Richard Engel and Robert Windrem of NBC News published a horrifying report today revealing that the CIA doesn’t always know the identities of the people it’s executing in drone strikes. Their findings are based on a review of 14 months worth of classified documents that describe 114 drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan beginning in September 2010.
About one of every four of those killed by drones in Pakistan between Sept. 3, 2010, and Oct. 30, 2011, were classified as “other militants,” the documents detail. The “other militants” label was used when the CIA could not determine the affiliation of those killed, prompting questions about how the agency could conclude they were a threat to U.S. national security.
This is similar to the Obama administration’s strategy for keeping the civilian death toll low by labeling any military age male killed in a drone strike a “militant”.
Equally as chilling is that a former unidentified White House official told NBC News that “the U.S. sometimes executes people based on ‘circumstantial evidence,'”meaning the government is subjecting people to capital punishment on bullshit grounds.
Nevertheless, the CIA, much like the Obama administration, insists it’s only killing militants.
The documents list locations, death and injury tolls, alleged terrorist affiliations, and whether the killed and injured were deemed combatants or non-combatants.
Though the Obama administration has previously said it targets al Qaeda leaders and senior Taliban officials plotting attacks against the U.S. and U.S. troops, officials are sometimes unsure of the targets’ affiliations. About half of the targets in the documents are described as al Qaeda. But in 26 of the attacks, accounting for about a quarter of the fatalities, those killed are described only as “other militants.” In four others, the dead are described as “foreign fighters.”
In some cases, U.S. officials also seem unsure how many people died. One entry says that a drone attack killed seven to 10 people, while another says that an attack killed 20 to 22.
Yet officials seem certain that however many people died, and whoever they were, none were non-combatants. In fact, of the approximately 600 people listed as killed in the documents, only one is described as a civilian. The individual was identified to NBC News as the wife or girlfriend of an al Qaeda leader.
Either these officials are delusional or they’re “juking the stats” (as Prezbo from The Wire would say) especially in the case of “signature strikes”, which target people based on patterns of behavior that lead officials to believe they are militants. One senior official actually joked to the New York Times that “when the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.”
Still, former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair defended signature strikes, saying, “This is no different from decisions that are made on the battlefield all the time by soldiers and Marines who are being shot at, not knowing who fired the shot, having to make judgments on shooting back or not. This is the nature of warfare.”
But these decisions aren’t being made in a gun fight on a battlefield and it’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise. This is asymmetrical, one-sided warfare where the U.S. is shooting ant-sized blobs from the sky under the assumption that they could potentially be bad guys.
Analysts use a variety of intelligence methods and technologies that they say give them reasonable certainty that the “signature” target is a terrorist. Part of the analysis involves crunching data to make connections between the unidentified suspects and other known terrorists and militants. The agency can watch, for example, as an unknown person frequents places, meets individuals, makes phone calls, and sends emails, and then match those against other people linked to the same calls, emails and meetings.
To summarize, our government is making life and death decisions based on the behavior patterns of unidentified people who may or may not be connected.
But what if they turn out to be innocent civilians? What then? Well, the onus is them (yeah, the dead person) to posthumously prove their innocence:
Once a target has been killed, according to current and former U.S. officials, the CIA does not take someone out of the combatant category and put them in the non-combatant category unless, after the strike, a preponderance of evidence is produced showing the person killed was a civilian.
This is no different from guilty until proven innocent (upon death), except it’s on an even creepier scale since the targeted person doesn’t get to make the case for his/her innocence before being axed. It also means that civilian deaths are far higher than the CIA suggests since their default assumption is that all are militants until proven otherwise.
Perhaps this latest article shouldn’t come as a surprise considering it’s completely in line with everything we’ve learned about President Obama’s targeted killing program (he determines who goes on his kill list at his “terror Tuesday” meetings). Still, it never ceases to amaze me is how many “liberals” come out in defense of such tactics no matter how unconstitutional and barbaric extrajudicial killings turn out to be.
If tomorrow we learned that the U.S. military was bombing unidentified people in one of the several countries we routinely attack while blindfolded, then would liberals care? Because there’s not much of a difference between that and what’s actually happening. The truth is that we’re dropping bombs, actual bombs that rip through human flesh regardless of whether it belongs to a militant or a father, a mother or a child.
Remember the outrage following the Boston Marathon bombing in April? Our bombs do far more damage yet elicit next to no outrage from our end. Yet our government’s killing program isn’t all that different than the pressure cooker bombs that exploded in Boston. You can pretend all you want that the CIA and President Obama are more virtuous because their intent is to take out bad guys, not innocent people. But how is that possible when their definition of bad guys overlaps with innocent people and their families?
And even if the CIA claims to have identified a militant for targeted killing, why should we trust them or anyone else at their word? In this country, a court of law is supposed to determine, based on hard evidence, whether or not to apply the death penalty, not the executioner. So why is it okay for us to treat people outside of this country differently?