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U.S. Drone Strikes: Secrecy and Suffering Highlighted in Reports by Stanford, Columbia

06 Nov

I wrote a piece in Turnstyle News about the Stanford/NYU and Columbia reports on the U.S. drone program. Please note that this was written before the November 6, 2012 presidential election.

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In Afghanistan, photographer says “In the background you can see a Predator drone”. Photo Credit: Todd Huffman, posted on his Flickr & Wikimedia Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/99287245@N00/3841195871

The expansion of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, is rarely discussed in mainstream forums, but breaking this silence are two important reports from reputable universities that shed light on the underreported human suffering and dangerous implications of the drone program.

The first is by Stanford Law School and NYU School of Law, which details the humanitarian impact of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan is based on over 130 interviews with “victims and witnesses of drone activity” and other stakeholders, such as government officials, experts, humanitarian workers, civil society members, lawyers, and journalists. Of these, 69 were “experiential victims” of drone strikes — either witnesses, victims, or family of victims. The report also reviewed “thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting”.

Some criticized the report’s methodology. They argue that the sample size is too small and criticize the researchers for not conducting interviews in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which is where much of the drone activity occurs. It is true that the interviews were conducted outside of FATA in Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore, and Rawalpindi. However, the interviewees were, in fact, FATA residents but interviewed outside of the region for security reasons. Co-author Mohammad M. Ali explained to me that accessing FATA would have required embedding with the Pakistani military. In order to “maintain the independence and integrity” of their report, the researchers decided to independently interview FATA residents outside of the region.

The report documents the sheer terror Pakistanis civilians live under as drones fly in their skies. It points out that the harm from drones “goes beyond death and physical injury…. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.” Families keep their children from going to school out of fear. Communities are rendered helpless as drones fly over their heads everyday and strike without warning. In addition, the blast radius of a Hellfire missile fired from a drone is between 15-20 meters (around 49-66 feet). So not only do drones incinerate the people they kill but the shrapnel seriously injure those near a strike zone.

There are two different types of strikes: personality strikes, which target known individuals, and signature strikes, which strike targets based on a pattern of behavior without knowing their names — increasing the likelihood that civilians will die. Most drone strikes in Pakistan are signature strikes. Drones also kill rescuers and mourners, in strikes known as “double-taps”. The Stanford/NYU report criticizes these strikes for inflicting massive suffering upon the civilian population. For the past decade, the U.S. has launched more than 300 drone strikes in Pakistan and dozens in Yemen and Somalia, most occurring in the Obama years.

Documenting civilian casualties by drone strikes is difficult. However, the report criticizes the low figures trotted out by the Obama administration as highly inaccurate. Any military-age male within a strike zone is considered a “militant” by the Obama administration, unless proven innocent after death — leading to very misleading civilian casualty numbers. The report touts figures by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) as the most reliable (another report by Columbia Law school also credits the Bureau with providing reliable figures). According to the Bureau, drone strikes reportedly killed between 2,593 to 3,365 in Pakistan. Of those, 474 to 884 were civilians. This is an estimate so it is possible that the real civilian death toll is higher. The Stanford/NYU report also points out that only 2 percent of those killed by drone strikes are high-level militants; the rest are low-level fighters or civilians.

Drone strikes also undermine US-Pakistani relations and American national security. As drones kill civilians, many angry Pakistanis join militant groups like the Taliban to get revenge against the United States. The report points out that 74% of Pakistanis consider America an enemy. This weakens the common justification for drone strikes, which is that they make America safe.

Another significant report by Columbia Law School and Center for Civilians in Conflict raises questions about the drone program’s secrecy and limitations of drone technology. The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions raises deeper questions about the limitations of drone technology. It says that the U.S. relies on three forms of intelligence for drone strikes: drone video, signals intelligence, and human intelligence. While able to gather lots of information, these forms of intelligence do not provide accuracy. Use of local informants for human intelligence is also unreliable as many provide “sketchy” information. When given “$300-$1000 or more” for information on targets, informants will often “have their enemies targeted” to “settle personal vendettas”. Therefore, drones are not as precise as the Obama administration claims.

Targeted killings by drones are largely the territory of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the report points out. President Obama, meanwhile, personally approves, without any due process or transparency, every drone strike in Somalia and Yemen and one-third of strikes in Pakistan. It’s also been recently reported that this “Kill List” will grow in the near future. Much of the CIA’s and JSOC’s activities, from their covert operations to their budget, are secret. As a result, this adds multiple layers of secrecy to the drone program and stifles accountability and public debate.

Like the Stanford/NYU report, the Columbia report doubts the administration’s low civilian casualty count. It does not give any conclusive numbers of civilian casualties. However, the Obama administration’s misleading civilian casualty counts, limitations of drone technology, rise of signature strikes, and reports of civilian harm are enough for the report to criticize the suffering drones inflict on civilians. It is a level of suffering that is largely overlooked by the drone program’s executers and the wider public.

During the presidential debate on foreign policy, Mitt Romney said he supports drone strikes. So when it comes to targeted killing by drones, both Obama and Romney support this policy. It is now bipartisan consensus between the two major political parties. As drone warfare expands, it will become a norm. Stanford/NYU report co-author Omar Shakir astutely said that because drones are cheaper, don’t harm U.S. military personnel, nor involve the same kind of UN and congressional approvals, it makes them “a more attractive option when other options are available.” The expansion of drone warfare, combined with unchecked executive power, these reports show, creates serious human suffering and ushers in a new age of permanent war.

Originally published in Turnstyle News on October 29, 2012.

[(just in case) Full disclosure: I attended Stanford University with Ali and Shakir.]

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