Drones: Barack Obama's secret war

Reports indicate at least 300 civilians - 63 of them children - have been killed by drones in Pakistan alone. Where is the scrutiny of this covert military operation?

Pre-flight checks are performed on an MQ-1B Predator Drone
Pre-flight checks are performed on an MQ-1B Predator Drone. Photograph: Getty Images

The recent news that President Barack Obama presides over a secret kill-list, which has sentenced thousands to death by drone, has disturbed many. Torture and extraordinary rendition under George W Bush, it turns out, have been replaced with industrial-scale extrajudicial execution by his successor, as many view it.

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 proper accountability. White House and CIA officials brag in selective leaks about drones’ effectiveness, even as they use the courts to block close scrutiny. Lawyers and journalists seeking to expose the truth have been smeared. Mounting evidence of hundreds of civilian casualties is pushed aside. And, until now, the compliant US media have 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 show 83 per cent support for the covert drone war; those unmanned killing machines may help put Obama back in the White House. And yet, like in the case of Guantanamo, there may be a devastating cost to the international reputation of the United States.

The armed drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is the defining weapon of America’s seemingly endless global “war on terror”, just as the tank once symbolised an earlier conflict. The CIA used weaponless drones in the 1990s during the Balkan wars, but there were grave concerns at the implications of slinging missiles under their wings. Only in the summer of 2001 did the CIA practise bombing a mock-up of Osama Bin Laden’s Afghan training camp out in the Nevada Desert. And just days before 11 September 2001, the CIA and the Pentagon were still bickering over who should control the drones programme. Neither wanted the responsibility for extrajudicial killings.

No wonder, with Bush’s state department bluntly telling Israel a fortnight earlier: “We remain opposed to targeted killings. We think Israel needs to understand that targeted killings of Palestinians don’t end the violence.” That principle was soon ditched, along with many others. The first weaponised Predator took to the skies above Afghanistan just days after the atrocities of 9/11. The first US extrajudicial targeted killing by drone took place in Yemen the following year. Since then, more than 3,000 people have died in roughly 400 covert drone strikes by the US.

Most 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 US is near-instant, as the pilot and navigator sit in air-conditioned comfort at an ever-expanding network of air force bases. More US pilots are now being trained to fly drones than for conventional fighter and bomber jets. Little wonder that the sequel to Tony Scott’s Top Gun is likely to be set on a drone base, a world where “kids play war games” by day “and then they party all night”.

Until recently, only one company was making lethal drones for the US: the privately owned General Atomics. It is unknown quite how many billions of dollars Washington has spent on the Predator and its bigger, faster successor the Reaper. The company’s accounts are not publicly available.
We do know that the General Atomics production lines in San Diego work day and night to churn out these ungainly killers. The only approved rival is in the form of a tiny hand-launched aircraft being “trialled” by US special forces in Afghanistan. The Switchblade by AeroVironment is better known as “the kami­kaze drone”, because it can be flown into a crowd of opponents and detonated.

Firing line

Great claims are made about the effectiveness of the Predator and Reaper, and US officials frequently tout drones as being “the most precise weapon in the history of warfare”. During Nato’s 2011 aerial campaign in Libya, there were hundreds of drone strikes among 9,700 strike sorties. A proud Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told the world last November, “We have carried out this operation very carefully, without confirmed civilian casualties.” That claim was later exposed as bogus: Human Rights Watch chronicled 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 the 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 battle. 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 led to far higher death counts as Hellfire missiles designed for destroying armoured tanks were used on houses built of mud bricks. Over time, the explosives content of the missiles has been lowered at least twice. “Collateral damage” has declined. Yet 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 of Investigative Journalism, where I lead a team looking at the covert war, 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 its deputy leader Abu Yahya al-Libi on 4 June, the terrorist group has been reduced to almost nothing, stripped of its leadership by US air raids and earlier joint counterterrorism operations with Pakistan. There is 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, meanwhile, simply ignores its “ally”.
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 administration official claimed in an interview with the New York Times that the number of civilians killed by Barack Obama in Pakistan is in the “single digits”. This is a lie. Three days after his inauguration, on 23 January 2009, Obama authorised two drone strikes. Both missed their intended targets. At least 15 civilians reportedly died on that day alone, and the president 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, Some particularly vicious tactics have also emerged. On 23 June 2009 the CIA attacked a public funeral attended by thousands as it attempted to kill a senior Taliban commander. Between 18 and 45 civilians were among the 83 people killed. The “object” was unharmed. On numerous other occasions, US drones have targeted rescuers trying to retrieve the dead and injured from previous drone strikes, as a major Bureau investigation with the Sunday Times showed in February. In the past few days, these odious tactics appear to have returned to Pakistan: there are reports of US attacks on funeral prayers and a mosque.

Despite US denials of their deaths, we often know a great deal about the “non-combatant” victims. It is often claimed that the region of Waziristan is “inaccessible” and that estab­lishing the facts is “impossible”. Nevertheless, sustained efforts by lawyers, academics, NGOs and journalists have uncovered extensive details of many of these people who have died.

Based on this information and its own field investigations, the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has so far been able to put names to more than 310 civilians killed in Pakistan. So far only 170 or so militants have been identified. For instance, we know that on 8 January 2010, Akbar Zaman, a high school teacher, together with his friends Mir Qalam, Saad Wali Khan and Muhammad Fayyaz, died when Zaman’s house was hit. Next door, three-year-old Ayeesha was also killed by missile shrapnel. That case is before the UN Human Rights Council and on 7 June Commissioner Navi Pillay called for an urgent inquiry into civilian casualties in Pakistan.

Even when it is clear what happened, the US persists in making denials. On 17 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, prompting 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 AQ-linked militants, were killed.” A current high court case in London, led by the legal charity Reprieve and based on multiple affidavits by survivors, has failed to convince the CIA that it killed anyone but “terrorists” on that day.

The Pakistani barrister Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who represents a number of families of civilians killed in strikes (and who has been smeared by US intelligence officials trying to brand him 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 prove that the US defines combatants in Waziristan as “all military-age males in a strike zone”. As if to reassure us, it also says that the dead can be “reclassified posthumously as civilians if explicit evidence proves them innocent”. Jameel Jaffer and Nathan Wessler of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has struggled to hold the Obama administration to account on the legality of its drone strikes, are blunt. “Direct targeting of noncombatants is a war crime,” they argued this month in a joint article. “A ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ policy is entirely inconsistent with international law, not to mention morally grotesque.”

Obama has vastly 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 past year. In Somalia, drones began killing last year. There are credible reports of one US strike in the Philippines. And CNN reports that covert (possibly armed) US drones have just taken to Libya’s skies in response to fears of rising militancy.

There is a startling absence of effective scru­tiny for all of this. Despite 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 flirting with introducing here. Diane Feinstein, the Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate intelligence committee, insists that it “question[s] every aspect of the programme including legality, effectiveness, precision, foreign policy implications and the care taken to minimise non-combatant casualties”. But don’t expect her to examine the morality of these strikes.

Discussing an alleged al-Qaeda bomber, Feinstein told Fox News last month: “I am hopeful that we will be able to, candidly, kill this bomb-maker and kill some of these other associates.” Mike Rogers, her opposite number in the House of Representatives, is equally onside. Talking about the expanding secret US drone war in Yemen on CBS recently, he described the strikes as “bringing folks to justice”.

Whose patsy?

Given such dysfunctional legislative oversight, the US media could have played a stronger role in holding Obama to account, but, with honourable exceptions, they have failed all too often. Beginning in January 2011, anonymous US officials began to brief 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, US officials have labelled the Bureau as an al-Qaeda-helping patsy of Pakistani intelligence.

Armed drones used conventionally are just another innovative weapons platform. Used covertly, however, they risk lowering the threshold at which wars are fought, and undermining the very laws of war. Some former senior US intelligence officials are warning that any strategic success may be undermined as new generations of Yemenis, Somalis and Pakistanis become radicalised by US tactics. Michael Hayden, the former CIA director 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 [department of justice] safe”. For eight long years, the US has conducted these strikes, often killing civilians, without proper scrutiny or accountability. That needs to change, urgently.

Chris Woods works with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and is writing a book for Hurst on the US’s secretive drone wars. Find him on Twitter: @chrisjwoodsAlso in the New Statesman's Drones issue: Geoffrey Robertson QC argues that drone attacks contravene every human rights principle in the bookJemima Khan's interview with former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and Michael Brooks on the science that makes drones work

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