Revelations that President Barack Obama presides over key aspects of secret kill-list machinery that has sentenced thousands to death by drone have disturbed many. Torture and extraordinary rendition under Bush, it turns out, have been replaced with industrial-scale extrajudicial execution by his successor.
Today, CIA and Pentagon armed drones range at will over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, seeking out alleged terrorists. These wars are ‘secret’ only in that they are removed from true accountability. White House and CIA officials brag in selective leaks of effectiveness, even as they use the courts to block real scrutiny. Lawyers and journalists seeking to expose the truth have been smeared. Mounting evidence of hundreds of civilian casualties is pushed aside. And a compliant US media has, until now, barely raised a whisper.
No wonder Obama’s re-election team seeks to present him as the Warrior President, the decapitator of Al Qaeda. Domestic US opinion polls have shown 83% support for the covert drone war – those unmanned killing machines may actually help put Obama back in the White House. Yet like Guantanamo, the cost to the international reputation of the United States may prove devastating.
The armed drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, is the defining weapon of America’s seemingly endless Global War on Terror, just as the tank once symbolised an earlier conflict. Weaponless drones were used by the CIA during the Balkans Wars. But there were big concerns at the implications of slinging missiles under their wings.
Only in summer 2001 did the Agency practice bombing a mock-up of Osama bin Laden’s farm out in the Nevada desert. And just days before 9-11, the CIA and the Pentagon were still bickering over who should control the drones programme. Neither wanted the responsibility for extrajudicial killings. And no wonder, with Bush’s State Department bluntly telling Israel the previous week that ‘We remain opposed to targeted killings. We think Israel needs to understand that targeted killings of Palestinians don’t end the violence.’
That principle, with many others, was soon ditched. The first weaponised Predator took to the skies above Afghanistan just days after the atrocities of September 2011. The first US extrajudicial killing by drone took place in Yemen the following year. Since then more than 3,000 people have died in some 400 covert US drone strikes.
The bulk of drone strikes take place within conventional warfare. Hundreds of armed US UAVs – and a handful of British ones – now patrol the skies above Afghanistan. Satellite control direct from the United States is near-instant, as pilot and navigator sit in air-conditioned comfort at an ever-expanding collection of Air Force bases. More US pilots are now being trained to fly drones than for conventional fighters and bombers. Little wonder that Tony Scott’s Top Gun sequel is likely to be set on a drone base, a world where ‘kids play war games by day… and party by night.’
Until recently only one company made lethal drones for the United States, the privately-owned General Atomics. It’s unknown quite how many billions of dollars the US has spent on the Predator drone and its bigger, faster successor the Reaper. The company’s accounts are not publicly available. We do know that General Atomics’ San Diego production lines work day and night to churn out these ungainly killers. The only approved rival is in the form of a tiny hand-launched drone that has been ‘trialled’ by US Special Forces in Afghanistan. Aerovironment’s Switchblade is better known as the Kamikaze Drone, since it can be flown into a crowd of opponents and detonated.
A promotional film for the US military’s new Switchblade drone
Great claims are made about the effectiveness of Predator and Reaper, regularly touted by US officials as ‘the most precise weapon in the history of warfare.’ NATO’s aerial campaign in Libya last year saw hundreds of drone strikes among 9,700 air sorties. A proud NATO secretary general later told the world, ‘We have carried out this operation very carefully, without confirmed civilian casualties.’ That claim was later exposed as bogus, with Human Rights Watch chronicling at least 72 civilians killed – among them 24 children and 20 women. Drones had a hand in those deaths. Yet NATO chose not to investigate reports of civilians killed, claiming that it had no mandate to gather information on the ground. It had never asked for permission to do so.
Armed drones do appear to bring greater accuracy to the battlefield. Able to loiter over an area, they can examine a target with multiple sensors before attacking. Women and children in the firing line? A drone can wait for minutes, even hours, for a cleaner shot. Early Predator strikes saw far higher death counts as Hellfire missiles designed for destroying armoured tanks were used on houses built of mud bricks. Over time the explosive content of the missiles has been lowered at least twice. ‘Collateral damage’ has declined. But still civilians die. In Afghanistan that can lead to investigation, remorse and compensation. When drones cross the border to conduct attacks in the other, supposedly secret war, all such accountability stops.
CIA-controlled Predators and Reapers have been bombing Pakistan’s tribal areas since June 2004. According to the Bureau, 330 US drone strikes (278 of them under Obama) have so far killed at least 2,500 people in Pakistan. At least 482 civilians are credibly reported among the dead. Al Qaeda has certainly suffered in this campaign. With the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi on June 4 the terrorist group is reduced to almost nothing, stripped of its leadership by US air raids and earlier joint counter-terrorism operations with Pakistan. There’s little doubt that for years Islamabad tacitly approved most of the US strikes on its soil. But any co-operation has been progressively withdrawn over the past 18 months. Now Pakistan condemns every attack as being ‘in total contravention of international law’. The US simply ignores its ‘ally.’
‘Single digits’ claim a lie
US officials routinely claim that no more than 50 or 60 civilians have died in eight years of bombing in Pakistan. Only recently, a senior US official claimed that the number of civilians killed by Barack Obama in Pakistan is in ‘the single digits.’ This is a lie. With his feet barely under the Oval Office table, President Obama authorised two drone strikes on January 23 2009. Both missed their intended targets. At least 15 civilians reportedly died on that day alone, and Obama knew about those civilian casualties within hours. ‘You could tell from his body language that he was not a happy man,’ as one observer puts it.
In fact at least 300 civilians have been credibly reported killed (63 of them children) among at least 2,000 drone fatalities during Obama’s Pakistan campaign. Some particularly vicious tactics have also emerged. On June 23 2009 the CIA attacked a public funeral attended by thousands, in an effort to kill a senior Taliban commander. Between 18 and 45 civilians were among 83 killed. The leader was unharmed.
On numerous other occasions, US drones have deliberately targeted rescuers trying to retrieve the dead and injured from previous drone strikes, as a major Bureau investigation with the Sunday Times showed. In the last few days, those odious tactics appear to have returned to Pakistan, with credible reports of US attacks on funeral prayers and a mosque.
Despite US denials of their deaths, we often know a great deal about ‘non-combatant’ victims. It’s often claimed that Waziristan is ‘inaccessible’ and that establishing facts is ‘impossible. In fact persistent efforts by lawyers, academics, NGOs and journalists have uncovered extensive details about many of those who died. Based on this information and its own field investigations, the Bureau has so far been able to put names to more than 310 civilians killed in Pakistan. Only 170 or so militants have so far been identified.
On January 8 2010, for example, we know that high school teacher Akbar Zaman and his friends Mir Qalam, Saad Wali Khan and Muhammad Fayyaz all died when Zaman’s house was hit. Next door, three year old Ayeesha was also killed by missile shrapnel. That case is currently before the UN Human Rights Council with Commissioner Navi Pillay calling last week for an urgent inquiry into civilian casualties in Pakistan.
Even when the facts are well-known, the US persists in its denials. In March 2011, the CIA hit a tribal meeting, or jirga, attended by dozens of civic leaders from North Waziristan. Up to 42 civilians died that day in Miranshah, leading to loud protests from Pakistan’s president, prime minister and army chief. In a mealy-mouthed response, an anonymous US official told the New York Times: ‘The fact is that a large group of heavily armed men, some of whom were clearly connected to Al Qaeda and all of whom acted in a manner consistent with A.Q.-linked militants, were killed.’ A current High Court case in London, led by legal charity Reprieve and based on multiple affidavits of survivors, has failed to convince the CIA that it killed anyone but ‘terrorists’ that day.
Pakistani barrister Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who represents a number of families of civilians killed in strikes (and who’s been smeared by US intelligence officials as an ISI agent), once noted that ‘since every man in Waziristan has a turban and a gun, every one of them is a likely CIA target’. Perversely we now know this to be the case. Recent revelations show that combatants are defined by the US in Waziristan as ‘all military-age males in a strike zone.’
As if to reassure us, we’re told that the dead can be ‘reclassified posthumously as civilians if explicit evidence proves them innocent’. Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has struggled to hold the Obama administration to account on the legality of its covert drone strikes, is blunt. ‘Direct targeting of noncombatants is a war crime,’ he wrote in The Guardian last week. ‘A “shoot first, ask questions later” policy is entirely inconsistent with international law, not to mention morally grotesque.’
Obama has radically expanded the covert drone war, drawing in ever more countries. In Yemen, more than 90 Pentagon and CIA drone strikes may have taken place in the last year. In Somalia, drones began killing in 2011. There are credible reports of one US strike in the Philippines. And CNN reports that covert (and possibly armed) US drones have just taken to Libya’s skies, after fears of rising militancy.
The absence of effective scrutiny for all of this is startling. Despite repeated US claims that its covert drone strikes are in accordance with international law, no US court has ever ruled on the matter. The CIA routinely claims ‘state secrets privilege’ to strike down legal challenges – the same system the British government is presently flirting with introducing here. Democrat Diane Feinstein recently revealed that the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee she chairs ‘questions every aspect of the program including legality, effectiveness, precision, foreign policy implications and the care taken to minimize noncombatant casualties.’
‘Kill this bomb-maker’
But don’t expect Feinstein to examine the morality of these strikes. Discussing an alleged Al Qaeda bomber recently, she told Fox News” ‘I am hopeful that we will be able to, candidly, kill this bomb maker and kill some of these other associates.’ Her opposite number Mike Rogers in the House of Representatives is equally onside. Discussing the expanding secret US drone war in Yemen he recently described them as ‘bringing folks to justice.’
Given such dysfunctional oversight, the US media could have played a stronger role in holding Obama to account. But with honourable exceptions it has too often failed. Beginning in January 2011, anonymous US officials began briefing US journalists that CIA drones had reached a point of perfection – they were no longer killing any civilians in Pakistan. For seven months those claims went unchallenged by any news organisation. It took a Bureau investigation to identify at least 45 civilians – and likely many more – killed in the defined period. For that – and for its other work exposing the civilian cost of the US drones campaign – TBIJ has been labelled by US officials as an al-Qaeda-helping patsy of Pakistani intelligence.
Armed drones used conventionally are simply another innovative weapons platform. But used covertly, they risk lowering the threshold at which wars are fought – and undermining the laws of war themselves. Former senior US intelligence officials are warning that any strategic success may be undermined as new generations of Yemenis, Somalis and Pakistanis are radicalised by American tactics.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who introduced covert drone strikes in Pakistan back in 2004, said recently that ‘democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a DoJ [Department of Justice] safe.’ For eight long years US covert drone strikes have been conducted without proper scrutiny or accountability. That needs to change.
A version of this article appeared as the lead feature in the New Statesman’s special drones issue. Republished here with kind permission.
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