US admits it has no Idea who it is Assassinating by Drone

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The tragic deaths last January, just now being revealed, of two Western hostages in drone strikes on a relatively empty housing complex in northern Pakistan near the Afghanistan border underlines that the Obama administration is killing people from the air without knowing who they are and is killing significant numbers of innocent civilians. Just as hostages don’t move around outside so that spy cameras can observe them, so too in gender-segregated Pushtun society, women are often immured at home and so the CIA or US military who are running the drones do not know if they are in the sights.

Contrary to assurances given by President Obama a couple of years ago, the US government admits that it had no idea who it was targeting when it hit that building. Indiscriminate fire is a recognized war crime, and it seems to characterize the US drone program.

These are the figures for the US drone assassination program in Pakistan, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Total strikes: 415
Obama strikes: 364
Total killed: 2,449-3,949
Civilians killed: 423-962
Children killed: 172-207
Injured: 1,144-1,722

That is, as many as a fourth of those killed by US drone assassinations are non-combatants.

Death by drone is inherently lawless. There is no constitutional or legal framework within which the US government can blow people away at will. For a while in the 1970s through 1990s, assassination was outlawed.
Now it is back, but has taken this freakish form where bureaucrats thousands of miles away fire missiles from large toy airplanes. The US is not at war with Pakistan, so this action is not part of a war effort. You can’t be at war with an organization– a state of war has a technical legal definition.

The US government maintains that it is only shooting when it sees a high value target. This is a lie. They had no idea who was in the building. The US government maintains that it kills hardly any local civilians with its drone assassinations, whereas journalists on the ground find evidence of substantial non-combatant deaths. The killing of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto is not just a tragedy; it reveals the US assassination technique for the world to see.

related video:

TomoNews: “CIA drone strike accidentally kills Al Qaeda hostages Warren Weinstein, Giovanni Lo Porto”

30 Responses

  1. The horrendous and regrettable deaths of two innocent hostages – one American and the second Italian – is something which will bring sorely needed scrutiny to this clearly illegal and reckless extrajudicial assassination drone program.

    This is not unlike the unfortunate death of a young U.S. citizen, Ms. Ronni Moffit, as “collateral damage” in Washington D.C. by a CIA contractor during the 1970s when Chilean exile leader, Orlando Letelier, was targeted in a car bombing and his aide, Ms. Moffit, was a bystander. It brought the shock of CIA killings to the forefront.

    It was President Obama who traditionally “signed off” on al-Qaeda drone targets and who may have personally authorized this debacle.

    • … something which will bring sorely needed scrutiny to this clearly illegal and reckless extrajudicial assassination drone program.

      Mark: I’m an appreciative follower of your comments on this website, but to put it in the kindest of terms your statement quoted above is not up to your usual standards. If there is any scrutiny by the miscreants involved it will be about how to not get caught again.

      • The CIA Inspector General has announced an investigation into the hostage deaths and, I concur, that little more than self-congratulations and exoneration is to be expected from such an internal investigation.

        In this case, however, the estates of both hostages may bring wrongful death suits in the U.S. Court of Claims in Washington D.C. to test the legality of the CIA’s actions.

        The key reason the Anwar Amlaki suit was dismissed one year ago was due to the Congressional AUMF and the proof that Amlaki was a dangerous U.S. citizen, and even then, the court raised serious questions of affording Amlaki due process before targeting him. In the hostage deaths herein , the recklessness of the CIA in endangering these hostages is likely to be relevant; recall the millions in settlement paid by the City of Philadelphia to the estates of deceased minors in the outrageous bombing of the MOVE activists’ rowhouses that killed innocent children.

        The ACLU has already issued a press release on the recent hostage deaths:

        link to

        • Awlaqi suit was dismissed because court found Awlaqi’s father did not have standing. V clever of USG to demand that those killed must themselves sue or there is no case.

    • It was the V2 that you couldn’t hear coming because it was the first supersonic weapon. The V1 had a primitive scram jet engine that made it faster than most plans at the time, but it did not break through the sound barrier. The former was simply a terror weapon, how much more terrorizing can it get than being pulverized by something you can’t even hear coming?

      The V1 was designed to be a mass produced weapon system and kept as simple as possible to that end, but Germany’s industrial capacities were already depleted when the system was ready for deployment. The original idea was to be able to launch a swarm of V1s so that they could overcome the air defenses and to get the control system sufficiently accurate that strategic areas could be hit with sufficient precision.

      Near the end of the war Hitler wasn’t interested in implementing this, but used the V1s in a scattershot fashion as yet another revenge weapon.

      This also allowed the Allies to learn from these attacks, and war documents that were unclassified in the nineties showed that they pulled together a weapon system based on radar, a simple analog computer and the most advanced anti-aircraft artillery at the time to automatically track and shoot down the V1.

      (My grandfather was an aviation engineer in the V1 Penemünde division as a technical lead, and by the end of the war 2nd in command).

      • All of this technical lingo says in so many words, that these WW2 terror weapons, share very little similarities with drones.

        Their express purpose was creating terror in the civilian populations. Whereas the line of sight, and command of control nature of drones allows for much more precise engagements.

        Obviously the US is executing this very poorly and tolerates abysmally high numbers of civilian casualties but this doesn’t equate this to Hitler’s indiscriminate bombing campaign.

    • Not very different. If you could hear them, it meant their engine had not yet cut out, causing them to fall to earth and explode. The British used captured German agents to transmit false information back to Germany, giving the impression that these primitive cruise missiles were falling short of the target. The Germans duly increased the fuel load, with the result that the missiles landed well north of London.

      Bombing generally is a much overrated tactic. Hugely inaccurate in WW2, it caused huge civilian casualties (and a horrendous casualty rate among the attacking aircrews) with very little to show for it – a marginal reduction in Germany’s industrial capacity until the final few months of the war.

      Current use of drones seems to be following that pattern. If the aim (no pun intended) is to “decapitate” guerrilla groups, then that is ineffective, both because of replacement leaders always being in waiting, and because of the near certainty of significant collateral damage. Add the factor Pres. Obama touched on in his speech – that intelligence is simply not good enough to ensure you aim at the right general area where the bad guys might be lurking, and you have a strategy that is simply not worth pursuing.

    • Correction with regards to the jet type: As can be taken from the wikipedia entry you linked to, the German word “Staustrahltriebwerk” translates to pulsejet, and while that shares some similarities with a RAM jet, the S in the SCRAM acronym specifically stand for “supersconic”, and the V1 was never designed for that speed.

    • They are much better than the ‘precision’ bombing that the US engaged in during WW2. The Allied air forces killed over 60,000 french civilians in WW2 – and those were our allies.
      Still, the drone program is badly in need of reform. At a certain point, most of these strikes are not against high-level targets. It is time to reserve drone strikes for only the most significant of matters – and with the goal of going to zero.
      We need a return to normalcy.

  2. The hegemon recognizes no limits on specific actions of its power, but what is truly worse is the incognizance/indifference of the citizenry of such a vast power (ostensibly democratic), especially relative to civic consciences of its cohorts in other advanced Western democratic countries–but then this is the power of ideology, and the American political oligarchy like no other.

  3. Contrary to assurances given by President Obama a couple of years ago.

    Who, we might usefully ask, bought those assurances?

  4. I grieve for Warren, an old and beloved friend, and for our country, which has lost its moorings.
    According to the NY TImes account, the White House said the operation that killed the two hostages “was lawful and conducted consistent with our counterterrorism policies” but nonetheless the government is conducting a “thorough independent review” to determine what happened and how such casualties could be avoided in the future.

    “How such casualties could be avoided.” I’ll save them the price of an “independent review”…STOP these drone strikes!!! Mission accomplished!

  5. As someone who has read quite a bit of military history, I would like to present a contrarian and probably unpopular view. Since the mass warfare of WWI and later, civilian deaths, have often numbered even greater than combatant deaths. With the rise of air power, it rose exponentially. How many civilians were killed in the liberation of France? I don’t know that we will ever know and it wasn’t really that much of a concern. It certainly wasn’t a concern about the number of German or Japanese civilians killed by the allies and even now it is given short shrift. Even during Vietnam I don’t remember there being as much focus on civilian deaths as is the case now and the death toll then was pretty astounding. This is not to say we shouldn’t be concerned about the issue and it is good that it does get more attention. But it needs to be put in perspective. Drone strikes are probably the best way at this time to minimize civilian casualties. Certainly in the areas they are used, the only real alternative that is better is to do nothing at all. Regular air strikes and ground troops are certainly more destructive. Remember the Pakistani Army attacks in the Northwest areas a few years back? I don’t recall the numbers, but I’m sure it was magnitudes more deadly and destructive in both lives and property. As to the legality, that requires a longer monograph. While I think targeting US citizens is clearly illegal, attacks carried out against foreigners in the territory of another state, with the approval of that state, is likely legal. Despite the official fiction of denials, we all know that the drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have been carried out with the approval of those governments (Yemen, now, of course, is another story).

    • Something I thought about and want to add is that mistakes in warfare are all too common. So-called friendly fire can be destructive. The Gulf War had a large number of incidents for the length of the conflict. 24% of the combat deaths in the Gulf War were due to “friendly fire.” This is about the same percentage as civilian to militant deaths due to drone strikes. Also, almost as many coalition soldiers were killed by friendly fire and accidents combined as were killed by the Iraqis (190 compared to 189).

  6. What are the alternatives?

    This is the reality that so many folks ignore when they complain about the drone program.

    “Official countries” are NOT the only entities that can and will attack the USA and when the countries that are “hosting ” the belligerent entities will not do anything (Pakistan in this case) what is the USA supposed to do?

    Should the USA attack the “hoisting country?” We did that in Afghanistan and it didn’t really solve the problem. In fact we have tried to do that in several countries (Somalia anyone?) and it has never turned out very good.

    How would a war on Pakistan help? Especially when they are a nuclear power (without ICBMS, thankfully).

    From a pure cost/benefit analysis, directly targeting the belligerent entities with a method that endangers the fewest Americans, is probably the best choice.

    Inserting Americans in any of the areas where the belligerent entities hide would quickly find the Americans being killed by both the belligerent entity and the “hosting ” country.

    The belligerent entities are essentially “lawless bandits” and all throughout history “lawless bandits” have been killed on sight.

    If anyone can explain to me a “better ” way to deal with “lawless bandits” please do so.

    Yes “innocent” people are going to die, BUT if the USA does nothing, “innocent” people will die, possibly in larger numbers.

    So, since we know there are non-state belligerent organizations, that some states are “hoisting” whether they want to or not, What is the best way to deal with them?

  7. But it was the militant kidnappers’ compound, which included 2 Al Qaeda leaders. That was the intelligence and they don’t take into account surrounding civilians to get to them. The only other solutions would have been boots on the ground, like done for OBL, which too is/was controversial and had its difficulty and risks, or continuous negotiations with militants who constantly threatened an Al Qaeda/ISIL spectacle if no ransom.

    It reminds me of the ethics in targeting Baitullah Mehsud. Intelligence knew his wife and child were in the vicinity, but killed them anyways. He was wanted so badly by the Pak govt and public for his atrocious bombings against civilians in Pakistan that they were willing to cross that line to kill him, and he was killed. Unfortunately the terrible Hakimullah Mehsud took over briefly, but too also got killed by US drone to most of the Pak public’s glee, except for some sympathizers.

    • Just to add and note, except for some of the population and views of specific targets, overall the US drone program is more unpopular with the masses in Pakistan.

  8. Would a Republican president use drones for surveillance or whatever to disperse these “lynch mobs?”


    America would turn into an Arnold film.

  9. If innocent Afghans, Iraqi or Pakistani civilians are killed, it is simply called “Collateral Damage”.

    Why this incident of innocents killing is not Collateral Damage? Or, more appropriately as west calls it “friendly Fire”. Similarly during World War II had some British Collateral Damage when London was bombed.

  10. Much as I usually agree with Juan, I have to say I’m in disagreement here. If those numbers are correct, and around 80% of those being killed by drones really are militants of some kind, I have to say that looks like a pretty fair ratio to me.

    Yes, you would like it to be better. But this is a situation where there are often are no “good” choices. Sometimes you have to choose the best of the bad choices.

    And to me, it seems that drone strikes have possibly been the single most effective tactic that has yet been employed against Al-Quaeda and associated militants.

    I also see no major legal issues. As for US law, this was clearly authorized by Congress in the 2001 AUMF, and I see no chance the Supreme Court would find it unconstitutional. As for international law, there is little protection there for non-state actors like Al-Quaeda, so as long as Packistan is either allowing the strikes, or is unable themselves to prevent Al-Quaeda from using their territory as a base, then who is going to have a valid legal complaint?

    • A lack of “legal issues” limiting drone use is more an indictment of the low level of moral comprehension of in current law than an obstacle of legal restraint. If there are no legal issues there can be no objection whatever to the targeting of US soil or representatives anywhere by enemy drones, ‘enemy’ specifically not inferring a national entity. Military limitations on weapons usage and continual weapons development essentially do not exist. The sky’s the limit, or used to be before the weaponization of space. In the US at least civilian leadership is supposed to supply what moral deficiencies are in herent in the military. The distance between arguments on this very page illustrates the large and growing gap between societal comprehension of moral issues being continually expanded by military development. And unfortunately the ever widening societal gap of moral comprehension is not limited to military development.

    • I also see no major legal issues.

      You also apparently don’t see any moral issues here or the potential blowback that can come from questionable and incompetent use of drones. We are involved in the Middle East/South Asia chaos today because previous administrations since World War 2 didn’t see any legal or moral issues or considered blowback when they overthrew the democratically-election prime minister of Iran in 1953 and installed the despotic Shah and his Sawak. As Chalmers Johnson and Gore Vidal and others have demonstrated that modus operandum continued for decades culminating in the Big Blowback of 9/11. And the policy continues.

  11. Civilian casualties in the drone war are secondary characters in a violent video game.

    The only way to stop the killing is to humanize the victims – show their pictures, tell their story’s, hear from their devastated family’s.

    The US media is not interested in airing those stories.

  12. Obama and his spooks must be perplexed if they assumed their demonstrations of drone warfare would have persuaded their perceived evildoers the game was up and it was time to surrender. Instead, it appears that a “mushroom cloud” has formed over the region in the form of human brigands.

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