Obama set precedent with Drone Killings for Romney to become Terminator-in-Chief (Ross)

Alice K. Ross writes at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

President Obama’s personal involvement in selecting the targets of covert drone strikes means he risks effectively handing a ‘loaded gun’ to Mitt Romney come November, says the co-author of a new report aimed at US policymakers.

‘If Obama leaves, he’s leaving a loaded gun: he’s set up a programme where the greatest constraint is his personal prerogative. There’s no legal oversight, no courtroom that can make [the drone programme] stop. A President Romney could vastly accelerate it,’ said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at the Columbia Law School.

The president ‘personally approves every military target’ in Yemen and Somalia and around a third of targets in Pakistan, the report says. The remainder of strikes in Pakistan are decided by the CIA, so are even further from formal decision-making processes and public scrutiny.

‘We are asking President Obama to put something in writing, to disclose more, because he needs to set up the limitations of the programme before someone else takes control,’ Shah told the Bureau.

In The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions, experts from Columbia Law School and the Center for Civilians in Conflict examine the impact of the US ‘war on terror’ on the lives of civilian Pakistanis, Yemenis and Somalis caught in the crossfire. The report’s publication marks the anniversary of the assassination of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by a US drone in Yemen.

We are asking President Obama to put something in writing, to disclose more, because he needs to set up the limitations of the programme before someone else takes control.’
Naureen Shah, Columbia Law School

The report, which Shah said is ‘aimed squarely at policymakers’, calls on the Obama administration to justify its drone campaigns and their targets under international law. It also calls for a task force to examine what measures are in place to protect civilians.

‘The perception is that civilian casualties are not a problem. If you say otherwise, you’re accused of being naïve and being a pawn of al Qaeda… There’s an instinctual dismissal of reporting that shows there’s a casualty problem,’ said Shah.

Deep impact
The report examines how drone strikes have prompted retaliatory attacks from militants on those they believe are US spies, and stirred anti-US sentiment and violence among civilians in Pakistan and Yemen.

In the Waziristan region of Pakistan, the near-constant presence of drones exerts a terrible psychological toll on the civilian population, while the destruction of homes and other property is often catastrophic for Pakistani and Yemeni families.

In Somalia, many have been ‘forced to flee’ their homes in areas where al Qaeda-linked militants al Shabaab have their strongholds, to avoid drone and other air attacks.

The perception is that civilian casualties are not a problem. If you say otherwise, you’re accused of being naïve and being a pawn of al Qaeda, and not having your facts straight.
Naureen Shah

And while the US claims only tiny numbers of civilians are killed by drones, establishing the truth of these claims is difficult. The report compares the Bureau’s estimates of drone deaths in Pakistan to similar projects by the Long War Journal, the New America Foundation and the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, noting that they ‘consistently point to significantly higher civilian casualties than those suggested by the US government’s statements’.

But deciding who is a militant and who is a civilian is fraught with difficulty – the very terms ‘civilian’ and ‘militant’ are ‘ambiguous, controversial, and susceptible to manipulation,’ the report says.

The US’s criteria for who is a civilian are ‘deeply problematic’, it adds. In May, a New York Times investigation revealed that all ‘military-aged males’ are held to be militants.

Spy agency turned covert military force
The CIA decides on the targets of Pakistan strikes – but next to nothing is known about its procedures for monitoring whether strikes kill civilians. To this day, the CIA has never officially acknowledged its campaign.

‘We know the US military has set up procedures for tracking and responding to civilian deaths because there’s so much public scrutiny… The CIA has no institutional history of complying with international law or setting up procedures for civilian deaths,’ said Shah. ‘It was a covert spy agency; it wasn’t set up for this. We don’t know how prepared they are to monitor civilian deaths or how concerned they are.’

The CIA is supposed to be accountable to Congress – but lawmakers are failing to scrutinise the impact of the CIA’s drone campaign on civilians, Shah said. Its watchdog role is compromised by the fact that the CIA has been ‘really careful to get political buy-in’, having come under intense criticism from Congress over allegations of torture under President Bush.

‘The strange thing about Congress is they think they are very well informed through briefings from the CIA… The CIA has got them to buy into the drone programme, so there’s no incentive for them to criticise it. If they were to admit there was a problem, Congress would be on the hook as well,’ she continued.

The CIA has no institutional history of complying with international law or setting up procedures for civilian deaths. It was a covert spy agency; it wasn’t set up for this.
Naureen Shah

Lawmakers should look beyond government sources for information on the impact of drone strikes, and scrutinise whether the CIA’s processes for protecting civilians and investigating the aftermath of strikes are up to the task, the report says.

The Obama administration is so in thrall to drones’ technological potential that alternatives are barely considered, Shah said.

‘For policymakers there’s a false sense of limited options: [there’s] a drones-only approach in the situation room… drones are becoming the only game in town and the other tools are being taken off the table. And there’s no thought that a non-lethal approach might have less impact on the community,’ she explained.

‘The focus is so much on the extent to which drones protect American lives that the impact on Pakistani or Somali lives is displaced. There’s so much trust placed in the technology that policymakers especially are failing to consider whether drone strikes are wreaking havoc on these communities.’

Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute will publish an additional detailed study of reporting of drone strikes – including an evaluation of the Bureau’s drone data in comparison to similar studies – in the next few weeks.

_______

Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

26 Responses

  1. Well then there’s nothing for it: vote for Obama!

    This is the sort of well-intentioned article that shows the complete lack of politics available to us: in effect, we have have to commit suicide to avoid being killed. We are compelled to support a President whose drone/torture/rendition/sanctioned murder policies we loathe because his possible successor would be worse. Is there a better recipe than that to guarantee the support of what’s left of the American Left?

    Better safe than sorry makes sense as long as those are the only 2 options available. We need a new political party.

    • A new party? Like for example the Paulists? Careful what you wish for, unless you get a lawyer to draft the wish, in infinite detail…

      The problem is the institutional momentum of the whole Imperial thing. Changing Presidents is not even as effective as changing gym socks any more. The body still sweats and stinks. There’s too much money to be made (until the game turns fatal for the rest of us,) too many careers depending on more-of-the-same whether it’s the GWOT or GWOD or ethanol subsidies or tar-sands pipelines whose promoters get to “condemn” private property with a sneer at “rule of law” and that antiquated document, the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

      In the past, reform has so terribly seldom worked, because there are too many people happy to profit, personally and for their little tribal preferences, from the Spoils System and the Great Game and good old “regulatory capture.”

      Too bad very few of our elected reps will likely be standing under the Capitol dome when it collapses for lack of a bit of infrastructure maintenance and repair.

  2. Unfortunately President Obama tilts toward opportunistic time horizons defined by the next politically-relevant event, e.g., the November election. But what happens when members of Pakistani security agencies decide the time has come to give Americans a taste of their own policy by setting off some bombs in shopping centers frequently by people who make or fly American drones over Pakistan. After all, if any military-aged male in Waziristan is potentially a militant then any military-aged male near an Air Force facility is potentially a drone pilot. And if it is acceptable for the US to kill civilians while pursuing US policy on foreign soil what is our basis for complaining when civilians are killed in the US by foreigners pursuing policy objectives?

    Of course we operate on the assumption power asymmetries favor and protect us. It appears neither President Obama nor his staff contemplate the day that may no longer be true. One expects there are others in the world looking forward to that day.

    • Excellent point. The only thing I can think of is that the hubris is so great among US military planners that they believe they are far ahead in technology to be able to produce anti-drone drones in short order! hmmm… Sort of like anti-ballistic missals, only smaller… Wasn’t there a Rick Moranis or Eddy Murphy movie about tiny space wars going on it someone’s head? Maybe “Honey, I Shrunk the War” or something.

    • After all, if any military-aged male in Waziristan is potentially a militant then any military-aged male near an Air Force facility is potentially a drone pilot.

      You are confused. The “military-aged males in the area” standard is NOT used for the purpose of targeting. The New York Times story you are referring to makes it very clear that much stricter standards are used to determine whether a target may be legitimately struck, and that the standard you refer to is used only assessing the damage after a strike occurs, when there are casualties beyond the individuals targeted.

      And if it is acceptable for the US to kill civilians while pursuing US policy on foreign soil what is our basis for complaining when civilians are killed in the US by foreigners pursuing policy objectives?</i?

      "Our basis" is the same as that in the Geneva Conventions – a recognition that the accidental killing of civilians in a war, and the deliberate targeting of them, are two very different things.

  3. “But deciding who is a militant and who is a civilian is fraught with difficulty – the very terms ‘civilian’ and ‘militant’ are ‘ambiguous, controversial, and susceptible to manipulation,’ the report says. The US’s criteria for who is a civilian are ‘deeply problematic’, it adds. In May, a New York Times investigation revealed that all ‘military-aged males’ are held to be militants.”

    The reason deciding who is a militant and who is a civilian is fraught with difficulty is because the militants have made it so. By deliberately waging an asymmetrical war against the United States, and doing so by disregarding the Geneva Convention’s definition of a legal combatant in international conflict (including delierate targeting of civilians) the militants have placed themselves outside the law of war and thus can be considered unlawful enemy combatants. That they operate within civilian populations, thus making those civilians susceptible to collateral damage, is a deliberate tactic that the militants must answer for. The US does not deliberately target civilians, but that some are hit in pursuit of militants is squarely the fault of the militants. And on what evidence did the New York Times report base its conclusion that “all military-aged males are held to be militants.”?

    Regarding the statement, “And there’s no thought that a non-lethal approach might have less impact on the community,” I would ask Ms. Shah what non-lethal approach she has in mind? Of course a non-lethal approach might have less impact on the community (in which the militants operate), but it no doubt would have even less impact on the militants’ activities. Since Ms. Shah has made the statement, I assume she has some idea of what would constitute an effective non-lethal approach. Alas, we get nothing indicating what her alternative, non-lethal approach might be.

      • “Bill, may I ask, what “positive impact” can be asserted from the use of drones?”

        The elimination of higher-value militants. The al-Qaida and affliliated militants’ leadership has been considerably degraded since the use of drones was stepped up. They are not as easily replaced as the foot soldiers in these organizations.

    • One lie buried in what appears to be truths can often be accepted as a truth. The Occupy movements are secretly controlled by the US government using the FBI, CIA and/or Home Security agents disguised as normal Americans.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the Commenters on Informed Comment are attempting to confuse, misdirect and discredit truths and are corrupt millionaires or billionaires or their puppets.

      “–The US does not deliberately target civilians, but that some are hit in pursuit of militants is squarely the fault of the militants. And on what evidence did the New York Times report base its conclusion that “all military-aged males are held to be militants.”?”

      Proof in New York Times unless linked article is of lies:

      link to nytimes.com

      —”The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.

      It is also because Mr. 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.

      Counter terrorism 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. “Al QED is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

      This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.—”

    • So the people of FATA are “deliberately waging an asymmetrical war against the United States?” Is that notion on one of your 4×6 note cards? Have they launched ICBMs against us, or kicked down doors in Keokuk and shot everyone in the room? Of course there’s the convenient “9-11″ example, resulting apparently from another failure to be “doing policy” in the real world. As in ignoring and discounting “intelligence” pointing to the staging of that debacle.

      What other sets of people, since YOU have made the undefined, unsupported assertion, are waging such “asymmetrical war against the United States,” such that it is apparently their and their unfortunate neighbors’ “fault” that Hellfires are plopping in their midst? How do you define “waging war on the United States?” Shooting at US troops who have invaded their country under the Universal Flag of Manifest Exceptional Destiny and are shooting at them in their own territory? And spare the crap about how ‘most militants are outside agitators:’ that just ain’t so, unless you have PROOF of that assertion. Just how do you define “militant?” The moving-target definition in the War Department Dictionary Of Terms And Acronyms?

      How are YOU going to state the strategies and tactics that will result in some militants (what? you follow the Narrative lead, and don’t call them “terrorists” any more?)”answer for” (your phrase) the hide-in-general-population tactics that maybe (you offer no proof or support) some of them use? A renewal of the Phoenix Program, maybe? That worked out so successfully back in Vietnam, now didn’t it, another asymmetric war that exactly WHO started, again? Don’t dare recite “Gulf of Tonkin,” fella. And how do you distinguish some FATA fella who, like them good ol’ boys in Texas, is ready to suit up and kill anyone, ANYone, who invades and endangers their Castle Keep?

      As far as the entire gravamen of your comment, it’s becoming glaringly apparent that the entire “Global War on Terror,” which I presume to presume that you favor, is a bust, when it comes to even “killing all of al Quaeda,” and “terrorism” seems most effectively foiled by plain old cops-and-robbers police action.

      So glad that there are so many who live in the fantasy of this cancerous outgrowth of ColdWarriorism. As to non-lethal, if “we” were a little more astute in playing the game of politics and sociology, “we” might figure that you can catch more flies with honey than by sporadically setting off cherry bombs in a few garbage piles.

      Maybe “we” should delegate all those targeting decisions to someone like you, who so obviously knows “militant” from “civilian,” and is brave enough, from 8,000 miles away, to launch Hellfires into mixed or maybe mistakenly or intentionally fingered innocent gatherings of “wogs.” And then into groups who foolishly rush to succor the survivors of the first attack. Oh, wait — it appears from the record, even just the bits recently documented by Prof. Cole, that that’s already been done…

      • “So the people of FATA are “deliberately waging an asymmetrical war against the United States?”

        I will only respond to the first sentence (cited above) of your rant, Mr. McPhee, because it is a good example of the misrepresentations and falsehoods that occur throughout the piece. To wit, I did not state that “the people of FATA are deliberately waging an asymmetirical war against the United States.” I stated that the militants were doing so.

        And that misrepresentation occurs in your very first sentence! I have neither the time nor the inclinztion to go down a piece shot through with falsehoods to address every one.

        • “Militants?” Which ones? and how are they “waging war on the US,” again? Not exactly a robust example of the art of impeachment, friend, and you need to work on the timing of getting in the last word…

  4. Take a look at ‘Kill Decision’ by Daniel Suarez. It’s a work of fiction that describes a possible near future in which the technology of autonomous, armed drones is widely available.

    I agree with Suarez that all of these drone technologies will come home to America and will be used here by a variety of agencies. We need a lot more than just guidelines for presidents. We should broadly prohibit the use of drones stateside except under very specific circumstances.

    • “We should broadly prohibit the use of drones stateside except under very specific circumstances.”

      I agree with you, Bill. Drones can be an effective tool to use against our adversaries who would do the US harm, but any domestic use should be carefully controlled.

      (For other readers, there are two Bills here, one commenting on the other’s piece. It is not one talking to himself!)

  5. The basic premise of this piece – that there is something novel or particularly dangerous about President Obama’s involvement in target selection in this war – is utterly refuted by history. Presidents have been signing off on what targets to bomb, or what beaches to land on, throughout the history of the Republic. The only difference between Obama’s actions and those of previous wartime Presidents is that the targeting is much more precise, and kills far fewer people, than when Presidents were signing off on nuking Hiroshima or bombarding air bases and oil refineries.

    • Ms. Shah’s comment that we should replace force with “non-lethal approaches” to al Qaeda terrorists reminds me of nothing so much as Karl Rove’s slander that liberals wanted to give the people behind 9/11 “therapy and compassion.”

      Why are there so many people who think it’s their responsibility to embody the straw man stereotypes that the right invents for the purpose of discrediting liberalism?

      • Maybe the lady you are dissing had something else in mind? Like a long-term set of policy drivers that are aimed not at hegemony or running out the violent futility of empire and grabbit-and-run consumption, but at fostering the kind of meta-stability that steadily discourages the various other drivers, the emplacement and support of “convenient strongmen” and attempts to create armed forces and “police” that squash and bleed and frustrate billions of people who ultimately find outlets in what Bill used to call “terrorism.”

        Specific suggestions? I grew up in the Cold War, took part in one of its futile spasms, know humans are capable of anything and too often driven to tribalism and attracted to greed and violence and power. It’s hard to see what kinds of “policies” might rise up out of the ashen fields of Foggy Bottom and the White House and our other institutions, all insulated by distance and the short, profitable tenures of the individuals who are drawn to and end up making up the Imperial Guards and courtiers and courtesans. It’s hard to see the cynical sh_ts who run things, the heirs of Wild Bill and Teddy Roosevelt and Woody Wilson, adopting behaviors that foster the satisfaction of basic human needs, and a sense of participation that leads to a stronger belief in the legitimacy of their institutions. Rather than what’s taught at the School of the Americas, or demonstrated by “our” participation in coups and various other kinds of wealth-and-power grabs, ala United Fruit in Central America, et seq. Seems to me that the demands of the few for more of everything, in the lubricating soup of vulture capitalism and our current political practices, have us all, all of humanity, headed for a cliff. And the cynical SOBs who are carrying all this out know, right or wrong, that they are immune to any consequences and are free to indulge any whim that takes their fancy and will die not under the blade of a guillotine or the cord of a garrotte or a small-calliber bullet to the back of the head, but comfortably abed, pain-free and free of fear.

        That ain’t “right,” but maybe it’s inevitable? But how do we know, since we ain’t never tried the other way?

        (And as to “non-lethal,” most actual US-landmass-threatening “terrorist” plots are intercepted by the POLICE, including the ones they draw people into to have big cases to brag on. As opposed to shooting Hellfires and other ordnance into people in their own homelands, trying to kill a set of behaviors by fostering the hate and revenge that drive more people to pick up a gun. And invading a foreign country with “bases” and “facilities” that are by Imperial Decree to be considered US Soil, and inviting the kinds of attacks that are inevitable after Our Troops kick ass in the neighborhood, and then sending in the drones and Special Ops to kill and maim, is the worst kind of smoke and mirror “straw man-red herring” BS. As I see it, of course. Doesn’t matter — the killing will continue until the Wogs say Uncle, and love us for stealing their stuff and killing their kids and planting autocrats to rule them in our favor.)

        • “I grew up in the Cold War, took part in one of its futile spasms…”

          Please do not flatter yourself, Mr. McPhee, by suggesting that you have any special claim to wisdom because you grew up during the Cold War and served in Vietnam. Many of us (including me) grew up during the cold war, served in the military, and experienced Vietnam. We just don’t trumpet it the way you do.

  6. This is, of course, exactly what’s wrong with the left these days. Evil stuff is only evil when the right does it. Obama, well, he can be trusted. Utter BS, and shameful to boot.

    • Look close before casting aspersions on “the Left:” If you take even a moment to look at what comes from “the Left” these days, there’s actually a whole blast of disaffected anger at what Obama (who of course is just a figurehead for a much larger beast) has been, is, and promises to be doing. If only you and I and a bunch of other people could get past the false Manichaean divisions that manipulative SOBs spew at us until we are too fuddled to think for ourselves, to look for ourselves, to see things honestly and in all their actual hidden complexity, maybe there’d be a chance of Something Better.

      When it comes to evil, the Devil got a left hand, and the Devil got a right hand too. The trick is to be able, rather than embracing one side of the Devil or the other, to be able to say to the Devil, “Satan, get thee behind me and get outa my frippin’ face.”

      But of course we are wired to want to divvy everything up into Us versus Them, which more honest and astute people more accurately characterize as “Spy vs. Spy.” NObody gets to wear the white hat, though.

  7. @Bill: I have no doubt that those who oppose US imperial designs would much prefer top wage symmetrical warfare with the US. Either we can give then uniforms, training & every last bit of lethal technology our forces possess or we can strip our troops of all equipment & even nutritional advantages in order to have square go. Of course we’ll still win with God on our side. As far as hiding amongst civilians goes, that would apply to much of the US, including ground zero, no?

    • “As far as hiding amongst civilians goes, that would apply to much of the US, including ground zero, no?”

      The answer to your statement cited above is “No.”

      Your entire comment makes little sense. You seem to suggest that in responding to those who attack us, we should adopt their lifestyle, culture, and tactics; or, alternatively, grant them ours. What is your point?

      • THIS comment makes little sense — it appears the author might have altogether missed what Chris was trying to convey. Sarcasm and irony can be sometimes too subtle. Especially to the pedantic and Serious Experienced Players…

        And again: have the tribespeople of the FATA, or Yemen, or other places in Africa, the near and far and mid East, Central and South America “attacked us?” That assertion would seem to require the one making it to offer some proof, other than “everyone knows.” If one goes and pisses on someone else’s doorstep, or throws a stink bomb or something more destructive into their house, does one get to claim that the homeowner attacked YOU? Only in Florida or Texas, maybe…

        At least be honest about what “we” are doing, and say out loud that one supports Imperial hegemonic ambitions and salients, and excuses every kind of what most would consider bad behavior because “we” did it in furtherance of our grand Manifest Destiny, because our “race,” as Winston Churchill and others generically referred to the US back in the 1940s, had like the English and French and German “races” before us shown our “right” to rule the world by virtue (sic) of “our” great economic dominance and unmatched military power.

        Which of course are simply accidents of geography and history — an entire fertile and fecund continent full of natural resources to rape, minimal opposition by people who thought “counting coup” was how you showed valor and achieved victory in battle. And the Louisiana Purchase and the taking of the West were more matters of fortuity than “we” want to let on.

  8. The notion that the U.S. president has the power to order the extrajudicial killing of civilians through an internal process in the Executive Branch is somewhat disturbing and certainly legally questionable.

    Remember when Israeli P.M. Ariel Sharon took credit for ordering an F-16 IAF jet to drop a half-ton bomb on an apartment complex in Gaza where Hamas military commander Salah Shihadeh was and killed and injured many innocent civilians? It led to a lawsuit in United States District Court and worldwide condemnation.

    Remember the millions of dollars in lawsuit payouts when Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode had a bomb dropped on row houses containing MOVE activists killing innocent children?

    Remember the strong condemnation of the Church Committee when it was learned that the CIA had a role in assassinating world leaders? Also remember that the Church Committee led to the impanelling of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which made specific findings in its 1979 report of a “probable conspiracy” in the deaths of JFK and MLK.

    The is no constitutional or statutory power that gives the Chief Executive the right to kill persons without judicial or legislative authorization. The “authorization for use of military force” cannot legally be interpreted to include targeted assassination of individuals that are not clearly military or who could reasonably be misidentified. That is what is happening.

    The most serious danger of this assassination program is that the operators could target virtually any person as an enemy of the United States and fire a missile at him without any credible shred of proof of terrorist involvement. It was the Israeli program of targeted assassinations against Palestinian militant leaders that led to the retaliatory wave of suicide bombings that victimized Israel in the early to mid-part of the last decade; perceptions of the U.S. overeseas is damaged by these extrajudicial assasinations and gives the U.S. less moral standing to object to Americans being targeted by terrorist attacks.

    Obama has entered a very grey legal and diplomatic area by authorizing these assassinations.

  9. Alas we humans still think that ends justify the means. Perhaps someday we will be more civilized.

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