President Barack Obama has greatly expanded the power to target suspected terrorists with drone strikes. As part of its global war on terror, the United States now launches armed drones into Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. But thanks to investigative reporting by the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and many others, unsettling details have been leaked about this controversial program. Like...
#6. Targets are guilty until proven innocent
Supporters of Obama's drone strikes point argue that drones are acceptable because they can minimize civilian casualties. In a recent speech, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, defended drones as "ethical and just," since collateral damage has been "exceedingly rare." More impressively, a senior administration official recently boasted that civilians killed in Pakistan by drones during Obama's presidency numbered in the "single digits."
But in a groundbreaking piece published by the New York Times last week, it turns out there was a more sinister reason for why the official death civilian toll was so low:
Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.
Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.
In other words, males in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan are guilty until proven innocent. Not only does this contradict centuries of Western jurisprudence, it allows the administration to justify attacking civilian areas. Last week, four "militants" were killed while shopping for groceries at a bakery in northwest Pakistan. Meanwhile, dozens have been killed at funerals or trying to rescue victims.
Even if they seemed like they were "up to no good," does mere suspicion justify summary death? As Philadelphia Daily News writer Will Bunch notes, George Zimmerman used precisely the same rationalization when he chased down and killed Trayvon Martin. Thank God Zimmerman didn't have drones, huh?
#5. Drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilians
But even before re-defining "militant" was made public, independent journalists and scholars had already reported on the drone strikes' high body count. As I wrote in an earlier post,
according to analysis by the New America Foundation, approximately 11 to 17 percent of all those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan have been civilians. Meanwhile, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that since President Obama took office in January 2009, anywhere from 282-535 civilians have been killed by drone strikes, including more than 60 children.
In July 2009, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Daniel Byman estimated "for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died" in Pakistan. Considering the remoteness of the drone strike locations and how elastic the Obama administration defines "militant," the exact death toll of civilians may never be known.
#4. The Pentagon can launch strikes, even if they don't who they're targeting
Back in April, the Washington Post reported:
The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.
Two months later, buried on page 7 in the New York Times article, was this incredible find: "Today, the Defense Department can target suspects in Yemen whose names they do not know." Assassinating unknown targets is a direct result of a change in policy. For years, the modus operandi for drone operations was "personality" strikes (i.e. attacking high-value targets). Hence the vetting for the kill list.
But recently, CIA and Pentagon officials have shifted to "signature" strikes, or targeting groups of people with traits that are associated with "terrorist" or "militant" activity. Unfortunately, these signature strikes have become ludicrously broad:
But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.
One official even told the Associated Press he was worried "how easy it has become to kill someone." No kidding. So to re-iterate, here are some of the criteria that could get you killed by drone strike:
Plot to attack the United States of America
Exercise in public
Be next to a suspected "militant"
Shop at the same bakery visited by a suspected "militant"
Attempt to rescue someone who's been attacked by a drone
Attend a funeral for a drone strike victim
Load fertilizer onto a truck
This is the first in a two-part series. Check back tomorrow, June 9, 2012, for the top 3 most disturbing revelations about Obama's drone strikes in Part 2.