Journalism in the Public Interest

6 Months After Obama Promised to Divulge More on Drones, Here’s What We Still Don’t Know

A Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle sits on the flight deck of the USS Gunston Hall in February 2012. (U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Lauren Randall/Released)

November 6: This story has been updated to reflect new developments.

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

The administration says that it has a count of civilian deaths, and that there is a “wide gap” between U.S. and independent figures. But the administration won’t release its own figures.

Outside estimates of total civilian deaths since 2002 range from just over 200 to more than 1,000.  The Pakistani government has given three different numbers: 400, 147, and 67.

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 sixteen-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

While unnamed officials sometimes confirm that strikes came from U.S. drones, other attacks may be from Pakistani, Yemeni, or even Saudi planes.

(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.)

We don’t know the precise legal rationale behind the strikes

Some members of Congress have seen the legal memos behind targeted killing of U.S. citizens. But lawmakers were not granted access to all memos on the program. Legislation pending in the Senate would require the administration to give the Intelligence Committees a list of such legal opinions.

Other congressmen have introduced bills with more reporting requirements for targeted killings. (Proposals for a “drone court” for oversight have not gotten very far.)

It’s far from clear that any of that additional oversight would lead to public disclosure.

The government and the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times are still locked in court battles over requests for drone documents. While a judge has ruled the CIA can no longer assert the “fiction” that it can’t reveal if it has any interest in drones, the agency hasn’t been compelled to release any information yet. The government has also so far fought off disclosure of legal memos underpinning targeted killings.


And here are some things we’ve learned through leaks and independent reporting:

How the U.S. tracks targets: Documents provided by Edward Snowden to the Washington Post detailed the NSA’s “extensive involvement.” Lawyers in a terrorism-related case also uncovered reports that government surveillance of their client may have led to a drone strike in Somalia. The Atlantic published a detailed account of Yemen using a child to plant a tracking chip on a man who was killed in a U.S. strike.

What people in the countries affected think: The Pakistani government’s cooperation with at least some U.S. drone strikes – long an open secret – has now been well-documented. Public sentiment in the country is vividly anti-drone, even when violent Taliban commanders are killed, and politicians continue to denounce them as American interference. Limited polling in the region most affected by drones is contradictory, with some saying that at the very least, they prefer drones to the Pakistani military campaigns. Life in those areas is between a drone and a hard place: Residents told Amnesty International of the psychological toll from drones, and they also face reprisals from militants who accuse them of spying.

Yemen’s president continues to openly embrace U.S. strikes, though the public generally opposes them – particularly those strikes that hit lower-level fighters, or those whose affiliations with Al Qaeda aren’t clear. Foreign Policy recently detailed the aftermath of an August strike where two teenagers died. Their family disputes they had any link to terrorism.

The physical infrastructure: More of the network of drone bases across the world has been revealed – from the unmasking of a secret base in Saudi Arabia to the fact that drones had to be moved off the U.S. base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, after crashes and fear of collision with passenger planes.

The CIA’s role: The administration had reportedly planned to scale back the CIA’s role in targeted killing, moving control of much of the drone program to the military. But the CIA reportedly still handles strikes in Pakistan and has a role in Yemen as well. Officials told Foreign Policy yesterday that the transition won't happen anytime soon

The history of the programs: Revelations continue to change our understanding of the contours of the drone war, but two books published this year offer comprehensive accounts – The Way of the Knife, by Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, and Dirty Wars, by Jeremy Scahill.

Seemingly, the only “transparency” in the drone program are the transparent discrepancies between the (reactive) lofty “goals” of the Obama administration and ongoing drone attack policy. More troubling is the fact that the very nature of the campaign is masked from not only the public but the lawmakers who are supposedly vetting this on behalf of the voters.  When considered in the context of the international and domestic outcry and the implacable resolution of the Administration to perpetuate the status quo, this is discouraging news, indeed.

If you read “The Way of the Knife ” by Mark Mazzetti,  all the questions are answered with bibliography andmore than you can handle.
How is it that a Nobel Peace Prize winner can conduct THREE personal wars with executioner authority?

The NSA is working close with the drone program so what happened in Benghazi? Were they too busy listening in on Angela Merkel’s phone calls to check up on Chris Stevens?

We have clear pictures of the attack in Benghazi because someone flying that drone saw it. The ex-drone pilot interviewed on democracy now says that you receive instructions to fire by way of chat from others in the drone program logged on from all over the world.

Someone can authorize an attack on an old woman picking okra, but say, “nope” when they see an attack on a US target currently taking place?

What about the suspect for organizing the Benghazi attack that openly operated in Benghazi for months following the attack and even gave an interview to CNN that is too difficult to capture?

I wonder who is making these bizarre decisions and if they’re being investigated. Somehow I think the Khattalah capture and others involved in the attack awaits credit to a Republican.
Hopefully keeping these secret structures secret isn’t more important than justice.

If Edward Snowden can reveal info for what most people think is the greater good, some and even many could, for the bad..lots of dark money going into our elections.

when I see are guys being killed by ieds. We should carpet bomb the area and let God sort them out

A drone court? All America needs is another shadow court in an attempt to give legitimacy to what is not legal.
Obama—the transparent President! Joke!

I could care less that some past President “did it too” Obama had a choice the high road or the low road. He chose the bottom road. For that he alone is to be held accountable. This President is a total disappointment.

To Cora Currier author of this story. Are you aware of the two studies conducted on
Pakistan drone strikes in 2009?  A Brookings Institute study estimated 90% of drone victims in Pakistan were civilian non combatants in 2009.  The same year the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,  London office,  found that likely 95% of drone victims in Pakistan were civilian non combatants in 2009.

As with any subject/article it is a war of words . People agree/disagree . Meh .

Very good article. I learned something today, and I hope that you will expand on it. Saudi Arabia has planes doing bombing in Pakistan…aiding American war on terrorism? Is this true?  Few know this. This is news for me. Have they been assisting American war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq for long?

Jeremy Scahill with “The Nation” has several very good articles on this. He says some drone attacks are not even being reported.

@Tom Mauel -By all accounts rate and number of civilian deaths was much higher in 2009-2010 than in more recent years. The London Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s figures from 2009, however, don’t approach 90%: (I believe the figure you are referencing came from a Pakistani government report:

For a detailed look at why it’s so hard to get a figure on civilian casualties, here’s a “metastudy” of those groups tracking drone strike deaths:

LOL, closed the comments on the Obama voters losing their healthcare I see. Couldn’t stand the opinions of your readers obviously.

more likely that the sheer volume of “opinion”, as opposed to actual “fact”, make comments unreadable. I know when I read more than a few arguments and counterarguments, based on opinion only, I simply lose interest in reading any more. You’re not adding anything to this discussion either… not to mention that those two sentences already indicate your bias.

The American government promise to take off their soldier in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria but this military forces are still there killing children & women innocently.

Michael Crumpton

Nov. 7, 2013, 3:05 a.m.

We are killing “targets” and nearby people with these drones without enough thought as to how this undermines our standing and credibility in the world.

Imagine the president of Mexico sending drones over the border into San Diego chasing some alleged drug lords, and when they blow them up, some nearby Americans are killed. Are we OK with that? If not, why not? We are doing the same thing in Pakistan several times a month and the casualties of every strike is broadcast over and over all over the world. Except in the US media of course.

If we can’t accept being treated the way we are treating others, then where is our moral authority?

The USA is driven by war-mongers and a military-corporation-academic machine for the purpose of generating profit to satiny their greed on the backs of innocent killed victims.  The USA can never change as it is part of the history of the country: In our entire history the country has had only 14 YEARS of peace - that should tell you something about our imperialism and parasitic behavior.  It is not by coincidence that over 2000 contractors paying an average of $150,000 grew up around Washington DC after 9/11. The academic grants, 95 government agencies that now have their own security forces, the rogue Pentagon and DOD; the corrupt FBI, ATF, CIA, and NSA are here to stay - too many people are getting rich by killing the innocent. There is no concept of ethics or morality in existence in the USA - it is an “I” generation - only “I” and my wealth matter.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Drone War

The Drone War

ProPublica is covering the U.S.' expanding – and often secret – targeted killing program.

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