Expanding CIA Drone Strikes Will Likely Mean More Dead Innocents

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President Obama the agency extraordinary authority in Pakistan. Now it wants these powers in Yemen too.

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An eye-opening report published last November in the Wall Street Journal revealed that the Obama Administration was permitting the CIA to kill people in Pakistan without even knowing who they were: "Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren't always known. The bulk of CIA's drone strikes are signature strikes." As I noted at the time, this is the same CIA that is known to have jailed innocent people, subjecting them to harsh interrogation tactics and years of wrongful imprisonment. Despite those errors, and the CIA's lack of transparency and accountability, the Obama Administration loosed it in Pakistan, where we've killed lots of innocent people. And while it's been operating in Yemen for some time, the CIA now wants official permission to kill people whose identities it can't confirm in that country either. 

Is President Obama going to agree? "If approved, the change would probably accelerate a campaign of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen that is already on a record pace, with at least eight attacks in the past four months," The Washington Post reports. "For President Obama, an endorsement of signature strikes would mean a significant, and potentially risky, policy shift. The administration has placed tight limits on drone operations in Yemen to avoid being drawn into an often murky regional conflict and risk turning militants with local agendas into al-Qaeda recruits."

It's worth pausing at that line about the "tight limits" on current drone operations in Yemen. Here's how Jeremy Scahill, who reported on the ground there, described the reality of American policy:

For years, the elite Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA had teams deployed inside Yemen that supported Yemeni forces and conducted unilateral operations, consisting mostly of cruise missile and drone attacks. Some of the unilateral strikes have killed their intended targets, such as the CIA attack on Awlaki. But others have killed civilians--at times, a lot of civilians. And many of these have been in Abyan and its neighboring province of Shebwa, both of which have recently seen a substantial rise of AQAP activity. President Obama's first known authorization of a missile strike on Yemen, on December 17, 2009, killed more than forty Bedouins, many of them women and children, in the remote village of al Majala in Abyan. Another US strike, in May 2010, killed an important tribal leader and the deputy governor of Marib province, Jabir Shabwani, sparking mass anger at the United States...

The October drone strike that killed Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes. "I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy," says Jamal, the Yemeni journalist. The strikes "have recruited thousands." Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, "which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge." Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused.

Put another way, the status quo, with its relatively greater protections, resulted in dozens of dead innocents and, according to some experts, created the conditions for blowback. And since Scahill did his reporting, the pace of drone strikes has increased, "with about as many strikes so far this year as in all of 2011," the Post reports. "Which U.S. entity is responsible for each strike remains unclear." Also secret are the identities of the people targeted and the people killed, a confluence of opacity that make abuses likely and more dead innocents all but certain.


As Michael Hastings outlines:

The first major success of drones - the 2002 strike that took out the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen - also resulted in the death of a U.S. citizen. More recently, a drone strike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010 targeted the wrong individual - killing a well-known human rights advocate named Zabet Amanullah who actually supported the U.S.-backed government. The U.S. military, it turned out, had tracked the wrong cellphone for months, mistaking Amanullah for a senior Taliban leader. A year earlier, a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, while he was visiting his father-in-law; his wife was vaporized along with him. But the U.S. had already tried four times to assassinate Mehsud with drones, killing dozens of civilians in the failed attempts. One of the missed strikes, according to a human rights group, killed 35 people, including nine civilians, with reports that flying shrapnel killed an eight-year-old boy while he was sleeping. Another blown strike, in June 2009, took out 45 civilians, according to credible press reports.
And astonishingly:

It remains unclear what role the White House itself plays in selecting the names that wind up placed on the kill lists. Some U.S. officials have described a secret panel within the National Security Council that keeps a list of targets to kill or capture. The panel, which has no paperwork authorizing its existence, is said to involve top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who was a staunch advocate of the Bush administration's decision to torture prisoners at Guantánamo. Other U.S. officials familiar with the targeting process say the idea of a secret panel overstates the case. The NSC, they insist, isn't involved in the vast majority of drone strikes on a daily basis - especially the majority of "signature strikes" launched by the CIA. That means the CIA still has broad authority to curate its own kill lists, with limited oversight from the White House. As one former CIA official put it: "The NSC decides when the president needs to be involved - and what fingerprints to leave, if any."

Yet the debate we're having is about giving the CIA more latitude.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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