The Obama Administration's Drone-Strike Dissembling

Debunking John Brennan’s claim that “the president requires near-certainty of no collateral damage” to allow a drone killing to go forward.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

As a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, I found Jeffrey Goldberg’s excellent interview a useful reminder that, for all my misgivings about the Iraq War hawks that Barack Obama elevated, his persecution of whistleblowers, his decision to assassinate an American without due process, and his flagrantly illegal warmaking in Libya, there’s a strong case that he was a better choice than any of his rivals. Many Republicans were pushing him to be more hawkish, including John McCain and Mitt Romney, either of whom might well have started a war against Iran by now and wouldn’t have been better on the other issues I’ve listed.

At least Obama resisted one of the two conflicts that his hawkish advisers, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, urged him to enter. “There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment,” Obama said. “The playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.”

I’ll be sad to see that attitude gone from the White House.

But even as I credit Obama for resisting the impulse to embroil the U.S. more fully in Syria, the Ukraine, and other hot spots where interventionists urged him to intervene, one of the claims put forth by a high-ranking source in the article needs rebutting.

Here’s the relevant passage:

Some critics argue he should have had a few second thoughts about what they see as the overuse of drones. But John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, told me recently that he and the president “have similar views. One of them is that sometimes you have to take a life to save even more lives. We have a similar view of just-war theory. The president requires near-certainty of no collateral damage. But if he believes it is necessary to act, he doesn’t hesitate.”

The notion that the Obama Administration has carried out drone strikes only when there is “near-certainty of no collateral damage” is easily disproved propaganda. America hasn’t killed a handful of innocents or a few dozen in the last 8 years. Credible, independent attempts to determine how many civilians the Obama administration has killed arrived at numbers in the hundreds or low thousands.  And there is good reason to believe that they undercount the civilians killed.

Why the disparity between what American officials claim and what others report? The New York Times provided a first clue back in 2012, when it reported that the U.S. “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." The same sort of dishonest standard was described last last year when a whistleblower provided The Intercept with a cache of documents detailing the U.S. military’s drone killings in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. One campaign, Operation Haymaker, took place in northeastern Afghanistan.

“Between January 2012 and February 2013,” The Intercept reported, “U.S. special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.” That’s one campaign of many in just one country where drone killings happen.

Said the source of the documents:“Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association. When a drone strike kills more than one person, there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate … So it’s a phenomenal gamble.”

The Intercept continued:

The documents show that the military designated people it killed in targeted strikes as EKIA—“enemy killed in action”—even if they were not the intended targets of the strike. Unless evidence posthumously emerged to prove the males killed were not terrorists or “unlawful enemy combatants,” EKIA remained their designation, according to the source. That process, he said, “is insane. But we’ve made ourselves comfortable with that. The intelligence community, JSOC, the CIA, and everybody that helps support and prop up these programs, they’re comfortable with that idea.”

The source described official U.S. government statements minimizing the number of civilian casualties inflicted by drone strikes as “exaggerating at best, if not outright lies.”

Numerous reports during the Obama Administration––including at least one by a former drone pilot––describe a pattern in which a missile fired from a U.S. drone hits an area, bystanders rush to the scene to help the wounded, and the drone, still overhead, kills the rescuers. On other occasions, drones have struck at funerals of drone-strike victims. It is hard to believe the threshold of “near certainty” is crossed in either kind of strike. Credible reports of civilian casualties are common.

In 2014, The Guardian provided even more reason to doubt Brennan:

A new analysis of the data available to the public about drone strikes, conducted by the human-rights group Reprieve, indicates that even when operators target specific individuals – the most focused effort of what Barack Obama calls “targeted killing” – they kill vastly more people than their targets, often needing to strike multiple times. Attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people, as of 24 November.

Reprieve, sifting through reports compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, examined cases in which specific people were targeted by drones multiple times. Their data, shared with the Guardian, raises questions about the accuracy of US intelligence guiding strikes that US officials describe using words like “clinical” and “precise.”

And last year, Scott Shane of the New York Times provided a more accurate assessment of U.S. drone strikes than any Obama has offered. “Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit,” he wrote. “Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.”

The article continued:

The president’s announcement on Thursday that a January strike on Al Qaeda in Pakistan had killed two Western hostages, and that it took many weeks to confirm their deaths, bolstered the assessments of the program’s harshest outside critics. The dark picture was compounded by the additional disclosure that two American members of Al Qaeda were killed in strikes that same month, but neither had been identified in advance and deliberately targeted. In all, it was a devastating acknowledgment for Mr. Obama, who had hoped to pioneer a new, more discriminating kind of warfare.

Whether the episode might bring a long-delayed public reckoning about targeted killings, long hidden by classification rules, remained uncertain.

It is now clear that those strikes spurred no reckoning, and that Brennan continues to claim adherence to a lofty, admirable standard that U.S. drone strikes don’t, in fact, meet, unless one defines “no collateral damage” so narrowly that is has no meaning. It’s worth recalling that this isn’t the first time that Brennan has made fantastical, widely debunked claims about the number of innocents that U.S. drones kill. If I presided over the killing of dozens if not scores or hundreds of innocents, many outside war zones, in circumstances that some independent observers characterize as war crimes, I might be less than forthright, too.