CIA Drones Kill Large Groups Without Knowing Who They Are
November 8, 2011 Spencer Ackerman / DangerRoom, Wired Magazine
The expansion of the CIA's undeclared drone war in the tribal areas of Pakistan required a big expansion of who can be marked for death. Once the standard for targeted killing was top-level leadership in al-Qaeda or one of its allies. That's long gone, especially as the number of people targeted at once has grown. Strikes targeting "groups" are called "signature" strikes. These mass-attacks now constitute the "bulk" of these deadly attacks.
(November 4, 2011) -- The expansion of the CIA's undeclared drone war in the tribal areas of Pakistan required a big expansion of who can be marked for death. Once the standard for targeted killing was top-level leadership in al-Qaeda or one of its allies. That's long gone, especially as the number of people targeted at once has grown.
This is the new standard, according to a blockbuster piece in the Wall Street Journal: "men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren't always known." The CIA is now killing people without knowing who they are, on suspicion of association with terrorist groups. The article does not define the standards are for "suspicion" and "association."
Strikes targeting those people -- usually "groups" of such people -- are called "signature" strikes. "The bulk of CIA's drone strikes are signature strikes," the Journal's Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman and Julian E. Barnes report.
And bulk really means bulk. The Journal reports that the growth in clusters of people targeted by the CIA has required the agency to tell its Pakistani counterparts about mass attacks. When the agency expects to kill 20 or more people at once, then it's got to give the Pakistanis notice.
Determining who is a target not a question of intelligence collection. The cameras on the CIA fleet of Predators and Reapers work just fine. It's a question of intelligence analysis -- interpreting the imagery collected from the drones, and from the spies and spotters below, to understand who's a terrorist and who, say, drops off the terrorists' laundry. Admittedly, in a war with a shadowy enemy, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two.
Fundamentally, though, it's a question of policy: whether it's acceptable for the CIA to kill someone without truly knowing if he's the bombsmith or the laundry guy.
The Journal reports that the CIA's willingness to strike without such knowledge -- sanctioned, in full, by President Barack Obama -- is causing problems for the State Department and the military.
As we've written this week, the high volume of drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas contributes to Pakistani intransigence on another issue of huge importance to the US: convincing Pakistan to deliver the insurgent groups it sponsors to peace talks aimed at ending the Afghanistan war. The drones don't cause that intransigence. Pakistan's leaders, after all, cooperate with the drones and exploit popular anti-American sentiment to shake down Washington. The strikes become cards for Pakistan to play, however cynically.
The State Department is sick of it. It fears the rise of really anti-American leadership in Pakistan, riding into power on a wave of outrage over the drones. The Journal reports that earlier this year, the State Department gained greater say over targeting. So did the military, which fears Pakistan cutting off the supply routes to Afghanistan that run through its territory.
The CIA is still in control. Not only has it beefed up its drone patrols to 14 "orbits," each consisting of three Predators or Reapers, but it's moved many of its drones out of Pakistan and onto Afghanistan bases. That's a statement of unilateral control, even as it gives the Pakistanis a bit more insight into drone operations.
"It's not like they took the car keys away from the CIA," an anonymous senior official tells the Journal. "There are just more people in the car."
And the basic question -- Who should be targeted? -- hasn't changed. The default answer, to put it bluntly, is: Whomever the CIA can. Clive Stafford Smith, a human rights lawyer, points to a consequence: A young man named Tariq was killed in a drone strike with his 12-year old cousin, Waheed Khan, while driving their aunt home.
"Tariq was a good kid, and courageous," Stafford Smith writes. "My warm hand recently touched his in friendship; yet, within three days, his would be cold in death, the rigor mortis inflicted by my government."
As long as the CIA -- now backed by the military and the State Department -- has a free hand to wage the secret drone war in tribal Pakistan, it will continue to bottle up al-Qaida and its allies, degrading the threat they pose. They will also kill more Tariqs and Waheeds. And because the drone war remains a classified CIA program, the CIA will not have to account for its actions to anybody, least of all the US or Pakistani publics.
Former Intel Chief: Call Off The Drone War (And Maybe the Whole War on Terror)
Noah Shachtman / DangerRoom, Wired Magazine
ASPEN, Colorado (July 28, 2011) -- Ground the US drone war in Pakistan. Rethink the idea of spending billions of dollars to pursue al-Qaida. Forget chasing terrorists in Yemen and Somalia, unless the local governments are willing to join in the hunt.
Those aren't the words of some human rights activist, or some far-left Congressman. They're from retired admiral and former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair -- the man who was, until recently, nominally in charge of the entire American effort to find, track, and take out terrorists. Now, he's calling for that campaign to be reconsidered, and possibly even junked.
Starting with the drone attacks. Yes, they take out some mid-level terrorists, Blair said. But they're not strategically effective. If the drones stopped flying tomorrow, Blair told the audience at the Aspen Security Forum, "it's not going to lower the threat to the US" Al-Qaida and its allies have proven "it can sustain its level of resistance to an air-only campaign," he said.
It's one of many reasons why it's a mistake to "have that campaign dominate our overall relations" with countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. "Because we're alienating the countries concerned, because we're treating countries just as places where we go attack groups that threaten us, we are threatening the prospects of long-term reform," Blair said.
The "unilateral" strikes in Pakistan have to come to an end, he added, and be replaced with operations that had the full cooperation of the government in Islamabad. The effort needed "two hands on the trigger," Blair said. And strikes should be launched only when "we agree with them on what drone attacks" should target.
The statements won't exactly win Blair new friends in the Obama administration, which forced him out of the top intelligence job about a year after he was nominated. Not only has Obama drastically escalated the drone war -- there've been 50 strikes in the first seven months of this year, almost as many as in all of 2009. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the remotely-piloted attacks the "only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaida leadership."
Plus, American relations with the Pakistani government are at their lowest point in years. And every time Washington tries to tip off Islamabad to a raid, it seems, the targets of the raid seem to conveniently skip town. No wonder the US kept the mother of all unilateral strikes -- the mission to kill Osama bin Laden -- a secret from their erstwhile allies in Pakistan.
But Blair believes the cooperation -- not only with Pakistan, but also with the government in Yemen and with whatever authorities can be found in Somalia -- is the only way to bring some measure of peace to the world's ungoverned spaces. "We have to change in those three countries," he told the Forum (Full disclosure: I'm a moderator on one of the panels here.)
The reconsideration of our relationship with these countries is only the start of the overhaul Blair has in mind, however. He noted that the US intelligence and homeland security communities are spending about $80 billion a year, outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet al-Qaida and its affiliates only have about 4,000 members worldwide. That's $20 million per terrorist per year, Blair pointed out.
"You think -- woah, $20 million. Is that proportionate?" he asked. "So I think we need to relook at the strategy to get the money in the right places."
Blair mentioned that 17 Americans have been killed on US soil by terrorists since 9/11 -- 14 of them in the Ft. Hood massacre. Meanwhile, auto accidents, murders and rapes combine have killed an estimated 1.5 million people in the past decade. "What is it that justifies this amount of money on this narrow problem?" he asked.
Blair purposely let his own question go unanswered.
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