Journalism in the Public Interest

The Drone War Doctrine We Still Know Nothing About

The focus on the targeting of American citizens overlooks many other strikes in which the U.S. doesn’t know who it’s killing.

CIA director nominee John Brennan meets with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in January. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director has prompted intense debate on Capitol Hill and in the media about U.S. drone killings abroad. But the focus has been on the targeting of American citizens – a narrow issue that accounts for a miniscule proportion of the hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in recent years.

Consider: while four American citizens are known to have been killed by drones in the past decade, the strikes have killed an estimated total of 2,600 to 4,700 people over the same period.

The focus on American citizens overshadows a far more common, and less understood, type of strike: those that do not target American citizens, Al Qaeda leaders, or, in fact, any other specific individual.

In these attacks, known as “signature strikes,” drone operators fire on people whose identities they do not know based on evidence of suspicious behavior or other “signatures.” According to anonymously sourced media reports, such attacks on unidentified targets account for many, or even most, drone strikes.

Despite that, the administration has never publicly spoken about signature strikes. Basic questions remain unanswered.

What is the legal justification for signature strikes? What qualifies as a “signature” that would prompt a deadly strike? Do those being targeted have to pose a threat to the United States? And how many civilians have been killed in such strikes?

The administration has rebuffed repeated requests from Congress to provide answers – even in secret.

“How, for example, does the Administration ensure that the targets are legitimate terrorist targets and not insurgents who have no dispute with the United States?” asked three senior Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee in a letter to Attorney General Holder last May.

The legislators sent a second letter in December. Republicans on the committee joined in sending another letter this month. All have gone unanswered, according to committee staff.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently sent his own letter to Brennan asking several pointed questions on signature strikes.

“How do ‘signature strikes’ square with your statement that targeted killing operations are only approved when a targeted individual poses a ‘significant threat to U.S. interests?’” McCain asked, quoting a speech Brennan gave on drone strikes last April.

“How can the Administration be certain it is not killing civilians in areas, like many parts of Yemen and Pakistan, where virtually all men, including civilians, carry weapons?” the letter continued.

A McCain spokesman said the senator had not received a response. The White House declined to comment for this story.

When Obama administration officials publicly address drone strikes, they focus on thwarting imminent threats and targeting Al Qaeda leaders, including U.S. citizens.

Brennan, for example, said at his confirmation hearing that a lethal strike only occurs when “the intelligence base is so strong and the nature of the threat is so grave and serious, as well as imminent, that we have no recourse.” He was talking only about strikes targeting U.S. citizens, not signature strikes.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is now threatening to filibuster Brennan’s nomination until he answers questions on the U.S. citizen issue. And the Justice Department “white paper” leaked to NBC this month outlines the legal rationale for drone strikes, but only in cases when they target U.S. citizens who are also Al Qaeda leaders.

“What about the people who aren’t U.S. citizens and who aren’t on a list?” asks Naureen Shah, a human rights and counterterrorism expert at Columbia Law School. Of the few thousand people killed, Shah notes, “it’s hard to believe all of these people are senior operational leaders of Al Qaeda.”

The hazy history of ‘signature strikes’

The first public reference to a signature strike appears to have been in February 2008, when the New York Times reported a change in drone strike policy, negotiated between the U.S. and Pakistan.

“Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance, so long as the risk of civilian casualties is judged to be low,” the Times reported.

Over the next few years, they became the majority of strikes conducted in Pakistan, according to media reports citing unnamed officials.

The new policy contributed to an increase in strikes in Pakistan – up to a high of about 120 in 2010 – and also to an increase in the number of low-level militants or foot soldiers killed, according to a New America Foundation analysis.

It’s not clear how much evidence is needed to justify a strike. In media reports, U.S. officials have offered scenarios of signature strikes hitting training camps or fighters who might cross the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan. The CIA reportedly uses drone surveillance and other intelligence to try to ensure those targeted are in fact militants.

Other officials, however, have described the policy more loosely – one calling it a “‘reasonable man’ standard.”

Asked what the standard is for who could be hit, former Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter recently told an interviewer: “The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40. My feeling is one man’s combatant is another man’s – well, a chump who went to a meeting.”

It is also next to impossible to say which attacks are signature strikes.

The names of militant leaders killed in strikes are often confirmed by officials in news reports. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. knew who was there ahead of the strike. One unnamed former military official claimed last year that the CIA “killed most of their ‘list people’ when they didn’t know they were there.”

Conversely, strikes in which little information emerges on who was killed could be failed attempts to hit specific individuals. (According to the New Yorker, it took as many as 16 strikes to kill Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in 2009.)

The outcomes of strikes are often disputed. In one apparent signature strike two years ago, unnamed U.S. officials told the Associated Press that they had targeted a group that “was heavily armed, some of its members were connected to Al Qaeda, and all ‘acted in a manner consistent with AQ (Al Qaeda)-linked militants.’” The U.S. said about 20 militants were killed. But Pakistani officials said it had been a meeting of tribesmen and villagers provided evidence to the AP that 38 civilians were killed.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the attack prompted a debate in the White House about whether signature strikes and strikes on low-level fighters were worth the diplomatic risks.

The pace of strikes in Pakistan has tapered off since 2010, in large part because of deteriorating diplomatic relations with Pakistan, according to Bill Roggio, who tracks strikes for the Long War Journal.

Last spring the U.S. reportedly expanded signature strikes to Yemen, though administration officials said there were stricter standards than in Pakistan and evidence of a threat to the U.S. or U.S. interests was required. Officials referred to the attacks with a new phrase, “Terror Attack Disruption Strikes.”

That tighter standard is reportedly also part of the Obama administration’s new guidelines for the targeted killing program. (The CIA’s strikes in Pakistan will be exempt from any new rules for at least another year, according to the Washington Post.)

The legal debate

Brennan was asked about signature strikes last April but sidestepped the question. He replied: “You make reference to signature strikes that are frequently reported in the press. I was speaking here specifically about targeted strikes against individuals who are involved.”

He continued that “everything we do, though, that is carried out against Al Qaeda is carried out consistent with the rule of law, the authorization on the use of military force, and domestic law… that’s the whole purpose of whatever action we use, the tool we use, it’s to prevent attack [sic] and to save lives.”

The idea of killing members of an enemy force without knowing their identities isn’t itself controversial.

“In a traditional conflict, there is no requirement that you know every single person’s identity before you strike, so long as there are reasonable grounds for determining that the target is part of the enemy force,” said Jennifer Daskal, a professor at Georgetown Law School and a former attorney in the Justice Department during the first Obama administration.

But legal observers hotly debate the bounds of the drone war, and who qualifies as a member of the enemy force. “In the conflict with a clandestine enemy like Al Qaeda, that determination is much harder,” said Daskal.

While President Obama pledged in his State of the Union address to be more transparent about drone policy, the administration appears to maneuvering to avoid sharing additional information with Congress.

According to the New York Times, the administration may opt to share information on last year’s Benghazi attack with Republican senators to avoid revealing any more legal memos on the drone war to Democratic senators.

Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., has said that her committee reviews videos of strikes. But she also recently said that the committee has long sought all of the legal opinions on drone strikes – and that the administration has withheld most of the opinions. 

Oh, don’t worry.  Most of us, I think, have been worried about all the strikes as discussed.  But it’s a heck of a lot easier to interest officials (and war-mongers in general) in the topic by starting with American citizens.  It’s trivial to rationalize assassination of enemies to keep us safe.  It’s easy to rationalize collateral damage (the topic at hand).  It’s difficult to explain how murdering Americans on suspicion of wrongdoing is going to save American lives.

Carol Peckham

Feb. 26, 2013, 1:49 p.m.

For background on this truly bad issue, everyone should read Rachael Maddow’s book Drift, which brillantly lays out the steps taken from Reagon to O’bama on how the Constitution was slowly degraded so that the president is now able to wage war without any public or congressional knowledge or approval.  But thanks as always to Propublica for keeping us up to date.

Thank god we have a president who would never use torture on prisoners.  Assassination, flat out murder of American citizens,  well, that’s OK!!  but torture?  “we’re better than that”  POTUS says.

A president of the United States who is complicit in, and approves these drone assassinations.  How do all you liberals who voted for him justify this?

I wonder if the Nobel Peace prize committee is reflecting on the situation as sort of, well, ironic?

It really has nothing to do with a Republican or Democrat as President. It is general American foreign policy that says we are willing to do whatever it takes to protect our interests abroad even if that means killing innocent civilians. I agree with you that Obama is a hypocrite on this issue, but to act like a Republican President would be doing something contrary to this is ridiculous.



This liberal does not condone any of Obama’s actions with regard to the drone program.  Also, if you believe that the US military and CIA are not torturing under the Obama Administration, you are naive beyond belief.

Of course, I guess that’s how conservatives like you can elect a guy like W. Bush twice and turn a blind eye to trumped up evidence to invade a country, warantless wiretapping of American citizens, torture, and the outing of a CIA operative, to name a few.  Oh, and the drone program started under Bush.  A bit of the pot calling the kettle black?

What’s next? Drone strikes in Idaho? Ohio? What’s to stop them? There’s a strike at night and immediately after the explosion there’s a “team” there to clean up… we wouldn’t know… the news would report a gas leak.

One could immediately raise the level of conceptual accuracy by trading in the term “signature strikes” for the more properly descriptive “pattern of behavior strikes”.

I agree with the initial premise of the article. We’re focusing on the wrong issue.

And after all, if both Obama and Brennan refuse to answer even under a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing (which was a softball Kabuki party for the ruling class by the way) and even after repeatedly being asked the question - then that IS your answer. Of course they intend to use it on Americans and on American soil whenever it suits their fancy. If they did not intend to use it on Americans, then they would be quick to say so. Refusing to answer is the answer.

No, we’re killing whoever, whenever, wherever we want to - children, women, non-combatants and then the MSM papers over what should be an ongoing international scandal. A recent study by Stanford and NYU concluded that only 2% of those killed were even possibly high level al Qaeda.

We’ve got guys sitting in the safety of cubicles all over the US nailing whoever and whatever they want to by remote control. It’s just a video game for them. Their nickname for their victims? “Bug Splat.”

This is pure unadulterated ongoing war crime. The UN just announced last week that it is doing an “investigation” to see if charges for war crimes can be brought against this administration. I hope they have the courage to follow that investigation to its obvious conclusion.

I voted for Obama the first time, but I am sure glad I didn’t the second time.

I have yet to hear any one willing to be held accountable for putting this war criminal back in office - after he clearly demonstrated all of these tendencies during his first four years.

Rethuglican = Democrap = enablers of the new Fascist USA.

You are all pathetic.

Franky Lamouche

Feb. 26, 2013, 11:51 p.m.

With all due respect to the learned journalist and the noble intentions of all involved, Congress declared a war on terrorism; until they declare that war to be at a end, they, Congress, are not in the chain of command.

Well I am amused when folks on the comments always say something like Bush did it as if we should not now hold Obama to a higher standard. That is wrong headed. Just because any one of his predecessors committed horrible acts is no excuse for letting Obama off the hook. I suspect Obama has been missing in action just like when the Benghazi attacks took place.

Our foreign policy under this president, he has had the chance to alter, is going to come back and bite America big time.

I keep wondering why we use our foot soldiers as cops on the beat acting as if we are winning hearts and minds, not, while some one at a console using a joy stick wipes out innocents.

I can not understand why Americans are not up in arms about a perpetual war called in our name. We have allowed false-flag propaganda to keep their war games going. We should by this time ask ourselves would they use signature strikes against Americans in the USA? I think the answer is an ugly yes.

Bottom line Obama is not governing he knows only how to speechify thus the government, DOD, CIA runs amok.

Franky Lamouche

Feb. 27, 2013, 2:02 a.m.

pgillenw.  Without direct democracy we can effect government policy once every two years.  Mr Obama represents Mr Obama, no one else.

Alan MacDonald

Feb. 27, 2013, 11:15 a.m.

Unlike Obama and Brennan, at least Hitler did not employ V1’s to assassinate German citizens right in the Homeland—- oops, I mean “Fatherland”.

I often get confused keeping terminology straight between the Nazi Empire and this far better disguised Global Empire, posing as America—- regarding; which one called it the “Fatherland” and which the “Homeland”, which one employed a single-party Vichy facade in “occupied” France and which one used a bipartisan dual-party ‘Vichy’ (Rel 2.0) right in the Homeland, which one used terrorizing new technology V1 ‘Vengeance’ missiles from the sky in a ‘declared war’ and which one employed stealthy and unique technology ‘Predator’ drones and ‘Hell Fire’ missiles from the heavens in an Undeclared war on (or of) Global Terror, which one was only a wannabe European Empire and which one was actually a disguised Global Empire, which Empire had the submarines controlling the entire Atlantic Ocean and which one had the nuclear subs and nuclear carrier battle fleets encircling the whole Globe, etc., etc,. etc!

If only 10% of the American people wrote, talked, discussed, debated, publicly exposed, and ‘called-out’ this Empire as an EMPIRE it would collapse of its own deceit.

We are only held hostage by this disguised Empire because it is able to remain hidden, camouflaged, disguised and unrecognized—- and thus able to get away with its deceitful posing as a normal and acceptable democratic Republic—- when, in fact, it is a disguised Global EMPIRE.

Merely shining light on this vampire of EMPIRE will kill it in an instant!.

Best luck and love to the fast expanding ‘Occupy Empire’
educational and revolutionary movement against this deceitful,
guileful, disguised EMPIRE, which can’t so easily be identified as wearing RedCoats, Red Stars, nor funny looking Nazi helmets——quite yet!

Liberty, democracy, justice, and equality
Violent/‘Vichy’ Rel 2.0

Alan MacDonald
Sanford, Maine

We don’t merely have a gun/fear problem, or a ‘Fiscal Cliff’
problem, or an expanding wars problem, or a ‘drone assassinations’ problem, or a vast income & wealth inequality problem, or a Wall Street ‘looting’ problem, or a Global Warming and environmental death-spiral problem, or a domestic tyranny NDAA FISA spying problem, or, or, or, or .... ad nauseum—- we have a hidden EMPIRE cancerous tumor which is the prime CAUSE of all these ‘symptom problems’.

Alan MacDonald, Great post. If the Empire continuous on its current path look for a WWIV. If WWIV does not beat the American people then the American people will create all out insurrection, Americans will rise up against the Kingdom, Theifdom.

Franky Lamouche

Feb. 27, 2013, 6:18 p.m.

Alan MacDonald.  Enjoyed your post.  Take it one step further and we’re in “The Matrix.”

To my mind, the only reason the United States spends a staggering amount on its military is to protect its global market, a business investment.

To correct my earlier statement, according to the learned comedian Harry Shearer, Congress did not declare a war on terror, it passed “an Authorization for the Use of Force.”  Until it rescinds said authority, there is little the electorate can do in a representative democracy. 

Therefore my call for a direct form of government.  Direct democracy via verified online voting administered by a trusted third party like PayPal or Twitter.  If this sounds like chaos, what do we have now.

Frank T Parish

March 1, 2013, 7:50 p.m.

Carol Peckham deserves an star for bringing in Maddow’s book, Drift.  In it she also uses the U. S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual co-authored by General Petraeus.  In it he defines insurgency and outlines quite clearly their tactics.  One of the most telling of which was their focus on causing the public to lose faith in thier government.  It was difficult to keep from associating this and other techniques to the tactics now being used to paralize our government.
Read Petraeus’ book. it is an eyeopener.
Re. the talk about Emp;ires, I can only refer all to “The Peace to End All Peace”.  The author is an historian who covers the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the British and the German empires as wll after WWI.
We are heading down a slippery slope.  We cry out for leadership and we get an echo.

Franky Lamouche

March 1, 2013, 9:22 p.m.

Frank T Parish.  I respectfully disagree with your cry for leadership. 

An Israeli film director recently said the same thing about his country’s predicament.  A character in a Brecht play laments how unhappy is the land that breeds no heroes.  No, is the cold hearted rejoinder, unhappy is the land that needs a hero.

The electorate must lead the country.  With modern communications it could easily be polled on all major issues and budgets and its decisions would be left to a federal government which is little more than a staff to carry out.

Frank T. Parish

March 2, 2013, 4:38 p.m.

Franky LaMouche,

I am a bit surprised that your only comment on my posting was relative to my statement on leadership.  It was an afterthought on my part but none the less important, I assure you.
Your allusion to “an Israeli film director” and a Brecht play rather gives point to your comment on your concept of government.
You assume that all of our electorate is computer literate, which it is not.
You also assume that a national poling would satisfactorily replace our present election system, which it would not, given its vulnerability to hackers and others who would skew results for their own purpose.
And you further assume that somehow such a system could be used to micromanage our entire government, which would slow our systems down to a crawl unless, of course, that is what you had in mind in the first place.
Last but not least you totally ignore the sheer lack of interest our electorate has on voting on anything at any time, no matter how easy it may be.

What you describe is anarchy, a word with several meanings all leading to chaos; a mass without a structure and devoted to confusion and noise. We have a Democratic Republic, to paraphrase Franklin, “If you can keep it”.
Our houses of congress have abandoned majority rule and, in the doing, have constructed a non-government concentrated on self-perpetuation and, in my view, self-destruction as well.

Imperialism carries with it a heady swagger that causes nations to lose their moral and with it their philosophical compass, and finally, their souls.  This is precisely the posture that General Petraeus describes in his treatise on insurgency and a very dangerous suggestion, indeed.

In the 1930’s we were an isolationist nation.
As the empires of Europe, caught up in their own cat fight to secure and enlarge their individual fortunes found themselves on a road of their own making which led to a special kind of hell that we thought would eventually overtake us.
WWII waked the giant in us and we, by default, became the leaders of the “free world”.  In the process our “interests” in the Middle East grew from an opportunity to a necessity; necessary to support our life-style, we thought.  Huge companies, invested heavily in world trade of all sorts, began to rule our national and international policies and finally to corrupt our government at its core.

Not content with trashing the Geneva Convention relative to torture and supporting our Government’s dalliance into the affairs of other nation states way beyond our means to affect any constructive result, we are now sending drones to murder innocents and calling it “collateral damage” without any national discussion of the parameters used to decide what, where, and if this kind of behavior will be carried out.  All the while our Defense and Intelligence facilities use secrecy as their major weapon to patronize us into thinking that we have no voice in these matters.

The Defense Machine has turned into the Offence Machine and it sorely needs leadership by a President who will, indeed, be Commander in Chief.
We also need a President who will take charge of the nation’s money supply and re-design this cleverly designed mess into a system that will actually control the amount of money in circulation and control our fractional banking system into a prudently operated one.  Glass Steegall on steroids.
Along with the forgoing we need a President who will turn the Stock Market back into a place where an investor can invest his/her money in the expectation that it is a piece of an actual equity and not a chip on a craps table.

Well, I am afraid your rather sophomoric paragraphs have jarred loose a short tirade.  Oh, well!

Frank Parish

Franky Lamouche

March 2, 2013, 11:04 p.m.

Frank T Parish.

You must be a big city boy. 

Come to Barre, MA, a small New England town, population 5,000. 

Once or twice a year we have a town meeting.  All registered voters are welcome. 

We vote on policy and budget for the town.  Elected officials carry out our policies and their staff spend the budget.  Call it chaos, I call it direct democracy.  (Incidentally, I am on the losing side of most of the votes.) 

We are safe and secure.  It works.

Frank T Parish

March 2, 2013, 11:36 p.m.

I rather thought that this discussion was in the context of the entire country.  Lots of things work with only 5000 population that won’t work at all well with hundreds of milliions of people.
If I was out of step, I apologize.

Franky Lamouche

March 3, 2013, 12:27 a.m.

Frank T Parish.

It’s a good discussion.  Because, it boils down to technology.  And my learned degree is in an arcane science where technology, man’s machine, converges with psychology, man’s mentality.

Can the mechanisms which make the town meeting the purest form of democracy be spread throughout the larger apparatus which controls our behavior.  I say it can and I point to online commerce, a system for secure purchase, which could be evolved into a means for secure voting.

Otherwise there is no hope for mankind and the 21st century will be as horrible as the 20th.

Getting back to the article’s topic. The only way one can discuss this sort of defense-related policy is in theory.
The theory should be that neither drone surveillance nor drone strikes may be used on American soil without due process (i.e. the procedure for procuring a search warrant or arrest warrant). Even then, they cannot be used by military domestically, only law enforcement. Abroad, drones should be used where they are deemed necessary by military officials. One caveat to drone strikes abroad, they cannot be ordered if it is known that an American will be harmed.

Franky Lamouche

March 11, 2013, 4:08 p.m.

Chris.  It’s not a theoretical discussion, the bargain has been struck. 

The commander and chief has the legal authority to kill American citizens. 

Article 1, Section 9 of the United States Constitution provides that the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus may not be suspended “unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it”.

The 9/11 attack is the cover.

Alan MacDonald

March 11, 2013, 4:57 p.m.

Franky, I was following your explanation/justification all the way up to your conclusion.

However, it certainly appears that you left out one key word in your final sentence—- “The 9/11 attack is the cover” should read, “cover-story”.

Although, even 9/11 (which “changed everything”) was not sufficient to get Congress to actually ‘Declare War”—and thus the conditionality of “rebellion or invasion” don’t seem to have been applied.

No invasion or rebellion.  No Declaration of War.  No Commander in Chief w/o war.

Thus the only thing that seems to apply is the phrase, “9/11 changed everything”.

Yes, 9/11 changed everything——- it exposed the EMPIRE behind it.


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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