I wanted to make sure everyone saw Dexter Filkins' response to this weeks news regarding Obama's justification for the killing of American citizens, as well as the hearings to confirm John Brennan. Filkins describes an earlier visit to meet with villagers in Yemen. The villagers were survivors of an attack by their own government against an alleged Al Qaeda training camp.
Later, when I spoke to American officials, they seemed genuinely perplexed. They didn't deny that a large number of civilians had been killed. They felt bad about it. But the aerial surveillance, they said, had clearly showed that a training camp for militants was operating there. "It was a terrible outcome," an American official told me. "Nobody wanted that."None of the above is intended as an attack on Brennan, who has spent the past four years as President Obama's counterterrorism advisor. He has a hard job. He is almost always forced to act on the basis of incomplete information. His job is to keep Americans safe, and he's done that. Al Qaeda's leadership, particularly in the tribal areas of Pakistan, has been decimated. Operating in Yemen, where vast tracts of the country lie beyond anyone's control, cannot be easy.
But, as the details from the Al Majalah show, even the best-intentioned public servants operating with what appears to be decent intelligence can get things horribly wrong. Maybe Al Majalah was indeed an Al Qaeda training camp--maybe those aerial surveillance images were spot on. But, in retrospect, we know that the cameras missed the women and children.Indeed, if there is one overriding factor in America's secret wars--especially in its drone campaign--it's that the U.S. is operating in an information black hole. Our ignorance is not total, but our information is nowhere near adequate. When an employee of the C.I.A. fires a missile from an unmanned drone into a compound along the Afghan-Pakistani border, he almost certainly doesn't know for sure whom he's shooting at.Most drone strikes in Pakistan, as an American official explained to me during my visit there in 2011, are what are known as "signature strikes." That is, the C.I.A. is shooting at a target that matches a pattern of behavior that they've deemed suspicious. Often, they get it right and they kill the bad guys. Sometimes, they get it wrong. When Brennan claimed, as he did in 2011--clearly referring to the drone campaign--that "there hasn't been a single collateral death," he was most certainly wrong.