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Drone War Tolls


Earlier this week, NBC News revealed a secret Department of Justice memo entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or An Associated Force.”

NBC’s scoop has since fueled mounting outrage over the Obama administration’s drone policy. What is most troubling about the indignation, however, is how much it’s focused on the fact that, my God, President Obama is even using drone’s to knock off his own people.

Or as a shocked Rachel Maddow put it, “Even an American citizen can be killed.”

Senator Ron Wyden proclaimed, “Americans have a right to know when their government thinks it’s allowed to kill them.”

The American the Justice Department memo referred to was Nasser al-Awlak, a radical Islamic cleric and American and Yemeni citizen, suspected of being head of operations for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusula. He was also implicated in the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood Texas and the attempted 2011 Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad.

Two weeks after he was blown apart in Yemen in 2011, his 16 year-old son was obliterated in another drone strike, also directed under the CIA’s secret guidelines.

The son’s death was much more shocking than his father’s.

One other American has also been killed by Drone strikes.

But, much more shocking is the fact that over the past few years, U.S. drones have made mincemeat out of an estimated 3000 to 4000 others—non Americans–in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. At least 200 of them were children.

The figures are very rough because no one–certainly not the U.S. government–is releasing an accurate count. The London based Center for Investigative reporting, which attempts to track the drone strikes, has been able to identify by name only a few hundred of the actual victims. Who knows what their political affiliations really were? Or even less, what considerations—legal and otherwise—went into justifying their demise?

“It’s a terrifying situation.” Jennifer Gibson, an American lawyer in London with Reprieve, an organization taking on the “drone war” issue. “There are villages in Pakistan,” she says “that have drones flying over them 24 hours a day. Sometimes they’ll stay for weeks. But my clients and people there have no way of knowing if they are being targeted. Or what kind of behavior is likely to get them killed. They don’t know if the person riding beside them in a car or walking with them in the marketplace may be a target.It’s terrorizing entire communities. Even after an attack, there is no acknowledging by the U.S. government, no response at all, absolutely no accountability. And the vast majority of casualties don’t even have names attached to them.”

Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, told a conference in Geneva that President Obama’s attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, carried out by the CIA, would encourage other states to flout long-established human rights standards. He suggested that some strikes may even constitute “war crimes”.
But, few Americans seem to carry about U.N. rapporteurs. It’s only when Americans are potential targets for those drones, that Congress and the media get stirred up.

And they’re probably right. A recent poll taken by Farleigh Dickinson University’s Public Mind, found that by a two to one margin (48% to 24%) American voters say they think it’s illegal for the U.S. government to target its own citizens abroad with drone strikes.

But, when it comes to using drones to carry out attacks abroad “on people and other targets deemed a threat to the U.S.” voters were in favor of a margin of six-to-one [75% to 13%].

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Centre for Constitutional Rights (The CCR) have been demanding a court hearing in the United States to determine whether the former head of the CIA Leon Panetta was guilty of having depriving Nasser al-Awlak and his son of their constitutional right to life.

Maria LaHood, an attorney with the CCR frankly admitted to me that they are concentrating on the two American cases, because that’s the really the only way to get Americans to focus on the problem. Also because that’s really the best hope they have of getting an American court to actually agree to hear their case.

‘What we’re also hoping” she says, “is that if we do get anywhere with this case, then we can get a legal interpretation from the court that would apply to everyone–not just Americans. But getting a court to hear this case is going to be a battle in itself.”

Reprieve is also active in the courts—in Pakistan. Though the Pakistani ambassador in Washington has complained about the drone strikes, his government has done little to prevent them. Reprieve now is backing a case in Peshawar to oblige the Pakistani government to take action against the drones–to protect the constitutional right to life of its own citizens.

What particularly concerns Reprieve attorney Jennifer Gibson is the very nature of the convoluted 16-page memo that describes the Justice Department’s rationale for okaying the killing of an American, even outside of a war zone.

“If the U.S. has such vague, ambiguous standards where Americans are concerned, if they they’ve set the bar so low for their own citizens, who knows what the standards are for killing non Americans?”

In other words, if Justice Department lawyers labored so mightily on producing a memo setting the guidelines for killing an American citizen, one can only presume that the guidelines must be much different for those who inhabit the rest of the world.
When do we see that memo?

BARRY LANDO is a former producer for 60 Minutes who now lives in Paris. He can be reached at:

BARRY LANDO is a former producer for 60 Minutes. He is the author of The Watchman’s File. He can be reached at: or through his website.

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