The (In)Accuracy of Obama's Drone Strikes: Is 2% good enough?
November 11, 2012 by Bruce Wallace, 121Contact
Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, (and who knows where else?): we are droning our way to failure. What began as a carefully planned elimination of specific terrorists has morphed into vaguely justified murder, sometimes of groups of people a drone-remote-operator in the U.S. thinks are" acting suspiciously". The resultant deaths of large numbers of innocent civilians cannot be justified rationally.
The blowback of anti-U.S. sentiment is enormous and we think the recruitment value of each strike surpasses the old Al Qaeda standby, Guantanamo.
President Obama assured us that the strikes were skillfully calculated to avoid civilian casualties. It just isn't so.
The American public needs to be educated about the facts, face the reality, and demand that our government find new ways to counter terrorism...ways that are more effective and less damaging to innocent civilians.
[If you don't want to wade through the verbiage you can skip to the end where the statistics are succinctly presented in a short table. Eating before reading is not recommended.]
The Constitution and international law provide a similar standard for the use of lethal force by states: intentionally killing is generally prohibited without judicial process – charge, trial and conviction – unless an individual presents an imminent threat of death or serious physical harm and lethal force is a last resort. We have replaced this with a bureaucratic process that excludes the judicial system. Some names remain on the list for months belying the imminent threat stricture. By substituting its own bureaucratic process for the due process required by the Constitution and international law, the executive is assuming the role of judge, jury, and executioner. [Center for Constitutional Rights]
The Obama Administration's Claim of Care (and Signature Strikes)
According to John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, “We only authorize a particular operation against a specific individual if we have a high degree of confidence that the individual being targeted is indeed the terrorist we are pursuing.”[The Wilson Center]
Unfortunately Brennan's assertion does not account for the vast majority of drone strikes. They are not against specific individuals, but rather against groups that appear to be militants. These attacks are called signature strikes.
This loophole gives the CIA broad killing power where a group is thought to be acting suspiciously. This has nothing at all to do with imminent threat. This bogus idea was perhaps born in 2003 when the CIA bought software that claimed to be able to identify terrorists from Predator drone videos. [NYTimes] Yes, we know that sounds nutty, but the CIA bought into it to the tune of over US$20 million dollars. It appears to be a hoax.
When official reports indicate, as they commonly do, a certain number "of suspected militants were killed by drone strikes, but the identities and nationalities of the dead are unknown" one has to wonder how accurate the intelligence was, or if there was even any intelligence behind the strikes.
The accuracy of a drone strike fundamentally hinges on the accuracy of the intelligence on which the targeting is premised. An anonymous US official admitted that “[y]ou get information from intelligence channels and you don’t know how reliable it is or who the source was. The intelligence services have criteria, but most of the time the people making the decision have no idea what those criteria are.” [Stanford International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic]
As recently as January, 2012 President Obama assured us that drone strikes “have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.” [BloombergNews] He must face the truth if we, the people, are ever to come to grips with it.
The truth is appalling. Only about 2% of those killed by drone strikes are militants, and the rest are innocent civilians, according to a joint study by Stanford Law School and New York University's School of Law. [CNN] The U.S. military count system assumes all combatant-aged killed by the strikes are militants unless post-strike investigations prove otherwise...but they don't do post-strike investigations, therefore all that they kill are considered valid targets.
Britain's The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reports that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562 - 3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474 - 881 were civilians, including 176 children. These strikes also injured an additional 1,228 - 1,362 individuals, according to the Stanford/NYU study. [CNN]
(There are a great many reports of outright mistakes. Here are a few.)
2012 Protests and Fury erupted in Yemen following an errant U.S. drone strike that killed 13 civilians on Sunday, Sept. 2nd. [wordpress]
2010 "A number of US raids in early January targeted Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Initially reported dead, but a later audio recording dispelled rumours of his death." [al Jazeera] So who died in these strikes?
2010 "At least nine people have been killed in a suspected US drone attack in northwestern Pakistan, intelligence officials say.Missiles hit a compound alleged to be used by Taliban fighters in Muhammad Khel, a town in North Waziristan, late on Friday. The identities of those killed in the attack were not immediately known."
2009 The case of Karim Khan, 45, a journalist from Machi Khel of North Waziristan. His eldest son, Zahinullah, 18, and his brother, Asif Iqbal, 35, were killed by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone that struck the family’s guest dining room at about 9.30pm on New Year’s Eve. ‘We have never had anything to do with militants or terrorists, and for that reason I always assumed we would be safe.’ [DailyMail]
2006 [NYTimes] counterterrorism officials respond to a bogus Somali terrorism plot on the day of President Obama’s inauguration, according to previously undisclosed documents.
Obama strikes: 298
Total reported killed: 2,593-3,378
Civilians reported killed: 475-885
Children reported killed: 176
Total reported injured: 1,252-1,401
Total confirmed US drone strikes: 42-52
Possible extra US operations: 122-141
Possible extra US drone strikes: 66-79
Total reported killed (all): 362-1,052
Total civilians killed (all): 60-163
Children killed (all): 24-34
Total US drone strikes: 3-9
Total reported killed: 58-170
Civilians reported killed: 11-57
Children reported killed: 1-3