You might wonder whether this kind of mishap is typical of the Obama administration’s drone program. According to classified intelligence reports recently obtained by McClatchy Newspapers, the answer could be yes. The reports, which span a period of intense drone use between 2010 and 2011, reveal that of the 482 people deliberately killed, at least 265 were merely “assessed” as possible Pakistani, Afghan, or unidentified extremists, described only as “foreign fighters” or “other militants.” Only six high-ranking Al-Qaida officials were killed, probably because 43 of the 95 drone strikes weren’t even targeting Al-Qaida. Instead, they targeted groups like the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, groups that have never pulled off an attack on US soil.
The revelations blatantly undercut official explanations of the drone program. The Obama administration claims that it uses drone strikes only against Al-Qaida officials, or their associates, who pose an imminent threat to the United States. “It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative,” Obama said in a 2012 interview with CNN. “It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.”
Let’s examine how far the administration’s actions differ from its words. First of all, administration officials, including director of the CIA John O. Brennan, have stressed that the strikes mainly target Al-Qaida operatives. The reports clearly disprove this. Instead, many strikes targeted groups with parochial goals focused in Pakistan, or without the capacity to attack the United States. A recent article in the New York Times offers a possible explanation for these targets. The article, “A Secret Deal on Drones, Sealed in Blood” by Marl Mazzetti, reveals that the very first drone strike in Pakistan targeted not a high-ranking Al-Qaida operative likely responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks, but a member of the Pakistani Taliban who had led a tribal rebellion and was marked by Pakistan as an enemy of the state.
Mazzetti suggests that the killing was carried out as a kind of favor for the Pakistani government, rather like a toll paid in exchange for use of the state’s airspace. Given the fact that a UN investigation into the drone warfare declared that the strikes constitute an infringement on Pakistan’s state sovereignty, maybe the CIA has been performing even more favors to keep in the government’s good graces, or at least keep them quiet.
Secondly, it’s obvious that these Pakistan- or Afghanistan-focused groups had no “operational plot” against the United States. It’s especially unlikely that the CIA harbored serious suspicions backed by firm proof that the anonymous men, later termed “foreign fighters” in intelligence reports, posed an “imminent threat” to the United States. These men were likely killed by “signature strikes,” in which the CIA determines that someone is a terrorist by observing certain signature behaviors, such as carrying a weapon or meeting with certain people. The administration doesn’t acknowledge that such strikes take place, but many of the strikes covered by the newly leaked reports seem to fit the bill. Even when the administration targets actual Al-Qaida operatives, we have to question whether or not it could prove that they posed an “imminent threat.” Perhaps they did, but the Obama administration clearly selects such fuzzy qualifications to ensure that no one asks for proof, and it can continue its campaign of risk-free assassinations.
Much of the administration’s legal justification for its drone program appears to rest on Congress’s 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which gave then-president Bush clearance to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”
The current administration has stretched this narrow authorization to its limits, claiming that it justifies targeted killing of “associates” of Al-Qaida, a weak excuse for how far the CIA has drifted from targeting anyone directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks. With such nebulous language and far-reaching justification to defend it, the drone program could go on forever, costing even more than the 2,000-3,000 lives independent groups estimate have already been ended.
Issues with the targeted killing program extend beyond its questionable justification. If they didn’t, Congress could just release a new Authorization of the Use of Military Force, this time allowing the president to kill whoever he wanted, as long as there was the slightest suspicion that that person might one day attempt to attack the United States. But the leaked documents reveal a serious problem with drone warfare: you don’t always know who you’re killing.
I’m aware of the benefits of drone use over ground invasion: the drone option is much more palatable for Pakistan, and, more importantly, it’s much safer for Americans. But what about Pakistanis? The reports recognize exactly one civilian casualty of the targeted killings, a laughable under-representation, but one that might at least get CIA officials to stop bragging about how “precise” drone strikes are. And even for those who are deliberately killed by drone strikes, the process is hardly morally sound, especially given the dubious practice of “signature strikes.” Why should the CIA get to decide when an extrajudicial death sentence is appropriate, whether for a US citizen (here’s looking at you, Anwar Al-Awlaki) or a Pakistani or Yemeni one?
It’s also important to note that the administration might be undermining its own goals. Every dead civilian, every bomb rained from heaven bolsters terrorist arguments that the United States is a corrupt, swollen power. Each terrorist we kill might be getting replaced just as quickly. This form of unilateral US military action, just like those that came before it, is likely driving up recruitment at terrorist organizations.
Just as it’s difficult to say how many Pakistani civilians have been killed by drone strikes, it’s impossible to know how many US civilians have been saved by them. Perhaps the drone program has put an end to a few serious terrorist plots. But, if it did, it was probably by killing those six top Al-Qaida officials, not the other 476 people, and that’s not even counting the civilian deaths that went unacknowledged in the reports.
The Obama administration needs to get serious about only targeting those who actually do pose an imminent threat to the United States. It needs to acknowledge the practice of signature strikes and lay bare its rationale for when such strikes are sufficiently justified. For starters, it could respond to the reports released by McClatchy and the serious concerns raised by them, perhaps by promising to take a long, critical look at its drone program. I’m guessing that the reason the drone program is so shrouded in secrecy is that the administration knows it has something to hide. Enough with the secrecy, enough with the fuzzy terminology. Publicly acknowledge the issues of the drone program, Obama. Then fix them.
—Stacey Nieves ‘15 is an English major.