Congress to CIA: Provide US Drone Victim Count

(By Alice K. Ross)

The CIA director and other intelligence chiefs were urged to increase transparency over covert drone operations by members of the House intelligence committee yesterday.

Adam Schiff, a Democratic Party congressman, called on CIA director John Brennan, to support an annual report detailing the number of alleged militants and civilians killed each year. This would enable the administration to ‘correct the record at times where there are misleading claims of civilian casualties’, he added, without providing detailed information to enemies of the US.

Brennan said this was ‘certainly a worthwhile recommendation’, but he refused to explicitly back it, insisted that the decision rested with the administration.

He added: ‘There’s a lot of debate about what is the basis for those determinations [of civilian and combatant casualties], and those numbers, so it’s something again I would defer to the administration on’.

Yesterday he emphasised his past efforts to increase transparency around the secretive campaign: ‘When I was at the White House [where he was Obama's adviser on counter-terrorism] … I spoke repeatedly publicly about the so-called drones – remotely piloted aircraft – that had become an instrument of war and I spoke about that to the extent that I could.’

Brennan has repeatedly attacked ‘misinformation’ over civilian death tolls from drone strikes but the US administration has consistently refused to publish anything more detailed than lump-sum estimates of deaths. Where the US has published such estimates they are significantly below all independent estimates, including those assembled by the Bureau, Washington think-tank the New America Foundation, and security blog the Long War Journal.

Related story – Incoming CIA boss says drone strikes are ‘last resort’

Drones and targeted killing were a recurring theme as the heads of five US intelligence agencies faced members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of a wide-ranging hearing over international threats to the US. The committee is one of two Congressional bodies charged with overseeing the activities of the intelligence community.

Schiff’s Democrat Party colleague Jan Schakowsky said that public attempts to debate the use of drones were ‘thwarted by a lack of transparency’.

She added: ‘This year both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have conducted serious research and raised very legitimate concerns about the consequences of the drone programme on US security yet the government has not responded.’

The hearing opened with committee chair Mike Roberts criticising Obama’s drone policy guidelines, introduced in May 2013, as an ‘utter and complete failure’. He claimed they were ‘today, right now, endangering the lives of Americans at home and our military overseas’.

The guidelines included a restriction on targeting when civilian casualties were a possibility, and an insistence that lethal action should be a last resort, taken only when capture was not possible.

A Bureau analysis of the six months following the introduction of the guidelines found that in Yemen, the number of incidents that killed civilians had actually risen.

Schakowsky asked a series of questions of Clapper and Brennan about the controversial practice of signature strikes, in which unidentified individuals are targeted by drones based on suspicious behaviour.

Clapper conceded that the US’ use of signature strikes could pose a threat to the nation if other forces developed drones of their own.

Schakowsky asked: ‘Do you believe that the signature strike model, if adopted by other countries that are developing an armed drone programme, can be a threat to the US?’

Clapper responded: ‘It could be – but I would have to comment, to the extent that is possible here, on the great care that is exercised by the US. And so I would hope in being very precise about which targets we strike, so I would hope as other countries acquire similar capabilities that they follow the model that we have for the care and precision that we exercise.’

Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

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Related Video:

RT on US drones from a couple of weeks ago: “CIA to stay in charge of deadly drone strikes”

13 Responses

  1. The long war on terror is, for all practical purposes, over and done. We are in the end-game phrase of the war. But The drone war was a military tactic, ill-conceived and poorly prosecuted, that only enraged Muslims because of collateral damage to innocent civilians. Just as in the Vietnam War, we have once again in strategic terms lost their hearts and minds. So this latest news item is more window dressing, a cynical yet slick and savvy government disinformation campaign, to gloss over what a foreign policy debacle we have caused when we rushed off to war after the 9/11 attacks.
    But former President George W. Bush set the tone for the prosecution of this war. A reporter asked him why he only saw things in black and white, them against us, the evil doers against lily white Americans, etc. Wasn’t this war really more nuanced? the reporter then asked him. “I don’t do nuance,” he replied.
    And President Barack Obama must be cited for equal blame. He choose to give into political expediency and ratcheted up his drone war. I understand why he did it. It avoided that tragic spectacle of all those flag-draped coffins being unloaded off the back ramp of a cargo plane in the middle of the night in a hangar at Dover Air Base in Delaware.
    That says a great deal about the war on terror right there, doesn’t it?
    He knew how war weary the nation was even before American voiced their opposition to an intervention in the Syrian civil war. So there just may be something to Seymour Hersh’s recent article in the London Review of Books that the real reason Obama backed off so quickly from his plan for an intervention in Syria wasn’t the opinion polls but how the intelligence agencies were cherry-picking the data on who exactly was responsible for that sarin attack against civilians. Hersh thinks Obama wised up and realized he was being played by them.
    I know Professor Cole has written already and believed the chances of the rebel forces being culprits has around a ten percentage chance of being correct. But Hersh brought the My Lai massacre to the American public during the Vietnam War. So he may be on to something. I think both the rebel forces and al Assad have committed war crimes using sarin gas on civilians. But I have no real proof to back up my contention. It’s more of a gut feeling.
    What I do find interesting is that both The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books rejected Hersh’s article and he had to shop it around until the LBR decided to publish it, which was a gutsy editorial decision. But the LRB, based in England and a genuine leftist journal, isn’t beholden to the war hawk lobby as most of the supposedly liberal magazines are in this country. That’s why I think these designations such as conservative and liberal, has lost their meaning. By the way, The New Yorker for the first time in its history published an editorial for Bush’s resolution to go to war in Iraq. And there was a spate of op-ed blogs and articles over the last several months in the NYRB that clearly were editorializing for an intervention in the Syrian civil war. So if these journals are genuinely “liberal” magazines, I’m really Muhammad Ali in an incognito mode on my iPad as I surf the Internet and post my comments online.

    • “The long war on terror is, for all practical purposes, over and done.”

      Not quite yet. We have succeeded in degrading the Al-Qaeda command and operational leadership in the Pakistani FATA, largely thanks to the drone campaign. The drone campaign has been a success, and it has resulted in far fewer civilian, non-combatant casualties than had we inserted Special Ops Forces to engage the Unlawful Enemy Combatants using the FATA as their refuge and headquarters.

      As to “losing hearts and minds,” that term has always been pretty much a myth propagated by both the Right and the Left in the American commentariat. Their “hearts and minds” were never ours to “win” or “lose” in the first place.

      There remain dangerous elements of Al-Qaeda and its associated organizations, particularly in Yemen, but in other regions (parts of Africa) as well. It is too early to call the war against terrorist organizations that would attempt to harm the U.S. and its interests over just yet.

      • Assert need to continue Globular War on Terror via droning, et al., essentially forever, since “al Quaeds leadership structure in FATA” — and elsewhere — not sufficiently “degraded,” presume police work and diplomacy and comity-and equity-building insufficient to address, preserving option to insert Special Ops to disimpact Unlawrful Enema Combatants — check.

        Assert, without support, that the drone campaigning has been, by some unstated measure, in some presumptively sensible frame, “successful” — check.

        Degrade and diminish and plausibly deny superficial reasons for decades of imperial violence by pooh-poohing hearts-and-minds justification given by many administrations, with wise belated observation that same were not ours to win or lose in the first place — check.

        Reinforce fear that dangerous elements of minuscule non-state entities exist in places where US and general Western and Great Game policies have created fallow ground for nationalist and sect-based and well-armed militancy, while reinforcing need for continued Geewillikers Technoloblobble War on Unspecified Everything Terror — check.

        Plug for the usual justifications of potential undefined harm to undefined US and its undefined interests — check.

        And Bill impugns ME by asserting I just refer to 3 x 5 cards.

        • The reason we have vastly diminished the drone campaign in the FATA is because it has worked. Al-Qaeda commanders and operational leaders have been decimated and are not that easy to replace. The same will eventually prove to be the case with AQAP and other associated entities.

          By the way, the drone campaign has not been a substitute for intelligence and law enforcement; it has been complementary. But it has been the essential element in hard-to-reach places like the FATA and the rugged country in Yemen where there is no law enforcement., local or otherwise.

        • “…by pooh-poohing hearts-and-minds justification given by many administrations, with wise belated observation that same were not ours to win or lose in the first place.”

          There is nothing “belated” about my observation. I have never bought the “winning hearts and minds” justification, whether in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else. The U.S. national interest is its own justification for our involvement. (Whether that involvement is wise or not is another question.) But Lord Palmerston’s observation still applies: “There are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests in international relations.”

      • As to “losing hearts and minds,” that term has always been pretty much a myth propagated by both the Right and the Left in the American commentariat. Their “hearts and minds” were never ours to “win” or “lose” in the first place.

        Very true. In the current context, it also assumes that al Qaeda and the movement they represent occupy a place in the minds of Muslims or Middle Eastern residents comparable to that of Ho Chi Minh in the minds of the Vietnamese in the 1960s, which is anything but the truth. The Viet Minh/Viet Cong/North Vietnamese government was not a small cult, despised and hunted within their own nation.

        The Vietnam War is to leftists what Munich is to neoconservatives.

    • “That says a great deal about the war on terror right there, doesn’t it?
      He knew how war weary the nation was even before American voiced their opposition to an intervention in the Syrian civil war.”

      Actually, the time period in which he ratcheted up the drone strikes is the same one in which he approved the surge into Afghanistan, which throws a bit of a kink into this theory.

      How about this for a theory that’s so crazy it just might be true: he withdrew from Iraq, surged in Afghanistan, ramped up the drone strikes, backed the Libyan revolution, threatened force over Syria’s chemical war crime, and supported the effort to get Syria’s chemical weapons destroyed without firing a shot because he thought that each of those policies was right?

    • “But Hersh brought the My Lai massacre to the American public during the Vietnam War. So he may be on to something.”

      He also got duped back in the 1990s into reporting a bogus story about chemical weapons usage by American special forces in Vietnam, and was publicly humiliated and forced to apologize. Seymour Hersch is a little hit-or-miss, especially on chemical weapons stories.

      “I think both the rebel forces and al Assad have committed war crimes using sarin gas on civilians. But I have no real proof to back up my contention. It’s more of a gut feeling.”

      Didn’t the Bush administration teach us the value of the gut check as a way of understanding events?

  2. Better than an “annual report detailing the number of alleged militants and civilians killed each year” would be a report detailing the names of those killed. Given the level of precision claimed, it shouldn’t be that difficult.

  3. Congress should know where drones are being used.

    They are being heavily used in Somalia – though the media has not extensively covered that story. The Somalis reportedly shot one down at one point.

    There have been reports that U.S. drones have been used in the Phillipines – an alleged target there was putative Indonesian Bali bomber Umar Patek. Another story was that an American drone was seen floating in waters off the Philippine coast.

    The CIA was reportedly considering in early 2013, per a news article, using drones in Syria – but the idea was nixed when it was determined the U. S.. had no compelling policy interest in Syria to justify drone use there.

  4. “but the idea was nixed when it was determined the U. S.. had no compelling policy interest in Syria to justify drone use there.”

    The United States has no compelling national interest in Syria to intervene with drones, Tomahawks, or the provision of weapons to the rebels either. It would be one more “fools errand” to involve ourselves in the civil war when we have no idea if the opposition would be any more in our interest than the current regime, which we have lived with for 40 years while managing our interests in the Near East.

    The only thing the U.S. should do is provide a share of funding for maintenance of the refugees created by the conflict. Otherwise, the best thing we could do is let the Assad regime and the rebels fight it out until one side or the other eventually prevails. Let the Russians, Saudis, and Iranians take sides and provide arms to their respective clients. No reason for us to do so.

    • “The United States has no compelling national interest in Syria to intervene with drones, Tomahawks, or the provision of weapons to the rebels either.”

      No, it does not – hence, the absence of any American military intervention. Sure, we’ll drop a few million dollars on hardware and try to see what our diplomacy can accomplish, but we’re certainly not going to stick our necks out.

      Compare that to the chemical weapons issue, which did have a direct implication for American interests. The erosion of the global chemical warfare ban, the potential for proliferation in the region, the potential for chemical weapons to fall into the hands of al Qaeda – the US has a meaningful interest in preventing those things. Hence, the “red line” speech, in which President Obama made it clear that we wouldn’t be intervening on behalf of the rebels, but that a chemical weapons threat would cross a red line. And hence, the administration’s willingness to use force in response to the chemical attack, and its willingness to abandon such force when the chemical issue was solved.

      • “And hence, the administration’s willingness to use force in response to the chemical attack, and its willingness to abandon such force when the chemical issue was solved.”

        Once again, you are ignoring inconvenient time-lines that don’t fit your narrative. The Obama Administration did not “abandon such force when the chemical issue was solved.” It abandoned the use of force when Obama decided to take the issue to Congress for a vote before the issue was solved. Only after the Russians stepped in, after Obama backtracked on the use of force to take the issue to Congress, was the issue solved.

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