News & Investigations

News & Investigations


June 29, 2012

Written by

Chris Woods
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

When 26 members of the US Congress wrote to President Obama recently urging him to get a grip on his use of drones as ‘faceless ambassadors that cause civilian deaths,’ one man in particular was responsible.

Congressman for Ohio Dennis Kucinich has been a career politician for more than 40 years – but he’s no Washington insider. Described at times by friend and foe alike as ‘the most liberal man in America,’ Kuchinich maintains a principled stand against US militarism.

Kucinich has viewed America’s targeted killings programme against alleged terrorists with alarm for some years. Recently he has agitated for the United States to be open about its covert wars, and for Congress to assert its right to declare war – or not – in places like Pakistan and Yemen. And Kucinich, twice a Presidential primary contender, is also trying to introduce a Bill that would outlaw the assassination of American citizens by US agencies like the CIA.

On the day that the Bureau spoke with him, a UN expert in Geneva had just labeled a CIA drone tactic used in Pakistan as ‘a war crime’. We began by asking him about the implications:

Dennis Kucinich: Well I think it is only a matter of time before the international discussion on this makes it crystal clear that if the drone programs are not shut down, then what we are looking at is the potential of war of all against all, a pulverisation of national sovereignty and a rejection of the structure of international law. So, you know, there is the idea of war crimes becomes compelling only if nations respect the jurisdiction of a tribunal.

I certainly have called for the US to join the International Criminal Court. We have ventured into a world since 9/11 where international law is set aside and where the implements of war are becoming so ubiquitous that all the rules are being ignored and conflict zones are expanding. Where suspected terrorists – and we do not know what they are really suspected of doing, you know – they can be suspects now, and they can be executed. Or they can just be perceived to be a male of combat age and be executed.

Q: What do you hope to achieve with your recent letter to President Obama?

DK: Well, it has already achieved something. When you bring together dozens of members of Congress in a common statement about a US policy that lacks a legal basis, that doesn’t have transparency, then, I think, people start to take notice. Congress, unfortunately, has been slow to claim its responsibility under the US Constitution, ‘the power to declare war’. When the Constitution was written the war-power was bifurcated in this way. Under article 1 the Congress founders wanted to restrain what they called ‘the dog of war’ by putting it into the hands of a legislator whose constituents would be affected by it, and would therefore have to face the people at some point.

We have ventured into a world since 9/11 where international law is set aside.’

But what has happened is that in this post 9/11 world is that the declarations of war have basically vanished, replaced by an administration’s assertion of the power to declare a global war. And that has been buttressed, that was under the Bush administration, now under the Obama administration it is the derogation to the executive of the power to strike at any nation at any time for any reason. Expanding drone wars across Africa, across the Middle East, and I think ultimately risking blow-back.

Q: In Yemen recently there has been a very steep escalation, not just in drone strikes but apparently covert air strikes, naval bombardments, and possibly ground forces.

DK: Yes, it is a war, you know. We do not need to go through an Orwellian exercise of semantics or the twisting of meaning here. We understand that we are at war in Yemen. Now in order for Congress to be fully aware of this matter, I am planning to bring to the floor of the House a resolution which seizes upon the requirements of the War Powers Act, that the administration is going to either have to seek a declaration from Congress or will have to stop.

You are looking here at an executive power that is unleashed. Our system of justice, according to the Constitution, is highly structured. There are broad areas of our constitution that have to do with people being investigated, arrested, charged, having a trial, and then if they are convicted being properly sentenced and incarcerated.

What we have done here with the drone programme is to radically alter our system of justice. Because, remember, if the whole idea is that we are exporting American values, those drones represent American values. And now we are telling the world that American values are summary executions, no rights to an accused, no arrest process, no reading of charges, no trial by jury, no judge, only an executioner.

If you have only an executioner that is not justice, that is something else. Not only the United States but the world community should be properly appraised about these so-called targeted killings. And because the emphasis in on killing, this is murder. If someone shot a grocer and his defense was ‘it was a targeted killing’ he would be put on trial for his life. But we are told that these targeted killings are somehow to be considered apart from any legal system.

Q: There’s recently been some transparency, where the President and others have spoken publicly about the covert drone campaigns. But the Department of Justice position is that ‘we still can’t talk to you at all about it because it is secret.’ How can those apparently irreconcilable positions be held by the government? 

DK: Well, when you have assassination programmes that lack any attempt to establish legal justification, then you have journeyed into moral depravity. International law means nothing, laws of war mean nothing. I am not assigning that condition to any one individual, but I am saying that the programme itself bespeaks an approach which depraves moral law, the constitution, and international law. That sets us into an endless cycle of violence.

Now we are telling the world that American values are summary executions.

There are innocent people being killed, that can not be disputed. In one of the first strikes that they publicised in the Wazaristan area, there was a little town Damadola where I think about 14 people were killed, I think in a strike in January 2006, I am just reciting this from memory. I believe they struck because one of the persons appeared to be the height of one of the individuals they were looking for. The criteria keeps changing and it keeps getting looser and looser.

Now, according to that recent story I think in the New York Times, all males in Waziristan are now viewed as terrorists.

Related article: Analysis – Obama embraced redefinition of ‘civilian’ in drone wars

Q: All adult-aged males, yes.

DK: Yes, and so someday, I hope it is not going to be too far into the future, somebody is going to look back at this and go ‘oh my God, why was this permitted?’ The US government just goes ‘we spent more money on arms than any other country in the world just because we have the most powerful military.’ We cannot assume for ourselves the right to impose a war anywhere we well please, and yet we have. And there is little accountability, so what I am trying to bring about in the Congress is to force accountability and transparency. Transparency in terms of ‘how are you able, you know, what about this extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions? What is the legal authority for the government to conduct extrajudicial killings, where did this come from?’ Really, where did this come from? Says who?

Q: The administration is saying ‘we are being as transparent as we can within operational security.’ You don’t accept that?

DK: No. Absolutely not. I mean they went ahead and they have never made the case as to how this contributed to US security. As a matter of fact it could be, the argument could be made that it makes us less safe because instead of dealing with the one person that we are killing, we are going to be dealing with all their friends and relatives down the road. We are creating, every bomb that we drop, every missile that we launch, there are sure to be reprisals. And the reprisals, you know, there is no time-date set here, there is no time limit.

I mean, you cannot engage in this kind of conduct with impunity, it is not possible in this world. We have set upon a new frontier of a very rough technological justice which is divorced from moral law. And as such we are inviting a whirlwind of reaction. And for the life of me I can’t understand why these questions were not being weighed before we waded into these policies.

Q: In his April 30 speech on drones, Obama’s chief counter terrorism adviser John Brennan said that ‘If we want other nations to adhere to high and rigorous standards with their use then we must do so as well. We can not expect of others what we will not do ourselves.’

DK: I look at it from my standpoint, as an American, as a member of Congress, what would we do if China, or Russia, or Iran sent a drone over the US? How would we respond? We would see it as, we would see the presence of a drone over our air-space as an act of war, no question about it. And a firing of a drone would invite a full retaliatory response. There is just no question about in, anyone who knows the US know how we would respond to that. Why then does our administration believe that America has some kind of a peremptory position? Why are we immune from international law? Where did we get that special privilege?

Q: One justification put forward is that there are believed to be secret agreements, between the US and Yemen in particular but also in the past with Pakistan, which in some way makes this all right.

DK: Well let’s look at this from a number of different levels. The Pakistan government and the United States have a very famous double-game going and our two nations are constantly faking each other out. We have carried the double-game to an art form where we can’t tell what is real anymore. Except the bodies lying among the smoking embers of a drone strike, that is real.

When there is no transparency or accountability that is what happens. It is easy for a country to assert cooperation. It is much more difficult for a country to assert non-cooperation and then to cooperate. Because all of this is so murky we can only reach conclusions from what facts are on the ground. And those facts include a lot of dead civilians. So lets say that Yemen asked us to do this, does it follow that we accept the invitation? Nor does it follow that the administration pursues it without Congress and an appropriate declaration. The same is true with Pakistan.

Q: Pakistan has now overtly rescinded any possible agreement, and is openly saying ‘please stop bombing us, this is against international law.’ Yet the bombing is still carrying on. This seems to be a new development.

DK: Well it is a new development. And if a nation, which at one time asked for our help, resents our help, then any action that takes place effectively loses the protection of the request for cooperation. And then it becomes a clearly outlined act of aggression. And so if it is as Pakistan says it is, and if in fact Pakistan has made this request and asked us to stop and we continue this bombing, then we are at war with Pakistan. I have raised this question more than a year ago on a war powers resolution on a war over Pakistan. And this was when we were just starting to step up the attacks.

The Pakistan government and the United States have a very famous double-game going and our two nations are constantly faking each other out. We have carried the double-game to an art form where we can’t tell what is real anymore.’

So it goes back to some simple propositions here: the UN Charter was established to protect the sovereignty of every nation and to stop the scourge of war. The United States, as a participant in the UN, has a responsibility not to aggress. Every nation has a right to defend itself, but no nation has the right to aggress against another. We are clearly aggressing against Pakistan, and against Yemen, and against a whole range of countries. This can only lead to more war. With war, these wars, any drone now is an incendiary that spreads war more broadly and it incites more people to join the cause of those who protest the US policies and who seeks to commit violence.

Q: Your critics argue that the covert drone programme is the least worst option. If the drone strikes stopped tomorrow, how would the US be able to control al Qaeda and their allies?

DK: First of all, before drones were invented, the ability of Interpol and others to cooperate with intelligence agencies to actively seek after suspects was not limited. And it may be that the US is finding limitations for its newly claimed role of the sole policeman of the world. And I will promise you this, that the American people are getting tired of footing the bill. The fact that we can do it and have been able to avoid any international questions about it does not mean at some point the world community is going to focus back upon the US and raise questions about the decisions that our leaders have made.

I love this country, I feel that we have had a kind of psychic dismemberment from our foundational causes of nation. How did the nation, that was founded under such egalitarian principles, find itself running a killing bureaucracy, how did that happen? How did we make that journey? This is clearly a story of a nation that is losing its way in the world to a mixture of fear and hubris. This is what has brought me twice to run for president of the US, to challenge this, because it is really a preliminary to the destruction of our own nation from within. We cannot keep doing this, and there is no defense for this.

Q: Medea Benjamin of Code Pink recently told the Bureau that engaging US people with the covert war and targeted killings is difficult, because there is a Democrat in the White House.

DK: It is true, but it is Bush’s policies, run by another administration. There is this riddle of ‘why can a Democrat get away with what a Republican could never get away with?’ But as far as I am concerned that is not germane to my work, there is a principle here. If we fail to hold any executive or any administration accountable, particularly given the broad power a US executive has these days, then we are – and we are talking about the use of military force here which has a potential of killing people – then we are jeopardizing some of our most cherished democratic principles.

Killings become too easy, without a justice system to guide it. It is vigilantism conducted by robots. This is a venture into a realm that would have perhaps been conjured by the likes of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, but certainly not by Washington or Jefferson.

Related article: The uphill fight against Obama’s drones – Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin

Q:  When there are drone strikes in Pakistan with credible reports of civilian deaths, we can’t find any evidence of these deaths being reported by major US media. Does that concern you?

DK: This is consistent with the Iraq war. It’s not bad form to kill civilians, it’s only bad form to talk about it. That’s the problem. Let me say that there has been a tradition of American journalists in modern times to serve as the spear carriers for the government. They may look like pens but these are the spears of supernumeraries who have reporters’ cards. It’s what happens when you have fewer and fewer newspapers, and newspapers that are tied to large corporate interests. And a lack of enough institutions in the major media who are willing to serve as an effective counter-balance.

If Pakistan has asked us to stop and we continue this bombing, then we are at war with Pakistan.’

Look at the New York Times. It bought in wholesale into the war in Iraq, and came back to apologise. But how do you apologise for all of the dead bodies and the dead soldiers? We feel the dead soldiers, but we should also feel the dead civilians… There is a disturbing tendency to ignore civilian casualties, in any conflicts that we’re involved in whether they’re declared or undeclared. The only time civilian casualties are used is to articulate a cause for further US involvement in a conflict such as in Syria. There’s talk about civilian casualties there, it’s a very regretful situation in Syria. And the US will almost daily report on those civilian casualties because there’s a cry for intervention. But where there’s no interest in intervention, where there’s a desire simply to dominate either militarily, politically, strategically, then you’ll see the whole issue of civilian casualties buried.

Why do they do that? I think the people of the United States would be horrified if they actually understood how many innocent people are being swept up in the maw of these wars. So people are just permitted to sleep. And it’s going to be very disturbing for the American people when they awake from the slumber to look out upon a world where there’s carnage everywhere that’s created by our nation without any legal process, without any constitutional basis and without any articulated justification.

This is a lightly edited version of an interview conducted with Congressman Kucinich on June 21 2012

Follow @RepKucinich and @chrisjwoods on Twitter 



June 21, 2012

Written by

Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The United Nation’s Human Rights Council in Geneva (UNHRC/ Flickr)

The UN’s expert on extrajudicial killings has described a tactic used by the CIA and first exposed by a Bureau investigation as ‘a war crime’.

Earlier this year the Bureau and the Sunday Times revealed the CIA was deliberately targeting rescuers and funeral-goers in its Pakistan drone strikes. Those controversial tactics have reportedly been revived.

Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur, told a meeting in Geneva on June 21: ‘Reference should be made to a study earlier this year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism… If civilian ‘rescuers’ are indeed being intentionally targeted, there is no doubt about the law: those strikes are a war crime.’

Related article: Obama terror drones – CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals

Heyns’ forthright comments were made at an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) event, linked to a UN debate into the US covert war on terror.

Ambassador Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva told the Bureau ‘we fully agree with what has been said by Mr Heyns.’ Ambassador Akram called on the US ‘to respect the growing international opinion’ that the use of drones ‘not only violates our sovereignty but also violates the UN charter in our view and also international law.’

Reference should be made to a study earlier this year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism… If civilian ‘rescuers’ are indeed being intentionally targeted, there is no doubt about the law: those strikes are a war crime.Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur 

Unsatisfactory response

In a separate presentation to the Council, Heyns, said that he was hopeful that the US would reveal the procedures, rules and legal opinions underlying its controversial use of drones. He also noted that the US government did not give his predecessor a satisfactory response when asked to clarify which aspects of international law it believes covers targeted killings.

But after a two-day Council debate, Heyns said the US had not been forthcoming: ‘I don’t think we have the full answer to the legal framework,’ he said. ‘We certainly don’t have the answer to the accountability issues.’

A number of other Geneva delegates also expressed concern about targeted killings. Swiss UNHRC representative Dante Martinelli addressed the Council and called for transparent reporting of casualties from targeted killing operations which ’cause many victims among the civilian population.’ Because of the cost to civilians, Switzerland called for ‘respect for the rules of international law.’

Outside the Council’s purviewThe United States responded to Heyns’ report by saying the question of targeted killings of al Qaeda members and their allies was ‘broader than the issues in the purview of this Council,’ and that ‘questions about the US legal and policy framework for use of force against al Qaeda and associated forces have been addressed by senior US officials in a number of recent public statements.’

In those public statements senior White House officials, including presidential adviser John Brennan, argued that because the US is in a worldwide, armed conflict with al Qaeda and its allies, strikes are governed by the laws of armed conflict. Targeted killings are therefore legal and can be carried out in self defense.

Heyns later told the Bureau that his key concern, however, is whether the US is now setting a dangerous precedent. ‘The spectre that haunts the whole thing is that eventually everyone thinks they can use force in this way.’

Hina Shamsi, national security director of the ACLU and at the UN debate, shares Heyns’ concern: ‘The authority the government asserts today could be used tomorrow by nations with far less respect for the right for life.’

The ACLU insists that the US is not applying the laws of war or human rights law to its targeted killing policy. Instead ‘the United States has cobbled together its own legal framework for targeted killing, with standards that are far less stringent than the law allows,’ says Shamsi.

The authority the government asserts today could be used tomorrow by nations with far less respect for the right for life.’Hina Shamsi, ACLU 

Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) says the US’s ‘rather shop worn’ legal and ethical justification for its covert drone strikes are symptomatic of a hardening of Washington’s position on the issue of targeted killings.

Eyal believe that this stems both from not wanting to appear weak in the fight against al Qaeda in an election year, and because of the complexities of arresting and trying suspects. ‘I don’t think there is any temptation within the United States for anyone to admit that these practices are illegal or at least to say that they will cease in the future,’ he added.

Professor Philip Alston, the former special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings told the Bureau: ‘there has been a huge reluctance to criticise policies of the Obama administration’ by America’s allies.

‘Instead, most states are remaining relatively silent in the face of the evolution of US policies that are entirely inconsistent with international law and deeply problematic from a human rights and international law perspective.’



June 19, 2012

Written by

Chris Woods
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Revelations that President Barack Obama presides over key aspects of secret kill-list machinery that has sentenced thousands to death by drone have disturbed many. Torture and extraordinary rendition under Bush, it turns out, have been replaced with industrial-scale extrajudicial execution by his successor.

Today, CIA and Pentagon armed drones range at will over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, seeking out alleged terrorists. These wars are ‘secret’ only in that they are removed from true accountability. White House and CIA officials brag in selective leaks of effectiveness, even as they use the courts to block real scrutiny. Lawyers and journalists seeking to expose the truth have been smeared. Mounting evidence of hundreds of civilian casualties is pushed aside. And a compliant US media has, until now, barely raised a whisper.

No wonder Obama’s re-election team seeks to present him as the Warrior President, the decapitator of Al Qaeda. Domestic US opinion polls have shown 83% support for the covert drone war – those unmanned killing machines may actually help put Obama back in the White House. Yet like Guantanamo, the cost to the international reputation of the United States may prove devastating.

Defining Weapon

The armed drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, is the defining weapon of America’s seemingly endless Global War on Terror, just as the tank once symbolised an earlier conflict. Weaponless drones were used by the CIA during the Balkans Wars. But there were big concerns at the implications of slinging missiles under their wings.

Only in summer 2001 did the Agency practice bombing a mock-up of Osama bin Laden’s farm out in the Nevada desert. And just days before 9-11, the CIA and the Pentagon were still bickering over who should control the drones programme. Neither wanted the responsibility for extrajudicial killings. And no wonder, with Bush’s State Department bluntly telling Israel the previous week that ‘We remain opposed to targeted killings. We think Israel needs to understand that targeted killings of Palestinians don’t end the violence.’

The armed drone is the defining weapon of America’s seemingly endless Global War on Terror

That principle, with many others, was soon ditched. The first weaponised Predator took to the skies above Afghanistan just days after the atrocities of September 2011. The first US extrajudicial killing by drone took place in Yemen the following year. Since then more than 3,000 people have died in some 400 covert US drone strikes.

The bulk of drone strikes take place within conventional warfare. Hundreds of armed US UAVs – and a handful of British ones – now patrol the skies above Afghanistan. Satellite control direct from the United States is near-instant, as pilot and navigator sit in air-conditioned comfort at an ever-expanding collection of Air Force bases. More US pilots are now being trained to fly drones than for conventional fighters and bombers. Little wonder that Tony Scott’s Top Gun sequel is likely to be set on a drone base, a world where ‘kids play war games by day… and party by night.’

Kamikaze Drone

Until recently only one company made lethal drones for the United States, the privately-owned General Atomics. It’s unknown quite how many billions of dollars the US has spent on the Predator drone and its bigger, faster successor the Reaper. The company’s accounts are not publicly available. We do know that General Atomics’ San Diego production lines work day and night to churn out these ungainly killers. The only approved rival is in the form of a tiny hand-launched drone that has been ‘trialled’ by US Special Forces in Afghanistan. Aerovironment’s Switchblade is better known as the Kamikaze Drone, since it can be flown into a crowd of opponents and detonated.

A promotional film for the US military’s new Switchblade drone

Great claims are made about the effectiveness of Predator and Reaper, regularly touted by US officials as ‘the most precise weapon in the history of warfare.’ NATO’s aerial campaign in Libya last year saw hundreds of drone strikes among 9,700 air sorties. A proud NATO secretary general later told the world, ‘We have carried out this operation very carefully, without confirmed civilian casualties.’ That claim was later exposed as bogus, with Human Rights Watch chronicling at least 72 civilians killed – among them 24 children and 20 women. Drones had a hand in those deaths. Yet NATO chose not to investigate reports of civilians killed, claiming that it had no mandate to gather information on the ground. It had never asked for permission to do so.

Armed drones do appear to bring greater accuracy to the battlefield. Able to loiter over an area, they can examine a target with multiple sensors before attacking. Women and children in the firing line? A drone can wait for minutes, even hours, for a cleaner shot. Early Predator strikes saw far higher death counts as Hellfire missiles designed for destroying armoured tanks were used on houses built of mud bricks. Over time the explosive content of the missiles has been lowered at least twice. ‘Collateral damage’ has declined. But still civilians die. In Afghanistan that can lead to investigation, remorse and compensation. When drones cross the border to conduct attacks in the other, supposedly secret war, all such accountability stops.

CIA-controlled Predators and Reapers have been bombing Pakistan’s tribal areas since June 2004. According to the Bureau, 330 US drone strikes (278 of them under Obama) have so far killed at least 2,500 people in Pakistan. At least 482 civilians are credibly reported among the dead. Al Qaeda has certainly suffered in this campaign. With the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi on June 4 the terrorist group is reduced to almost nothing, stripped of its leadership by US air raids and earlier joint counter-terrorism operations with Pakistan. There’s little doubt that for years Islamabad tacitly approved most of the US strikes on its soil. But any co-operation has been progressively withdrawn over the past 18 months. Now Pakistan condemns every attack as being ‘in total contravention of international law’. The US simply ignores its ‘ally.’

‘Single digits’ claim a lie

US officials routinely claim that no more than 50 or 60 civilians have died in eight years of bombing in Pakistan. Only recently, a senior US official claimed that the number of civilians killed by Barack Obama in Pakistan is in ‘the single digits.’ This is a lie. With his feet barely under the Oval Office table, President Obama authorised two drone strikes on January 23 2009. Both missed their intended targets. At least 15 civilians reportedly died on that day alone, and Obama knew about those civilian casualties within hours. ‘You could tell from his body language that he was not a happy man,’ as one observer puts it.

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan can lead to investigation, remorse and compensation. When drones cross the border to conduct attacks in the other, supposedly secret war, all such accountability stops.’

In fact at least 300 civilians have been credibly reported killed (63 of them children) among at least 2,000 drone fatalities during Obama’s Pakistan campaign. Some particularly vicious tactics have also emerged. On June 23 2009 the CIA attacked a public funeral attended by thousands, in an effort to kill a senior Taliban commander. Between 18 and 45 civilians were among 83 killed. The leader was unharmed.

On numerous other occasions, US drones have deliberately targeted rescuers trying to retrieve the dead and injured from previous drone strikes, as a major Bureau investigation with the Sunday Times showed. In the last few days, those odious tactics appear to have returned to Pakistan, with credible reports of US attacks on funeral prayers and a mosque.

Despite US denials of their deaths, we often know a great deal about ‘non-combatant’ victims. It’s often claimed that Waziristan is ‘inaccessible’ and that establishing facts is ‘impossible. In fact persistent efforts by lawyers, academics, NGOs and journalists have uncovered extensive details about many of those who died. Based on this information and its own field investigations, the Bureau has so far been able to put names to more than 310 civilians killed in Pakistan. Only 170 or so militants have so far been identified.

On January 8 2010, for example, we know that high school teacher Akbar Zaman and his friends Mir Qalam, Saad Wali Khan and Muhammad Fayyaz all died when Zaman’s house was hit. Next door, three year old Ayeesha was also killed by missile shrapnel. That case is currently before the UN Human Rights Council with Commissioner Navi Pillay calling last week for an urgent inquiry into civilian casualties in Pakistan.

Mealy-mouthed response

Even when the facts are well-known, the US persists in its denials. In March 2011, the CIA hit a tribal meeting, or jirga, attended by dozens of civic leaders from North Waziristan. Up to 42 civilians died that day in Miranshah, leading to loud protests from Pakistan’s president, prime minister and army chief. In a mealy-mouthed response, an anonymous US official told the New York Times: ‘The fact is that a large group of heavily armed men, some of whom were clearly connected to Al Qaeda and all of whom acted in a manner consistent with A.Q.-linked militants, were killed.’ A current High Court case in London, led by legal charity Reprieve and based on multiple affidavits of survivors, has failed to convince the CIA that it killed anyone but ‘terrorists’ that day.

Pakistani barrister Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who represents a number of families of civilians killed in strikes (and who’s been smeared by US intelligence officials as an ISI agent), once noted that ‘since every man in Waziristan has a turban and a gun, every one of them is a likely CIA target’. Perversely we now know this to be the case. Recent revelations show that combatants are defined by the US in Waziristan as ‘all military-age males in a strike zone.’

As if to reassure us, we’re told that the dead can be ‘reclassified posthumously as civilians if explicit evidence proves them innocent’. Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has struggled to hold the Obama administration to account on the legality of its covert drone strikes, is blunt. ‘Direct targeting of noncombatants is a war crime,’ he wrote in The Guardian last week. ‘A “shoot first, ask questions later” policy is entirely inconsistent with international law, not to mention morally grotesque.’

A London High Court case based on multiple survivor affidavits has failed to convince the CIA that it killed anyone but ‘terrorists’

Obama has radically expanded the covert drone war, drawing in ever more countries. In Yemen, more than 90 Pentagon and CIA drone strikes may have taken place in the last year. In Somalia, drones began killing in 2011. There are credible reports of one US strike in the Philippines. And CNN reports that covert (and possibly armed) US drones have just taken to Libya’s skies, after fears of rising militancy.

The absence of effective scrutiny for all of this is startling. Despite repeated US claims that its covert drone strikes are in accordance with international law, no US court has ever ruled on the matter. The CIA routinely claims ‘state secrets privilege’ to strike down legal challenges – the same system the British government is presently flirting with introducing here. Democrat Diane Feinstein recently revealed that the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee she chairs ‘questions every aspect of the program including legality, effectiveness, precision, foreign policy implications and the care taken to minimize noncombatant casualties.’

‘Kill this bomb-maker’

But don’t expect Feinstein to examine the morality of these strikes. Discussing an alleged Al Qaeda bomber recently, she told Fox News” ‘I am hopeful that we will be able to, candidly, kill this bomb maker and kill some of these other associates.’ Her opposite number Mike Rogers in the House of Representatives is equally onside. Discussing the expanding secret US drone war in Yemen he recently described them as ‘bringing folks to justice.’

Given such dysfunctional oversight, the US media could have played a stronger role in holding Obama to account. But with honourable exceptions it has too often failed. Beginning in January 2011, anonymous US officials began briefing US journalists that CIA drones had reached a point of perfection – they were no longer killing any civilians in Pakistan. For seven months those claims went unchallenged by any news organisation. It took a Bureau investigation to identify at least 45 civilians – and likely many more – killed in the defined period. For that – and for its other work exposing the civilian cost of the US drones campaign – TBIJ has been labelled by US officials as an al-Qaeda-helping patsy of Pakistani intelligence.

Armed drones used conventionally are simply another innovative weapons platform. But used covertly, they risk lowering the threshold at which wars are fought – and undermining the laws of war themselves. Former senior US intelligence officials are warning that any strategic success may be undermined as new generations of Yemenis, Somalis and Pakistanis are radicalised by American tactics.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who introduced covert drone strikes in Pakistan back in 2004, said recently that ‘democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a DoJ [Department of Justice] safe.’ For eight long years US covert drone strikes have been conducted without proper scrutiny or accountability. That needs to change.

A version of this article appeared as the lead feature in the New Statesman’s special drones issue. Republished here with kind permission.

You can follow chrisjwoods on Twitter.


June 14, 2012

Written by

Alice Ross
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As reports of ‘kill lists’ have emerged and murmurs of increasing use of surveillance drones over US soil – not to mention the London Olympics – have grown louder in recent months, drones have leapt onto the news agenda and into public debate. In a special report this week’s New Statesman special looks in detail at the expansion of drones both in warfare and in civilian airspace.

The Bureau’s drone team leader Chris Woods writes the cover story, which details how a collapse in accountability in Washington has enabled President Obama to carry out drone strikes on an industrial scale with no legislative scrutiny and, for the most part, little public debate. Examining the eight-year campaign of strikes on Pakistan – which is carried out by the CIA and was only publicly acknowledged for the first time by Obama earlier this year – Woods explains how the CIA has been able to avoid legal challenges by claiming the campaign is a ‘state secret’.

This lack of accountability extends to the CIA simply refusing to account for how many people it has killed with drones, and who they might be. Despite US claims that ‘only’ 50 or 60 civilians have been killed in a campaign that has killed at least 2,000 people, the Bureau has identified by name over 310 civilians killed.

See the Bureau’s full drones research here.

Chillingly, it was recently reported that according to the US definitions, ‘all military-age males in a strike zone’ are regarded as militants, and will only be counted as civilians where ‘explicit evidence proves them innocent’ – a lethal inversion of the fundamental legal principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

For many years, these attacks were carried out with the complicity of the Pakistani authorities, who protested the strikes in public while secretly condoning them. In a startlingly frank interview, former president Pervez Musharraf tells Jemima Khan the strikes are ‘a breach of sovereignty’ but says the Pakistani government is ‘double-crossing the people of Pakistan’ with its contradictory public and private attitudes.

Musharraf is, Khan says, ‘plotting his return to Pakistani politics’, and like fellow political hopeful Imran Khan he talks a hard line on drones – although he falls short of Imran Khan’s pledge to shoot them from the sky, instead saying he would prefer to request that the US gives Pakistan the drones so they can launch the attacks.

This level of co-operation with the US is nothing new to Musharraf: one of the most lethal strikes took place on his watch and killed up to 81 people including 69 children in October 2006. The Pakistani army claimed responsibility for the attack – covering for the CIA. Musharraf says the reported counts of the dead – and particularly the number of children – are ‘absolutely wrong’, adding: ‘There may have been some collateral damage of some children but they were not children at all, they were all militants doing training.’

In ‘Trial by fury’, rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC analyses the legality of Obama’s covert war, examining the legal landscape of a war that is fought against a loose international network of ideologues, rather than an opposing army. ‘War law’, Robertson says, does not apply in this case – yet for over a decade the US has behaved as though it does.

Human rights are ‘less relevant’ under war law, and there is no ability for relatives to challenge the grounds on which ‘kill’ decisions were made. There is no publicly available guidance for what merits inclusion on the ‘kill list’: ‘is it enough to be sympathetic to terrorism, married to a terrorist, or anti-American?’ asks Robertson. ‘To provide shelter or give funds to terrorist groups? What is the required degree of proof?’

International legal systems have completely failed to rise to the challenges of asymmetric warfare, Robertson says: the challenge is ‘to find a way back, to reasonable force and proportionality’ – as well as a return to ‘the right to life, the presumption of innocence, and a fair trial’.

And just to bring things home, the special report includes a guide to the incredible variety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) coming soon to a sky near you, from the $300 toy you can control with your iPhone to surveillance flights during the London Olympics. While in the US it is envisaged drones will be used for ‘crowd control’, science writer Michael Brooks says, in London ‘they will be used for surveillance only’. In the UK in general, ‘very few’ police forces have bought drones, and those that have have barely used them – so far.

If the special report illustrates one thing, it’s that this is a new force that is in its infancy – and which has a long way to grow.

The New Statesman is out today.


June 1, 2012

Written by

Chris Woods and Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A summary of US actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in the secret war on terror.

The Bureau’s Covert War project tracks drone strikes and other US military and paramilitary actions in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Here we summarise our key work and findings for May.


May 2012 actions

Confirmed US drone strikes: 5

Further reported/ possible US strike events: 18

Alleged militants reported killed in US operations: 23 – 171

Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 1 – 31


All Actions 2002 – 2012*

Total confirmed US operations: 44 – 54

Total confirmed US drone strikes: 31 – 41

Possible additional US operations: 86 – 95

Of which possible additional US drone strikes: 48 – 54

Total reported killed: 317 – 814

Total civilians killed: 58 – 138

Children killed: 24Click here for the full Yemen data


As in April, intense fighting meant that Yemen again dominated the Bureau’s reporting. Five US drone strikes were confirmed by US or Yemeni officials.

However, an additional 18 possible US strikes were also reported, allegedly involving not only drones but US naval vessels and aircraft. Among these were up to four attacks by warships on militant positions. It was also confirmed that American F-15 Strike Eagles are now based at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, adding weight to claims of US air sorties over Yemen.

With few confirmed operations it was difficult to pin down precise casualty figures. The Bureau’s data shows that between 23 and 171 people died in US operations in May, including a number of named senior militants such as Fahd al-Quso. However, among the dead were up to 31 civilians. Between 8 and 26 civilians died in just one incident in Jaar on May 15, though this may have been the work of the Yemen Air Force.

US troops were also reported to be just 40 miles from the front lines, helping to direct a Yemeni military offensive aimed at driving Islamist insurgents from cities in the south. Saying that its actions were in retaliation, Ansar al Sharia killed more than 100 soldiers in a suicide bomb attack on Sanaa.

* All but one of these actions have taken place during the Obama presidency. Reports of incidents in Yemen often conflate individual strikes. The range in the total strikes and total drone strikes we have recorded reflects this.


May 2012 actions

Total CIA strikes in May: 6

Total killed in US strikes in May: 32 – 45, of whom 3 – 18 were reportedly civilians


All Actions 2004 – 2012

Total Obama strikes: 275

Total US strikes since 2004: 327

Total reported killed: 2,464 – 3,148

Civilians reported killed: 482 – 830

Children reported killed: 175

Total reported injured: 1,181 – 1,294For the Bureau’s full Pakistan databases click here


Six CIA strikes hit North Waziristan in May, up from just one the previous month, even as Pakistan bluntly and publicly protested the attacks. Washington and Islamabad also continued to seek a resolution to their ongoing dispute over NATO supply routes, the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers last November, and the drone strikes themselves.

On May 5 the CIA killed up to ten people, including possibly civilians, in a strike the Pakistan government called ‘illegal’ and ‘totally counter-productive.’

CIA drone strikes in Pakistan

After a further 18-day pause there was a barrage of five strikes in six days. Between 24 and 32 people died – three to eight reportedly civilians. Nine others were reported injured. Among the locations hit by the CIA were a mosque and a bakery. On one occasion, drones returned after a pause of some 20 minutes to strike again, a tactic last seen in summer 2011.

Details also emerged that Barack Obama had not only been aware of civilian deaths in Pakistan drone strikes since the start of his presidency, but that he had also authorised the widening of the definition of ‘combatant’ to incorporate all adult military-aged males killed.


May 2012 actions

Total US operations: 0

Total EU operations: 1

Total casualties from US operations: 0


All Actions 2007 – 2012

Total US operations: 10 – 21

Total US drone strikes: 3 – 9

Total reported killed: 58 – 169

Civilians reported killed: 11 – 57

Children reported killed: 1 – 3Click here for the Bureau’s full data on Somalia


There were no reported US military actions in May.

Separately, on May 22 the European Union launched its first known strike against a land-based pirate operation, destroying nine speedboats, an arms dump and fuel supplies.

Previously restricted to intercepting pirates at sea, on March 23 the EU had expanded Navfor’s mandate to allow for strikes on pirate supplies and infrastructure. The EU agreement stipulated that individuals cannot be targeted and soldiers cannot land on Somali soil.

Significant elements of the operation remain unclear. Navfor said its strike was carried out using helicopters ‘organic’ to the flotilla’s ships, though would not identify which nations had carried out the strike.

Following the Bureau report that the French amphibious assault ship Dixmude and its contingent of Tigre attack helicopters had not taken part in the attack, an anonymous intelligence officer told Defence Report that the destruction of the pirates’ boats could only have been achieved with the aid of a ground assault. If so, it was unclear which nation’s troops would have carried out such an attack.

A boy was reportedly left in a critical condition on May 29 after two Kenyan warships shelled Kismayo, an al Shabaab controlled port in the south of Somalia. The Kenyan navy claimed al Shabaab fired on the vessels first. The residents of the town and the militant group contradicted this, saying the shelling was unprovoked.

Related articles:

Yemen: US ground forces help direct an escalating clandestine war against al Qaeda and its allies, despite official denials. Read more here.

Pakistan: Ignoring Islamabad’s repeated high-level protests CIA strikes rise to six in May. Civilians are reportedly among 32-45 killed. Read more here.

Somalia: Although no US activity is recorded the EU attacks pirates onshore for the first time in a possible ground-based military action. Read more here.

To sign up for monthly updates from the Bureau’s Covert War project click here.


May 29, 2012

Written by

Chris Woods
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

President Obama with his Defense Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Two US reports published today provide significant insights into President Obama’s personal and controversial role in the escalating covert US drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

In a major extract from Daniel Klaidman’s forthcoming book Kill Or Capture, the author reveals extensive details of how secret US drone strikes have evolved under Obama – and how the president knew of civilian casualties from his earliest days in office.

The New York Times has also published a key investigation exploring how the Obama Administration runs its secret ‘Kill List’ – the names of those chosen for execution by CIA and Pentagon drones outside the conventional battlefield.

The Times’ report also reveals that President Obama personally endorsed a redefining of the term ‘civilian’, which has helped to limit any public controversy over ‘non-combatant’ deaths.

Civilian Deaths from Day ThreeAs the Bureau’s own data on Pakistan makes clear, the very first covert drone strikes of the Obama presidency, just three days after he took office, resulted in civilian deaths in Pakistan. As many as 19 civilians – including four children – died in two error-filled attacks.

The Bureau’s Chris Woods talks with NPR’s On the Media about civilian casualties

Until now it had been thought that Obama was initially unaware of the civilian deaths. Bob Woodward has reported that the president was only told by CIA chief Michael Hayden that the strikes had missed their High Value Target but had killed ‘five al Qaeda militants.’

Now Newsweek correspondent Daniel Klaidman reveals that Obama knew about the civilian deaths within hours. He reports an anonymous participant at a subsequent meeting with the President: ‘You could tell from his body language that he was not a happy man.’ Obama is described aggressively questioning the tactics used.

Until now it had been thought that President Obama was initially unaware of the civilian deaths.

Yet despite the errors, the president ultimately chose to keep in place the CIA’s controversial policy of using ‘signature strikes’ against unknown militants.That tactic has just been extended to Yemen.

On another notorious occasion, the article reveals that US officials were aware at the earliest stage that civilians – including ‘dozens of women and children’ – had died in Obama’s first ordered strike in Yemen in December 2009. The Bureau recently named all 44 civilians killed in that attack by cruise missiles.

No US officials have ever spoken publicly about the strike, although secret diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks proved that the US was responsible. Now Klaidman reveals that Jeh Johnson, one of the State Department’s senior lawyers, watched the strike take place with others on a video screen:

Johnson returned to his Georgetown home around midnight that evening, drained and exhausted. Later there were reports from human-rights groups that dozens of women and children had been killed in the attacks, reports that a military source involved in the operation termed “persuasive.” Johnson would confide to others, “If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”

Aggressive tactics

Klaidman describes a world in which the CIA and Pentagon constantly push for significant attacks on the US’s enemies. In March 2009, for example. then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen reportedly called for the bombing of an entire training camp in southern Somalia in order to kill one militant leader.

One dissenter at the meeting is said to have described the tactic as ‘carpet-bombing a country.’ The attack did not go ahead.

Obama is generally described as attempting to rein back both the CIA and the Pentagon. But in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki – ‘Obama’s Threat Number One’ – different rules applied.

If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.’

State Department lawyer Jeh Johnson on reported civilian deaths in Yemen

According to Klaidman Obama let it be known that he would consider allowing civilian deaths if it meant killing the US-Yemeni cleric. ‘Bring it to me and let me decide in the reality of the moment rather than in the abstract,’ an aide recalls him saying. No civilians died that day, as it turned out.

Redefining ‘civilian’

In its own major investigation, the New York Times examines the secret US ‘Kill List’ – the names of those chosen for death at the hands of US drones. The report is based on interviews with more than 36 key individuals with knowledge of the scheme.

The newspaper also accuses Obama of  ‘presidential acquiescence in a formula for counting civilian deaths that some officials think is skewed to produce low numbers,’ and of having a ‘Whack-A-Mole approach to counter-terrorism,’ according to one former senior official.

It is often been reported that President Obama has urged officials to avoid wherever possible the deaths of civilians in covert US actions in Pakistan and elsewhere. But reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane reveal that Obama ’embraced’ a formula understood to have been devised by the Bush administration.

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

So concerned have some officials been by this ‘false accounting’ that they have taken their concerns direct to the White House, according to the New York Times.

So concerned have some officials been by this ‘false accounting’ that they have taken their concerns direct to the White House, says the New York Times.

The revelation helps explain the wide variation between credible reports of civilian deaths in Pakistan by the Bureau and others, and the CIA’s claims that it had killed no ‘non-combatants’ between May 2010 and September 2011 – and possibly later.

The investigation also reveals that more than 100 US officials take part in a weekly ‘death list’ video conference run by the Pentagon, at which it is decided who will be added to the US military’s kill/ capture lists. ‘A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the CIA focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes,’ the paper reports.

But according to at least one former senior administration official, Obama’s obsession with targeted killings is ‘dangerously seductive.’ Retired admiral Dennis Blair, the former US Director of National Intelligence, told the paper that the campaign was:

The politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no US casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.

An earlier version of this report attributed the redefining of ‘civilian’ to the Obama administration. The Bureau now understands that it instead embraced a pre-existing policy introduced under George W Bush. We apologise for the error.


May 24, 2012

Written by

Chris Woods
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Medea Benjamin: ‘US peace movement is a fragment of what it was under Bush’

Walk into any US bookstore and the stacks are crowded with hundreds of books on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet more than a decade in, its hard to find anything on the escalating use of armed drones by the United States.

Now Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the US women-led peace movement Code Pink, is seeking to balance the shelves. Her new book Drone Warfare has just been published. Benjamin, along with Reprieve and the Center for Constitutional Rights, also recently organised the first major international conference on drones in Washington DC.

The gathering coincided with the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing by US Special Forces. And just a day later, President Obama’s chief counter terrorism official John Brennan gave the most detailed insight yet into the ‘secret’ US drones programme. Benjamin was the sole protestor to disrupt the speech, as the press corps looked on.

In a candid interview with the Bureau following the conference, Medea Benjamin speaks about why the US peace movement has collapsed under Obama;  of the challenges of taking on the drone war in a US election year, and of the message that US campaigners plan to take to Pakistan in a forthcoming trip.

Medea Benjamin disrupts Brennan’s big speech on drones

Q: You’ve been involved in peace activism for a long time, and were heavily involved in the Bush years. In some respects the wars go on but the peace movement doesn’t. How difficult is it to engage on drones with a Democratic administration in the White House, and how is this going to play out in an election year?

Medea Benjamin (MB): It’s terrible. The vast majority of people who were part of the peace movement under Bush have disappeared. Whether they’ve left because they want to leave it to Obama, and that they’re happy that he for the most part withdrew the troops from Iraq and they’re hoping he will do that shortly in Afghanistan, and think that the drones are an alternative to a broader war. Or it’s people who are excited about the Occupy movement and want to put their efforts into the first chance that they feel they’ve had in a long time to make some changes on the domestic front. Or they have been so financially devastated by the economic crisis that they really don’t have time to commit to these issues.

For all sorts of reasons our movement is a tiny portion of what it was under the Bush years. And that makes it very hard. And the fact that during this election campaign you don’t have a voice from the Left, you don’t have a Dennis Kucinich,  you don’t have a Ralph Nader, and you don’t even have a Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican who is speaking out against the wars and the empire and the drone strikes.

So there’s going to be little debate on foreign policy during this election, and if anything, it’s going to be Mitt Romney saying ‘Don’t put a date for pulling the troops out of Afghanistan’. And I don’t think he’s going to criticise Obama at all on these drone strikes, if anything he’s totally gung-ho for it. So it’s going to be pretty miserable in terms of trying to insert this message into the elections.

There’s going to be little debate on foreign policy during this election.‘

We will try as much as we can, going out to events and being there with our model drones, and getting on the inside when we can, saying ‘Stop the killer drones!’ And we’ll be going to the conventions, will have contingents who’ll be marching against drones, against the killing of civilians, against the continued war in Afghanistan. But to be realistic, we are not a very strong force at the moment.

And I think we recognise that and we realise that we are starting from almost nothing at this point. When you see a devastating poll that says that 8 out of 10 Americans think it’s OK to kill terrorist suspects, and that it’s even OK to kill Americans with drones, we’ve got a lot of educating to do. So I think it’s going to take us a couple of years even to turn those polls around and then get onto the job of stopping the use of drones. So it’s not going to be easy.

Q: It seems a particularly testosterone-driven period at the moment, with the recent anniversary of bin Laden’s killing. US TV screens are full of a certain sort of swaggering male perspective. Code Pink is very much a women-driven organisation. How difficult is it to engage with that attitude?

MB: It’s very difficult to engage with that swagger, especially when that’s now coupled with a technology that people seem to just drool over. They love these drones, they love the hi-tech, there’s a fascination with it. It’s boys’ toys that get exhibited everywhere.

As we were meeting in our drone summit, there was a science fair going on in the Convention Center across the street from us, where they were simulating drones overhead in Washington DC for the kids. And the kids just loved it. So yes it’s swagger, it’s testosterone coupled with boys’ toys. Which makes it even more difficult.

So we women are up for the challenge [laughs] and we recognise that this is a moment when, just like after 9-11, women’s voices were needed more than ever. There’s the joking about drone strikes and the lies and the sense of statesmanship given to people who say that we don’t kill civilians with drones, who just out-and-out lie about it.

We’ve got to use the Code Pink tactics of interrupting these people, of direct action, of civil disobedience, of being out there with our pink handcuffs to try and arrest them and hold them accountable for war crimes. But let me just reiterate: in an election period, when our natural allies would be independents and Democrats, we’ll lose all the Democrats. People on the left, the progressives, will be very reluctant to criticise Obama.

Summit-goers outside the US Supreme Court express their views on drones

Q: How do you think the recent Washington drones summit went? And why has it taken 11 years of bombing to get a conference like this in Washington?

MB: It’s a good question, and I would say a criticism of the entire anti-war movement here in the United States. I looked around and I thought, ‘It’s pathetic, why have we taken so long to get together on this?’ Sure we’ve had a lot of meetings and outside conferences and endless protests about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We’ve got to use the Code Pink tactics of interrupting these people, of direct action, of civil disobedience, of being out there with our pink handcuffs to try and arrest them and hold them accountable for war crimes.’

But we’ve kind of ignored the fact that our government is way ahead of us and while we’re focusing on the covert wars and the boots on the ground, our soldiers dying, they’re transforming the way they’re waging war and taking it out of the public view, spilling over into Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia, and building up drone bases in Kuwait and Qatar and Ethiopia and Seychelles and Australia and Turkey, and on and on. So they’re not just one step ahead of us, they’re 1,000 steps ahead of us. And we should have had this conference a long time ago.

The only thing that we’re a bit ahead of the curve on is on the proliferation of drones here at home. That since the regulations haven’t yet been written by the Federal Aviation Administration, we have a chance to influence those. So that’s the one thing I feel somewhat good about.

But it’s terrible that it’s taken us so long to organise this. On the other hand people think of drones as just a piece of technology, so why would you organise around a piece of technology? You want to organise around the wars themselves.

Q: And what’s your answer to that? Isn’t it just another piece of technology? What’s different about drones?

MB: The difference with drones is that drones make these wars possible. From being able to wage them without even having to go to Congress, because according to the Administration’s definition of war, war is when you put your own soldiers’ lives at risk. And since we’re not doing that with drones, it’s not war, it doesn’t have to be agreed in Congress. It doesn’t even have to be open to the American people. It can be carried out in total secrecy.

And as some people said in the conference, drones are the only way to wage some of these battles because of the issue of national sovereignty. You could never get away with the boots on the ground. And because, for example with the terrain in Yemen, you wouldn’t be able to do it any other way than with drones.

So I think that drones are a special piece of technology that make extending these – I wouldn’t call them wars, they’re violent interventions – make them possible to do. So we do have to focus on the technology, but within the context of war.

According to the Administration, war is when you put your own soldiers’ lives at risk. And since we’re not doing that with drones, it’s not war, it doesn’t have to be agreed in Congress. It doesn’t even have to be open to the American people.’

Q: You’re now planning for a group trip to Pakistan. A critic at the recent conference said that people in the room were ‘naïve’, that their understanding of Pakistan was over-simplified and that there were far bigger issues there that were more important.

MB: I think there’s a certain truth to the fact that most of the people in the room were very unaware of the complexity of the situation in Pakistan. And so their own agenda is a pretty simple one.  ‘I don’t want my government killing people without due process, whether Americans or people in other parts of the world. And I don’t think that makes me safer at home. I don’t think it makes the world a safer place.’

Pakistanis have their own complex internal situation, but they’re going to have to deal with it and our interference is not helping. So as Americans, to go in there with a simple message and say, ‘We don’t want our government violating your sovereignty, it is up to you to decide how to deal with your issues of Taliban and al Qaeda and terrorism and fundamentalism, and it’s up to us to make our government obey international law.’

So I think we stick to a pretty simple message. And say we don’t want to get involved in your internal affairs, they’re far too complex for us to even think that we can comprehend them… We just want to step aside and let you figure it out.

This is an edited version of a longer interview.

Follow @chrisjwoods and @medeabenjamin on Twitter



May 10, 2012

Written by

Chris Woods
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Drone victim funeral December 29 2010 – two named civilians are known to have died that day. (AP)

Sunday’s death of Fahd al-Quso in a CIA drone strike was a significant US success. The admitted al Qaeda bomber had long been sought for his role in the deadly attack on the US navy ship the  USS Cole back in 2000.

At the Bureau we logged al-Quso’s name – along with his nephew Fahed Salem al-Akdam – in our Yemen database. Another two names added to the many hundreds we’ve now recorded for the US covert war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Bureau has so far identified by name 317 civilians killed in US attacks in Pakistan. Between 170 and 500 further civilians have yet to be identified.

A day earlier, a CIA strike in Pakistan also killed around ten people. Here the information was less clear, with reports vague about who had died. While most claimed that a militant training camp had been struck, a single source claimed those killed were ‘local tribesmen.’ This clearly needs further investigation.

Although we’re not alone in recording US covert drone strikes, the Bureau also tries to identify by name all of those killed – both civilian and militants. And those names – which the Bureau recently presented at a Washington DC drone summit – reveal some startling truths about the US drone campaign.

To date in Pakistan, we have been able to identify 170 named militants killed by the CIA in more than 300 drone strikes. Among them are many senior figures, including Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban; Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaeda linked strategist; and Nek Mohammed, once a militant thorn in Pakistan’s side.

Certainly these drone strikes have severely affected the ability of militants to operate openly in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The recently-declassified ‘bin Laden papers’ talk of the impact of the CIA’s attacks, with the Taliban ‘frankly exhausted from the enemy’s air bombardments.’

Yet there’s a darker side to this coin. The Bureau has also been able to name 317 civilians killed in US attacks in Pakistan. Between 170 and 500 further civilians have yet to be identified.

On October 30 2011, for example, we know that the CIA killed four chromite miners in Waziristan – foreman Saeedur Rahman, and miners Khastar Gul, Mamrud Khan and Noorzal Khan. And on July 12 last year, field researchers working for the Bureau found that drones returned to attack rescuers, killing four Taliban and four civilians we named as Shabbir, Kalam, Waqas and Bashir.

US Lists

We’re not alone in keeping lists of the covert war dead. Just a few days ago, the Washington Post reported that ‘U.S. officials have said that more than 2,000 militants and civilians have been killed in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere since Obama took office in 2009.’

The Bureau’s data indicates that between 2,300 and 3,290 people have died in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia strikes under Obama.

Given that the Bureau’s base estimate for the total killed in Pakistan drone strikes is close to the CIA’s own, what clearly irks the US intelligence community is the light we continue to shine on civilians reported killed.

Since we began publishing our reports on civilian deaths from drone strikes, the US intelligence community has aggressively sought to attack our findings. Our media partners have been leaned on. The CIA claimed that we were getting our information from a ‘Pakistani spy’ (a barrister representing drone strike victims). And when we definitively showed, with the Sunday Times, that the CIA had been bombing rescuers and funeral-goers, it was suggested that we were ‘helping al Qaeda.’

What clearly irks the US intelligence community is the light we continue to shine on civilians reported killed.

Redefining ‘civilian’At stake may be the very definition of a ‘civilian’ in the modern battlefield. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos recently pressed US chief counter terrorism adviser John Brennan on his remarkable claim in June 2011 that the CIA had not killed ‘a single non-combatant in almost a year.’

In reply, Brennan said that ‘over a period of time before my public remarks [that] we had no information about a single civilian, a noncombatant being killed.’

Even a cursory examination of credible media reports between June 1st 2010 and June 29 2011 (when Brennan made his original claim) shows that dozens of civilians were reported killed in that period. Among those who died were more than 40 tribal elders and villagers in a single disastrous CIA strike in March 2011. That attack led to public protests from Pakistan’s president, prime minister and army chief.

Perhaps the CIA’s own human intelligence-gathering abilities are so poor in Pakistan that it can no longer identify civilians killed on the ground. Perhaps the Agency has been misleading Congress and the President about the true extent of civilian deaths. Alternatively, the very definition of civilian may have been radically changed. If the latter is true – and it seems the most likely scenario – then this has worrying implications.

New phase

The covert drone war appears to be entering a new phase. Until recently, strikes were carried out with the tacit co-operation of host governments. But now Islamabad is saying no. Recent CIA strikes in Pakistan have been publicly condemned by the government as being ‘in total contravention of international law.’ The strikes are carrying on regardless.

Yemen’s new president appears more pliant. Yet in a little-reported comment, the nation’s prime minister Muhammad Salem Basindwa recently told a local newspaper: ‘The government has never asked the US to carry out drone attacks on the Yemeni soil because there should not be external meddling in Yemen’s own affairs.’

Part of the justification for the US carrying out drone strikes without consent is their reported success. And naming those militants killed is key to that process. Al Qaeda bomber Fahd al-Quso’s death was widely celebrated.

Yet how many newspapers also registered the death of Mohamed Saleh Al-Suna,  a civilian caught up and killed in a US strike in Yemen on March 30?

By showing only one side of the coin, we risk presenting a distorted picture of this new form of warfare. There is an obligation to identify all of those killed – not just the bad guys.

Follow @chrisjwoods on Twitter