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Drone Secrets

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A US Senate committee says that Americans have no right to know how many people have been killed by US drones.

Last Monday, April 28, the London Guardian reported that the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had removed a provision from its fiscal year 2014 intelligence authorization bill.  The deleted provision required the White House to issue annual reports of the number of civilians and combatants killed in US drone strikes. The Select Committee had adopted the bill along with the disclosure provision in November but the bill has not yet made it to the full Senate.

The Senate Select Committee acted in response to a letter sent by US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper calling for the disclosure provision to be removed.

Clapper assured the Senators that “the Executive Branch is committed to sharing as much information as possible with the American people and the Congress.”    However, the raw data the bill called for could compromise “intelligence sources and classified material.”  The White House would continue to “work” with the Committee to determine how to provide the information the bill called for but in ways which would not compromise “intelligence sources and classified material.”

And you were worried that Clapper didn’t have a good reason for his request.

Transparency has not exactly been the hallmark of Obama’s drone policy.  Not until 2012 did the Obama Administration even admit to using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), “drones,” against members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in countries as far flung as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia.  None of these are countries with which the United States is at war.  Meanwhile, US killer drones have been an open secret, each new strike reported in the media.

While it has finally acknowledged the existence of the drone program, the Obama Administration continues to refuse to make public the number of persons killed in US drone strikes.  Granted, the drone strikes have killed a few high level members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but at what cost?  Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban, was killed by a US drone on November 1, 2013.  However, Hakimullah’s death had the negative side effect of putting a brake on peace talks between the Taliban and the Pakistani government.

Drone strikes also kill many innocent civilians.  How many?  The British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that there have been at least 451 drone deaths to date in Yemen:  82 of them civilians.  The Bureau also estimates that since they began in 2004, drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 3,718 people, 957 of them civilians.

Secrecy in a democracy is highly problematic (as is the question of whether the United States remains a democracy).  Arguably, there have been a few cases where Washington was right to keep the American public in the dark.  The Manhattan Project which built the atomic bomb and the timing and location of the Allied D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe were the two most closely guarded secrets of World War Two.  But more frequently, secrecy’s only purpose is to protect the rulers (Pentagon Papers, anyone?).

What we must keep in mind is that once D-Day was successful, Washington told the American public.  Americans were informed after Hiroshima.  Once Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALS, Americans were told.  The Senate bill only required after the fact reporting of drone casualties.  Clapper’s fears about compromising US intelligence sources are groundless.

So why the continued secrecy?  The obvious answer is that the Obama Administration would prefer Americans not to know that we’re killing large numbers of innocent men, women, and children.

An additional possibility is that the White House doesn’t want to admit it has no idea how many civilians we’re killing.  That’s a real possibility given how drones strikes are carried out.  Hellfire missiles are fired on weddings and funerals.  “Double tap” strikes are carried out on first responders who rush to aid those injured in an initial drone strike.  Finally, the Obama Administration has obscured the number of civilian dead by presuming that any “combat-age male” carrying arms in an area of terrorist activity is a terrorist.  That last practice in particular raises the question whether Washington even cares how many civilians it kills.

Obama’s positively Nixonian obsession with secrecy does not end with how many people have been killed by drones.  Obama has also persistently refused to tell Americans why he believes drone strikes are legal.

In a much ballyhooed speech at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013, President Obama promised new restraint in conducting drone strikes.  Drones would be used to kill only in the face of a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people”; where capture of a terrorist suspect is impractical; and where there exists a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

Three times the President claimed that US “preference” is always to capture rather than kill terrorists.  The truth is exactly the opposite.  The Obama Administration much prefers to kill terrorists.  Last October, US commandos grabbed Al-Qaeda’s Abu Anas in Libya because of his involvement in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  The incident was notable precisely because it was so rare.  Capturing suspected terrorists poses too many hassles over things like habeas corpus.  Obama has learned from the Bush Administration’s repeated run-ins with the Supreme Court.  Killing terrorists is easier.

Moreover, Obama’s declared criterion of “imminent threat” turns out to be meaningless.  An administration White Paper leaked in February 2011 (a summary of a longer unreleased document) includes this little tit-bit:  that the US does not need “clear evidence that a specific attack … will take place in the immediate future.”  So a threat is imminent if Obama & Co. say that it is.

The NDU speech was concealment masquerading as candor.  The Presidential Policy Guidance memorandum on which the NDU speech was based remains classified.  Without that, all we have are Obama’s carefully selected highlights, not the full legal rationale Obama uses to justify his targeted killings.

I’ve written about how the Obama Administration does its best to keep drone victims out of sight and out of mind of the American public (“US to Drone Victims:  Shut Up,”  CounterPunch, Oct. 1, 2013).  When Rafiq ur Rehman, whose elderly mother had been killed by a US drone, was scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill, his representative, the Pakistani human rights lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, mysteriously developed visa troubles.  Since Akbar was also Rehman’s translator, Rehman could not testify without him.  (Fortunately, Rehman found a different translator and was able to testify on a later date, but to an audience of only three members of Congress.)

Encouragingly, US drone strikes are on the decline.  The Council on Foreign Relations reports that US drone strikes have dropped from 92 strikes that killed up to 532 people in 2012 to 55 strikes that killed 271 people last year.  Drone fatalities in Pakistan have been on the wane since 2011, with no drone strikes at all in Pakistan for the past three months.

CODE PINK and others in the anti-drone movement deserve our thanks for keeping the pressure on the administration.  We can’t slack off now.

The Obama Administration asks Americans to trust that it’s doing the right thing.  But trusting government is hard to do while the NSA is spying on Americans, which we would still not know if not for Edward Snowden.  We’ll trust Obama when he trusts us.

Charles Pierson is a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition.  E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.

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