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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Refining the Obama Administration’s Drone Strike Narrative

by Micah Zenko
June 6, 2013

Drone An X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft is launched for the first time off an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, off the coast of Virginia on May 14, 2013 (Reed/Courtesy Reuters).


Last night, NBC News ran an extremely rare story that aptly challenged the veracity of U.S. government claims about the precision of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. Part of the title used by NBC was misleading: “Exclusive: CIA Didn’t Always Know Who it Was Killing in Drone Strikes, Classified Documents Show.”

Two months earlier, McClatchy reporter Jonathan Landay wrote two pieces on drone-strikes in Pakistan based upon internal, top-secret U.S. intelligence reports. Landay’s unprecedented investigative reporting was essential because, as I wrote at the time, it “demonstrates that the claim repeatedly made by President Obama and his senior aides–that targeted killings are limited only to officials, members, and affiliates of al Qaeda who pose an imminent threat of attack on the U.S. homeland–is false.” Reversing his administration’s claims over the previous fifteen months, President Obama essentially acknowledged two weeks ago what Landay’s reporting had proven: CIA drone strikes in Pakistan are intended as “force protection” for U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan, not solely to protect the U.S. homeland.

NBC News’ reporting was apparently based on some, not all, of the same documents. What was new in last night’s story was that NBC showed the actual classified assessments of who was killed in 114 strikes—I skimmed these before I was interviewed. (See my two-minute interview here.) The documents bolster Landay’s findings that most of those killed are not members of “Al Qaeda,” with a quarter described generically as “other militants.”

Subsequently, the documents acknowledged just one civilian casualty, plausible only under the signature strikes categorization used by the Obama administration, which “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” As Richard Engel stated on last night’s broadcast: “Several former senior officials told us they had concerns about signature strikes. One told us, the U.S. sometimes executes people based on circumstantial evidence.” The U.S. government has never acknowledged that it conducts signature strikes, provided information upon which to judge how the CIA assesses such evidence, or what procedures are in place to prevent harm to civilians.

NBC News also interviewed twenty-seven year old Senior Airman Brandon Bryant (ret.), who was a drone operator from 2006 to 2011. He is described as having guided drones over Iraq and Afghanistan. Bryant told Engel that when he left, he was given a sheet of paper (they showed this actual piece of paper on this morning’s Today Show broadcast). According to Bryant, the paper said there were “1,626 total people killed on every mission that I had ever been on.” When asked how that made him feel, Bryan replied: “disgusted with myself, actually.”

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    Ok here is 20 individual drone strikes which killed more than 20 people each time.

    2006 October 30 Chenagai 70 – 80
    2007 June 19 MamiRogha, Dattakhel 25 – 35
    2008 March 16 Dhok Pirbagh 20
    2008 May 14 Damadola Village 20
    2008 August 13 Baghar near Angoor adda 20
    2008 Sept 28 Dandey darpakhel,Miranshah 17 – 25
    2008 October 3 Muhammand Khel, Miranshah 20
    2008 October 31 Wana, FATA 15 – 28
    2009 February 14 Laddha, FATA 30 – 35
    2009 February 16 Kurram, Khyber 22 – 30
    2009 March 12 Barjo, Kurram 14 – 25
    2009 May 16 Khaisoor area, FATA 25 – 29
    2009 June 23 Wana, FATA 15 – 50
    2009 July 8 Laddha, FATA 25 – 60
    2009 October 24 Damadola, FATA 22 – 27
    2010 Dec 17 Tirah Valley, FATA 21 – 50
    2010 Dec 27 Shera Tala / Machikhel 18 – 25
    2011 March 17 Nevi Adda Shega Area 40 – 41
    2011 April 22 Spinam, Mirali Tall Road 23 – 25
    2011 June 8 Shwall Tehsil Zoi, Nari Area 23 – 24
    500+ people killed

    It would be totally irrational to assume that these 20 attacks killed no innocent civilians or that all of the targets being watched from above were identified and known to the CIA who carried out these attacks. Therefore it is HIGHLY likely that many civilians were killed within that approx 500 number and in the cases of the largest strikes which killed more than 30 people in one go – it is HIGHLY likely that a Green Light was given EVEN THOUGH such a strike would definitely result in the death of innocents. It behooves us to AT MINIMUM investigate these larger strikes and ascertain the righteousness of the orders given ESPECIALLY NOW…. JUST as we enter the age of the Drone !

    It’s been 18 Months since a strike in Pakistan killed more than 20 people in one go !

    I wonder why that is don’t you?

    If these people/targets represented such an imminent risk to US lives or the US Homeland then why did the very large strikes stop so abruptly?
    They stopped the larger strikes because the ‘FISH IN A BARREL’ days are over !!!! thanks to people like Mr Zenko and other writers, Senators, Congressmen and women, speakers and thinkers and groups who see the madness in what has gone on and strive for rationality and accountability in what is supposed to be a democratic system !

    Yes, Sometimes you’re going to have good quality Intel on some bad guy somewhere who needs taking out before he/she does something soon which WILL kill many innocent people – for which you have evidence for…. but this has not been that!
    Hundreds of needless strikes were ordered and in some cases there were serious war crimes which knowingly killed innocent people – and these strikes should be studied and investigated fully – and those which green lighted them should be held accountable for their actions or there is no ‘American Freedom’ to be fighting for in the first place !

    This has been illogical out of control slaughter and until justice is done on behalf of those who were needlessly slaughtered the meme ‘Drone Strike’ will always stink of American shame and cowardice. Sure the blame is spread amongst 50-100 people, commanders, even some pilots themselves let’s be honest, they weren’t all stupid and just carrying out orders, some of those pilots were in the wrong for sure and certain, some of them. Their commanders and their commanders commanders right the way up the chain to the Top Drone Priests including in some cases POSSIBLY Obama himself ! and all of these people who ordered the strikes above need to answer questions in front of a congressional committee at some point in their lives and be accountable for their actions ! If they saved lives and provably thwarted terrorist attacks on American Soil then I will be the first to give them credit for making tough choices in a crazy world – but This was not That !

    The work continues…..

  • Posted by Jason Craig

    ‘When injustice becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.’ Human rights/civil liberties have been suspended at the whims of a panicked lot who frenzy about to ally their fears. The problem with this is as Ben Franklin put it; ‘those who sacrifice liberty for security have neither.’ Whether it be PATRIOT act or any other, people act in shock in awe when black hooded thugs enter their house sans warrant, shoot their dog and rape them in court after words. We have lived in a police state for quite some time, the ‘war on drugs/terror’ is just some buzz word used as a cattle prod to implore or extort people from ‘inalienable’ rights. If any doubts, consult the histories of Soviet era Russia, East Germany in the Stasi reign, Suharto and other monks of madness.

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