continues to carry out strikes on a weekly basis and has overseen growing investment in the development and acquisition of military unmanned systems technology; however, the next president is also likely to reform these programs according to his or her views on drones, as well as the views of their advisers. In order to help stakeholders determine what the next president’s drone policies are likely to be, we have conducted an analysis of the presidential candidates and their advisers’ relation to and positions on military drone use. We have relied on transcripts from interviews, sound bites in news stories, and statements in debates and other events. Furthermore, we have reviewed the various government positions held by candidates and their advisers in order to identify those who have played a direct or indirect role in policies governing the use and development of military unmanned systems in the past. For those individuals who have made few or no comments specifically on drone use (such as Donald Trump), we have searched for evidence of positions on counterterrorism and military acquisition more broadly.

We note that not all campaign advisers have the same level of influence over the candidate and his or her likely planned policies; furthermore, just because an adviser has played a role in drone programs in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are influencing the drone policies, specifically, of their candidate. That being said, all individuals covered herein do appear to play a role in their candidates’ formulation of policy.

Our analysis of on-the-record comments appears to show that Hillary Clinton and her advisers’ positions on drone use tack closely to those of the current administration. Clinton, who has acknowledged playing a role in the U.S. targeted killing program, and her advisers—many of whom also served in positions related to the use of drones in military operations, including targeted killing—are broadly supportive of the use of drones for targeted killing but have described the need for strict rules to regulate their use and prevent potential abuses. Meanwhile, Trump has made few public comments related specifically to drones, though he has advocated for a significant expansion of the air campaign against ISIS—a campaign that currently relies largely on drones. Trump’s advisers have expressed a degree of opposition to drone strikes, and have commented that capturing and interrogating suspected terrorists would be a more effective counterterrorism strategy. Trump has indicated his support for capture and enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. Jill Stein and Gary Johnson oppose the use of drones in military operations, including targeted killings.

Summary: Clinton Campaign

During Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state, drones became a popular weapon for countering al-Qaeda. Over the course of her four year tenure, the U.S. conducted more than 350 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, according to data collected by the New America Foundation. This experience shaped Clinton’s perspective on drones, as well as that of the many national security advisors in her campaign who served in public office roles related to drones and counterterrorism during this same period. As secretary of state, and in the years since she stepped down, Clinton has repeatedly said that drone strikes are an effective means of killing terror suspects, but has also described the need for rules to govern the use of these weapons outside of declared combat zones. While Clinton’s views on targeted killings appear to tack closely to those of President Obama, there are those within her national security circle who have voiced more divergent opinions. While some, such as former CIA deputy director Michael Morell, have actively and vocally defended drone strikes, others, like former McCain advisor Richard Fontaine, have spoken out against certain aspects of the drone program such as the so-called “signature strikes.”

Summary: Trump Campaign

Far less information is available on a Donald Trump administration’s likely policies on drone use. The Republican candidate and his advisers have made fewer direct references to military drone use than the Clinton team. Unlike Clinton, Trump has had no direct experience in coordinating drone strikes. Furthermore, and also unlike Clinton, Trump has only one known adviser—Gen. Michael Flynn—who has played a direct role in U.S. military drone operations in the past two decades. That being said, it is possible to extrapolate the rough contours of a Trump administration’s policies governing drone use. Generally speaking, Trump has advocated a broad aerial campaign against ISIS that contrasts with the precision-centric targeted killing operations conducted by the current administration and advocated for by Hillary Clinton and many of her advisers. Trump’s advisers hold mixed views on drones. Three Trump advisers—Rudy Giuliani, Michael Woolsey, and Gen. Flynn—have publicly criticized the use of drones for targeted killing. Trump supports the expanded use of military drones to patrol U.S land borders, and has called for an increase in military spending that would likely impact drone acquisition programs, though the plan largely focuses on the procurement of fighter jets and ships, and an increase in personnel.

Correction: The CBP and ANG drone bases insert was updated on October 25, 2016. 

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