by Cora Currier, ProPublica.
Nearly six months ago, President Obama promised more transparency and tighter policies around targeted killings. In a speech, Obama vowed that the U.S. would only use force against a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” It would fire only when there was “near-certainty” civilians would not be killed or injured, and when capture was not feasible.
The number of drone strikes has dropped this year, but they’ve continued to make headlines. On Friday, a U.S. drone killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban. A few days earlier came the first drone strike in Somalia in nearly two years. How much has changed since the president’s speech?
We don’t know the U.S. count of civilian deaths
McClatchy and the Washington Post obtained intelligence documents showing that for long stretches of time, the CIA estimated few or no civilian deaths. The documents also confirmed the use of signature strikes, in which the U.S. targets people without knowing their identity. The CIA categorized many of those killed as simply “other militants” or “foreign fighters.” The Post wrote that the agency sometimes designated “militants” with what seemed like circumstantial or vague evidence, such as “men who were ‘probably’ involved in cross-border attacks” in Afghanistan.
The administration reportedly curtailed signature strikes this year, though the new guidelines don’t necessarily preclude them. A White House factsheet released around Obama’s speech said that “it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.” It did not say that people must be identified. (In any case, the U.S. has not officially acknowledged the policy of signature strikes.)
Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed only that four Americans have been killed by drone strikes since 2009: Anwar al Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, Samir Khan, and Jude Kenan Mohammed. Holder said that only the elder Awlaki was “specifically targeted,” but did not explain how the others came to be killed.
Although Obama said that this disclosure was intended to “facilitate transparency and debate,” since then, the administration has not commented on specific allegations of civilian deaths.
We don’t know exactly who can be targeted
The list of groups that the military considers “associated forces” of al Qaeda is classified. The administration has declared that it targets members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and “elements“ of Al Shabaab, but there are still questions about how the U.S. determines that an individual belonging to those groups is in fact a “continuing and imminent threat.” (After the terror alarm that led to the closing of U.S. embassies this summer, officials told the New York Times they had “expanded the scope of people [they] could go after” in Yemen.)
This ties into the debate over civilian casualties: The government would seem to consider some people legitimate targets that others don’t.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth studies of particular strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, respectively. They include eyewitness reports of civilian deaths. (Most of the deaths investigated happened before the Obama administration’s new policies were announced, although the administration has not said when those guidelines went into effect.) The reports also raised questions of the legality of specific strikes, questioning whether the deaths were all unavoidable casualties of legitimate attacks.
It does not appear that the U.S. plans to expand strikes against al Qaeda to other countries — officials have reportedly told Iraq, for example, it won’t send drones there. But the U.S. has established a surveillance drone base in Niger, and fed information from drones to French forces fighting in Mali.
We don’t know if the U.S. compensates civilian casualties
CIA director John Brennan suggested during his confirmation hearing that the U.S. made condolence payments to harmed families. But there is little evidence of it happening. U.S. Central Command told ProPublica that it had 33 pages related to condolence payments — but wouldn’t release any of them to us.
We don’t always know which strikes are American
(It’s also worth noting that the U.S. has also used cruise missiles and Special Forces raids. But the bulk of U.S. counterterrorism actions outside Afghanistan in recent years appear to rely on drones.)