Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Drone Strikes, Civilian Casualties, and John Brennan

by Micah Zenko
February 8, 2013

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Effrain Lopez/Courtesy Reuters). A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Effrain Lopez/Courtesy Reuters).

Dianne Feinstein, Opening Remarks at the Senate Intelligence Committee Confirmation Hearing for John Brennan, February 7, 2013.

I’ve… been attempting to speak publicly about the very low number of civilian casualties that result from such strikes, [but] I’ve been limited in my ability to do so,” Feinstein said. “But for the past several years, this committee has done significant oversight of the government’s conduct of targeted strikes and the figures we have obtained from the executive branch, which we have done our utmost to verify, confirm that the number of civilian casualties that have resulted from such strikes has typically been in the single digits.

(3PA: According to this story from Politico: “However, after the hearing Feinstein told journalists she was unaware of reports that in some instances U.S. officials assumed any male of fighting age killed in a strike was a combatant—a method that could undercount the number of civilian deaths.”)


Noah Shachtman, “Is This the Secret U.S. Drone Base in Saudi Arabia?” Danger Room, February 7, 2013.


Tara McKelvey, Media Coverage of the Drone Program, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, February 2013.

For this paper, an informal survey of news articles about drone strikes was conducted, looking at pieces that appeared in five major U.S. publications: The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. The media coverage of strikes in these publications nearly doubled during the Obama administration, from 326 articles in 2009 to 625 articles in 2012 (as of November).

Reporters and editors at The New York Times pursued the story of the targeted-killing program more aggressively than reporters at the other publications, both in terms of the quantity of articles and also in the quality of content. In 2009, the year Obama was sworn in as president, The New York Times published 142 articles. Three years later, The New York Times published 245 articles on the subject, many of which focused on the international angle of the story. The Washington Post published 72 articles in 2009, reflecting in part the newspaper’s interest in the business of Washington, federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, which were managing the drone program. Over the next three years, The Washington Post and The New York Times both increased their coverage at roughly the same rate. The New York Times kept its focus on the international angle, while reporters at The Washington Post continued to look more closely at the federal agencies involved in the program. The Washington Post published 234 articles on the subject in 2012, nearly the same number that appeared in The New York Times.


Craig Whitlock, “U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts in Africa Defined by a Decade of Missteps,” Washington Post, February 4, 2013.


Jane Sutton, “U.S. Faces Construction Quandry at Aging Guantanamo Camp,” Reuters, February 3, 2013.

“I haven’t gotten any guidance on it whatsoever, so everything I’m doing right now is kind of just speculating on what’s going on,” Nettleton said in a weekend interview with Reuters. “From a resourcing standpoint, it’s kind of frustrating to not know if they’re going to be permanent residents or not.”


State of the Union with Candy Crowley, “Interview with General McChrystal and General Hayden,” CNN, January 27, 2013.

CROWLEY: I want to talk to you all about drones, because this has been a fascination of mine. The increased use of drones and what is it doing to U.S. reputation overseas? I think you all disagree as to whether these are — certainly it keeps U.S. troops safer, because you don’t have to send actual U.S. personnel in, but is it doing more harm than good the increase in the use of drones in Pakistan and Somalia and Yemen?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think first off, Candy, they are extraordinarily effective. And they are a tool we have to have.

MCCHRYSTAL: And we need to be able to not only use them for reconnaissance, but also to strike.

The problem is every time you take a shot, you need to do a calculation, and I think we’ve done that in the past at the effect it has around the target then the effect it emanates further. If you look in a place that is a sovereign country, if we reach in and technologically shoot, there is a danger that in the United States that was pretty easy, that really wasn’t an act of war. We didn’t put American boots on the ground, we didn’t accept risk. It can lower the threshold for decision making to take action that at the receiving end, feels very different at the receiving end.

CROWLEY: It feels like war, particularly because civilians get killed.

MCCHRYSTAL: Absolutely.

HAYDEN: Look, I’ve watched this since the program really kind of stepped up in mid-2008 and it got stronger as time went on.

Now, I would suggest to you in 2008, we were very much focused on what were clearly imminent threats against the homeland, because we saw what was going on inside al Qaeda training camps. And so for that period of time, and for a period of time afterward, that was a compelling concern, that was the one that drove your actions, even though you knew, you had secondary and tertiary effects out here that one day you have to live with.

Well, I think we have got to a point now in many if not most areas of the world, but in many areas of the world, that now those secondary and tertiary affects may actually be the prime result of some of these strikes. And that would then give you reason to pause.

Now that’s carefully laid out, Candy. That’s not suggesting what went on before was incorrect. It was quite correct. But now circumstances have changed. And the correct decision might be a bit gentler.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thank you for continuing to keep us updated on this critical matter,

    Perhaps I am too cynical but I am convinced that if the United States can’t follow rule of law in virtually any matter in which it involves itself then we can’t do much for the rest of the world either, including the prima facie reasonable ideas put forth by Mark Lagon of the CFR regarding his proposal for a “Global Trust”. I have two thematic words that sum up the deeper, structural motif that is going on here with the drone wars: moral hazard … which breeds hypocrisy, imo.

    I’ve responded at length to this overall problem and the “drone wars” are just one more example of why radical, totally fresh, bold new ideas are needed. And for what its worth I’ve offered mine here:

    http://kirkomrik.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/ the-hypocrisy-of-democracy/

    - kk

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    I’ve had my finger on the drone pulse for about 3 years now and I have watched a lazy media play catch up on the various issues involved which has reduced my estimate of the condition of investigative journalism substantially and it is quite evident the art itself is in serious decline which is a serious pause for democratic concern . The media (in general, NOT Mr Zenko) has been so far behind the curve that the administration has found it relatively easy to ‘manage’ this transition from total denial and ‘no comment’ to judicial discussion and open conversation about accountability and moral justificationas a result of the various works carried out by TBIJ, Standford/NYU and of course Mr Zenko himself. My own initial influence was the Chenagai strike which killed 80 or so people (including women and kids… still the biggest strike to date). The Brennan hearing was just another example of politicians and journalists arriving late to the party again. There is a much bigger picture in play here and the media has refused to get its hands dirty and expose the reality about the direction the military HAS ALREADY decided to go. The programs are in place, the Air Force Quadrennial review has spoken and the companies have pushed ahead with massive drone programs which reach out into the next 10 years or more. Funds are more than ear marked and strategy has been agreed on. All of this moved ahead of the media unreported for years. All those initial 300 or more strikes happened in a media vacuum with the obvious lefty sites being the only ‘cooks’ speaking about it (with their typical hearsay inaccuracies). Brennan has been the so described ‘Drone Priest’ for years… he is yet another SIN-EATER as Obama consciously chose to be even before he entered office. That is, these leaders and more like them on the cross departmental cross agency ‘drone-team’ have convinced themselves that in the real world – right now – given the circumstances, politically and diplomatically and given the raw Intel these guys are privy to, They are ‘convinced’ that a) because thousands of US troops cannot be sent into harms way because of a confused, faithless and war weary American voting Public AND a ‘west’ disappointed, angry and suspicious with a post ‘Iraq Lies’ America that b) Drones are literally the only ‘teeth’ they have to fight Terrorism and they are so easy to organize, buy, deploy to bases and finally use on people that the ‘equation’ was/is too easy to justify – to balance. These 450 drone strikes represent, unfortunately, another clear example of American Amoral action overseas which would sadden and disappoint the fore fathers. Blowing up a bunch of people 7000 miles from the homeland by remote control based on loose Intel and a really sub human decision flow chart which ultimately creates more hatred and anguish…. the mind despairs, and hence we write and we make reports (good ones) and we begin to shout about it in the public forum BUT as I say WE are WAAAY behind the curve. It is their BUSINESS to manage our INTERFERENCE. The management of journalists, the pitiful and politicized senate review questions and the average American’s total ignorance and short attention span when it comes to anything about bloody terrorists and drones and afghan this and Iraq that and Pakistan the other – this is a news weary public – there IS NO REACTION ANY MORE… the tank is empty. The SIN EATERS have chosen long ago and we are all playing catch up with our tongues out waiting for them to come from so far right on drone [policy back a few inches towards center that we will think we had a massive moral victory in righting some kind of out of control ship – but that is completely naiive. This thing is being ‘managed’ it’s so sickening to see all the Op Eds play right in to the bigger picture strategy at play here. Obama knows it’s wrong but he does it so we don’t have to… that is how he justifies it to himself. Getting away from pedantics and law-speak and Carney’s ‘newspeak’ and anything else – we are not stupid, we know what’s right and wrong and we know this is all about justifying something wrong ‘enough’ to make us bored or half convinced. The usual ‘the reality is complex and terrorism changes the rules and asymmetric this and that’…. we don’t buy it for s second but we lose faith in our ability to achieve a moral victory to the point where the concept of ‘STOPPING’ anything becomes so unrealistic that we adjust our arguments accordingly in order to have ‘some’ impact on the game… when we know really that ‘the drone team’ will out-think us, outmaneuver us and out-manage us. All this memo malarky is part of it….. I’m not talking conspiracy BS here, I’m talking about a group of people who have committed to a strategy and have had skin in the game for years and who have already made Immoral choices and who now NEED to continue tout-droit in order to prove to themselves that they were right when the media-mirror tells them every day now that they were wrong and what they have done is unAmerican, Unjustified, Counter productive and merely causes more violence and pain and hatred and vengeance in a region rife with all of the above…. and all because of the ‘need’ to ‘do something’ to ‘influence the game’ to ‘act’…. when people outside the bubble can clearly see it’s all just crazy. Until a whistle- blower steps forward with a file in his/her hands showing a big drone strike like Chenagai and shows the amorality of what they have done in black and white on all the News Shows and front pages and it all comes down in a landslide – then the drone team are going to continue to out-manage you and the rest of us, play by play….. memo by memo…. flow chart by flow chart and we’ll all settle down and wearily admit to the over complexity of this self supporting gray-scale self defense doctrine. This should be a conversation in the American public and their representatives – not a conversation of legal nuance within Academia as ‘elite’ and fulfilling as that can be to writers on the issue. Would you rather an effective tabloid headline which properly stirred public sentiment and got every day people wondering what their government is doing on their behalf or an narrowly read article in some think-tank periodical? Journalism is taking a backseat observer role on this thing – they just don’t see it yet. This thing will require courage, will need simple morally supported opinion and definitive statements if we intend to inform and involve a side-lined American public in this technologically enabled zeitgeist moment in American Foreign Policy.

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