US Has Killed Far More Civilians with Drones than it Admits, says UN
October 18, 2013 Michael Isikoff / NBC News & Richard Engel / NBC News
A new report from a special UN investigator says drone strikes have killed far more civilians than US officials have publicly acknowledged -- at least 400 in Pakistan and as many as 58 in Yemen -- and chides the US for failing to aid the investigation by disclosing its own figures. UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson, who issued the "interim" report, said the US had created "an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency."
US Has Killed Far More Civilians with Drones than it Admits, says UN Michael Isikoff / NBC News National Investigative Correspondent
(October 17, 2013) -- A new report from a special UN investigator says drone strikes have killed far more civilians than US officials have publicly acknowledged -- at least 400 in Pakistan and as many as 58 in Yemen -- and chides the US for failing to aid the investigation by disclosing its own figures.
UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson, who issued the "interim" report, said the US had created "an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency."
"The Special Rapporteur does not accept that considerations of national security justify withholding statistical and basic methodological data of this kind," wrote Emmerson in the report, which is due to be presented to the UN General Assembly next Friday.
US intelligence officials have consistently downplayed the number of civilian deaths from drone strikes. In a June 2011 speech, White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, who is now CIA director, said that "for nearly the past year, there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency [and] precision" of US counter-terror strikes.
Later, the CIA acknowledged some civilian casualties, but told Congress that they were in the "single digits," according to a February 2013 statement by Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.).
In a major speech on drone strikes this May, President Obama openly acknowledged civilian deaths, saying "they will haunt us for as long as we live" -- but didn't provide any hard numbers or estimates.
"It is a hard fact that US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exist in every war," Obama said. "And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss."
According to Emmerson, the Pakistani government provided him with new casualty numbers for strikes in the country's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the US government has targeted Al Qaeda operatives and their associates since 2004. While acknowledging the difficulty in compiling precise figures in a region largely beyond government control, he states that Pakistani officials confirmed "at least 400 civilians had been killed as a result of remotely piloted aircraft strikes and a further 200 individuals [killed] were regarded as probably non-combatants." He added that Pakistani officials said those figures were likely to be an underestimate, due to "underreporting and obstacles to effective investigation."
Emmerson told NBC News that there is no reason “on the face of it” to question the Pakistani government’s number because they were broadly in line with the lower end of figures compiled by non-governmental groups and independent media monitoring. He said one major difficulty in calculating any numbers is a differing view of who constitutes a civilian. Pakistani officials, he said, tend to view the owner of a home where suspected al Qaeda operatives are staying as a non-combatant, an assessment not generally shared by US officials.
Emmerson also said that he and his researchers had identified 33 "sample remotely piloted aircraft strikes that appear to have resulted in civilian casualties." Most of these were by the US, he said, but about "eight or nine" were Israeli strikes in Gaza. He did not identify the strikes, saying he is still investigating them and plans to present his findings to the UN Human Rights Council.
The highest level of civilian casualties, Emmerson said, occurred when the CIA ramped up drone strikes in Pakistan between 2008 and 2010. Since then, he said, drone strikes in Pakistan have steadily declined and "the number of civilian deaths has dropped dramatically."
Emmerson's estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes in Yemen ranged from 21 to 58.
A former Pakistani official told NBC News that the figures the Pakistani government supplied to Emmerson were much higher than earlier estimates and could have been influenced by domestic politics, given mounting domestic resistance in that country to US drone operations.
The number is still "significant," said Letta Taylor, a senior counter-terrorism researcher for Human Rights Watch, because it is the first time a United Nations investigator has attached specific numbers to the issue of civilian death. She acknowledged, however, that "all the figures are estimates. We're all operating in an information blackout."
In a statement, White House spokesperson Laura Magnuson said, “We are aware that this report has been released and are reviewing it carefully.”
She noted that at the National Defense University on May 23, “[T]he President spoke at length about the policy and legal rationale for how the United States takes action against al Qaeda and its associated forces. As the President emphasized, the use of lethal force, including from remotely piloted aircraft, commands the highest level of attention and care. Of particular note, before we take any counter-terrorism strike, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set.”
Brandon Bryant says he was sitting in a chair at a Nevada Air Force base operating the camera when his team fired two missiles from their drone at three men walking down a road halfway around the world in Afghanistan. The missiles hit all three targets, and Bryant says he could see the aftermath on his computer screen -- including thermal images of a growing puddle of hot blood.
“The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,” he recalled. “And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.” As the man died his body grew cold, said Bryant, and his thermal image changed until he became the same color as the ground.
“I can see every little pixel,” said Bryant, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, “if I just close my eyes.”
Bryant, now 27, served as a drone sensor operator from 2006 to 2011, at bases in Nevada, New Mexico and in Iraq, guiding unmanned drones over Iraq and Afghanistan. Though he didn't fire missiles himself he took part in missions that he was told led to the deaths of an estimated 1,626 individuals.
In an interview with NBC News, he provided a rare first-person glimpse into what it’s like to control the controversial machines that have become central to the US effort to kill terrorists.
He says that as an operator he was troubled by the physical disconnect between his daily routine and the violence and power of the faraway drones. “You don't feel the aircraft turn,” he said. “You don't feel the hum of the engine. You hear the hum of the computers, but that's definitely not the same thing.”
At the same time, the images coming back from the drones were very real and very graphic.
“People say that drone strikes are like mortar attacks,” Bryant said. “Well, artillery doesn't see this. Artillery doesn't see the results of their actions. It's really more intimate for us, because we see everything.”
A self-described “naïve” kid from a small Montana town, Bryant joined the Air Force in 2005 at age 19. After he scored well on tests, he said a recruiter told him that as a drone operator he would be like the smart guys in the control room in a James Bond movie, the ones who feed the agent the information he needs to complete his mission.
He trained for three and a half months before participating in his first drone mission. Bryant operated the drone’s cameras from his perch at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada as the drone rose into the air just north of Baghdad.
Bryant and the rest of his team were supposed to use their drone to provide support and protection to patrolling US troops. But he recalls watching helplessly as insurgents buried an IED in a road and a US Humvee drove over it.
“We had no way to warn the troops,” he said. He later learned that three soldiers died.
And once he had taken part in a kill, any remaining illusions about James Bond disappeared. “Like, this isn’t a videogame,” he said. “This isn’t some sort of fantasy. This is war. People die.”
Bryant said that most of the time he was an operator, he and his team and his commanding officers made a concerted effort to avoid civilian casualties.
But he began to wonder who the enemy targets on the ground were, and whether they really posed a threat. He’s still not certain whether the three men in Afghanistan were really Taliban insurgents or just men with guns in a country where many people carry guns. The men were five miles from American forces arguing with each other when the first missile hit them.
“They (didn’t) seem to be in a hurry,” he recalled. “They (were) just doing their thing. ... They were probably carrying rifles, but I wasn't convinced that they were bad guys.“ But as a 21-year-old airman, said Bryant, he didn’t think he had the standing to ask questions.
He also remembers being convinced that he had seen a child scurry onto his screen during one mission just before a missile struck, despite assurances from others that the figure he’d seen was really a dog.
After participating in hundreds of missions over the years, Bryant said he “lost respect for life” and began to feel like a sociopath. He remembers coming into work in 2010, seeing pictures of targeted individuals on the wall -- Anwar al-Awlaki and other al Qaeda and Taliban leaders -- and musing, “Which one of these f_____s is going to die today?”
In 2011, as Bryant’s career as a drone operator neared its end, he said his commander presented him with what amounted to a scorecard. It showed that he had participated in missions that contributed to the deaths of 1,626 people.
“I would’ve been happy if they never even showed me the piece of paper,” he said. “I've seen American soldiers die, innocent people die, and insurgents die. And it's not pretty. It's not something that I want to have -- this diploma.”
Now that he’s out of the Air Force and back home in Montana, Bryant said he doesn’t want to think about how many people on that list might’ve been innocent: “It’s too heartbreaking.”
The Veterans Administration diagnosed him with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, for which he has undergone counseling. He says his PTSD has manifested itself as anger, sleeplessness and blackout drinking.
“I don’t feel like I can really interact with that average, everyday person,” he said. “I get too frustrated, because A) they don't realize what's going on over there. And B) they don't care.”
He’s also reluctant to tell the people in his personal life what he was doing for five years. When he told a woman he was seeing that he’d been a drone operator, and contributed to the deaths of a large number of people, she cut him off. “She looked at me like I was a monster,” he said. “And she never wanted to touch me again.”
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