When CIA Drone Strikes Kill Innocent Westerners

America's leaders are morally incoherent on the subject of targeted killing.

Jason Reed / Reuters

The Obama administration's drone war came under unusual scrutiny last week after the White House revealed that a strike earlier this year killed two innocent Westerners.

Warren Weinstein, an American, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian, were both being held hostage in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the CIA was targeting a compound in that country that it believed to be inhabited by al-Qaeda operatives. "At no time during the weeks of surveillance in the Shawal Valley did analysts detect any signs that the militants were holding Mr. Weinstein or Giovanni Lo Porto," The New York Times reported, citing American officials. "It was not until after the drone strike that CIA analysts—poring over drone video feeds, satellite data, electronic intercepts of cellphone conversations and informants’ reports—determined that six people had been hauled from the rubble and that there were six graves," rather than just the four militants that they had mistakenly believed to be alone.

I've long argued that the Obama administration should declare a moratorium on drone strikes pending numerous, significant reforms to the program. But for those who support the drone war, I don't see how a strike gets more defensible than this one. It is tragic that two innocents were killed. But if the U.S. is going to use lethal force against al-Qaeda at all, the risk of civilian casualties cannot be totally eliminated. Unless the CIA is lying, its operatives watched this structure for weeks. Their certainty that it was an al-Qaeda compound was vindicated by the presence of the hostages. And one can imagine extremely careful surveillance missing the presence of two civilians if they were tied up and confined inside for weeks on end.

Yet U.S. officials who've supported America's drone war for President Obama's entire tenure are reacting to the January strike as if it raised uniquely troubling questions. The Obama administration is said to be conducting two reviews of the incident. Senator John McCain urged "all possible steps to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again," adding, "Congress should play an active role in this oversight." Said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate intelligence committee, "I now intend to review that operation in greater detail."

House Majority Leader John Boehner said, "We need all the facts for the families and so we can make sure nothing like this ever happens again in our efforts to keep Americans safe."

These reactions are farcical.

Obama, McCain, Feinstein, and Boehner all know that U.S. drone strikes have killed many hundreds of innocent people, often in circumstances far less defensible than this.

They know about the wedding convoy that U.S. Hellfire missiles turned into a macabre funeral. They know dozens were once killed at a tribal meeting held to settle a mining dispute. They know a Pakistani teenager sat in the United States capitol building and recounted how her grandmother was killed by a drone as she picked okra. And they know that in many so-called "signature strikes," the CIA doesn't know the names of those it kills and designates all dead males of military age "militants." So when these leaders react to this drone strike as if it raises new questions, offers new data, or ought to be of special concern relative to other lethal strikes carried out by the United States, their positions verge into incoherence.

This is partly a matter of playing to the ignorant.

Members of the public who still regard American drone strikes as "surgical" operations that virtually never cause collateral damage might well be alarmed by deaths of hostages that highlight how much the CIA can fail to know about its targets. To them, perhaps it makes sense that Obama, McCain, Feinstein, and Boehner picked now to tut-tut about the need to ensure no mistake like this is ever made again. But informed observers of the U.S. drone war recall that these politicians didn't just support lethal strikes knowing a tragedy like the one in January could happen—they championed the drone war even after dozens of bigger tragedies did happen. Many of those tragedies reflected far worse on the CIA and its trustworthiness.

They nevertheless garnered less attention.

Much of the public only pays attention when Western innocents are killed. So pols who've long believed that many hundreds of collateral deaths are an acceptable price in the drone war conspicuously express extraordinary concern about a strike from which there is relatively little to learn, largely in the hope that doing so will avert a political backlash. They ought to acknowledge the morally fraught choices that they've made in the war on terrorism. Instead they obfuscate and mislead. Yes, the United States is averse to killing innocents and takes measures to safeguard against doing so. But the Obama administration is also less careful than the American public is led to believe. "Obama tightened rules for the U.S. drone program in 2013," The Wall Street Journal reports, "but he secretly approved a waiver giving the CIA more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else to strike suspected militants."

"Mr. Obama also required that proposed targets pose an imminent threat to the U.S.," the story adds, "but the waiver exempted the CIA from this standard in Pakistan."

A country doing all it could to minimize "collateral damage" in its targeted killing program would not have secret waivers that undermined its promised standards of carefulness. And it would not run its strikes through a scandal-prone agency led by a man, John Brennan, who held a CIA leadership position during years when the intelligence agency was torturing prisoners and ordered underlings to spy on Congress.

A country doing all it could to minimize "collateral damage" would acknowledge all instances of drone strikes killing innocents and compensate their families. And it would focus its oversight and reform efforts on incidents that killed the most innocents rather than a highly unusual strike that killed men from Italy and the United States.

"Drone strikes, by their nature, are bound to kill innocent civilians," Eugene Robinson argues. "It is all too easy to ignore this ugly fact — and the dubious morality of the whole enterprise — until the unfortunate victims happen to be Westerners. Only then does 'collateral damage' become big news and an occasion for public sorrow." The U.S. would kill fewer innocents if non-Western victims inspired equal outcry or if American leaders were more averse to their deaths regardless.