Targeted killing by drone is the new frontier of American warfare. The first strike by a remotely piloted aircraft took place in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, and since then, drone warfare has proliferated. To date, there have been more than 400 U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and they are occurring with greater regularity in Syria. By 2019, U.S. drone flights are expected to increase by 50 percent from current levels.
In May 2013, President Barack Obama defended U.S. drone strikes and claimed responsibility for overseeing the program. He further claimed that viable targets were limited to terrorists that posed a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” that strikes were executed only when there was “near certainty that the target is present,” “near certainty that noncombatants will not be injured or killed” and “capture is not feasible at the time of the operation.”
New documents leaked to The Intercept show that his claims were at best misleading and at worst false. In fact, the U.S. drone program is imprecise and arbitrary and a grave risk to civilians everywhere. It is also a program over which the president exercises little control.
Although Obama signs off on targets, he generally doesn’t sign off on strikes. He thus cedes execution authority to the military and has little to no knowledge of the potential number of civilians affected by a strike. The documents show that although he sits atop an elaborate chain of command, he has little incentive to question the judgment of those below him. His oversight is merely a rubber stamp.
The leaked documents cast significant doubt on the claim that the U.S. targets only those who pose a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” The documents note that the target must be simply “a threat to U.S. interest or personnel,” an apparent contradiction that the government has not explained. The imminence standard is similarly unlikely to be met in countries like Somalia and Yemen, where U.S. forces have a scant presence on the ground.
The documents further reveal that after the president approves a target, the military has 60 days to execute a strike. However, in the theater of war, much can change in 60 days. A target could surrender arms, abandon hostilities or forge a new alliance, only to be exterminated because he posed an imminent threat months or weeks earlier.
The leaked documents demonstrate that the “near certainty” standard offered by Obama is not likely maintained. The drone program, especially in Yemen and Somalia, relies almost exclusively on signals intelligence to identify and kill targets. Unlike human intelligence, which is gathered from local sources, signals intelligence relies on communication intercepts and phone and computer metadata and is far less reliable. The documents describe the technologies being used as imprecise, and one study even acknowledges a “critical shortfall of capabilities” to accurately identify and eliminate targets.
This faulty intelligence culminates in significant civilian loss of life. During Operation Haymaker in Afghanistan, for example, U.S. drone strikes killed 35 targets and 200 civilians. Under U.S. policy, these civilians were presumptively considered “enemies killed in action,” because they were “military-age males” associated with a target. Furthermore, they remained “enemies killed in action” until it could be proved that they were neither terrorists nor unlawful enemy combatants, a near impossible burden to prove posthumously. The likelihood of civilian casualties is even greater in Somalia and Yemen, where the U.S. relies almost exclusively on signals intelligence.
It’s clear that Obama prefers lethal force to capture. Much is made of Bilal el-Berjawi, a British citizen who traveled between the U.K. and East Africa under the watchful eye of American and British intelligence. Yet rather than be captured, he was killed by a drone strike in Somalia.
Nonetheless, the documents reveal that top U.S. intelligence officials see drone strikes as futile and instead prefer a “find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze and disseminate” approach, which calls for the apprehension and interrogation of suspected terrorists.
In light of these revelations, some will call for greater congressional oversight. Others will lament the lack of judicial oversight. Some may even advocate for a special commission to study the use of lethal force under the Obama administration. Any or all of these efforts would be a welcome first step, but they are likely to be shunned by a government intoxicated by secrecy and unnerved by transparency.
In the interim, the U.S. drone complex will deepen and intensify. As an anonymous source told The Intercept, the military sees drone strikes as “a very slick, efficient way to conduct the war, without having to have the massive ground invasion mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
This institutionalization and bureaucratization is by no means confined to the U.S. military. There is also a CIA drone program that we know much less about. Furthermore, an array of non-American actors, both governmental and civilian, facilitates and contributes to the U.S. assassination complex. Allies help intercept and share intelligence, other nations provide base and airspace access, and military contractors often arm and launch the drones.
Together, these various actors enable the U.S. assassination program and bear only a remote connection to the final outcome of their actions: death.
The vocabulary of the drone program further clouds their moral compass. The documents reveal that dossiers of targets are condensed into “baseball cards,” targets are called “objectives,” objectives killed by drone strike are called “jackpots” and a completed drone strike is consolidated and memorialized in a “story board.” All these terms trivialize drone strikes and dehumanize their victims.
After reading the documents, I couldn’t help remembering Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Muslim American arrested in Texas last month for building a clock that his teachers suspected was a bomb. The whole world seemingly stood up for Ahmed. But what if he had been in Yemen or Somalia? He wouldn’t have been able to marshal the support of a U.S. president, Fortune 500 companies and the broader American public. All that would have been visible to the soda straw lens of a drone was a military-age male with a passion for engineering. Ahmed would have been reduced to an objective awaiting jackpot.