How Obama changed definition of ‘civilian’ in secret drone wars (Woods)

Chris Woods writes at the Bureau of investigative Journalism:

Two US reports just published provide significant insights into President Obama’s personal and controversial role in the escalating covert US drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

In a major extract from Daniel Klaidman’s forthcoming book Kill Or Capture, the author reveals extensive details of how secret US drone strikes have evolved under Obama – and how the president knew of civilian casualties from his earliest days in office.

The New York Times has also published a key investigation exploring how the Obama Administration runs its secret ‘Kill List’ – the names of those chosen for execution by CIA and Pentagon drones outside the conventional battlefield.

The Times’ report also reveals that President Obama personally authorised a broadening of the term ‘civilian’, helping to limit any public controversy over ‘non-combatant’ deaths.

Civilian Deaths from Day Three
As the Bureau’s own data on Pakistan makes clear, the very first covert drone strikes of the Obama presidency, just three days after he took office, resulted in civilian deaths in Pakistan. As many as 19 civilians – including four children – died in two error-filled attacks.

Until now it had been thought that Obama was initially unaware of the civilian deaths. Bob Woodward has reported that the president was only told by CIA chief Michael Hayden that the strikes had missed their High Value Target but had killed ‘five al Qaeda militants.’

Now Newsweek correspondent Daniel Klaidman reveals that Obama knew about the civilian deaths within hours. He reports an anonymous participant at a subsequent meeting with the President: ‘You could tell from his body language that he was not a happy man.’ Obama is described aggressively questioning the tactics used.

Until now it had been thought that President Obama was initially unaware of the civilian deaths.

Yet despite the errors, the president ultimately chose to keep in place the CIA’s controversial policy of using ‘signature strikes’ against unknown militants.That tactic has just been extended to Yemen.

On another notorious occasion, the article reveals that US officials were aware at the earliest stage that civilians – including ‘dozens of women and children’ – had died in Obama’s first ordered strike in Yemen in December 2009. The Bureau recently named all 44 civilians killed in that attack by cruise missiles.

No US officials have ever spoken publicly about the strike, although secret diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks proved that the US was responsible. Now Klaidman reveals that Jeh Johnson, one of the State Department’s senior lawyers, watched the strike take place with others on a video screen:

Johnson returned to his Georgetown home around midnight that evening, drained and exhausted. Later there were reports from human-rights groups that dozens of women and children had been killed in the attacks, reports that a military source involved in the operation termed “persuasive.” Johnson would confide to others, “If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”

Aggressive tactics
Klaidman describes a world in which the CIA and Pentagon constantly push for significant attacks on the US’s enemies. In March 2009, for example. then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen reportedly called for the bombing of an entire training camp in southern Somalia in order to kill one militant leader.

One dissenter at the meeting is said to have described the tactic as ‘carpet-bombing a country.’ The attack did not go ahead.

Obama is generally described as attempting to rein back both the CIA and the Pentagon. But in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki – ‘Obama’s Threat Number One’ – different rules applied.

If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.’
State Department lawyer Jeh Johnson on reported civilian deaths in Yemen

According to Klaidman Obama let it be known that he would consider allowing civilian deaths if it meant killing the US-Yemeni cleric. ‘Bring it to me and let me decide in the reality of the moment rather than in the abstract,’ an aide recalls him saying. No civilians died that day, as it turned out.

Redefining ‘civilian’
In its own major investigation, the New York Times examines the secret US ‘Kill List’ – the names of those chosen for death at the hands of US drones. The report is based on interviews with more than 36 key individuals with knowledge of the scheme.

The newspaper also accuses Obama of  ‘presidential acquiescence in a formula for counting civilian deaths that some officials think is skewed to produce low numbers,’ and of having a ‘Whack-A-Mole approach to counter-terrorism,’ according to one former senior official.

It is often been reported that President Obama has urged officials to avoid wherever possible the deaths of civilians in covert US actions in Pakistan and elsewhere. But reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane reveal that Obama inserted a loophole.

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.

So concerned have some officials been by this ‘false accounting’ that they have taken their concerns direct to the White House, according to the New York Times.

So concerned have some officials been by this ‘false accounting’ that they have taken their concerns direct to the White House, says the New York Times.

The revelation helps explain the wide variation between credible reports of civilian deaths in Pakistan by the Bureau and others, and the CIA’s claims that it had killed no ‘non-combatants’ between May 2010 and September 2011 – and possibly later.

The investigation also reveals that more than 100 US officials take part in a weekly ‘death list’ video conference run by the Pentagon, at which it is decided who will be added to the US military’s kill/ capture lists. ‘A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the CIA focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes,’ the paper reports.

But according to at least one former senior administration official, Obama’s obsession with targeted killings is ‘dangerously seductive.’ Retired admiral Dennis Blair, the former US Director of National Intelligence, told the paper that the campaign was:

The politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no US casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.


Mirrored from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

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22 Responses

  1. President Obama is captured by CIA and DoD. It is, after all, USA’s largest bureaucracy, and needs very much to continuously justify its huge annual budget. How could he say no to it? How could he — in effect — say “No” to BIG-ARMS and BIG-WAR and BIG-COUNTER-TERRORISM and BIG-ANTI-ISLAM? we’re talking serious campaign contributions, here.

    • That’s not what the story indicates. As Prof. Cole writes, “Obama is generally described as attempting to rein back both the CIA and the Pentagon.”

      We’ve seen this not only in this field, but in the cancellation of the F-22, the cancellation of the missile defense bases in Eastern Europe, the abandonment of the Iraqi bases, and numerous other actions.

      Obama is probably the least “captive” President since Carter.

      • But you are coming up next to the narrative being drafting against Obama, as being feckless. Objectlively, Carter did a good job on various fronts, but that nasty business with Iran is all that is remembered by anyone but critical academics.

        First job of President in FP, I’d think, is to not screw-up. And if the last guy screwed-up to clean-up his mess. Obama is doing these things reasonably well, especially given the politics. But the perceptions make it a sporting bet he’ll join Carter as a one-term wonder.

  2. The retired Admiral might have added that that is why Julian Assange will be extradited to the US via Sweden. That will surely close the box to the outside intruders. Obama the opaque.

    • With Assange it bears revisiting the precise nature of the charges made against him. The prosecution of Assange gets to the underlying issue of Rule of Law. Unless we are being too cynical, Assange will be summarily extradited to the US and go into the same Black Hole as Manning. Whooops, Manning is a US citizen, so Assange won’t have the same protections….such as what???

      As Glen Greenwald has been going on about, the danger is what happens when someone inevitably not as benevolent as Obama gets his hands on the controls. And that is not an issue of if, but of when.

  3. I want to express a view of the drones which I have yet to observe in the media, which is the impossibility with which you can identify a person known to be associated with a certain group with a video camera located on a drone flying high in the sky. When I served in Vietnam, one of my missions was to fly long range patrol people on reconnaissance missions, to review the territory into which they would be dropped for a on foot survey a few days latter. Some of those missions involved the assassination of a certain Viet Cong or NVA leader.

    Each such assassination involved having the person to be assassinated in the visual sights of the sniper, which is pretty accurate identification.

    Is the military could do that in the 1960’s they certainly are capable of doing that today. That they use drones, which absolutely cannot provide the same level of certain identification, is I propose solely and only a product of the US government officials becoming considerably more immoral and lacking in any decency than previously. Which is a sad commentary on the state of our country today.

  4. Could someone refresh my memory on:
    1. What constitutes a war crime and if these drone attacks that kill civilians while attempting to kill non-State actors qualifies?

    2. What it takes to initiate an investigation at The Hague or possibly Spain?

    • A war crime involving civilian casualties would have to involve deliberate targeting of known non-combatants, or the type of gross disregard for civilian protection that the NYT story, with its discussion of all of the strikes “waived off” because of the possibility of civilian casualties, shows us is not happening in this program.

  5. The world is changing. The people responsible for this “program” may one day face international justice. That can’t be a happy thought for them.

    At a miminum, I think they will be have to be careful when choosing travel destinations.

  6. IT is almost impossible to comment on this report, which simply confirms some things we already knew (the drones are only secret when the administration wants to charge someone with espionage for reporting about them); but the cruel, callous attitude of the president is worse than I would have guessed.

    We will all be paying for this for a very long time.

  7. “Klaidman describes a world in which the CIA and Pentagon constantly push for significant attacks on the US’s enemies. In March 2009, for example. then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen reportedly called for the bombing of an entire training camp in southern Somalia in order to kill one militant leader.

    One dissenter at the meeting is said to have described the tactic as ‘carpet-bombing a country.’ The attack did not go ahead.”

    The use of drones and everything around it is finally exploding into a major national issue. The controversy will get ugly.

    In an otherwise informative piece, the two paragraphs quoted above are sloppy at best and sensational at worst. First of all, the US has been bombing whole ‘terrorist’ training facilities for years, beginning with Al Queda under Clinton and that became the very reason for the Afghan war. So Mullen was proposing nothing new or shocking.

    It is really not credible to quote someone as saying Mullen’s request was ‘carpet-bombing’. It severely belittles the Vietnamese villages destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians that were killed in the very intentional military policy of ‘carpet bombing’ that became a key tactic during that war. Bombing the bejesus out of a radical training camp does not meet the common understanding of the term.

    Facts are facts and bad enough. No need to exaggerate or add rhetorical flourishes.

    • First of all, the US has been bombing whole ‘terrorist’ training facilities for years, beginning with Al Queda under Clinton and that became the very reason for the Afghan war.

      Indeed. In fact, the use of drones for these missions represents a significant reduction in the amount of firepower, and a significant increase in the precision of the strikes, compared to the cruise missiles Clinton used, or even the munitions that were being used when Obama came into office.

  8. Obama cares only about his re-election. His aggressive, mostly beneath public radar, military actions protects him from Republican charges of weakness.

    Obama knows nothing about Middle East history or the histroy of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He could not begin to replicate Jimmy Carter’ Camp David diplomacy in which Carter debated the Israeli head of state for 13 days. Obama could not even debate Netanyahu for 15 mins. as his recent Oval office experience revealed. Obama did not choose to be a medeocre President, that’ just he way he is.

  9. Does anyone know how a person on the “kill list” goes about gettingtheir name removed ? Does a person start at the District Court level ?

    Elsewhere it is referred to as a “kill / capture list.” Does anyone really get captured, or do we just kill ’em all, and let God sort ’em out, as the old SF T-shirt says ?

    • Good point.

      Osama bin Laden was a defendant under federal grand jury indictment in a United States District Court when he was killed under questionable circumstances by the American military. The U.S. has, per Anmesty International, never articulated any cogent valid legal theory upon which they justify bin Laden’s killing.

      It seems that if the U.S. would have tried to capture him, they may have extracted some good intelligence from him as they did with Saddam Hussein.

  10. What’s the strategy? Aside from the cold brutality of droning, what is it meant to achieve? Do we have a model of al Qaeda that indicates a finite leadership cadre which, once destroyed, leaves the organization harmless?

    If all the reports over the years are accurate we have killed a huge number of key al Qaeda leaders. If this is true, al Qaeda (and the Taliban) must be more top heavy than the Pentagon. Personally, I don’t think decimating the Pentagon brass and brass-ike civilians would have much impact on our ability to wage war, but we’re convinced that it would on the other side.

    Like in Vietnam, we refuse to to accept that there is some overarching substance to our enemies – not just a finite collection inherently evil and violent beings. Recent news articles report that the drone strikes have made Yemenies more favorable to al Qaeda than to the US. Doesn’t seem like getting to the bottom of the “kill list” will be a US victory.

  11. Targeted assassination is bad policy.

    It justifies the enemy having at least moral standing to retaliate against the government conducing the policy.

    In Israel, it was the government policy of extrajudicial assassination of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders that led to the proliferation of suicide bombings and other armed attacks from 2000-2005 that led to 1,000 Israelis being killed. Israeli cabinet minister and former general Revaham Ben Ze’evi, who was the key official advocating targeted kilings was himself assassinated in retaliation for the IDF helicopter gunship attack on Poplular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ali abu Mustafa in his office in Ramallah, in which he died.

    Amnesty International just released a report in which it held that the killing of Osama bin Laden violated international law. It also held that the U.S. government’s reliance on torture was likewise illegal and warranted the arrest of then-President Bush when he visited Canada. The report, lastly, cited excessive lockdown conditions and use of the death penalty in the U.S.

    America should not be in the business of targeted extrajudicial assassinations, torture, or inhumane confinements. We are the supposed leader of the “Free World”. Implementation of such barbarism encourages others to inflict similar conduct upon Americans.

    • From a previous thread:

      Mark Koroi 05/29/2012 at 9:27 pm
      Did the U.S. Congress declare a state of war against Al-Qaeda? I think not.

      On September 20, 2001 Congress passed an Authorization for the Use of Military Force – a variety of war declaration – against the persons and organizations that carried out the 9/11 attacks. That is, al Qaeda. Under both American law (War Powers Act) and longstanding practice (going back to the Barbary Pirates), AUMFs have been used by Congress to invoke their war powers.

  12. The term ‘military aged males’ is not new …in Iraq the US frequently referred to ‘Military aged males ‘ without being questioned .
    It would probably be more to the point if someone asked how old is ‘military aged’ ( I’d bet its younger than 18 ) and would you apply those same rules ‘at home’ since the effect is painting a big target on their backs ??

  13. It would seem that denoting ‘military-aged males’ as ‘combatants’ would insure that any survivors would indeed become combatants. We truly are creating enemies faster than we can kill them. That future Presidents would utilize, or even expand, these extra-judicial killings is a given. It has occurred already, with the Obama administration’s evolution of the Bush administration’s initiation of the unprovoked ‘retaliation’ against perceived threats. Seems the slippery slope is rather steep, and well-oiled, and will only become more so in the future. The abrupt and damaging stop, at the end of the downward slide, can only shatter what will be left of the American Empire.

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