We're Killing Alleged Militants Too Quickly to Reliably Determine Guilt

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In Pakistan alone, drones have killed more than one person per day since President Obama took office.

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Based on the New America Foundation's count, American drones have killed 1,362 "militants" in Pakistan since 2009, using the "low" estimates for militants killed and excluding dead innocents.

Think about that number.

Since January 1, 2009, there have been 1,288 days. For the sake of simplicity, let's say that since President Obama took office he's killed people at the pace of about one person per day. This significantly understates the true figure. Our already conservative tally excludes those killed in countries other than Pakistan, and excludes acknowledged innocents killed. The "one person per day" number is a conservative estimate of those deemed to be guilty even in hindsight.

How sure should we be that all those people are actually guilty?

It's a subject I've addressed before, focusing on the dubious definition of "militant" used by those doing the counting -- for them, any dead military-aged male is presumed to have deserved death. Today I want to take a different angle.

The Obama Administration would have us believe that it is able to determine the guilt of people in remote tribal areas of Pakistan so quickly and efficiently that it can kill more than one per day on average with a high level of assurance that every last one of them poses a threat to the United States.

That's an incredible claim. Folks arrested in the United States are investigated for weeks by police officers with local knowledge and access to the friends, family, and associates of the accused. Attorneys are provided. A discovery process helps the prosecution and defense to unearth all relevant evidence. A trial is held before a jury instructed to assign guilt only when the charges are proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Even then the defendant has access to a system of appeals. And as we all know, innocent people are sent to prison despite these safeguards.

How does the Obama Administration perform so much better from thousands of miles away, operating in an unfamiliar culture, often without any American boots on the ground? What's their specific explanation for how they accomplish such unerring judgments with the very same intelligence services that failed to prevent the September 11 attacks, concluded that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, imprisoned scores of innocent people in the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and failed to find Osama bin Laden for an entire decade after they began looking?

The Obama Administration has no explanation. It's all classified.

And what little they have said undermines their credibility. Reading the account that anonymous Obama Administration officials gave the New York Times, you'd think that the president himself is judiciously evaluating the status of everyone who winds up being killed by an American drone. There are a lot of reasons we know that isn't true. Here's another one: No one man is capable of rigorously issuing death warrants at the pace of more than one per day, even as he runs for reelection and conducts all of the other functions that are demanded of American presidents.  

Don't get me wrong. The dead killed by American drones in Pakistan are often actually bad guys, just as if police chiefs were empowered to execute murderers without trial the dead would often be guilty. But believing that innocents are killed as seldom as the Obama Administration claims is willfully naive. You don't have to see the video of an Apache helicopter mistaking journalists for insurgents, or to read about the two American soldiers killed in a friendly-fire drone death, or to hear a retired brigadier general discussing how easy it is for drone operators to misidentify targets, in order to intuitively grasp that America can't reliably discern between the guilty and the unlucky via drone camera, at least not at the pace of one guilty person killed every single day.

This isn't an argument about whether the drone war is necessary or not, a subject best left to other posts. All I'm saying is that, necessary or not, the drone war results in a lot more innocents killed than the Obama Administration acknowledges. There is a lot of different evidence for that proposition. The sheer pace at which we're killing people is one piece of evidence.

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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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