Washington yawns at an American atrocity: Why the latest drone fiasco won't change anything

The administration's sloppy approach to drone strikes has killed an innocent American. DC's response? Oh, well

By Jim Newell
Published April 24, 2015 9:57AM (EDT)
Barack Obama                                   (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Barack Obama (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

You would have thought yesterday, upon hearing President Obama's admission that a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan killed an American held hostage by al-Qaida, would rank among the most serious (and legitimate) scandals of his presidency. A disaster of this nature was bound to happen, given the White House's loose standards for green-lighting drone strikes.

Yet the reaction was fairly ho-hum. Media coverage of the event and statements from members of Congress, allies and critics of the president alike, were basically, Well isn't that sad. Also: It's al-Qaida's fault. Is al-Qaida in control of the United States' drones? There are some pretty good hackers out there, but they haven't mastered that capability yet.

The simple truth is this: There is not going to be any meaningful reconsideration of the administration's drone program. It's too politically popular, and too distant. The country's collective consciousness is going to repress this episode. The United States government just bombed one of its own, an innocent, and our reaction is going to be ice cold and fleeting.

The incident makes a mockery of the supposed standards the administration must meet to launch a drone strike. Here are the rules:

First, there must be a legal basis for using lethal force, whether it is against a senior operational leader of a terrorist organization or the forces that organization is using or intends to use to conduct terrorist attacks.

Second, the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat, the United States will not use lethal force.

Third, the following criteria must be met before lethal action may be taken:

1) Near certainty that the terrorist target is present;

2) Near certainty that non-combatants* will not be injured or killed;

3) An assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation;

4) An assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. persons; and

5) An assessment that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat to U.S. persons.

(Regarding the idea of who qualifies as a "combatant": The New York Times reported in 2012 that the administration sought to limit the number of "non-combatant" casualties through a fairly cynical means: by counting "all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." The White House disputes this on its fact sheet: "Males of military age may be non-combatants; it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.")

"Near certainty" is a useful phrase. What sort of due diligence is used to determine that near certainty, and at what threshold is near certainty met? Let's look at how the administration reached "near certainty that non-combatants," like an innocent American hostage, or anyone else, would not be injured or killed in this January strike. From the Wall Street Journal's report:

Along with Messrs. [Warren] Weinstein and [Giovanni] Lo Porto, the strike on the compound killed Ahmed Farouq, an al Qaeda leader and American citizen, the officials said. The CIA had observed what they believed to be a senior al Qaeda member entering the compound in the days just before the strike but intelligence analysts didn’t know it was Mr. Farouq, the officials said.

The Guardian has more:

Farouq was not, however, the target of the operation. The drone strike was not targeted at known al-Qaida members; instead, it was directed against anyone in the vicinity of what the US believed was a compound being used by the terrorist group.

The CIA saw a guy, whom they "believed to be a senior Al Qaeda member," or maybe not even, going into a compound. So they bombed the compound some days later. They had no way of knowing who or how many people were in that compound. As Guardian reporter Paul Lewis tweeted, "Drone strike was authorised on the basis it was targeting a compound being frequented by an unidentified al-Qaida leader. That's it." They did not have near certainty who the person was, or who else was there, and it's also not clear how this compound presented an "imminent threat" to U.S. persons. Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council of Foreign Relations, puts it best:

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The administration has been playing fast and loose with its standard to obtain "near certainty" that there are no innocents around for some time. Drone strikes have been killing innocents -- consider the ratio of targeted individuals to total deaths -- though the government doesn't like to admit it. Now that an American has been killed, and not just one of those people over there, you might think that this would prompt a large bloc on Capitol Hill to call for major reform to such counterterrorism operations. You would be wrong.

Sen. Lindsey Graham is the sort of character who'd call for a permanent select committee to investigate the president for wearing a pair of socks that didn't match one day. But the administration ends up bombing an innocent American because a building looked kinda-sorta terrorist-y? Here, the administration is afforded a pass:

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Sen. Ted Cruz added, "Today we received another reminder that radical Islamic terrorism remains a deadly threat to our nation." Maybe it does, but how is this news a reminder of that?

Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy, ostensibly from the other end of the political spectrum, echoed Graham: "If [Al Qaeda] had not held them hostage, it would not have happened." Huh?

There will be an internal investigation over what happened, but really, why bother? There's not going to be any pressure to change the program. Members of Congress aren't even admitting that the administration did anything wrong in this incident, and that it's just part of the game:

“Not at all. Collateral damage is part of war,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “We’re at war.”

“There are consequences to war, and we’re in one,” said Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.). “When you look at our experience with collateral damage, it’s minimal.”

While Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wondered why the White House had waited until April to announce killings that took place in January, Burr said he had already reviewed the timeline for the release of the information as well as the particulars of the drone strike in question and said he will continue to do so.

But everything Burr has seen so far points to a “very appropriate” use of drones in this instance. Other top Republicans on national security issues backed Burr’s assertion, along with a war on terror that increasingly involves the use of unmanned drones to kill top terrorist targets.

Eh, shit happens.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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