Chris Woods writes at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Barack Obama has made it clear that the US will continue with its controversial targeted killing programme.
In a major speech the US president also announced that he has signed into force a new – and secret – rule book for lethal action that provides ‘clear guidelines, oversight and accountability’ for covert drone strikes.
Journalists briefed on the contents of the Presidential Policy Guidance reported that much-criticised attacks on groups of men based on their patterns of behaviour – so-called ‘signature strikes’ – may come to an end. And counter-terrorism officials indicated that control of covert drone strikes will progressively pass from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Pentagon.
According to the New York Times, the rules will also ’impose the same standard for strikes on foreign enemies now used only for American citizens deemed to be terrorists’.
Speaking for an hour in front of an invited audience at the National Defense University in Washington DC, Obama made an impassioned defence of the US targeted killing programme, insisting that it was both effective and legal.
He addressed head-on controversies surrounding civilian casualties. Acknowledging that there was a ‘wide gap’ between US and non-governmental assessments, he bluntly conceded that civilians have died in US strikes. Obama said that for himself and ‘those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live’.
He declared: ‘before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.’
But he also insisted that civilian deaths were sometimes a necessary risk. ‘As Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold.’
These deaths will haunt us as long as we live. – President Obama
Bureau estimates indicate that since 2002, at least 2,800 people have died in 420 covert drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Of those killed, more than 400 are likely to have been civilians.
Obama has so far carried out seven times more covert drone strikes than his predecessor, George W Bush. However, the number of reported strikes has declined steeply over the past year, along with reported civilian casualties.
‘Boots on the ground’
Insisting that his administration had ‘a strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists’, Obama said there were occasions when only lethal drone strikes would suffice.
At times ‘putting US boots on the ground may trigger a major international crisis’ and inflame local civilian populations, he said. Suspects may also ‘hide in caves and walled compounds’ in areas where there was little or no governance.
But he acknowledged that the use of drones was not without constitutional risk: ‘The very precision of drones strikes, and the necessary secrecy involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites. It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.’
“Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.” –President Obama
President Obama announced that he would work with Congress towards greater oversight of the targeted killing campaign. And he said he would be seeking to ‘refine, and ultimately repeal’ the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in 2001, which the US asserts is the legal bedrock for its covert drone campaign.
The president also used the speech to challenge Congress to aid him in closing the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, calling on members to end the ban on detainee transfers to prisons on the US mainland. ‘I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it,’ he said, adding that nobody had ever escaped a US supermax jail.
Obama announced the end of a moratorium on transferring detainees to Yemen: instead, transfers will be examined on a case-by-case basis. At least 84 current Guantanamo inmates are Yemeni.
The speech was repeatedly interrupted at one point by Code Pink protester Medea Benjamin. Obama was forced to pause and wait three times for Benjamin to finish comments including references to the death of Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son in a drone strike in Yemen. As Benjamin was escorted out, he recovered his poise – joking that he was being forced to depart from his script, but saying she raised ‘tough issues’.
Obama administration admits killing four US citizens
In a related move, US attorney general Eric Holder released a letter on Wednesday evening admitting that four US citizens had been killed in US drone strikes since 2009. The Bureau’s own data suggests that seven or more US citizens have been killed in US drone strikes since 2002.
According to an open US indictment dated September 2009, Mohammed ‘departed the United States to travel to Pakistan to engage in violent jihad’. He was also accused of engaging in ‘planning and perpetrating a Federal crime of terrorism against the United States, citizens and residents of the United States, and their property.’
The other three US citizens named by Holder were radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16 year old son Abdalrahman al-Awalaki; and Samir Khan, a propagandist for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – all killed in Yemen in autumn 2011. According to the attorney general, only Anwar al Awlaki was ‘specifically targeted by the United States’.
In his speech, Obama insisted that it was right to target and kill Anwar al-Awlaki, stating that the citizenship of such an alleged threat ‘should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a Swat team.’
At least three additional US citizens have been killed in US drone attacks. In the first ever drone strike outside a battlefield, US citizen Kamal Darwish was among six men killed by the CIA in Yemen in 2002. The Bush administration insisted at the time that the intended targets were alleged al Qaeda suspects accompanying Darwish in the vehicle.
And veteran Washington reporter Bob Woodward has revealed that on November 7 2008, ‘many Westerners, including some US passport holders’ died in an attack near Miranshah in North Waziristan.
As Woodward noted in his book Obama’s Wars, in a subsequent meeting with Pakistan’s President Zardari ‘The CIA would not reveal the particulars due to the implications under American law. A top secret CIA map detailing the attacks had been given to the Pakistanis. Missing from it was the alarming fact about the American deaths … The CIA was not going to elaborate.’
Addressing the fact that three of the four US citizens named by Holder were not the intended targets, New York University law professor Sarah Knuckey told the Bureau: ‘Does it mean that the three were killed as intentional but lawful collateral damage in a strike on some other legitimate target? Or that they were accidental collateral? Or does it mean that they were killed in signature strikes? We just don’t know what it is intended to mean. In a letter that touts throughout the government’s commitment to transparency and “unprecedented disclosure”, the government has introduced new vague language, and thus new concerns about its targeting policies and practices.’
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on Monday confirmed an NYT report that he has been receiving cash payments in a paper bag every month from the US Central Intelligence Agency. Karzai maintained that the money actually goes to the director of national intelligence to be used for intelligence work, but the implication of the NYT article was that he is simply on the take.
What seems clear is that Hamid Karzai plays both ends against the middle, taking US money and support but publicly attempting to distance himself from the US. The latest report, of his actually being on the CIA payroll, gives the lie to this recent public announcement, translated from an Afghan newspaper by the USG Open Source Center:
“Afghan leader to restrict CIA activities
Monday, April 22, 2013
Document Type: OSC Translated Text
Text of report in Dari entitled “Karzai’s new stroke on CIA” published by independent Afghan newspaper Cheragh on 22 April
The spokesman of the Afghan president has announced that Hamed Karzai is going to restrict the activities of the US Central Investigation Agency (CIA) in Afghanistan saying: “The decision has been made to prevent civilian casualties”. Lemar TV reported, quoting Emal Faizi, the president’s spokesman, that the president has decided to restrict the CIA’s activities in the country. The president’s spokesman stated that Hamed Karzai believes the main factor behind civilian casualties is the lack of coordination of the CIA’s activities in Afghanistan. According to him, President Karzai believes that illegal paramilitaries act without coordination with the Afghan institutions while reporting to the CIA.
Faizi said: “When the issue of civilian casualties in military operations of the Americans are discussed, the USA justifies that they have carried out the operations in coordination with the Afghan forces while no coordination has been done with the Afghan government institutions”.
Faizi did not explain how the president is going to restrict the CIA’s activities in Afghanistan. It has been said that Mr Karzai decided to restrict the CIA’s activities in Afghanistan after a number of civilians were killed in a NATO air strike in Konar Province. In this attack, which took place last week, 17 civilians including 11 children were killed.
(Description of Source: Kabul Cheragh in Dari — Independent daily paper that frequently criticizes the Afghan Government, Pakistan, and the United States, and is generally pro-Iran.) “
Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire was published in March 2000 — and just about no one noticed. Until then, blowback had been an obscure term of CIA tradecraft, which Johnson defined as “the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people.” In his prologue, the former consultant to the CIA and eminent scholar of both Mao Zedong’s peasant revolution and modern Japan labeled his Cold War self a “spear-carrier for empire.”
After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, he was surprised to discover that the essential global structure of that other Cold War colossus, the American superpower, with its vast panoply of military bases, remained obdurately in place as if nothing whatsoever had happened. Almost a decade later, when the Evil Empire was barely a memory, Johnson surveyed the planet and found “an informal American empire” of immense reach and power. He also became convinced that, in its global operations, Washington was laying the groundwork “all around the world… for future forms of blowback.”
Johnson noted “portents of a twenty-first century crisis” in the form of, among other things, “terrorist attacks on American installations and embassies.” In the first chapter of Blowback, he focused in particular on a “former protégé of the United States” by the name of Osama bin Laden and on the Afghan War against the Soviets from which he and an organization called al-Qaeda had emerged. It had been a war in which Washington backed to the hilt, and the CIA funded and armed, the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists, paving the way years later for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan.
Talk about unintended consequences! The purpose of that war had been to give the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style bloody nose, which it more than did. All of this laid the foundation for… well, in 1999 when Johnson was writing, no one knew what. But he, at least, had an inkling, which on September 12, 2001, made his book look prophetic indeed. He emphasized one other phenomenon: Americans, he believed, had “freed ourselves of… any genuine consciousness of how we might look to others on this globe.”
With Blowback, he aimed to rectify that, to paint a portrait of how that informal empire and its historically unprecedented garrisoning of the world looked to others, and so explain why animosity and blowback were building globally. After September 11, 2001, his book leaped to the center of the 9/11 display tables in bookstores nationwide and became a bestseller, while “blowback” and that phrase “unintended consequences” made their way into our everyday language.
Chalmers Johnson was, you might say, our first blowback scholar. Now, more than a decade later, we have a book from our first blowback reporter. His name is Jeremy Scahill. In 2007, he, too, produced a surprise bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. It caught the mood of a moment in which the Bush administration, in service to its foreign wars, was working manically to “privatize” national security and the U.S. military by hiring rent-a-spies, rent-a-guns, and rent-a-corporations for its proliferating wars.
In the ensuing years, it was as if Scahill had taken Johnson’s observation to heart — that we Americans can’t see our world as it is. And little wonder, since so much of the American way of war has plunged into the shadows. As two administrations in Washington arrogated ever greater war-making and national security powers, they began to develop a new, off-the-books, undeclared style of war-making. In the process, they transformed an increasingly militarized CIA, a hush-hush crew called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and a shiny new “perfect weapon” and high-tech fantasy object, the drone, into the president’s own privatized military.
In these years, war and the path to it were becoming the private business and property of the White House and the national security state — and no one else. Little of this, of course, was a secret to those on the receiving end. It was only Americans who were not supposed to know much about what was being done in their name. As a result, there was a secret history of twenty-first-century American war crying out to be written. Now, we have it in the form of Scahill’s latest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.
Scahill has tracked, in particular, the rise of JSOC. In Iraq, it grew into a kind of Murder Inc., “an executive assassination wing,” as Seymour Hersh once put it, operating out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. It next turned its hunter/killer methods on Afghanistan and then on the planet, as the special operations forces themselves grew into an expansive secret military cocooned inside the U.S. military. In those years, Scahill started following the footsteps of special ops types into the field, while mainlining into sources in their community as well as other parts of the American military and intelligence world.
The political reality of the United States in the world is that of blowback. Blowback is a term of art in the intelligence community for what happens when a covert operation goes bad and comes back to bite you on the ass. The US spent the 1980s encouraging Muslim radicals to engage in ‘freedom fighting’ against the leftist government of Afghanistan, and that policy certainly is implicated in the creation of al-Qaeda. We have been suffering with lack of security ever since. And what would have happened if Washington had just left the Communist government in place? Wouldn’t it have gone the same way as the former Communist regime of Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan? Which of you feels threatened by those former Soviet Socialist Republics?
The policy of deliberate deployment of torture by US officials, in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib (Iraq) and Bagram (Afghanistan), as well as black sites in Poland and elsewhere, during the past decade, has spawned a whole new wave of blowback.
The US is not responsible for terrorism against it, and the terrorists are horrible human beings. But let’s just say that a more responsible US foreign policy would make less trouble for the rest of us.
A bipartisan panel found, while the attention of the US public was elsewhere, that there is indisputable proof that the highest US officials of the Bush administration are implicated in torture, that torture was deployed systematically, and that there is no evidence that it ever yielded any useful intelligence about terrorist plots against the US. The Panel argues that the Guantanamo prison must be closed (many of the inmates now there have never been charged or tried and many have been cleared for release, but are not being released. Many are on debilitating hunger strikes that the US media barely cover.)
Secretary of State John Kerry just made trips to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration’s two trophy states, in an attempt to shore up rapidly declining American influence in the two.
In Afghanistan, the mood is turning against a US troop presence after 2014. In the last couple of weeks, President Hamid Karzai successfully insisted that US special forces and their Afghan auxiliaries cease operating in Wardak Province just west of the capital. The US military resisted, on the grounds that Wardak is a Taliban hot spot and, well, close to the capital. But in the end they had to give in to Karzai’s demand. Today the US handed over the Bagram base and prison to Karzai, after years of dragging its feet, fearful that Karzai will do a mass pardon in order to curry favor with the Taliban. Afghanistan increasingly is showing independence on a range of domestic and international issues. Aljazeera English reports:
Al-Maliki is de facto supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, after for years blaming al-Assad for every bombing in Iraq. The change has occured because al-Maliki’s ally Iran is supporting Bashar, and because one of the more effective elements in the resistance is Jabhat al-Nusra, and radical fundamentalist offshoot in some ways of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ terrorist group. Al-Maliki is afraid that a Jabhat al-Nusra win in Syria will give aid and comfort to those Sunnis in northern Iraq who want to bring him and his Shiite-majority government down.
In 2002 when Dick Cheney was planning the Iraq War and talking about democratization, I pointed out that a democratized Afghanistan and Iraq would be unlikely to do America’s bidding. I.e., democratization (even if phony) as a policy has the stark internal contradiction that Cheney was doing it for the purposes of American dominance, and that is exactly what it could not hope to deliver.
Karzai will bargain for the best deal for his government in Afghanistan. Iraq’s al-Maliki will support the Baath regime because that is what is in its interests.
Bush’s moment in the sun as conqueror of poor weak countries has long since passed. But the damage he did lives on.
Jack Serle writes at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Pitch Interactive have visualised every CIA drone strike and every casualty in Pakistan.
A new interactive graphic, which uses the Bureau’s drone data, has brought a fresh perspective to the CIA’s nine-year drone campaign in Pakistan.
A team of developers has pulled together every known drone strike and casualty from data provided by the Bureau and New America Foundation. This data has been represented in an interactive timeline which allows the viewer to see how the campaign builds over time, as well as the number of people killed.
Pitch Interactive, a California-based commercial web-development studio, has produced the interactive as part of a pro-bono programme.
The project, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, aims to capture the scale and human cost of the drone war in Pakistan through its visual representation of the CIA’s covert Pakistan drone war from the first event in 2004 to the latest strike.
Wesley Grubbs, who leads the team at Pitch Interactive, told the Bureau that the team set out ‘to cause people to pause for a moment and say “Wow I’ve never seen this in that light before”.’
The visualisation uses an average of the casualty data collected by the Bureau’s Covert Drone War project, combined with data collected by New America Foundation which tallies the number of high value targets reported killed in the strikes.
The CIA drone campaign in Pakistan has received much attention in recent months. The debate intensified after last month’s Senate confirmation hearing for new CIA director John Brennan, a leading architect of President Obama’s drone strategy.
Earlier this month Ben Emmerson QC, UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, added to the debate after stating that Pakistan did not support the drone strikes. His statement was made following a visit to the country as part of a UN investigation into the legal and ethical framework of drone strikes. Emmerson also said CIA drones had killed 2,200 people in the country including at least 400 civilians, according to Pakistan authorities.
But despite the public debate that has played-out over recent months, Grubbs believes the full scope and consequences of the drone war are still obscured. ’We feel that drone strikes are a very hot topic right now but we feel people are being misled,’ he said.
A second bombing, in Khost, killed another 9 persons, including several children and a policeman.
Hagel arrives in Kabul as relations between the government of Hamid Karzai and the US are strained. Karzai has recently expelled US special forces from Wardak Province next to Kabul, on the ground that they were deploying Afghan death squads as a auxiliaries.