CIA often doesn't know whom it kills with drones

Despite not even knowing the identity of the dead, the CIA asserted that all those killed were combatants

Published June 6, 2013 12:53PM (EDT)

Further affirming skepticism in the human rights community that "targeted killing" is a poor description of the CIA's drone program, a new NBC investigation found that the agency regularly did not know who it was killing with the strikes.

As Richard Engel and Robert Windrem reported, having reviewed months of classified documents:

About one of every four of those killed by drones in Pakistan between Sept. 3, 2010, and Oct. 30, 2011, were classified as "other militants,” the documents detail. The “other militants” label was used when the CIA could not determine the affiliation of those killed, prompting questions about how the agency could conclude they were a threat to U.S. national security.

The findings cement concerns that the U.S. is using dangerously broad determinations in picking strike targets, relying often merely "signature" behaviors and movements. The NBC report is further evidence disproving government claims that drone strikes precisely and specifically target al-Qaida top operatives -- a notion long contested by investigative reporters, legal experts and human rights groups.

Experts have long expressed concerns borne out by NBC's investigation. Legal clinics from NYU and Columbia Law Schools, as well as human rights groups including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, noted in a joint letter to the president:

The reported practice of so-called signature strikes, based on observation of certain patterns of behavior and other “signatures,” adds to these concerns. Signature strikes do not appear to require specific knowledge about an individual’s participation in hostilities or an imminent threat. Since their identity is unknown, even during the strike, these targeted individuals may be confused with civilians who cannot be targeted directly as a legal matter.

In his recent national security speech, President Obama announced that a new phase of drone wars would demand more precise identification of targets. The New York Times suggested that the policy shift might see an end to so-called signature strikes. Although, as I noted, lethal drone policy continues to be so shrouded and to rely on ill-defined rubric (such as "imminent threat") and as such fails to allay human rights concerns.

Among its most chilling findings, NBC revealed that, even while admitting that the identities of many killed by drones were not known, the CIA documents asserted that all those dead were enemy combatants. The logic is twisted: If we kill you, then you were an enemy combatant. Via NBC:

In some cases, U.S. officials also seem unsure how many people died. One entry says that a drone attack killed seven to 10 people, while another says that an attack killed 20 to 22.

Yet officials seem certain that however many people died, and whoever they were, none were non-combatants. In fact, of the approximately 600 people listed as killed in the documents, only one is described as a civilian. The individual was identified to NBC News as the wife or girlfriend of an al Qaida leader.

Tracing drone strikes and their casualties since 2004, the U.K.'s Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that up to 884 civilians (non-combatants, by international legal standards) may have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.

Watch NBC's report:

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By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Al-qaida Cia Drones Nbc Pakistan Signature Strikes Targeted Killing Video