By Trevor Timm
President Obama’s admission on Thursday that the CIA killed two innocent hostages in a US drone strike in Pakistan should definitively prove to the American public what the White House has been trying to hide from them for a while: the US government’s secretive use of drone strikes is a transparency nightmare and human rights catastrophe. It requires a full-scale, independent investigation.
The only thing surprising about the news that US drone strikes killed one American and one Italian civilian al-Qaida hostage – along with two alleged American members of al-Qaida who were supposedly not targeted – is that the US actually admitted it.
Secrecy, misdirection and lies have shielded much of the public from the realization that US drone strikes have killed countless civilians in the past decade. There is literally no public accountability – not in the courts nor in Congress – for the CIA and the military’s killings outside official war zones. It doesn’t matter who they kill, where, or under what circumstances.
What we have learned from news reports and human rights investigations over the years has been disturbing. Consider, for example, that the the government counts “all military-age males in a [drone] strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”, as the New York Times reported in 2012. For many years, the US government also regularly carried out drone strikes on people they openly admitted they could not identify. The CIA referred to these as “signature strikes”, which targeted people who seemed to be up to no good from the sky, but could have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The administration supposedly curtailed signature strikes two years ago but theWall Street Journal reported: “it can take the CIA weeks or longer to determine who was killed in a drone strike” How, then, can we believe they fully stopped it? As ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer put it bluntly on Thursday: “In each of the operations acknowledged today, the US quite literally didn’t know who it was killing.”
For years, the vast majority of drone strikes victims have never been positively identified as terrorists. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has the most comprehensive data on drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, published a study last year showing only 12% of victims were identified as militants and only 4% were identified as members of al-Qaida. This study is backed up by theexcellent reporting by McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay, who gained access to years of classified CIA reports to show that the vast majority of drone strike victims were not high level terrorist operatives like the administration claimed.
And we know the government thinks it can kill US citizens overseas without a trial or even a finding by any independent body. Despite a clear public interest in knowing about such an extreme claim to power, the Justice Department has fought to keep its supposed legal authority for drone strikes on Americans completely secret.
The Obama administration claims it tightened its drone strike policy in 2013 after a minor uproar following its admission that it’s drones had killed a US citizen for the first time. Obama said in a speech that for him to approve a drone strike going forward: “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set”. But now the White House is saying, on the one hand, that the recent strike was “fully consistent” with that policy and on the other hand, that they’re conducting an “internal review” to see if they should improve it.
That’s why an “internal review” will tell us little we don’t already know and will almost certainly fail to bring any real accountability to the use of drones. We need a full independent congressional inquiry and public accounting for all drone strikes, not just the ones in which Americans have died. As multiple expertsremarked on Thursday, what about the 3,800 other who have been killed?
Unfortunately, members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee have been the biggest cheerleaders of drone strikes, rather than their biggest skeptics. Just two weeks ago the New York Times reported that former House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers was badgering the Obama administration for why they hadn’t ordered a drone strike against an American citizen they were able to later capture and bring to the US for trial.
If there’s ever going to be accountability for the CIA and military drone program, we need a fully independent commission, divorced from the intelligence committees. Without it, this controversy will just fade back into the background, where it will stay hidden under the government’s ever-expanding veil of secrecy.