Investigative reports and on-the-ground testimonies have made it public knowledge that far more people than al-Qaida leaders are killed by drone strikes. The U.K.’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) estimates that in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia over 1,o00 civilians may have been killed by U.S. drone strikes. The Obama administration has long maintained, however, that strikes are only ever authorized to target “specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaida and associated forces.” Documents obtained by McClatchy newspapers suggest that these claims are false.
The top-secret intelligence reports reveal, as one expert with the Council on Foreign Relations told McClatchy, that the administration is “misleading the public about the scope of who can legitimately be targeted.” It is not clear who leaked the documents to McClatchy for review.
The intelligence reports list killings of alleged Afghan insurgents whose organization wasn’t on the U.S. list of terrorist groups at the time of the 9/11 strikes; of suspected members of a Pakistani extremist group that didn’t exist at the time of 9/11; and of unidentified individuals described as “other militants” and “foreign fighters.”
In a response to questions from McClatchy, the White House defended its targeting policies, pointing to previous public statements by senior administration officials that the missile strikes are aimed at al Qaida and associated forces.
… The documents also show that drone operators weren’t always certain who they were killing despite the administration’s guarantees of the accuracy of the CIA’s targeting intelligence and its assertions that civilian casualties have been “exceedingly rare.”
… At least 265 of up to 482 people who the U.S. intelligence reports estimated the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior al Qaida leaders but instead were “assessed” as Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists. Drones killed only six top al Qaida leaders in those months, according to news media accounts.Forty-three of 95 drone strikes reviewed for that period hit groups other than al Qaida, including the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as “foreign fighters” and “other militants.”
Pro Publica earlier this year drew attention to the troubling proliferation of “signature strikes” in U.S. drone wars — attacks in which targets are selected based not on knowledge of the individuals’ identities, but on their “signature” behaviors and movements fitting the general profile of a top al-Qaida militant. Three senior Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, in a letter to Attorney General Holder last May, asked “How, for example, does the Administration ensure that the targets are legitimate terrorist targets and not insurgents who have no dispute with the United States?” McClatchy’s findings suggest there is a troubling answer to this question: The administration doesn’t ensure this at all. Indeed, the more that we learn about the scope of the drone strikes, the more the descriptor “targeted killing” seems inappropriate.
As noted earlier this week, based on reports from Mark Mazzetti, the very first target of a CIA drone strike in Pakistan was not an al-Qaida operative, nor an enemy of the U.S., but “a Pakistani ally of the Taliban who led a tribal rebellion and was marked by Pakistan as an enemy of the state.” Mazzetti noted that “in a secret deal [with the Pakistani military], the C.I.A. had agreed to kill him in exchange for access to airspace it had long sought so it could use drones to hunt down its own enemies.” Whether Pakistani authorities still consent to the presence of U.S. drones in their air space is not clear, but U.N. special rapporteur Ben Emmerson Q.C., following a recent fact finding mission in Pakistan, stressed that Pakistan has given the U.S. no such tacit consent to carry out its drone wars.