Conflict & Justice

The dire consequences of drone war secrecy


Pakistani demonstrators shout slogans beside a burning US flag during a protest in Multan on January 3, 2013, against the drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas. Pakistani warlord Mullah Nazir, who sent men to fight NATO troops in Afghanistan, was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan along with five loyalists, local security officials said. Experts fear drone strikes will radicalize locals and create more enemies for the US.



Fifteen more people were killed by two US drone strikes in Pakistan this week, but the American people and the world will have to wait before hearing about the details of the CIA's not-so-secret program, as a federal judge has refused the New York Times' request for documents submitted under the Freedom of Information Act.

According to Reuters, US District Judge Colleen McMahon said the Times had no legal bearing to force the Obama administration to release information about targeted killings of people with drones, including American citizens, who are suspected of having ties to terrorism.

The Times and reporters Charlie Savage and Scott Shane reportedly sued the government for information relating to the drone program and, specifically, the targeted killings of Americans Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman in Yemen.

They are expected to appeal Judge McMahon's 68-page decision, which although seemed rueful regarding the extrajudicial deaths of the al-Awlakis, made it clear that the Obama administration is within legal rights to keep secrets about drones, including civilian casualties.

"We began this litigation because we believed our readers deserved to know more about the U.S. government's legal position on the use of targeted killings against persons having ties to terrorism, including US citizens," New York Times assistant general counsel David McCraw said in a statement.

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CNN reported Thursday that drones were the suspected cause of death of Pakistani Taliban commander Mullah Nazir, who was killed along with 10 other people, five of whom were allegedly deputies. Nazir reportedly had ties to regional and tribal leaders in South Waziristan and was actually "at odds with the Pakistani Taliban over a peace agreement he signed with the Pakistani government in 2007," although he was thought to be responsible for attacks on US military targets. 

Another drone fired two missiles at a vehicle in North Waziristan, killing four suspected militants, officials told AFP. It's unclear if the remaining deaths were civilians, but CNN reported that they were rescuers attempting to help the men in the car.

In Yemen, later in the day, Moqbel Ebad Al Zawbah, a “leading al-Qaida figure,” was killed by a drone strike along with two allies, according to Al Jazeera, which tweeted the news Thursday morning.

The Obama administration has continued with its drone program in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, picking up where President Bush left off. To date, over 300 drones have been fired and over 3,000 people killed, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's in-depth drone investigation. The BIJ also reports Obama has fired six times more drones than his predecessor in Pakistan (an average of one strike every five days) and could be responsible for at least 1,500 civilian deaths, which the UN is looking into considering a war crime.

Experts agree that hiding details of the inner workings of the covert operations of the CIA and Defense Department's drone programs from the American people and the world could actually set us back in the fight against terror, creating more enemies than killing.

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"US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury," says a September report by Stanford Law School's International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and NYU's Global Justice Clinic, "Living Under Drones." "Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities."

The report recommends the US government immediately become transparent about drones, and give the matter over to public debate, including releasing the 2011 memorandum about discussing the legal basis for targeting killing in Pakistan, which is part of the Times' FOIA request.

"Publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best… The number of high-level targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low — estimated at just 2%," says the report. "The US should fulfill its international obligations with respect to accountability and transparency, and ensure proper democratic debate about key policies."

Indeed, the lack of transparency, specifically when it comes to deaths of those casualties labeled "militants," "deputies," "enemy combatants" by military officials and blindly reported by the media, could be doing more harm than good.

Roughly three quarters of Pakistani civilians now consider the US the enemy, an increase from previous years.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald (who has been a continuous critic of US drone policy at Salon and now the Guardian), reports that the most popular politician in Pakistan, Imran Khan, has threatened to shoot American drones out of the sky and led an anti-drone protest in September. Khan was detained by customs in New York in October when attempting to attend a fundraiser and was "interrogated on [his] views on drones."

It's this behavior on behalf of the US that many believe is actually doing such a massive disservice that getting a few bad guys isn't worth the risk of radicalizing more regional fighters.

The former CIA Pakistan station chief, who was the head of counter terrorism from 2004 to 2006 agrees. Robert Grenier told the Guardian in June, "It [the drone program] needs to be targeted much more finely. We have been seduced by them and the unintended consequences of our actions are going to outweigh the intended consequences."

For more of GlobalPost's reporting on drones in Pakistan and around the world, check out our Special Report "The Drone Age: Why We Should Fear the Global Proliferation of UAVs."