Whether or not you agree with the President’s drone program, the revelation this week about a secret January CIA counterterrorism operation that killed two hostages and two suspected American terrorists highlights the shortcomings in the American “death by drone” program. In this case the US premier intelligence agency, the CIA, relied upon faulty satellite Intel rather than confirming “targets” through human intelligence. This killing again supports the findings of two government reports that the massive intelligence collection efforts of the US government have been ineffective in the war on terror, despite the hundreds of billions spent on electronic surveillance that has killed an estimated 3,800 non-combatants and daily infringes on American’s civil liberties. There is no doubt the latest US drone has a confirmed the unfavorable perception 86 percent of Pakistanis hold of the US.
After a few quiet months, the secret US drone program again made headlines this week when two separate strikes killed two al-Qaeda hostages as well as two suspected US terrorists in the tribal region of Pakistan.
President Obama read a rare pressroom brief on Thursday acknowledging America’s counterterrorism program had conducted two strikes in Pakistan that inadvertently killed three Americans and one Italian.
“I want to express our grief and condolences to the families of two hostages, one American, Dr. Warren Weinstein, and an Italian, Giovani Lo Porto, who were tragically killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation… Based on information and intelligence we have obtained, we believe that a U.S. counterterrorism operation targeting an Al Qaida compound in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, accidentally killed Warren and Giovani this past January,” Obama stated. The strike “was fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts.”
The other two Americans killed were suspected al-Qaeda terrorists Ahmed Farouq, and Adam Gadahn both men purportedly became prominent members of al-Qaeda. The White House noted that neither man was the target of the counterterrorism operation, which demonstrates drone strikes are responsible for a number of unintended deaths, often referred to as collateral damage.
The collateral and civilian deaths have been repeatedly downplayed or even denied by the Pentagon as well as White House officials.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Director of the National Security Project Hina Shamsi said one of the main takeaways from this week’s deadly strikes in Pakistan made it clear that “the government literally doesn’t know whom it is killing and in this case it was Americans.” She also stressed that the victims’ families would be receiving US government compensation for the accidental deaths, but pointed out the hundreds or thousands of innocent foreign nationals killed in drone strikes do not receive any US compensation.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest also released a statement claiming the President stood by the drone program: “The President directed that the information being shared today, which was properly classified until now, be declassified and shared with the American people… To this end, although the operation was lawful and conducted consistent with our counterterrorism policies, we are conducting a thorough independent review to understand fully what happened and how we can prevent this type of tragic incident in the future.”
However, the problem, according to the ACLU deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, is the sincerity of the administration. “These new disclosures raise troubling questions about the reliability of the intelligence that the government is using to justify drone strikes…. These and other recent strikes in which civilians were killed make clear that there is a significant gap between the relatively stringent standards the government says it’s using and the standards that are actually being used. It would of course be easier to assess this gap if the government routinely released information about individual drone strikes. Unfortunately, the president’s stated commitment to transparency can’t be squared with the secrecy that still shrouds virtually every aspect of the government’s drone program.”
While the Obama Administration claims the drone strikes have been effective tools in America’s “war on terror,” many question the decision making process. The ACLU did note that it was a positive step for the administration to come forward, but changes in the operational guidelines must be forthcoming.
Since the drone program’s 2003 inception, President George W. Bush used the remote control killing machines 50 times, whereas President Obama upped the ante and approved a staggering 475 strikes with two years remaining in his term.
Micah Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations told Meet the Press on Sunday that the drone strikes continue with little to no effect. “The targeted terror groups have either stayed the same in numbers, grew, or moved to other countries.”
But are there credible alternatives? “The government assumes military force must be used, so drones become the wise, ethical and preferred choice. The bigger question is how are these programs being used in conjunction with other national powers?” (IE: Pakistan)
Shamsi argues, it’s “hard to see how these lethal strikes could be consistent with 2013 ‘restrictive’ US standards when US didn’t even know who it was killing.”
While details remain sparse, this counterterrorism operation looks to be a “signature strike” which means it does not require CIA verification of targeted individuals, but gives operators broad parameters based on suspicious activity on the ground. (Also of note is the fact that some of the same CIA officials that ran the controversial torture program also run the secret drone program) The highly technical program is President Obama’s favorite tool in the seemingly perpetual “war on terror,” – one that doesn’t require boots on the ground or protracted conflicts that usually claim more US lives.
Shamsi explains that there may be a place for “signature strikes” in natural conflicts (operational warzones), but “no such thing happened here, there was no reliable intelligence.” She continued to say that when the government proceeds this way mistakes would be made. The program in essence makes “the CIA a Para-military killing operation that is conducted without the checks and balances a democracy requires.”
That being said, a New York Times article reported the president’s casualness about the deadly, secretive program. “’Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us,’ he often told aides.” Meanwhile, in 2013 President Obama avowed that his administration’s drone strikes are carefully thought out and said they conducted operations with “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured… Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties and those deaths will haunt us as long as we live.”
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BOIJ) highlighted the drone program’s reliance on shared intelligence gathering, “These have demonstrated just how close the US and UK intelligence communities are. In 2013 UN special rapporteur Ben Emerson told British parliamentarians that it is ‘inevitable’ that intelligence shared by UK spies with the US had been used in drone strikes. “It would be absurd if it were not the case,” he added. To date the BOIJ says 38 westerners have been killed by drone strikes and close to 4,000 people have died by drone strikes.
The White House declined to name the date of the “signature strikes” but according to Metadata, an iPhone app that monitors all US drones strikes, on January 15th two strikes took place in Pakistan. The entries read; “Un-mournable a US drone fired missiles at a house killing 7 people and injuring five. In a second US drone strike killed 5 people in Tehsil Ladha.” Both are consistent with the region the White House said the strikes occurred.
Lawmakers react to the news
After a record setting 13 hour Senate floor speech slamming the use of drones on US citizens, now presidential contender, Rand Paul only offered a statement about the tragic Pakistan drone operation: “It’s a tragedy that these hostages lost their lives, my prayers and thoughts are with their families.” A noticeable softening of the strong principled stance on civil liberties he has championed in the past.
Meanwhile Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a Marine reserve, who served in the Iraq War released a scathing statement regarding the death of American Dr. Warren Weinstein, the aid worker held hostage by al-Qaeda, killed in the US drone strike.
“Warren Weinstein did not have to die. His death is further evidence of the failures in communication and coordination between government agencies tasked with recovering Americans in captivity—and the fact that he’s dead, as a result, is absolutely tragic.”
“The FBI was the lead organization in the recovery mission, but, as I have said repeatedly, the FBI is incapable of leading these efforts in hostile areas. And the CIA’s focus in this case and others is not on the successful recovery of Americans held captive. Above all, this incident reaffirms the necessity to install an interagency coordinator—as I have proposed—in order to ensure there’s effective and constructive engagement at all levels.
This incident also calls to attention the fact that the only government organization seriously developing options to recover Weinstein and others in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region was within the Pentagon—led by war hero Jason Amerine.
In the lead up to the Bergdahl trade, Amerine and his team were developing plans to recover all Western hostages in the area—not just Bergdahl. Their planning did not include a 5 for 1 trade, as occurred, but rather a 1 for 7 exchange that included Weinstein. Due to infighting and disagreements among lead organizations, Amerine and his team struggled to get attention beyond the walls of the Pentagon and were ultimately sidelined. And when the State Department-led 5 for 1 trade was initiated, the deck was reshuffled for all the other Americans in captivity in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. This is just one more failure in a string of failures related to the Administration’s decisions and efforts related to Bergdahl’s release. My thoughts and prayers are with Warren Weinstein’s family. And my hope is that the Administration examines this entire incident with the understanding that opportunities were missed.”
Democrat ranking House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff was less critical of the president’s signature program and said there could be serious ramifications if the drone counterterrorism operations were altered. “To demand a higher standard of proof than they had here could be the end of these types of counter-terrorism operations.”
He continued by saying; “This was not a case where there was an operation that went after the wrong compound, an innocent family. The tragedy here was that there were also innocent hostages present, kept well concealed.”
Yet neither the White House nor the Congress has done anything to change or make the drone program’s guidelines more transparent.
In somewhat of a paradoxical moment the ACLU seems to be in line with former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn who stated with conviction that when it comes to the US’s schizophrenic foreign policy. “We should stop, take a deep breath, step back and look at everything that’s going on.”
For more information on Democracy Awake, a new advocacy group run by a 20-year Army veteran and whistleblower on the Afghanistan War, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis and mentioned in the San Diego 6 News segment, click here: Democracy Awake
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