President Obama with his Defense Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Two US reports published today 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 endorsed a redefining of the term ‘civilian’, which has helped 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.
The Bureau’s Chris Woods talks with NPR’s On the Media about civilian casualties
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 ’embraced’ a formula understood to have been devised by the Bush administration.
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.
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.
An earlier version of this report attributed the redefining of ‘civilian’ to the Obama administration. The Bureau now understands that it instead embraced a pre-existing policy introduced under George W Bush. We apologise for the error.