How the US Decides Drone-kill People when it Doesn’t Know Who they Are (Currier)

Cora Currier writes at ProPublica

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:

Training camps…

  • 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.

But experts say some strikes in Yemen do appear to have been aimed at local militants. In Pakistan, in addition to low-level militants who might be involved in the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has sometimes hit those who posed a threat to the Pakistani government.

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. 

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10 Responses

  1. I wonder if there isn’t a condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that describes the illness underlying the drone program. Or maybe it’s just the video-game mentality that reduces human beings to targets. Obama’s really rackin’ up the points!

  2. I’ve been perusing “war porn” for several years now, looking at the many youtube and other videos of drone-Hellfire and A-10 and AC-130 and Apache 30-mm cannon attacks on humans on the ground in all those far off places. I know, it’s a sickness, one shared by millions of my fellow Americans if you look at the view counts for the videos. has a particularly nice collection of the art.

    Uniformly, the captions are all about “killing Talibans” or “blasting Insurgents.” But here’s one, among many, of the nicely ambiguous bit of video — link to — must be midgets or dwarfs amongst the “Talibans” in this group, and do you see any weapons? I can’t, even with a magnifying glass.

    If you look close at a number of these, and there sure are a lot of them, it sure seems that in a lot of cases, many of the explodees are unarmed and inoffensive — and in many cases it looked a whole lot like maybe a family group (all identified as “Talibans” in the audio from the aircraft) was walking inoffensively from one compound to another. Being unwise enough to do it at night, of course, and like the two women in the pickup truck that was shot up by the LA police recently, “looking suspicious.”

    And of course the whole killing machinery is justified on the ground that it’s needed to protect our troops (and other unspecified “US Interests”) that would be in ZERO danger but for the fact that we, like, invaded their country and, like, shot and killed and otherwise destroyed a bunch of their people. Because, if I have it right, some “government” that is not around any more as such (“the Taliban”) allowed and maybe assisted one of OUR former assets, some guy named bin Laden, to hang around there.

    Which I am sure our local apologists for the “legality” of all this will take as clear total blanket unconstrained authorization to apply lethal, exciting-to-watch, bar-cheer-and-whoop deadly explosive force, even as the whole rationale for the invasion and war thing evaporates as completely as the one that had “us” all invested in the future of some place we arrogantly called South Vietnam.

  3. The decision-making process is one that occurs wayyy below the level of the Oval Office. Parameters may be agreed upon at the highest levels but the actual target selection is decided at a much lower part of the chain. While there is a general sense of which kinds of people are selected for eradication, it comes down to the various and varied intelligence of and available to the trigger pullers. I doubt if there are boots on the ground that can call in air strikes like in a real man-to-man fighting conflict. Space or aerial surveillance is an art that must be applied but must still be prone to human error in analysis and fact-finding when concluding that a particular event warrants a strike. Think of the cruise missile attacks of years gone by … even the best information is still affected by misinterpretation of the realities on the ground. The hope that combatants in the target zone will realise the futility of their efforts and just give up is an absurd one. The fighters on the opposing side have only their own hides considered and any ‘collateral damage’ is a cost to be borne by those who suffer the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  4. I’m very familiar with DSM IV diagnostic manual. DSM only listed disorders. Killing is a normal human behavior so not a disorder.

  5. As long as the United States District Court system continues to decline judicial review of these CIA assassination programs under the “political question” doctrine, there is little deterrent for the Obama administrationto do anything to rein in obvious excesses that offend traditional ideals of fair play and rudimentary due process.

  6. One obvious defense would be to erect shade structures so that drones can’t surveil.

    But then our “pinball wizards” would categorize that as proof of a plot.

    • Brian, those would have to be some pretty opaque and extensive “shade structures.” The sensors on the drones and Apaches and other devices “we” are fielding detect infrared presences, among other “signatures,” and if you look at the “war porn” videos, not to mention the “oopsie” reports like the two children just blown away by a “UN” killing machine (See? the tinfoil-hat crowd were right to fear those “black helicopters”), you can see that the people doing the targeting and triggering are not being too nice in their “selection.” And as you point out, any kind of effort by people who don’t want to be blown to flinders to conceal themselves would be ipso facto invitation and carte blanche for the Bills of the world to “light them up,” in the modern phrase…

      • “…carte blanche for the Bills of the world to “light them up,” in the modern phrase…”

        I suppose I should be flattered by your frequent references to me when responding to others’ comments. That I would have such an impact on you is an unexpected element in these exchanges.

  7. this is murder,
    plain and simple

    what is
    happening to us ?

    are we are becoming
    the ‘enemy’,

    through ignorance
    and fear ?

  8. The CIA has pretty much never shown any use of evidence for its mass-murder, an even more pronounced lack when it has encouraged surrogates in central America. I’d argue that none of the “reasons” above hold any water whatsoever as an evidentiary barrier, but that they’re more a justification for when the personnel feel like killing people.

    It’s a perpetual motion machine, since the video-game killing is addictive (via the dopamine response following a successful hit), the political and military infrastructure can claim the “enemies” they killed constitute proof of the need to kill more “enemies,” and the counter-productive creation of more militants in response helps the military by generating more obvious targets as well as the politicians by leading to more terrorist or paramilitary attacks.

    Why Americans belive they have the right to murder families and not be targeted themselves is a mystery to me.

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