Everything You Always Wanted to Know about US Drone Strikes *but Were Afraid to Ask (Currier)

Cora Currier writes at ProPublica:

You might have heard about the “kill list.” You’ve certainly heard about drones. But the details of the U.S. campaign against militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia — a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s national security approach – remain shrouded in secrecy. Here’s our guide to what we know— and what we don’t know.

Where is the drone war? Who carries it out?

Drones have been the Obama administration’s tool of choice for taking out militants outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Drones aren’t the exclusive weapon – traditional airstrikes and other attacks have also been reported. But by one estimate, 95 percent of targeted killings since 9/11 have been conducted by drones.  Among the benefits of drones: they don’t put American troops in harm’s way.

The first reported drone strike against Al Qaeda happened in Yemen in 2002. The CIA ramped up secret drone strikes in Pakistan under President George W. Bush in 2008. Under Obama, they have expanded drastically there and in Yemen in 2011.

The CIA isn’t alone in conducting drone strikes. The military has acknowledged “direct action” in Yemen and Somalia. Strikes in those countries are reportedly carried out by the secretive, elite Joint Special Operations Command. Since 9/11, JSOC has grown more than tenfold, taking on intelligence-gathering as well as combat roles. (For example, JSOC was responsible for the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.)  

The drone war is carried out remotely, from the U.S.  and a network of secret bases around the world. The Washington Post got a glimpse – through examining construction contracts and showing up uninvited – at the base in the tiny African nation of Djibouti from which many of the strikes on Yemen and Somalia are carried out. Earlier this year, Wired pieced together an account of the war against Somalia’s al-Shabaab militant group and the U.S.’s expanded military presence throughout Africa.

The number of strikes in Pakistan has ebbed in recent years, from a peak of more than 100 in 2008, to an estimated 46 last year. Meanwhile, the pace in Yemen picked up, with more than 40 last year. But there have been seven strikes in Pakistan in the first ten days of 2013.

How are targets chosen?

A series of articles based largely on anonymous comments from administration officials have given partial picture of how the U.S. picks targets and carries out strikes. Two recent reports – from researchers at Columbia Law School and from the Council on Foreign Relations– also give detailed overviews of what’s known about the process.

The CIA and the military have reportedly long maintained overlapping “kill lists.” According to news reports last spring, the military’s list was hashed out in Pentagon-run interagency meetings, with the White House approving proposed targets. Obama would authorize particularly sensitive missions himself.

This year, the process reportedly changed, to concentrate the review of individuals and targeting criteria in the White House. According to the Washington Post, the reviews now happen at regular interagency meetings at the National Counterterrorism Center. Recommendations are sent to a panel of National Security Council officials. Final revisions go through White House counterterror adviser John Brennan to the president. Several profiles have highlighted Brennan’s powerful and controversial role in shaping the trajectory of the targeted killing program. This week, Obama nominated Brennan to head the CIA.

At least some CIA strikes don’t have to get White House signoff. The director of the CIA can reportedly green-light strikes in Pakistan. In a 2011 interview, John Rizzo, previously the CIA’s top lawyer, said agency attorneys did an exhaustive review of each target.

Doesn’t the U.S. sometimes target people whose names they don’t know?

Yes.  While administration officials often have frequently framed drone strikes as going after “high-level al Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks” against the U.S., many strikes go after apparent militants whose identities the U.S. doesn’t know. The so-called “signature strikes” began under Bush in early 2008 and were expanded by Obama. Exactly what portion of strikes are signature strikes isn’t clear.

At various points the CIA’s use of signature strikes in Pakistan in particular have caused tensions with the White House and State Department. One official told the New York Times about a joke that for the CIA, “three guys doing jumping jacks,” was a terrorist training camp.

In Yemen and Somalia, there is debate about whether the militants targeted by the U.S. are in fact plotting against the U.S. or instead fighting against their own country. Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been critical of the drone program, toldProPublica that the U.S. is essentially running “a counterinsurgency air force” for allied countries. At times, strikes have relied on local intelligence that later proves faulty. The Los Angeles Times recently examined the case of a Yemeni man killed by a U.S. drone and the complex web of allegiances and politics surrounding his death.

How many people have been killed in strikes?

The precise number isn’t known, but some estimates peg the total around 3,000.

A number of groups are tracking strikes and estimating casualties:

·         The Long War Journal covers Pakistan and Yemen.

·         The New America Foundation covers Pakistan.

·         The London Bureau of Investigative Journalism covers Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, as well as statistics from on drone strikes carried out in Afghanistan.

How many of those killed are have been civilians?

It’s impossible to know.

There has been considerable back-and-forth about the tally of civilian casualties. For instance, the New America Foundation estimates between 261 and 305 civilians have been killed in Pakistan; The Bureau of Investigative Journalism gives a range of 475 – 891. All of the counts are much higher than the very low numbers of deaths the administration claims. (We’ve detailed inconsistencies even within those low estimates.)  Some analyses show that civilian deaths have dropped proportionally in recent years.

The estimates are largely compiled by interpreting news reports relying on anonymous officials or accounts from local media, whose credibility may vary. (For example, the Washington Post reported last month that the Yemeni government often tries to conceal the U.S.’ role in airstrikes that kill civilians.)

The controversy has been compounded by the fact that the U.S. reportedly counts any military-age male killed in a drone strike as a militant. An administration official told ProPublica, “If a group of fighting age males are in a home where we know they are constructing explosives or plotting an attack, it’s assumed that all of them are in on that effort.” It’s not clear what if any investigation occurs after the fact.

Columbia Law School conducted an in-depth analysis of what we know about the U.S.’s efforts to mitigate and calculate civilian casualties. It concluded that the drone war’s covert nature hampered accountability measures taken in traditional military actions. Another report from Stanford and NYU documented “anxiety and psychological trauma” among Pakistani villagers.

This fall, the U.N. announced an investigation into the civilian impact – in particular, allegations of “double-tap” strikes, in which a second strike targets rescuers.

Why just kill? What about capture?

Administration officials have said in speeches that militants are targeted for killing when they pose an imminent threat to the U.S. and capture isn’t feasible. But killing appears to be is far more common than capture, and accounts of strikes don’t generally shed light on “imminent” or “feasible.”  Cases involving secret, overseas captures under Obama show the political and diplomatic quandaries in deciding how and where a suspect could be picked up.

This fall, the Washington Post described something called the “disposition matrix” – a process that has contingency plans for what to do with terrorists depending where they are. The Atlantic mapped out how that decision-making might happen in the case of a U.S. citizen, based on known examples. But of course, the details of the disposition matrix, like the “kill lists” it reportedly supplants, aren’t known.

What’s the legal rationale for all this?

Obama administration officials have given a series of speeches broadly outlining the legal underpinning for strikes, but they never talk about specific cases. In fact, they don’t officially acknowledge the drone war at all.   

 The White House argues that Congress’ 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force as well as international law on nations’ right to self-defense provides sound legal basis for targeting individuals affiliated with Al Qaeda or “associated forces,” even outside Afghanistan. That can include U.S. citizens.

“Due process,” said Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech last March, “takes into account the realities of combat.”

What form that “due process” takes hasn’t been detailed. And, as we’ve reported, the government frequently clams up when it comes to specific questions – like  civilian casualties, or the reasons specific individuals were killed.

Just last week, a federal judge ruled that the government did not have to release a secret legal memo making the case for the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. The judge also ruled the government did not have to respond to other requests seeking more information about targeted killing in general.  (In making the ruling, the judge acknowledged a “Catch-22,” saying that the government claimed “as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”)

The U.S. has also sought to dismiss a lawsuit brought by family members over Awlaki’s death and that of his 16-year-old son – also a U.S. citizen — who was killed in a drone strike.

When does the drone war end?

The administration has reportedly discussed scaling back the drone war, but by other accounts, it is formalizing the targeted killing program for the long haul. The U.S. estimates there Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a “few thousand” members; but officials have also said the U.S. cannot “capture of kill every last terrorist who claims an affiliation with al Qaeda.”

The State Department’s legal counsel, Jeh Johnson, who just stepped down as general counsel for the Pentagon, gave a speech last month gave a speech last month entitled, “The Conflict Against Al Qaeda and its Affiliates: How Will It End?” He didn’t give a date.

 John Brennan has reportedly said the CIA should return to its focus on intelligence-gathering. But Brennan’s key role in running the drone war from the White House has led to debate about how much he would actually curtail the agency’s involvement if he is confirmed as CIA chief.

What about backlash abroad?

There appears to be plenty of it. Drone strikes are deeply unpopular in the countries where they occur, sparking frequent protests. Despite that, Brennan said last August that the U.S. saw,”little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits.”

General Stanley McChrystal, who led the military in Afghanistan, recently contradicted that, saying, “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.” The New York Times recently reported that Pakistani militants have carried out a campaign of brutal reprisals against locals, accusing them of spying for the U.S.

As for international governments: Top U.S. allies have mostly kept silent. A 2010 U.N. report raised concerns about the precedent of a covert, boundary-less war. The President of Yemen, Abdu Hadi, supports the U.S. campaign, while Pakistan maintains an uneasy combination of public protest and apparent acquiescence.

24 Responses

  1. Would the US government consider an attack on Cannon AFB, or Rome AFB, or Creech AFB, or Edwards AFB, or Holloman,
    places where drones are controlled from,
    to be an act of terrorism,
    or an act of war ?

    How about an attack on Las Vegas, or Fargo, or Houston, or Maclean, where many of the pilots and weapons officers live ?

    After all, the US Government says that the entire world is our playground battlefield.

    • The US Government has never said the “entire world is our playground battlefield.” The drone campaign is targeted on Al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations, and it so happens that they are primarily located in the Pakistani FATA, Yemen, and Somalia. The drone program targets terrorists, not geographic areas.

      Your question regarding an attack on the Air Force bases or areas where pilots and weapons officers live sets up a false choice. It is not a matter of being either an act of terror or an act of war. Just as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were acts of war, so, too, terrorist attacks on your above-mentioned targets would be continuing acts of war.

      • Bill, Bill, Bill — I guess all that huge volume of planning and planting of “installations” all across the planet, how many again? justified inter alia as part of The Global War On Terror (a phrase that has been excised from public comments of Our Rulers, but still appears in trade pubs and of course Op Eds from the “conservative” side, link to foxnews.com) and the entire driving concept of the New High Frontier is the Interoperable Networked Global Battlespace, link to raytheon.com, where humans are increasingly out of the functional loop and just doing ‘decisionmaking’ for unmanned systems to Rain Fire, that arrogantly divvies up the whole planet into nine “areas of responsibility” to be Battlespace Managed by those really coolly named commands, is just eyewash and smoke, right? Like what’s shown on this DoD map? link to defense.gov

        Of course, as usual, Murphy will rule, all the planning will have been for the last war, and all those trillions will be gummed up by the absence of a sensible mission and the ingenuity or luck of The Enemy, or just Brownian motion amongst all the incredibly vulnerable sets of moving parts… link to csl.army.mil

        • Thankfully, Iran has hacked the drones. That should throw a spanner in further attempts to cause trouble on the part the loonies in the US military-industrial complex.

    • Nailing down “terrorism”, as you may know, is like tacking jello to the wall. It’s really just a self-serving piece of rhetoric used for purposes of propaganda, nothing more. Ignore its usage (like a pile of poop on the sidewalk) and its purpose will be defeated.

  2. Mr. Cole has said that the Arab Spring would disempower al Queda. So why are they in Yemen, a country that got rid of its tyrant?

    Yemen has 2 secesessionist movements, and a divided military. If the US is killing people in order to protect the current Yemeni government, is that really what Americans want?

    The drone war has no geographic or temporal limits, no transparency or due process, and it seems the reasons for the strikes are straying from protecting Americans.

  3. “After all, the US Government says that the entire world is our playground battlefield.”

    No, the US Government has not said that the entire world is our “playground battlefield.” You apparently don’t realize how your exaggerations completely undermine any valid point that may be hidden within your hyperbolic verbal camouflage.

    The United States targets leaders, and leading operatives, of Al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations where they operate. To date, that has meant the drone campaign has concentrated primarily on the Pakistani FATA, Yemen, and Somalia because that is where the terrorists operate and, thus, where the threat to the US exists. Should a terrorist threat to the US arise in some other area, Northern Mali for example, the drone campaign may well include that area. Conversely, should the threat diminish in an area, the drone program no doubt will be reduced or stopped entirely in that area. It is not a world-wide scatter-shot program as you suggest; it is very narrowly targeted on the terrorists, not on geographic areas as such.

    Regarding your question whether an attack on the Air Force bases and areas where pilots, weapons officers, and targeting officers live would be considered an act of terrorism or an act of war, you present a false choice. Just as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were acts of war, so too would be attacks on your above-mentioned targets. In the context of our current struggle, these acts of terror are acts of war.

    • “The United States targets leaders, and leading operatives, of Al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations where they operate.”

      Considering all the drone strikes and other operation we’ve conducted, al Qaeda must be more overloaded with brass than the Pentagon. I would suppose that when we knock out an al Qaeda colonel or general , a replacement is quickly found. We’re not killing Einsteins.

      And let’s face it. The political alternative to al Qaeda is often not much better, and could be worse. It’s like we’re killing bootleggers to make the world safe for bank robbers.

      If Obama wants to keep Americans safe, maybe he ought to concentrate on the 30,000 some odd felony crimes committed every day – that about 120 million non terrorist crimes since 9/11.

      • “The political alternative to al Qaeda is often not much better, and could be worse. It’s like we’re killing bootleggers to make the world safe for bank robbers.”

        To compare Al-Qaeda to bootleggers demonstrates an astonishing naivete’ regarding the intentions and active attempts by Al-Qaeda to attack the United States on numerous occasions. Were Al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations to cease their war (and it is a war) against the US, rest assured the drone program and other anti-terrorist measures would cease as well. By the way, the US anti-terrorist measures, including the drone program, are meant to defend the US, not to “make the world safe for bank robbers.”

        • Bill: al-Qaeda’s predecessors were funded by the US in Afghanistan to “fight the Soviets”.

          bin Laden was driven to create Al-Qaeda due to the US’s funding and support for the really, really evil government of Saudi Arabia.

          The US drone program is just a recruitment tool for al-Qaeda It is accomplishing precisely the opposite of its stated goals — it is creating a fertile environment in which people, knowing that the US randomly murders innocent people all the time, are happy to sign up for anti-US organizations.

          It is one of the stupidest things the US has ever done.

        • I’m not resting assured, Bill. Remember all those wonderful things we thought would happen once the Soviet Union went away? I’m supposed to believe that it costs more to fight some guys in caves than it did to fight the International Communist Conspiracy?

    • Oh, and Bill: if the US support for tyrannical Middle Eastern governments like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were to stop, and the US wars against various Islamic countries were to stop, then al-Qaeda’s “war” against the US would also stop.

      The US started this fight, although bad education in the US means that most people in the US don’t realize this.

      • “Oh, and Bill: if the US support for tyrannical Middle Eastern governments like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were to stop, and the US wars against various Islamic countries were to stop, then al-Qaeda’s “war” against the US would also stop. The US started this fight, although bad education in the US means that most people in the US don’t realize this.”

        Take a deep breath and calm down, Nathaniel. The US did not “start this fight.” That is a fiction that you and your like-minded cohorts love to pass off as fact. It is not. You seem to think it started on September 11, 2001. Please get a better handle on history.

        Let’s review the bidding:

        –The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

        –The 1996 plot (discovered in time) to bomb six airliners over the Pacific.

        –The 1998 bombing of US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es-Salaam.

        –The 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

        –The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentabon.

        And the above are just attacks against the US up to 2001. It does not take into account all the attacks on other targets: London, Madrid, and various other locations, as well as against the US after 2001.

        The United States did not start this war, but it certainly entered it after September 11, with good reason and with every justification to defend itself.

        • History did not start in 1993, Bill, and neither did US support for dictators and torturers in the Arab world. Do you really believe that if we had kept our hands off, as we usually had before the 1970s, that there would be an al-Qaeda now? Oh no, you respond, then the Commies would have taken over. But then, I note, we armed, financed, and lionized the Mujahedeen to do the dirty work of beating the Commies, and they decided that we were just as bad and turned on us and won widespread support in the Arab world.

          This self-righteous trip you’re on about American power is not borne out by our eternal manufacturing of new enemies to fight. Something is not right about this whole process.

  4. American attitudes toward these attacks which kill many civilians are another limited, self-justifying cultural fog we should wake up from.

    Ask yourself: in a cold rational manner: do we have the right to kill hundreds of innocent civilians, including children, in order to protect ourselves from terrorists?

    How can we possibly answer, “yes?”

  5. Is their a doctor in the house? Maybe a lot of the strikes are aimed at possible safe houses for Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, who has been the actual leader of al Qaeda since long before the killing of bin Ladin.

    I can imagine that one of the top priorities in the war terror funded (WTF for short) is to kill Zawahiri, but not publicize that the leader of al Qaeda is alive and franchising, until his DNA is found in one of the many bomb craters intended for him. Then the hoopla and back patting can begin.

  6. My guess is that Obama is so intent on saving the US from another terrorist strike that he is willing to use drones in spite of the “collateral damage.”

    Bush made the enormous blunder of attempting to go after terrorists with “boots on the ground.” Obama promised to wage a “smart war,” saving the lives of American soldiers by using intelligence and high tech weaponry. Bush attempted to fight an old fashioned front-line war with the so-called terrorists. Obama is taking a far more intelligent and sophisticated approach.

    But the problem with his high tech war is that it kills many innocents. Obama appears to have accepted that murderous by product of a hi tech, non conventional war. And it appears most Americans accept this as a price, an unfortunate price, for our “safety.” It’s time, I think, for a majority of Americans to wake up and say this cannot be, that we have to find other means to insure our safety. That we have no right to kill innocents abroad.

    • From a completely cold-blooded perspective, it’s also worth noting that the high-tech drone murder system isn’t helping US interests at all. As far as we can tell, the drone murders are a major recruitment tool for any anti-US organization. And they haven’t actually done any lasting damage to any of the many anti-US organizations which already exist.

  7. I’m surprised Professor Cole uses the term ‘targeted killings’. Isn’t this just newspeak for extra-judicial murder?

  8. And in Somalia, after decades of American-funded interference, Al-shabaab is still winning. First we destroyed the Islamic Courts Union, who were moderates; this caused them to be replaced with Al-Shabaab, who are much more intolerant. Which probably makes them better fighters.

    Stupid, stupid behavior by a decaying, incompetent military. The US has been carefully creating extremely powerful guerilla forces opposing it. In South America, I guess the US has been doing this for nearly 200 years — and the locals have wised up enough that they are finally capable of stopping the US before it starts, most of the time.

    It will take a little longer for the African and Middle Eastern guerrilla movements to figure out the correct anti-US tactics, because they aren’t talking to the South Americans, but it won’t take that many more years. The US is already consistently losing its imperial adventures; soon it will lose *faster*.

  9. The historical precedent of a CIA-inspired assassination program going haywire and leading to tragedy was Operation Condor when Chilean former defense minister Orlando Letelier was killed in 1976 along with his 25-year-old American assistant Ronni Moffit in Washington D.C. CIA agent Michael Townley was convicted but was almost immediately placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program after identifying anti-Castro exiles with long-time ties to the CIA as the actual decision-makers behind the extrajudicial killing.

    The Adnan al_Qadhi extrajudicial drone killing in Yemen has been very controversial as he was a Yemeni army officer with no apparent current “imminent danger” to the U.S. but was a historical thorn in side of the Yemeni government. It was believed that the Yemeni government lobbied for the drone strike as various factions of the Yemeni military, security establishment and third-party actors were in conflict with the regime.

    Also, one U.S. drone strike has killed a deputy provincial governor in Yemen, which was apparently accidental.

    When the NY Times #1 best-seller “By Way of Deception” was published in the 1980s, one of the complaints of the ex-agent who authored the book was that a Mossad secret panel whose existence was unknown to the Israel Supreme Court reviewed and approved requests by agency personnel to kill targets. The current U.S. program, however, was examined by U.S. District Judge John Bates relative to placing Anwar Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, on a “kill list” and Bates invoked the “political question doctrine” as partial grounds, in dismissing the case, essentially holding that the decision to place a person on a kill list belongs exclusively to the Executive Branch of the United States government and cannot be challenged in a U.S. court.

    As in the Letelier/Moffit tragedy, there will likely have to occur some outrageous extrajudicial killing in the current CIA practices before the public and congressional intelligence review committees stand up and take notice that it is time to demand full disclosure and accountability of those who administer these programs within the CIA.

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