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.
Today’s unmanned aerial vehicles, most famously Predator and Reaper drones, have been celebrated as the culmination of the longtime dreams of airpower enthusiasts, offering the possibility of victory through quick, clean, and selective destruction. Those drones, so the (very old) story goes, assure the U.S. military of command of the high ground, and so provide the royal road to a speedy and decisive triumph over helpless enemies below.
Fantasies about the certain success of air power in transforming, even ending, war as we know it arose with the plane itself. But when it comes to killing people from the skies, again and again air power has proven neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive nor in itself triumphant. Seductive and tenacious as the dreams of air supremacy continue to be, much as they automatically attach themselves to the latest machine to take to the skies, air power has not fundamentally softened the brutal face of war, nor has it made war less dirty or chaotic.
Indeed, by emboldening politicians to seek seemingly low-cost, Olympian solutions to complex human problems — like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the sky to skewer puny mortals — it has fostered fantasies of illimitable power emboldened by contempt for human life. However, just like Zeus’s obdurate and rebellious subjects, the mortals on the receiving end of death from on high have shown surprising strength in frustrating the designs of the air power gods, whether past or present. Yet the Olympian fantasy persists, a fact that requires explanation.
The Rise of Air Power
It did not take long after the Wright Brothers first put a machine in the air for a few exhilarating moments above the sandy beaches ofKitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903, for the militaries of industrialized countries to express interest in buying and testing airplanes. Previously balloons had been used for reconnaissance, as in the Napoleonic wars and the U.S. Civil War, and so initially fledgling air branches focused on surveillance and intelligence-gathering. As early as 1911, however, Italian aircraft began dropping small bombs from open-air cockpits on the enemy — we might today call them “insurgents” — in Libya.
World War I encouraged the development of specialized aircraft, most famously the dancing bi- and tri-winged fighter planes of the dashing “knights of the air,” as well as the more ponderous, but for the future far more important, bombers. By the close of World War I in 1918, each side had developed multi-engine bombers like the German Gotha, which superseded the more vulnerable zeppelins. Their mission was to fly over the trenches where the opposing armies were stalemated and take the war to the enemy’s homeland, striking fear in his heart and compelling him to surrender. Fortunately for civilians a century ago, those bombers were too few in number, and their payloads too limited, to inflict widespread destruction, although German air attacks on England in 1917 did spread confusion and, in a few cases, panic.
Pondering the hecatombs of dead from trench warfare, air power enthusiasts of the 1920s and 1930s not surprisingly argued strongly, and sometimes insubordinately, for the decisive importance of bombing campaigns launched by independent air forces. A leading enthusiast was Italy’s Giulio Douhet. In his 1921 work Il dominio dell’aria (Command of the Air), he argued that in future wars strategic bombing attacks by heavily armed “battle-planes” (bombers) would produce rapid and decisive victories. Driven by a fascist-inspired logic of victory through preemptive attack, Douhet called for all-out air strikes to destroy the enemy’s air force and its bases, followed by hammer blows against industry and civilians using high-explosive, incendiary, and poison-gas bombs. Such blows, he predicted, would produce psychological uproar and social chaos (“shock and awe,” in modern parlance), fatally weakening the enemy’s will to resist.
As treacherous and immoral as his ideas may sound, Douhet’s intent was to shorten wars and lessen casualties — at least for his side. Better to subdue the enemy by pressing hard on select pressure points (even if the “pressing” was via high explosives and poison gas, and the “points” included concentrations of innocent civilians), rather than forcing your own army to bog down in bloody, protracted land wars.
That air power was inherently offensive and uniquely efficacious in winning cheap victories was a conclusion that found a receptive audience in Great Britain and the United States. In England, Hugh Trenchard, founding father of the Royal Air Force (RAF), embraced strategic bombing as the most direct way to degrade the enemy’s will; he boldly asserted that “the moral effect of bombing stands undoubtedly to the material effect in a proportion of twenty to one.”
Even bolder was his American counterpart, William “Billy” Mitchell, famously court-martialed and romanticized as a “martyr” to air power. (In his honor, cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy still eat in Mitchell Hall.) At the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s, U.S. airmen refined Mitchell’s tenets, developing a “vital centers” theory of bombing — the idea that one could compel an enemy to surrender by identifying and destroying his vulnerable economic nodes. It therefore came as no accident that the U.S. entered World War II with the world’s best heavy bomber, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and a fervid belief that “precision bombing” would be the most direct path to victory.
World War II and After: Dehousing, Scorching, Boiling, and Baking the Enemy
Alice K. Ross writes at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:
The Pakistani government estimates at least 400 civilians have been killed in drone strikes – a figure close to the Bureau’s own findings.
In evidence to Ben Emmerson QC, UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that CIA drones have killed at least 2,200 people in the country including at least 400 civilians. This is close to the Bureau’s low range estimate of 411.
The figures were disclosed to Emerson as he made a three-day visit to the country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which compiled the figures, said a further 200 of the total dead were likely to be civilians too.
The US drone campaign in Pakistan… involves the use of force on the territory of another state without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.’
Ben Emmerson QC
The US has consistently denied this level of non-combatant death, most recently claiming civilian casualties were ‘typically in single digits’ for each year of the nine-year campaign in Pakistan.
The Bureau estimates that 411-884 civilians are among 2,536-3,577 people reportedly killed in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, based on its two-year analysis of news reports, court documents, field investigations and other sources.
Senior Pakistani government representatives met with Emmerson, who is investigating the legal and ethical framework of drone strikes.
In a statement released after his visit, Emmerson said: ’The position of the government of Pakistan is quite clear. It does not consent to the use of drones by the United States on its territory and it considers it to be a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
‘As a matter of international law the US drone campaign in Pakistan is therefore being conducted without the consent of the elected representatives of the people, or the legitimate government of the state. It involves the use of force on the territory of another state without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.’
Pakistan used the special rapporteur’s visit to mount a full-blooded attack on the justifications given by US officials for the drone campaign, particularly the claim that it is ‘unwilling or unable’ to tackle terrorist groups in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. The Pakistani government ‘made it quite clear’ to Emmerson that this suggestion was ‘an affront to the many Pakistani victims of terrorism’.
The US has claimed it has a right to carry out strikes on those who are plotting against the US and its interests, including troops fighting in Afghanistan – but officials said Pakistan bore the brunt of terror attacks, and aimed to tackle this through ‘law enforcement with dialogue and development’. Terrorism has cost Pakistan $70bn in the past decade, killing 7,000 soldiers and policemen and 40,000 civilians, the government disclosed.
‘Interference by other states’ harmed Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts, the officials complained.
Emmerson said: ‘Pakistan has also been quite clear that it considers the drone campaign to be counter-productive and to be radicalising a whole new generation, and thereby perpetuating the problem of terrorism in the region.’
Drone strikes are undermining public confidence in Pakistan’s democratic process, they added. This is particularly problematic in the context of upcoming elections scheduled for May.
Emmerson said: ‘It is time for the international community to heed the concerns of Pakistan, and give the next democratically elected government of Pakistan the space, support and assistance it needs to deliver a lasting peace on its own territory without forcible military interference by other States.’
A group of maliks (tribal elders) from North Waziristan, the Pashtun tribal region most often hit by drone strikes, told Emmerson civilian drone deaths were a ‘commonplace occurrence’, particularly among adult men, who were often killed ‘carrying out ordinary daily tasks’. Traditional Pashtun forms of dress and the custom of adult men carrying guns makes it hard to distinguish between civilians and members of the Pakistani Taliban.
‘The Pashtun tribes of the [tribal] area have suffered enormously under the drone campaign,’ said Emmerson. Civilian deaths in drone strikes were contributing to radicalisation of youths in the region, officials and maliks told him.
The Guardian reports that Ben Emmerson, the UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, says that the Pakistani government has given no tacit consent to US drone strikes according to a search of government records. Therefore, he concludes, the strikes are likely illegal in international law.
US drone strikes according to Pakistan government statistics:
Number of US drone strikes on Pakistan’s tribal belt since 2004: 330
Congressional authorizations for attack on Pakistan: 0
Number of people killed by the strikes: 2,200
Average number of people killed per strike: 6.6
Number of people wounded by the strikes: 600
Average number of people wounded per strike: 1.8
Number of known non-combatant civilians killed: 400
Further number of suspected non-combatant civilians killed: 200
Average number of innocent civilians likely killed by each strike: 1.8
Percentage of those killed that are likely innocent civilians: 27
“for the proposition that this administration seems willing to embrace, or at least unwilling to renounce explicitly and emphatically, that the Constitution somehow permits, or at least does not foreclose on, the U.S. government killing a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil who is not flying a plane into a building, who is not robbing a bank, who is not pointing a bazooka at the Pentagon, but who is simply sitting quietly at a cafe, peaceably enjoying breakfast?”
Attorney General Eric Holder sent over to Paul a statement that the president does not have the authority to drone to death an innocent noncombatant, which ended the filibuster.
It is alarming that Cruz appears to have thought that there are circumstances in which a US citizen *could* legitimately be droned to death on American soil.
Obama and Brennan brought this kind of humiliation on themselves by their extreme secrecy about the drone program, a secrecy that even a federal judge castigated as paradoxical. As a classified endeavor handled in large part by the CIA, it cannot be discussed publicly, cannot be probed by the public. It is a policy for insiders with a high security clearance (apparently the 15 senators on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are among the few public officials who are kept in the loop. Two of them, Marco Rubio and Saxby Chambliss, joined the filibuster of Brennan, so even they seem not to feel that the Obama administration is leveling with them.
Ironically, Brennan in the past was a severe critic of the kind of secrecy about covert operations that the Obama administration has championed with regard to the drone program. In a 2008 interview while in the private sector, he said:
“What is needed is a “fair and open discussion” about US counterterrorism policy, Brennan concludes. While some aspects are too classified to be discussed openly, many are not. But when ‘you stifle discussion— and
make decisions in secrecy and vacuums— you run the risk of alienating portions
of the US population and triggering questions about what else may
be going on.’”
To be fair, in his confirmation hearing, Brennan advocated turning the drone program over to the Department of Defense (which is under civilian authority), and he admitted that as it has been practiced up till now it may well contravene international law. Maybe Brennan the CIA head can undo some of the damage to American democracy and to international law he admits the drone policy has done.
Earlier this week, we wrote about a significant but often overlooked aspect of the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen: so-called signature strikes, in which the U.S. kills people whose identities aren’t confirmed. While President Obama and administration officials have framed the drone program as targeting particular members of Al Qaeda, attacks against unknown militants reportedly may account for the majority of strikes.
The government apparently calls such attacks signature strikes because the targets are identified based on intelligence “signatures” that suggest involvement in terror plots or militant activity.
So what signatures does the U.S. look for and how much evidence is needed to justify a strike?
The Obama administration has never spoken publicly about signature strikes. Instead, generally anonymous officials have offered often vague examples of signatures. The resulting fragmentary picture leaves many questions unanswered.
In Pakistan, a signature might include:
Convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run. – Senior American and Pakistani officials,New York Times, February 2008.
“Terrorist training camps.” – U.S.Diplomatic Cable released by Wikileaks, October 2009.
Gatherings of militant groups or training complexes. – Current and former officials, Los Angeles Times, January 2010.
Bomb-making or fighters training for possible operations in Afghanistan…. a compound where unknown individuals were seen assembling a car bomb. – Officials, Los Angeles Times, May 2010.
Travel in or out of a known al-Qaeda compoundor possession of explosives. – U.S. officials, Washington Post, February 2011.
Operating a training camp… consorting with known militants. – High-level American official, The New Yorker, September 2011.
A group of guys…
Large groups of armed men. – Senior U.S. intelligence official, Associated Press, March 2012.
Groups of armed militants traveling by truck toward the war in Afghanistan.–Administration officials, Washington Post, April 2012.
The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp. – Senior official, May 2012.
“The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40″ – Former Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, Daily Beast, November 2012.
“Armed men who we see getting into pickup trucks and heading towards the Afghanistan border or who are in a training exercise.” – Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Council on Foreign Relations, January 2013.
Officials have characterized the intelligence that goes into these strikes as thorough, based on “days” of drone surveillance and other sources—and said that apparently low-level people may still be key to an organization’s functioning. In 2010, an official told the Los Angeles Times that the CIA makes sure “these are people whose actions over time have made it obvious that they are a threat.”
In Yemen, signature strikes are reportedly bound by stricter rules. Officials have often cited the necessity of a plot against Americans:
Clear indication of the presence of an al-Qaeda leader or of plotting against targets in the United States or Americans overseas.– Administration officials, Washington Post, April 2012.
“Individuals who are personally involved in trying to kill Americans… or intelligence that…[for example] a truck has been configured in order to go after our embassy in Sanaa.”— Senior administration official, Washington Post, January 2013
These strikes are not supposed to target “lower-level foot soldiers battling the Yemeni government,” U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal. A White House spokesman said last summer that the U.S. “[has] not and will not get involved in a broader counterinsurgency effort” in Yemen.
As we detailed, signature strikes have also been criticized by human rights groups and some legal observers because of the lack of transparency surrounding them, including on the number of civilians killed.
Chris Woods and Alice K Ross write at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
The government has secretly ramped up a controversial programme that strips people of their British citizenship on national security grounds – two of whom have been subsequently killed by US drone attacks.
An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and published in the Independent has established that since 2010 the Home Secretary Theresa May has revoked the passports of 16 individuals many of whom are alleged to have had links to militant or terrorist groups.
Critics of the programme warn that it also allows ministers to ‘wash their hands’ of British nationals suspected of terrorism who could be subject to torture and illegal detention abroad.
They add that it also allows those stripped of their citizenship to be killed or ‘rendered’ without any onus on the British government to intervene.
At least five of those deprived of their UK nationality by the Coalition government were born in Britain, and one man had lived in the country for almost 50 years.
Those affected have their passports cancelled, and lose their right to enter the UK – making it very difficult to appeal the Home Secretary’s decision.
Last night the Liberal Democrat’s deputy leader Simon Hughes said he was writing to the Home Secretary to call for an urgent review into how the law was being implemented.
The leading human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce said the present situation ‘smacked of medieval exile, just as cruel and just as arbitrary’.
Ian Macdonald QC, president of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, described the citizenship orders as ‘sinister’.
‘They’re using executive powers and I think they’re using them quite wrongly,’ he said.
‘It’s not open government, it’s closed, and it needs to be exposed because in my view it’s a real overriding of open government and the rule of law.’
Laws were passed in 2002 enabling the Home Secretary to remove the citizenship of any dual nationals who had done something ‘seriously prejudicial’ to the UK, but the power had rarely been used before the current government.
The Bureau’s investigations have established the identities of all but four of the 21 British passport holders who have lost their citizenship, and their subsequent fates. Only two have successfully appealed – one of whom has since been extradited to the US.
In many cases those involved cannot be named because of ongoing legal action.
It’s not open government, it’s closed, and it needs to be exposed because in my view it’s a real overriding of open government and the rule of law.
Ian Macdonald QC
The Bureau has also found evidence that government officials act when people are out of the country – on two occasions while on holiday – cancelling passports and revoking citizenships.
Those targeted include Bilal al-Berjawi, a British-Lebanese citizen who came to the UK as a baby and grew up in London, but left for Somalia in 2009 with his close friend British-born Mohamed Sakr, who also held Egyptian nationality.
Both had been the subject of extensive surveillance by British intelligence, with the security services concerned they were involved in terrorist activities.
Once in Somalia, the two reportedly became involved with al Shabaab, an Islamist militant group with links to al Qaeda. Berjawi was said to have risen to a senior position in the organisation, with Sakr his ‘right hand man’.
In 2010, Theresa May stripped both men of their British nationalities and they soon became targets in an ultimately lethal US manhunt.
In June 2011 Berjawi was wounded in the first known US drone strike in Somalia and last year he was killed by a drone strike – within hours of calling his wife in London to congratulate her on the birth of their first son.
Sakr, too, was killed in a US airstrike in February 2012, although his British origins have not been revealed until now.
Sakr’s former UK solicitor said there appeared to be a link between the Home Secretary removing citizenships, and subsequent US actions.
‘It appears that the process of deprivation of citizenship made it easier for the US to then designate Sakr as an enemy combatant, to whom the UK owes no responsibility whatsoever,’ Saghir Hussain told the Bureau.
Macdonald added that depriving people of their citizenship ‘means that the British government can completely wash their hands if the security services give information to the Americans who use their drones to track someone and kill them.’
Campaign group CagePrisoners is in touch with many families of those affected. Executive director Asim Qureshi said the Bureau’s findings were deeply troubling for Britons from an ethnic minority background.
‘We all feel just as British as everybody else, and yet just because our parents came from another country, we can be subjected to an arbitrary process where we are no longer members of this country any more,’ he said.
‘I think that’s extremely dangerous because it will speak to people’s fears about how they’re viewed by their own government, especially when they come from certain areas of the world.’
Liberal Democrat Hughes said that while he accepted there were often real security concerns, he was worried that those who were innocent of Home Office charges against them and were trying to appeal risked finding themselves in a ‘political and constitutional limbo’.
‘There was clearly always a risk when the law was changed seven years ago that the executive could act to take a citizenship away in circumstances that were more frequent or more extensive than those envisaged by ministers at the time,’ he said.