Deaths of Hostages Reveal Criminal Nature of US Drone Policy
April 25, 2015
Trevor Timm / The Guardian & Robert Beckhusen & Matthew Gualt / Medium.com
President Obama's admission on Thursday that the CIA killed two innocent hostages in a US drone strike in Pakistan should definitively prove to the American public what the White House has been trying to hide from them for a while: the US government's secretive use of drone strikes is a transparency nightmare and human rights catastrophe. It requires a full-scale, independent investigation.
The Hostages Killed by US Drones
Are the Casualties of an Inhumane Policy
Trevor Timm / The Guardian
(April 24, 2015) -- President Obama's admission on Thursday that the CIA killed two innocent hostages in a US drone strike in Pakistan should definitively prove to the American public what the White House has been trying to hide from them for a while: the US government's secretive use of drone strikes is a transparency nightmare and human rights catastrophe. It requires a full-scale, independent investigation.
The only thing surprising about the news that US drone strikes killed one American and one Italian civilian al-Qaida hostage - along with two alleged American members of al-Qaida who were supposedly not targeted - is that the US actually admitted it.
Secrecy, misdirection and lies have shielded much of the public from the realization that US drone strikes have killed countless civilians in the past decade. There is literally no public accountability - not in the courts nor in Congress - for the CIA and the military's killings outside official war zones. It doesn't matter who they kill, where, or under what circumstances.
What we have learned from news reports and human rights investigations over the years has been disturbing. Consider, for example, that the the government counts "all military-age males in a [drone] strike zone as combatants . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent", as the New York Times reported in 2012. For many years, the US government also regularly carried out drone strikes on people they openly admitted they could not identify. The CIA referred to these as "signature strikes", which targeted people who seemed to be up to no good from the sky, but could have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The administration supposedly curtailed signature strikes two years ago but the Wall Street Journal reported: "it can take the CIA weeks or longer to determine who was killed in a drone strike" How, then, can we believe they fully stopped it? As ACLU's Jameel Jaffer put it bluntly on Thursday: "In each of the operations acknowledged today, the US quite literally didn't know who it was killing."
For years, the vast majority of drone strikes victims have never been positively identified as terrorists. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has the most comprehensive data on drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, published a study last year showing only 12% of victims were identified as militants and only 4% were identified as members of al-Qaida. This study is backed up by the excellent reporting by McClatchy's Jonathan Landay, who gained access to years of classified CIA reports to show that the vast majority of drone strike victims were not high level terrorist operatives like the administration claimed.
And we know the government thinks it can kill US citizens overseas without a trial or even a finding by any independent body. Despite a clear public interest in knowing about such an extreme claim to power, the Justice Department has fought to keep its supposed legal authority for drone strikes on Americans completely secret.
The Obama administration claims it tightened its drone strike policy in 2013 after a minor uproar following its admission that it's drones had killed a US citizen for the first time. Obama said in a speech that for him to approve a drone strike going forward: "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set". But now the White House is saying, on the one hand, that the recent strike was "fully consistent" with that policy and on the other hand, that they're conducting an "internal review" to see if they should improve it.
That's why an "internal review" will tell us little we don't already know and will almost certainly fail to bring any real accountability to the use of drones. We need a full independent congressional inquiry and public accounting for all drone strikes, not just the ones in which Americans have died. As multiple experts remarked on Thursday, what about the 3,800 other who have been killed?
Unfortunately, members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee have been the biggest cheerleaders of drone strikes, rather than their biggest skeptics. Just two weeks ago the New York Times reported that former House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers was badgering the Obama administration for why they hadn't ordered a drone strike against an American citizen they were able to later capture and bring to the US for trial.
If there's ever going to be accountability for the CIA and military drone program, we need a fully independent commission, divorced from the intelligence committees. Without it, this controversy will just fade back into the background, where it will stay hidden under the government's ever-expanding veil of secrecy.
Drones Kill Innocent People All the Time
But Now the White House Can't Deny It
Robert Beckhusen & Matthew Gualt / Medium.com
(April 24, 2015) -- On April 23, US Pres. Barack Obama told the world that an American drone strike against an Al Qaeda compound in January killed two innocent hostages. American contractor Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto died in the strike in Pakistan.
Obama apologized to their families. "As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni," Obama said.
At the time of the strike, US military and intelligence officials didn't believe the compound -- which comprised several buildings -- contained hostages. Had they, it's a safe bet to assume the strike wouldn't have happened. The CIA didn't discover what really occurred until weeks later, according to the New York Times.
Al Qaeda deputy Ahmed Farouq -- who heads up the group's organization in India -- died in the strike. Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn died in what was likely a separate attack in January. Farouq and Gadahn were both American citizens.
It's not unprecedented that a US drone strike killed civilians. America's CIA-operated drones kill civilians all the time. There's a caveat -- precision drone strikes are arguably less destructive to civilian life than ground wars or manned bombing, but they're far from perfect.
What's different about this drone strike is that Obama admitted it killed civilians, apologized for it and ordered the details "declassified and disclosed publicly." That's an almost unheard-of exception in a war known for its extreme secrecy.
"That's pretty astounding," Heather Roff, an associate professor at the University of Denver who studies the ethics of emerging technologies such as drones, told War Is Boring.
"It's quick, and it's declassifying it for the families, and it's notifying the public and it's getting out ahead of this. It's asking for a mea culpa now."
We don't know how many civilians have died in America's drone campaign, and the White House hasn't disclosed the number. But there are estimates from independent groups.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has long worked to clarify the mystery by sifting through news reports in America and abroad, leaked government documents and interviews within affected communities.
According to TBIJ's numbers, the CIA's drones have killed somewhere between 400 and 950 civilians in Pakistan. That accounts for 415 drone strikes in the region between 2004 and 2015.
But complicating the figures is that Pakistan has carried out air strikes in the same regions against the same militants— which makes it hard to deconflict a drone attack from a Pakistani air force strike.
The numbers for Yemen are even less clear. Since 2002, America has conducted between 100 and 200 drone strikes in the country.
Those targeted killings have killed between 90 and 160 civilians, according to TBIJ. Around a dozen drone strikes in Somalia killed about five civilians.
The strikes accelerated after Obama took office. From 2004 to 2007, the US launched just 11 such attacks in Pakistan. In 2008, it launched 38. The strikes peaked in 2010 -- as the Obama administration deployed thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan -- with 128 targeted assaults in Pakistan.
The frequency has decreased since then, and the rate leveled off in 2013 with 27 drone strikes. In 2014, there were 25 and only seven so far in 2015.
To be sure, there's a logic behind the strikes. It reduces risk to American service members and allows the US to attack Al Qaeda where it'd be far too risky -- or politically problematic -- to send ground troops or manned aircraft.
But the US does so with limited -- if any -- human intelligence on the ground. On the other hand, drone strikes are arguably safer for civilians than if America sent in the Army or conventional manned bombers.
But the counter-argument is that drones -- by removing a human pilot -- ratchets down the threshold for the US to carry out a strike, and makes strikes more likely. Civilian deaths are inevitable.
On Dec. 13, 2013, an American drone launched Hellfire missiles at a convoy of cars on the move in Yemen. The strike killed 12 people and wounded 15 more. At the time, the Yemeni government claimed the dead were Al Qaeda militants.
The dead and wounded were, in fact, part of a wedding party. The bride was there. The strike wounded her face. To this day, it's unclear whether any militants died that day.
The White House never acknowledged its involvement in the attack. Regional Yemeni authorities paid the families of the victims $800,000 in cash and rifles.
It's impossible to know what would've happened had a manned aircraft -- not a drone -- been in the air.
But it's quite possible the US would have never bombed the wedding party had it not had drones in the first place. There's simply less risk inherent in bombing targets in Yemen with machines. If so, this means the US has effectively off-loaded some of its risk onto civilians, and it's done so largely in secret.
The strike in Pakistan -- and its mistaken deaths -- is another example.
"This is case that just comes to the surface because of two high-profile people getting killed a drone strike, and the US has to account for it and atone for it," Roff said. "But it still doesn't get around the fact that the United States is carrying out its war in a very questionable way."
But does the Obama disclosing the strike signal a shift toward more transparency in how America wages war? Roff thinks it could, but notes that it's only a possibility.
"This is a precedent-type moment," she added. "What might change is that if there are any other future strikes that may involve hostages or clearly non-combatant people in the area, then the United States may get into a position where it has to publicly atone or open up its documents about why it still undertook that particular strike."
Roff noted that this is a big if. The CIA will always keep secrets, for understandable reasons. And the US isn't likely to stop using drones to target Al Qaeda members.
"No, it's not going to stop doing that," she said. "What it may do, is that [the US] may limit its use in some instances that it may not have in others, and it may come under more scrutiny if it does not -- because it has now set a precedent that in instances like this, it may declassify information on a strike."
But remember, the US didn't kill one American citizen in the January attacks. It killed three Americans -- one of them innocent and by accident. The CIA also killed Al Qaeda members and US citizens Farouq and Gadahn.
For a moment, leave aside the mistake that led to an American citizen being killed by friendly fire. The White House still hasn't convincingly argued that killing American combatants is on firm legal ground.
The government's rationale -- outlined in a white paper revealed in 2013 -- follows that US citizens fighting on the side of Al Qaeda forgo their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, because they are necessarily planning to conduct imminent attacks the US in the future.
This line of reasoning continues that if the Al Qaeda member is in hiding -- removed from the means by which the US could capture him -- then the US could blow him up with a drone to remove the threat. And this would be completely legal.
It's worth noting that the White House stretches the definition of imminent to mean a terrorist planning to attack from a location outside the reach of US law enforcement. The terrorist could plan an attack that happens in a few hours, or years from now . . . it doesn't matter.
Nor is the process subject to public review. There's no trial, defense attorney or even acknowledgment from the White House that it's targeted a US citizen for assassination.
Finally, the administration wants Congress to believe this is legal.
"Should we have done this strike?" Roff asked. "Well, wait a minute. We haven't resolved whether or not the two guys who were American citizens and were targeted was a good idea."
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