America Often Doesn't Even Apologize When It Kills Innocents in Drone Strikes

The typical response is that of a hit-and-run driver: Flee the scene, pretend nothing happened, and leave victims even worse off as a result.
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After reading the human-rights reports issued this week by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Benjamin Wittes writes that, while he has misgivings about the sweep of their conclusions, "It is impossible for a modestly-moral person to read these reports without something approaching nausea. They are grisly. They involve the deaths of numerous apparently-innocent people. The deaths appear to have taken place at the hands of the United States."

The reports of these incidents "thus raise serious questions about the way at least those drone strikes they cover took place," he concludes. "What went wrong, why, and how we can minimize the chances of such disasters in the future?"

Those are excellent questions, and I'd add one more.

America is engaged in an ongoing debate about the proper role of unmanned aerial vehicles in the War on Terrorism. It won't be resolved in the foreseeable future. But as long as the U.S. is waging drone warfare, it is incumbent upon us to decide what to do after our drone pilots mistakenly injure or kill innocent people.

What happens next?

Earlier this week, I used my Orange County Register column to sketch my preferences. Here's what makes sense to me:

When the U.S. kills or injures an innocent person, our government ought to acknowledge the mistake. It ought to issue an apology. It ought to compensate the person who is injured, or the family of the person who is killed. Investigators ought to identify what went wrong. And changes ought to be made so that the same mistake is better avoided in the future.

The Obama Administration has taken a different approach. It hasn't acknowledged when innocents were killed. It hasn't extended apologies to the victims or next of kin. If there was any investigation at all, it was carried out in secret by insiders with a vested interest in the outcome. It's possible that changes were made to improve future performance. The number of innocents killed in drone strikes seems to have declined over time, and it's possible that operational improvements were partly responsible. But innocents are still being killed, and we're still refusing to acknowledge our role or to atone to the limited extent possible.

Put simply, we are behaving immorally.

Even if you support the use of drones and regard civilian casualties as a tragic necessity, it remains the case that we should apologize to and compensate our victims. Yet we're behaving like the perp in a hit-and-run: The poor families of the innocents we kill are left to pay for a funeral wondering why their loved one was blown up. Little surprise that the little girl I wrote about yesterday, whose grandmother was killed, is left saying, "When they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?"

The Obama Administration didn't apologize to her family, help rebuild its damaged house, reveal the terrible mistake that led to their matriarch's death, or explain what steps have been taken to prevent its recurrence. Having killed the 68-year-old woman and injured several of her grandchildren, the U.S. government said nothing and did nothing save to continue flying drones over their community.

This is in keeping with the Obama Administration's larger approach to drone strikes. For a long time, it wouldn't even acknowledge ongoing policy to Americans. Operations remain shrouded in secrecy; and the number of civilian casualties have been repeatedly understated by mendacious or ignorant members of the national-security establishment, including legislators like Senator Dianne Feinstein. The climate of secrecy created by the Obama Administration remains the biggest obstacle to good information and accountability. So long as the opacity persists, we're left to draw limited conclusions from what little information we have.

Red flags are everywhere. Usually journalists or humanitarian groups reporting from the ground raise them, but GQ has just published a rare interview with a drone pilot, and it too suggests an inadequate response to mistakes. A relevant excerpt:

He was paired with a pilot he didn’t much like, instructed to monitor a compound that intel told them contained a high-value individual—maybe a Taliban commander or Al Qaeda affiliate, nobody briefed him on the specifics. It was a typical Afghan mud-brick home, goats and cows milling around a central courtyard. They watched a corner of the compound’s main building, bored senseless for hours. They assumed the target was asleep.

Then the quiet ended. “We get this word that we’re gonna fire,” he says. “We’re gonna shoot and collapse the building. They’ve gotten intel that the guy is inside.” The drone crew received no further information, no details of who the target was or why he needed a Hellfire dropped on his roof.

Bryant’s laser hovered on the corner of the building. “Missile off the rail.” Nothing moved inside the compound but the eerily glowing cows and goats. Bryant zoned out at the pixels. Then, about six seconds before impact, he saw a hurried movement in the compound. “This figure runs around the corner, the outside, toward the front of the building. And it looked like a little kid to me. Like a little human person.”

Bryant stared at the screen, frozen. “There’s this giant flash, and all of a sudden there’s no person there.” He looked over at the pilot and asked, “Did that look like a child to you?” They typed a chat message to their screener, an intelligence observer who was watching the shot from “somewhere in the world”—maybe Bagram, maybe the Pentagon, Bryant had no idea—asking if a child had just run directly into the path of their shot.

“And he says, ‘Per the review, it’s a dog.’ ”

Bryant and the pilot replayed the shot, recorded on eight-millimeter tape. They watched it over and over, the figure darting around the corner. Bryant was certain it wasn’t a dog.

If they’d had a few more seconds’ warning, they could have aborted the shot, guided it by laser away from the compound. Bryant wouldn’t have cared about wasting a $95,000 Hellfire to avoid what he believed had happened. But as far as the official military version of events was concerned, nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The pilot “was the type of guy to not argue with command,” says Bryant. So the pilot’s after-action report stated that the building had been destroyed, the high-value target eliminated. The report made no mention of a dog or any other living thing. The child, if there had been a child, was an infrared ghost.

The Obama Administration claims it minimizes civilian casualties as much as possible. Its critics disagree. Wherever one stands in that debate, it's clear that when there are civilian casualties, the typical American response is to behave as if we played no role in the injustice, as if the maimed or dead innocents don't exist. "Unintended collateral civilian casualties are not war crimes, and never have been," Andrew Sullivan writes. "But the moral equation shifts, it seems to me, when the belligerent stops truly seeing these casualties as morally deeply troubling."

What if the belligerent pretends not to see them at all?

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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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