U.S. drones targeting rescuers and mourners

A new amply documented report demonstrates the use of American tactics that are almost certainly war crimes

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(updated below – Update II – Update III)

On December 30 of last year, ABC News reported on a 16-year-old Pakistani boy, Tariq Khan, who was killed with his 12-year-old cousin when a car in which he was riding was hit with a missile fired by a U.S. drone. As I noted at the time, the report contained this extraordinary passage buried in the middle:

Asked for documentation of Tariq and Waheed’s deaths, Akbar did not provide pictures of the missile strike scene. Virtually none exist, since drones often target people who show up at the scene of an attack.

What made that sentence so amazing was that it basically amounts to a report that the U.S. first kills people with drones, then fires on the rescuers and others who arrive at the scene where the new corpses and injured victims lie.

In a just-released, richly documented report, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, on behalf of the Sunday Times, documents that this is exactly what the U.S. is doing — and worse:

The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of  civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals, an investigation by the Bureau for the Sunday Times has revealed.

The findings are published just days after President Obama claimed that the drone campaign in Pakistan was a “targeted, focused effort” that “has not caused a huge number of civilian casualties”. . . .

A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. The tactics have been condemned by leading legal experts.

Although the drone attacks were started under the Bush administration in 2004, they have been stepped up enormously under Obama.

There have been 260 attacks by unmanned Predators or Reapers in Pakistan by Obama’s administration – averaging one every four days.



As I indicated, there have been scattered, mostly buried indications in the American media that drones have been targeting and killing rescuers. As the Bureau put it: “Between May 2009 and June 2011, at least fifteen attacks on rescuers were reported by credible news media, including the New York TimesCNN, Associated PressABC News and Al Jazeera.” Killing civilians attending the funerals of drone victims is also well-documented by the Bureau’s new report:

Other tactics are also raising concerns.  On June 23 2009 the CIA killed Khwaz Wali Mehsud, a mid-ranking Pakistan Taliban commander. They planned to use his body as bait to hook a larger fish – Baitullah Mehsud, then the notorious leader of the Pakistan Taliban.

“A plan was quickly hatched to strike Baitullah Mehsud when he attended the man’s funeral,” according to Washington Post national security correspondent Joby Warrick, in his recent book The Triple Agent. “True, the commander… happened to be very much alive as the plan took shape. But he would not be for long.”

The CIA duly killed Khwaz Wali Mehsud in a drone strike that killed at least five others. . . .

Up to 5,000 people attended Khwaz Wali Mehsud’s funeral that afternoon, including not only Taliban fighters but many civilians.  US drones struck again, killing up to 83 people. As many as 45 were civilians, among them reportedly ten children and four tribal leaders.

The Bureau quotes several experts stating the obvious: that targeting rescuers and funeral attendees is patently illegal and almost certainly constitutes war crimes:

Clive Stafford-Smith, the lawyer who heads the Anglo-US legal charity Reprieve, believes that such strikes “are like attacking the Red Cross on the battlefield. It’s not legitimate to attack anyone who is not a combatant.”

Christof Heyns, a South African law professor who is United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra- judicial Executions, agrees. “Allegations of repeat strikes coming back after half an hour when medical personnel are on the ground are very worrying”, he said. ‘To target civilians would be crimes of war.” Heyns is calling for an investigation into the Bureau’s findings.

What makes this even more striking is how conservative — almost to the point of inaccuracy — is the Bureau’s methodology and reporting. Its last news-making report, issued last July, was designed to prove (and unquestionably did prove) that top Obama counter-Terrorism adviser John Brennan lied when he said this about drone strikes in Pakistan: “in the last year, ‘there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.” The Bureau’s July, 2011 report concluded that Brennan’s claim was patently false: “a detailed examination by the Bureau of 116 CIA ‘secret’ drone strikes in Pakistan since August 2010 has uncovered at least 10 individual attacks in which 45 or more civilians appear to have died.” As I noted at the time — and again when I interviewed Chris Woods of the Bureau — their methodology virtually guarantees significant under-counting of civilian deaths (and, indeed, their July, 2011, count was much lower than other credible reports) because they only count someone as a “civilian” when they can absolutely prove beyond any doubt that the person who died by a drone strike was one. The difficulty of reporting and obtaining verifiable information in Waziristan ensures that some civilian deaths will not be susceptible to that high level of documentary proof, and thus will go un-counted by the Bureau’s methodolgy.

The point is that the Bureau is extremely scrupulous, perhaps to a fault, in the claims it makes about civilian drone fatalities. Its findings here about deliberate targeting of rescuers and funeral attendees are supported by ample verified witness testimony, field research and public reports, all of which the Bureau has documented in full. As Woods said by email: “We have been working for months with field researchers in Waziristan to independently verify the original reports. In 12 cases we are able to confirm that rescuers and mourners were indeed attacked.”

As the report notes, it’s particularly remarkable that these findings come on the heels of President Obama’s recent boasting about the efficacy of drones and his specific claim that the policy has “not caused a huge number of civilian casualties”, adding that it was “important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.” Compare that claim to the Bureau’s almost certainly under-stated conclusion that it has “found that since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children.” And targeting rescuers and funeral attendees of your victims is quite the opposite of keeping the drone program on a “very tight leash.” As Samiullah Khan, one of the Bureau’s field researchers put it:

In a war situation no one is allowed to attack the Red Cross. Rescuers are like that. You are not allowed to attack rescuers. You know, the number of Taliban is increasing in Waziristan day by day, because innocents and rescuers are being killed day by day.

Strictly speaking, the legality of attacking rescuers may be ambiguous because, as the Bureau put it: “It is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions to attack rescuers wearing emblems of the Red Cross or Red Crescent. But what if rescuers wear no emblems, or if civilians are mixed in with militants, as the Bureau’s investigation into drone attacks in Waziristan has repeatedly found?” But there’s nothing ambiguous about the morality of that, or of attacking funerals (recall the worst part of the Baghdad attack video released by WikiLeaks: that the Apache helicopter first fired on the group containing Reuters journalists, then fired again on the people who arrived to help wounded). Whatever else is true, it seems highly likely that Barack Obama is the first Nobel Peace laureate who, after receiving his award, presided over the deliberate targeting of rescuers and funeral mourners of his victims.

 

UPDATE: Perhaps this is where the idea came from to attack rescuers:

Or perhaps it came from here:

The widow of a Birmingham, Alabama, police officer denounced confessed bomber Eric Rudolph as a “monster” Monday after a federal judge sentenced him to life in prison for the 1998 blast that killed her husband.

U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith in Birmingham sentenced Rudolph to two consecutive life terms without parole in connection with the January 1998 bombing of the New Woman All Women clinic, which performs abortions. . . .

In the later Atlanta area blasts, Rudolph targeted federal agents by placing second bombs nearby set to detonate after police arrived to investigate the first explosion.

In January 1997, a bomb exploded at the Northside Family Planning Services clinic in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs. A second bomb went off an hour later, injuring seven people.

A month later, four people were wounded in an explosion at Atlanta’s Otherside Lounge. Police found a second bomb and defused it before it went off.

Or perhaps it’s from here: a 2007 Homeland Security report on Terrorism, explaining that this is a hallmark of Hamas terror attacks:

When describing Hamas, Homeland Security even christened such attacks with a name: “the double tap.” Whatever else is true, this conduct is something the FBI, DHS, the DOJ and federal courts have all formally denounced as Terrorism.

 

UPDATE II: This week, from February 6-11, I’ll be speaking at numerous events around the country regarding the state of civil liberties. I’ll be in New York, Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio and — to deliver the keynote address to the ACLU in Idaho’s annual dinner — in Boise, Idaho. All events are open to the public. Event information is here.

 

UPDATE III: AP reported last week that “Nobel Peace Prize officials were facing a formal inquiry over accusations they have drifted away from the prize’s original selection criteria by choosing such winners as President Barack Obama.” Specifically:

The investigation comes after persistent complaints by a Norwegian peace researcher that the original purpose of the prize was to diminish the role of military power in international relations.

If the Stockholm County Administrative Board, which supervises foundations in Sweden’s capital, finds that prize founder Alfred Nobel’s will is not being honored, it has the authority to suspend award decisions going back three years — though that would be unlikely and unprecedented, said Mikael Wiman, a legal expert working for the county. . . .

Fredrik Heffermehl, a prominent researcher and critic of the selection process, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that “Nobel called it a prize for the champions of peace.”

“And it’s indisputable that he had in mind the peace movement, i.e. the active development of international law and institutions, a new global order where nations safely can drop national armaments,” he said . . .

“Do you see Obama as a promoter of abolishing the military as a tool of international affairs?” Heffermehl asked rhetorically.

That is indeed a rhetorical question.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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