Firedoglake: A political party in Pakistan has named the CIA station chief in the country and accused the chief and CIA director John Brennan of murder for their role in a recent drone strike in Hangu, where an Islamic school was targeted.
The drone strike on November 21 killed six and, injured a “large number of those present including children,” according to a letter submitted to police by Dr. Shireen M. Mazari, the central information secretary for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Following the strike in the Khyber Pakhtunkwa province, a settled urban area, a First Information Report (FIR) was submitted to a nearby police station asking them to investigate crimes committed by those who were behind the strike.
Firedoglake is not revealing the alleged station chief’s name. The identity of the alleged CIA station chief in Pakistan has already been exposed by PTI, and his alleged name is circulating in the country.
The letter nominates Brennan and alleged CIA station chief Craig Osth for “committing the gross offenses of committing murder and waging war against Pakistan.” [Continue reading...]
By Cora Currier, ProPublica, November 5, 2013
November 6: This story has been updated to reflect new developments.
Nearly six months ago, President Obama promised more transparency and tighter policies around targeted killings. In a speech, Obama vowed that the U.S. would only use force against a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” It would fire only when there was “near-certainty” civilians would not be killed or injured, and when capture was not feasible.
The number of drone strikes has dropped this year, but they’ve continued to make headlines. On Friday, a U.S. drone killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban. A few days earlier came the first drone strike in Somalia in nearly two years. How much has changed since the president’s speech?
We don’t know the U.S. count of civilian deaths
McClatchy and the Washington Post obtained intelligence documents showing that for long stretches of time, the CIA estimated few or no civilian deaths. The documents also confirmed the use of signature strikes, in which the U.S. targets people without knowing their identity. The CIA categorized many of those killed as simply “other militants” or “foreign fighters.” The Post wrote that the agency sometimes designated “militants” with what seemed like circumstantial or vague evidence, such as “men who were 2018probably’ involved in cross-border attacks” in Afghanistan.
The administration reportedly curtailed signature strikes this year, though the new guidelines don’t necessarily preclude them. A White House factsheet released around Obama’s speech said that “it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.” It did not say that people must be identified. (In any case, the U.S. has not officially acknowledged the policy of signature strikes.)
Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed only that four Americans have been killed by drone strikes since 2009: Anwar al Awlaki and his sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman, Samir Khan, and Jude Kenan Mohammed. Holder said that only the elder Awlaki was “specifically targeted,” but did not explain how the others came to be killed.
Although Obama said that this disclosure was intended to “facilitate transparency and debate,” since then, the administration has not commented on specific allegations of civilian deaths.
We don’t know exactly who can be targeted
The list of groups that the military considers “associated forces” of Al Qaeda is classified. The administration has declared that it targets members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and “elements“ of Al Shabaab, but there are still questions about how the U.S. determines that an individual belonging to those groups is in fact a “continuing and imminent threat.” (After the terror alarm that led to the closing of U.S. embassies this summer, officials told the New York Times they had “expanded the scope of people [they] could go after” in Yemen.)
This ties into the debate over civilian casualties: The government would seem to consider some people legitimate targets that others don’t.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth studies of particular strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, respectively. They include eyewitness reports of civilian deaths. (Most of the deaths investigated happened before the Obama administration’s new policies were announced, although the administration has not said when those guidelines went into effect.) The reports also raised questions of the legality of specific strikes, questioning whether the deaths were all unavoidable casualties of legitimate attacks.
It does not appear that the U.S. plans to expand strikes against Al Qaeda to other countries 2013 officials have reportedly told Iraq, for example, it won’t send drones there. But the U.S. has established a surveillance drone base in Niger, and fed information from drones to French forces fighting in Mali.
Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris write: In May, the White House leaked word that it would start shifting drone operations from the shadows of the CIA to the relative sunlight of the Defense Department in an effort to be more transparent about the controversial targeted killing program. But six months later, the so-called migration of those operations has stalled, and it is now unlikely to happen anytime soon, Foreign Policy has learned.
The anonymous series of announcements coincided with remarks President Obama made on counterterrorism policy at National Defense University in which he called for “transparency and debate on this issue.” A classified Presidential Policy Guidance on the matter, issued at the same time, caught some in government by surprise, triggering a scramble at the Pentagon and at CIA to achieve a White House objective. The transfer was never expected to happen overnight. But it is now clear the complexity of the issue, the distinct operational and cultural differences between the Pentagon and CIA and the bureaucratic politics of it all has forced officials on all sides to recognize transferring drone operations from the Agency to the Defense Department represents, for now, an unattainable goal.
“The physics of making this happen quickly are remarkably difficult,” one U.S. official told FP. “The goal remains the same, but the reality has set in.” [Continue reading...]
Al Jazeera reports: Maulana Fazlullah, the new Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader, is a ruthless fighter who is vehemently anti-state and unamenable to peace talks.
Fazlullah was elected as TTP commander by a consultative council of the group on November 7, almost a week after Hakimullah Mehsud, the group’s former leader, was killed by a US drone in the tribal area of North Waziristan.
He is the first commander of the group not to come from the Mehsud tribe in Pakistan’s tribal areas, hailing instead from the northwestern valley of Swat, where he waged a bloody war against the Pakistani state from 2007 to 2009.
As chief of the local chapter of the TTP in Swat, Fazlullah drove civil and military authorities out of the area in 2007, before finally signing a peace agreement with the government in 2009.
The agreement, dubbed the “Nizam-e-Adl” (system of justice), granted the TTP virtual control over Swat and implemented their interpretation of Sharia law, in exchange for the cessation of hostilities.
It soon disintegrated, however, when Fazlullah’s men attempted to expand their sphere of control to neighbouring Buner district.
As a result, Pakistani forces moved into Swat for the second time in two years, resulting in hundreds of deaths and millions of civilians displaced. Fazlullah was finally driven out of the valley by September 2009, with several of his top commanders captured.
But while the government and civilians rebuilt lives in the valley, Fazlullah continued to conduct operations in Swat remotely, from neighbouring Dir district and, as many locals tell Al Jazeera, the Afghan border provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.
From his base, Fazlullah ordered the targeted killings of elders who led peace committees against the Taliban, as well as rights activists. Among the dozens of people the Taliban killed or attempted to kill during this time was Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl activist who rose to global prominence following the attempt on her life. [Continue reading...]
Shuaib Almosawa writes: Arfag al-Marwani finished his last minute shopping for the Eid al Fitr holiday by midnight, just enough time to enjoy a few hours of rest before the holiday’s dawn Fajr prayers. A 28-year-old laborer, Arfag had recently returned from working in Saudi Arabia and planned on spending the time with his family. It was August 8.
Just before making his final holiday preparations, he received a troubling phone call. Before the holiday celebrations could begin, he would have to carry out one final task.
There had been some sort of car accident involving his brothers: 24-year-old Abdullah, 17-year-old Hassan and 16-year-old Hussein. They too were on their way to the family home after finishing some last minute Eid shopping. Arfag’s thoughts drifted to news reports of the seven U.S. drone strikes in the past 11 days — one of which already targeted al Qaeda suspects in his home province of Marib. Arfag hoped that his young brothers weren’t somehow caught in the drone crossfire.
It took Arfag half an hour to reach the wreckage. Amidst the eerie quiet of the Maribi countryside, smoke still rose from the smoldering remains of his brothers’ mangled vehicle.
The strike that killed Arfag’s three brothers was the eighth out of nine total air attacks launched between July 27 and August 10. It was part of a spastic attempt to thwart what U.S. officials claimed was an al Qaeda plot to attack American interests. But the drone campaign may have only created more support for the militants, if Arfag and his grieving family are to be believed.
Government officials told the press that the strike’s targets were all al Qaeda militants. But the victims’ families say just the opposite was true: that the two teenagers and their older brother were innocent bystanders.
“Everything inside the car seemed to have been flung out of the windows by the force of the blast,” said Arfag, describing what he found at the wreckage that night.
“I found their bodies lying nearby — decapitated.”
Arfag carried the bodies of Abdullah, Hassan and Hussein to the trunk of his car one by one along with what remained of Eid gifts his brothers’ had purchased just a few hours earlier.
“They purchased two outfits for their little nieces, deserts, and a lot of fireworks. We all enjoy the Eid fireworks — they weren’t just for the boys,” said Arfag.
Arfag notified the rest of his family before he began the 50 mile drive north where the family would prepare the bodies for burial in a nearby cemetery the following day.
“Mom took pictures with her mobile phone of all of them, along with the [charred] gifts they had bought,” Arfag continued.
The August 8 strike has outraged the residents of Marib, a governorate where al Qaeda maintains a strong presence. According to some security analysts, that outrage over drone strikes directed toward the U.S. may do more harm than good in a long term struggle against AQAP, as the local Qaeda affiliate is known.
“This case gets at what I believe to be the Achilles heel of the U.S. in a place like Yemen: a lack of good, on-the-ground human intelligence,” said Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al Qaeda and American’s War in Arabia. [Continue reading...]
Jeffrey Bachman asks: Is President Obama a suspected war criminal?
If you have read the recent reports on drone strikes by Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there is only one answer to this question … and it is not the answer most would want to hear.
If you have not read the reports, let me provide you with a brief summary of the common themes. The reports repeatedly criticized President Obama for what has been a near complete lack of transparency. Lack of transparency, according to the reports, impedes accountability. By failing to acknowledge responsibility for drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, there can be no accountability to those who have wrongfully had their innocent loved ones killed in attacks.
Frank La Rue, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, noted the role the right to information plays in promoting good governance. La Rue added that there exists a right to know the truth because the truth enables access to other rights: in this case, the right to reparations and accountability for the wrongful deaths of loved ones. [Continue reading...]
“The death of the [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan] leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is a signal achievement for the covert CIA program at a time when drones themselves have come under criticism from human rights groups and other critics in Pakistan and the United States over the issue of civilian casualties.”
Thus declares a lead editorial in the New York Times. But wait a minute — this isn’t an editorial. It purports to be a news report. “Signal achievement” is not exactly the language of unbiased reporting.
Only a week ago the Times editorial board, echoing Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was challenging the argument that drone strikes can be supported because of their “surgical precision.” Times reporters seem to regard the death of Mehsud as a vindication for the CIA, rebuffing its critics. Needless to say, 24 hours after the attack we have absolutely no way of knowing whether any civilians were killed.
What we do know however, is that the “collateral damage” from this particular drone strike may extend far beyond Waziristan.
The Times reporters say:
Hunted by American drones, Mr. Mehsud adopted a low profile in recent months and was rarely seen in the news media. But in a BBC interview that was broadcast in October, he vowed to continue his campaign of violence. He was aware that the C.I.A. was seeking to kill him, he said, adding: “Don’t be afraid. We all have to die someday.”
Yet for the BBC journalist who interviewed him, Mehsud’s observation about mortality was an incidental detail. The news which the BBC highlighted and the New York Times seems to dismiss, was that Mehsud said the Taliban were ready for peace talks.
Asked about the possibility of peace talks with the government, Mehsud said: “We believe in serious talks but the government has taken no steps to approach us. The government needs to sit with us, then we will present our conditions.”
Mehsud said he was not prepared to discuss conditions through the media.
“The proper way to do it is that if the government appoints a formal team, and they sit with us, and we discuss our respective positions.”
Leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud: “The government needs to sit with us, then we will present our conditions”
Mehsud said he would guarantee the security of any government negotiators.
He said that for any ceasefire to be credible “it is important that drone strikes are stopped”.
The CIA however, has less interest in supporting conditions for peace in Pakistan than it has in retaliating for the 2009 suicide attack on Camp Chapman in which seven were CIA personnel were killed.
Moreover, having been transformed from an intelligence gathering organization into a paramilitary force specializing in drone strikes, the perpetuation of violence in Pakistan would seem to serve the CIA’s interests.
Mehsud’s death not only undermines the chances for the Taliban and the Pakistan government to engage in serious talks but it diminishes the ability of a loosely affiliated group of militants to be able to speak with one voice.
Mehsud’s replacement, Khan Said ‘Sajna’, was chosen in a shura (council) today, but out of 60 members Sanja only had the support of 43. Several senior Taliban commanders are opposed to his promotion.
In the standard rhetoric of counterterrorism, the Taliban have been dealt a major blow — as though men like Hakimullah Mehsud are irreplaceable. The more predictable outcome is that the Taliban’s enemies will understand less about its leadership and those who might be willing to enter negotiations will be outflanked by those who favor more violence.
The Pakistan government insists that it will move forward with peace talks, but with whom they intend to engage in dialogue seems unclear.
In their efforts to deflect criticism of drone warfare, President Obama and senior officials overseeing strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have repeatedly insisted that missiles are only fired when there is minimal risk to civilians and that the primary virtue of this weapons system is its precision.
This week, after Rafiq Rehman and his two children came all the way from Waziristan to testify before Congress on the impact of drone warfare, only five lawmakers bothered to show up. The assumption among campaigners seems to have been that the consciences of ordinary Americans would be stirred if they were to hear children describe what it’s like witnessing your 67-year-old grandmother getting blown up in a drone strike.
The death of Momina Bibi exactly a year ago illustrates how little value precision has if the target is a nameless figure on a computer screen. Yet the testimony of the Rehman family seems unlikely to have much impact on public opinion when Washington finds it so easy to ignore.
Al Jazeera reports:
[E]ven after what his family has been through, Rafiq Rehman said he does not resent the United States. In fact, even after witnessing his first Halloween weekend in the States, he does not believe all that much separates him from Americans.
“It’s very peaceful here. For the most part, there’s a lot of freedom and people get along with each other. They’re nice, they respect each other, and I appreciate that,” Rafiq told Al Jazeera.
“We’re all human beings,” he said. “I knew that Americans would have a heart, that they would be sympathetic to me. That’s why I came here — I thought if they heard my story, they would want to listen to me and influence their politicians.”
The attitude of the Obama administration seems to have been reflected in the decision to prevent the family’s lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, from accompanying them on their visit.
Akbar, a legal fellow with Reprieve, the U.K.-based advocacy organization that helped bring the family to the Washington, believes that his work has something to do with the denial. He only had trouble obtaining a visa after he started to litigate on the behalf of drone victims.
In an interview at his Islamabad office, Akbar told me that he was first denied entry to the United States in 2010, even though he had an open visa at the time. He said that the head of visa services at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad told him his visa could not be processed there because of his history. “And I looked at her and I said what do you mean by history? She just smiled and she said, ‘You know very well what I mean by history.’”
He assumes she was referring to his decision that year to sue the CIA station chief in Islamabad. “It’s very simple,” Akbar said. “You mess with [the] CIA and they mess with you to the extent they can.”
Even if Akbar had been there and even if the hearings had been well attended, I suspect that many lawmakers and other Americans would find it easy to marginalize the Rehman family’s experience.
America never tires of expressing its good intentions. We mean well. Accidents happen. Momina Bibi’s death was a mistake.
This month the Obama administration decided to release more than $1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan and in what looks like a rather transparent quid pro quo, the Pakistani government today issued a statement drastically reducing its claims about the number of civilians killed in drone attacks.
They now say that since 2008, 2,160 militants and 67 civilians have been killed.
There was no indication why the new data seem to differ so much from past government calculations and outside estimates.
A U.N. expert investigating drone strikes, Ben Emmerson, said this month that the Pakistani Foreign Ministry told him that at least 400 civilians have been killed by drone attacks in the country since they started in 2004.
Emmerson called on the Islamabad government to explain the apparent discrepancy, with the Foreign Ministry figure indicating a much higher percentage of civilian casualties.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, has estimated that drones have killed at least 300 civilians in Pakistan since 2008, while the Washington-based New America Foundation puts the figure at 185 civilians. Such estimates are often compiled from news media reports about the attacks.
Having made drone warfare one of the signatures of his presidency, Barack Obama’s level of comfort in utilizing this form of technology can be seen both through his willingness to joke about it, and his insistence on its judicious use. In his mind, the drone has somehow been turned into a symbol of restraint. Shock and awe has been replaced by carefully calibrated violence — even while it employs the far too infrequently cited brand: Hellfire.
The propaganda campaign the Obama administration has engaged in — now with the collusion of the Pakistani government — has always been a numbers game. It attempts to justify drone warfare on the basis of its supposed efficiency. Through a false equivalence — that drone strikes kill far fewer people and do less damage than air strikes — the drone is cast as the lesser of two evils. (This is a false equivalence because drone strikes are rarely employed as an alternative to an air strike. The 317 drone strikes in Pakistan Obama has authorized could not have been substituted by 317 air strikes.) And the measure of the drones’ success can be reduced to a numerical formula such as the one Pakistan just produced.
The effect of claiming that “just” 67 civilians have been killed (leaving aside the issue that this number is implausibly low) is that it masks the wider effect of drone warfare: that it has terrorized the populations in the areas where its use has become prevalent.
A reporter for the Washington Post interviewed a journalist in Pakistan and tried to get a sense of the psychological impact of drones. Was it, she asked, like living somewhere where there are lots of drive-by shootings? (Fear of random acts of violence might usefully offer some common ground, though the comparison might be a bit more realistic if one imagines a neighborhood where the shooters are armed with shoulder-launched missiles rather than handguns.)
Kiran Nazish describes what the presence of drones really means: that the fear of sudden death becomes ever-present.
Along with the few victims that Washington acknowledges, there are thousands more. Facing the risk of missile strikes, these are people afraid to go to market or to leave their own homes. And when the sky is blue, the danger rises, as high above, unseen but constantly heard, drones circle like vultures in search of their prey.
Powerless and with nowhere to flee, for the living victims of drone warfare, America has become an invisible and blind executioner.
The foreign leaders are dropping like flies — to American surveillance. I’m talking about serial revelations that the National Security Agency has been spying on Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, two Mexican presidents, Felipe Calderón (whose office the NSA called “a lucrative source”) and his successor Enrique Peña Nieto, at least while still a candidate, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It’s now evidently part of the weekly news cycle to discover that the NSA has hacked into the emails or listened into the phone conversations of yet another allied leader. Reportedly, that agency has been listening in on the phone calls of at least 35 world leaders. Within 48 hours last week, President Obama was obliged to call an irritated President François Hollande, after Le Monde reported that the NSA was massively collecting French phone calls and emails, including those of politicians and business people, and received a call from an outraged Merkel, whose cell phone conversations were reportedly monitored by the NSA. Of course, when you build a global surveillance state and your activities, thanks to a massive leak of documents, become common knowledge, you have to expect global anger to rise and spread. With 196 countries on the planet, there are a lot of calls assumedly still to come in, even as the president and top Washington officials hem and haw about the necessity of maintaining the security of Americans while respecting the privacy of citizens and allies, refuse to directly apologize, claim that an “exhaustive” review of surveillance practices is underway, and hope that this, too, shall pass.
In the meantime, on a second front, the news is again bad for Washington, as upset and dismay once largely restricted to the tribal backlands of the planet seem to be spreading. I’m talking here about the global assassination campaigns being conducted from the White House, based in part on a “kill list” of terrorist suspects and using the president’s private air force, the growing drone fleets of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command. In the last week, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have come out with reports on the U.S. drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen debunking White House claims that few civilians are dying in those strikes and raising serious questions about their legality. In two of the six drone strikes it investigated in Yemen, Human Rights Watch reported the killing of “civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.” In a surprising development, Amnesty brought a powerful, historically resonant term to bear, claiming that some of the cases of civilian drone deaths it investigated in Pakistan might constitute “war crimes” for which those responsible should stand trial. (“Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions.”)
And just arriving, reports from the U.N. special rapporteur on drones, Ben Emmerson, and its special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Christof Heyns. It’s already clear that these will not please the White House, where the usual denials and self-justifications — however lame they may increasingly sound outside the United States — still rule the day. (“U.S. counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective.”) After a recent visit to Pakistan, Emmerson said, “The consequence of drone strikes has been to radicalize an entirely new generation.” A former high-level U.S. State Department official in Yemen claims that each U.S. drone strike in that country creates “40 to 60 new enemies of America.” Emmerson and Heyns are now demanding far greater “transparency” from a secretive Washington on the subject of its drone killings.
Call both the blanketing surveillance and the drone revelations symptoms of a larger disease. In the years before 9/11, the U.S. focused its global attentions on what it then called “rogue states.” Devoted since that date to perpetual war across significant parts of the planet and to a surveillance apparatus geared to leave no one anywhere in privacy, the U.S. now resembles a rogue superpower to an increasingly resistant and restless world. No single reporter has done more than Jeremy Scahill to bring us back news of how, in the post-9/11 years, Washington took its wars into the darkness, how it helped create a landscape of blowback abroad, and just how such roguery works when it comes to a superpower — from missile strikes in Yemen to a secret CIA prison in Somalia to kick-down-the-door killings of innocents by Special Operations types in Afghanistan. His bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is a revelation, a secret history of twenty-first-century war, American-style.
Today, as the drone story continues to unfold, as ever more countries once considered the sorts of allies that would never say no to a request from Washington, balk at, resist, or ignore Obama administration desires, it’s an honor to have the epilogue to Dirty Wars posted exclusively at TomDispatch for the first time, thanks to the kindness of Scahill’s publisher, Nation Books. Consider it the gripping backstory for what, in time, could become the equivalent of a global uprising against the last superpower of planet Earth. Tom Engelhardt
How does the Global War on Terror ever end?
By Jeremy Scahill
[This epilogue to Scahill’s bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is posted with the kind permission of its publisher, Nation Books.]
On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Just as he had promised when he began his first campaign for president six years earlier, he pledged again to turn the page on history and take U.S. foreign policy in a different direction. “A decade of war is now ending,” Obama declared. “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
Matthew Power writes: From the darkness of a box in the Nevada desert, he watched as three men trudged down a dirt road in Afghanistan. The box was kept cold—precisely sixty-eight degrees—and the only light inside came from the glow of monitors. The air smelled spectrally of stale sweat and cigarette smoke. On his console, the image showed the midwinter landscape of eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province—a palette of browns and grays, fields cut to stubble, dark forests climbing the rocky foothills of the Hindu Kush. He zoomed the camera in on the suspected insurgents, each dressed in traditional shalwar kameez, long shirts and baggy pants. He knew nothing else about them: not their names, not their thoughts, not the thousand mundane and profound details of their lives.
He was told that they were carrying rifles on their shoulders, but for all he knew, they were shepherd’s staffs. Still, the directive from somewhere above, a mysterious chain of command that led straight to his headset, was clear: confirmed weapons. He switched from the visible spectrum—the muted grays and browns of “day-TV”—to the sharp contrast of infrared, and the insurgents’ heat signatures stood out ghostly white against the cool black earth. A safety observer loomed behind him to make sure the “weapon release” was by the book. A long verbal checklist, his targeting laser locked on the two men walking in front. A countdown—three…two…one…—then the flat delivery of the phrase “missile off the rail.” Seventy-five hundred miles away, a Hellfire flared to life, detached from its mount, and reached supersonic speed in seconds.
It was quiet in the dark, cold box in the desert, except for the low hum of machines.
He kept the targeting laser trained on the two lead men and stared so intently that each individual pixel stood out, a glowing pointillist dot abstracted from the image it was meant to form. Time became almost ductile, the seconds stretched and slowed in a strange electronic limbo. As he watched the men walk, the one who had fallen behind seemed to hear something and broke into a run to catch up with the other two. Then, bright and silent as a camera flash, the screen lit up with white flame.
Airman First Class Brandon Bryant stared at the scene, unblinking in the white-hot clarity of infrared. He recalls it even now, years later, burned into his memory like a photo negative: “The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot. His blood is hot. But when it hits the ground, it starts to cool off; the pool cools fast. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same color as the ground he was lying on.”
That was Brandon Bryant’s first shot. It was early 2007, a few weeks after his twenty-first birthday, and Bryant was a remotely-piloted-aircraft sensor operator—a “sensor” for short—part of a U.S. Air Force squadron that flew Predator drones in the skies above Iraq and Afghanistan. Beginning in 2006, he worked in the windowless metal box of a Ground Control Station (GCS) at Nellis Air Force Base, a vast sprawl of tarmac and maintenance hangars at the edge of Las Vegas.
The airmen kept the control station dark so they could focus on controlling their MQ-1B Predators circling two miles above the Afghan countryside. Bryant sat in a padded cockpit chair. He had a wrestler’s compact build, a smooth-shaved head, and a piercing ice blue gaze frequently offset by a dimpled grin. As a sensor, his job was to work in tandem with the drone’s pilot, who sat in the chair next to him. While the pilot controlled the drone’s flight maneuvers, Bryant acted as the Predator’s eyes, focusing its array of cameras and aiming its targeting laser. When a Hellfire was launched, it was a joint operation: the pilot pulled a trigger, and Bryant was responsible for the missile’s “terminal guidance,” directing the high-explosive warhead by laser to its desired objective. Both men wore regulation green flight suits, an unironic Air Force nod to the continuity of military decorum in the age of drone warfare.
Since its inception, the drone program has been largely hidden, its operational details gathered piecemeal from heavily redacted classified reports or stage-managed media tours by military public-affairs flacks. Bryant is one of very few people with firsthand experience as an operator who has been willing to talk openly, to describe his experience from the inside. While Bryant considers leakers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden heroes willing to sacrifice themselves for their principles, he’s cautious about discussing some of the details to which his top-secret clearance gave him access. Still, he is a curtain drawn back on the program that has killed thousands on our behalf. [Continue reading...]
Rafiq ur Rehman writes: The last time I saw my mother, Momina Bibi, was the evening before Eid al-Adha. She was preparing my children’s clothing and showing them how to make sewaiyaan, a traditional sweet made of milk. She always used to say: the joy of Eid is the excitement it brings to the children.
Last year, she never had that experience. The next day, 24 October 2012, she was dead, killed by a US drone that rained fire down upon her as she tended her garden.
Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day. The media reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Several reported the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All reported that five militants were killed. Only one person was killed – a 65-year-old grandmother of nine.
My three children – 13-year-old Zubair, nine-year-old Nabila and five-year-old Asma – were playing nearby when their grandmother was killed. All of them were injured and rushed to hospitals. Were these children the “militants” the news reports spoke of? Or perhaps, it was my brother’s children? They, too, were there. They are aged three, seven, 12, 14, 15 and 17 years old. The eldest four had just returned from a day at school, not long before the missile struck.
But the United States and its citizens probably do not know this. No one ever asked us who was killed or injured that day. Not the United States or my own government. Nobody has come to investigate nor has anyone been held accountable. Quite simply, nobody seems to care. [Continue reading...]
The Washington Post reports:
Despite repeatedly denouncing the CIA’s drone campaign, top officials in Pakistan’s government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by The Washington Post.
The files describe dozens of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal region and include maps as well as before-and-after aerial photos of targeted compounds over a four-year stretch from late 2007 to late 2011 in which the campaign intensified dramatically.
Markings on the documents indicate that many of them were prepared by the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center specifically to be shared with Pakistan’s government. They tout the success of strikes that killed dozens of alleged al-Qaeda operatives and assert repeatedly that no civilians were harmed.
It’s easy to conjure an image of reporters Bob Woodward and Greg Miller studying these documents and their markings, amazed at the trove of information they stumbled upon. But who are they kidding?
The key word in the opening sentence of their report is “obtained.”
I have a hunch these documents weren’t obtained while rummaging through dumpsters behind the some State Department offices. Neither do I imagine were they were handed to Woodward in a dimly lit parking garage by an anonymous source. Neither do I believe a new whistle-blower is involved.
If the reporting was more honest it would not evoke an aura of mystery by using this shadowy expression, obtained. It would instead refer to memos provided to the Washington Post.
As gifts rather than a discovery, the key questions are who provided the memos and what was the source’s objective?
With Bob Woodward’s name in the byline, it’s reasonable to assume that this is a case of an official leak in exchange for services rendered.
The principle service comes in the form of the headline: “Secret memos reveal explicit nature of U.S., Pakistan agreement on drones”
It sounds like the CIA is pushing back against Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s demand that the U.S. needs to respect Pakistan’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” and end drone strikes.
The purpose of the CIA in leaking these memos is to show that drone strikes have been conducted with the Pakistani government’s cooperation. But given the relative power of the U.S. and Pakistan, that cooperation is more like the kind the mafia earns through a protection racket.
The report later says:
In a measure of the antagonism between the two sides, a 2010 memo sent by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its embassy in Washington outlined a plan to undermine the CIA.
“Kindly find enclosed a list of 36 U.S. citizens who are [believed] to be CIA special agents and would be visiting Pakistan for some special task,” said the memo, signed by an official listed as the country’s director general for Americas. “Kindly do not repeat not issue visas to the same.”
Referring to this as a plan to undermine the CIA, is a curious choice of phrase.
The report makes no mention of an event in early 2011 that seriously ruptured U.S.-Pakistani relations, revealing the threat the CIA poses far beyond Waziristan.
Raymond Davis, a 36-year-old former special forces soldier employed by the CIA, was arrested after he shot two suspected armed robbers in Lahore.
Shortly after the killings, The Guardian reported:
Pakistani prosecutors accuse the spy of excessive force, saying he fired 10 shots and got out of his car to shoot one man twice in the back as he fled. The man’s body was found 30 feet from his motorbike.
“It went way beyond what we define as self-defence. It was not commensurate with the threat,” a senior police official involved in the case told the Guardian.
The Pakistani government is aware of Davis’s CIA status yet has kept quiet in the face of immense American pressure to free him under the Vienna convention. Last week President Barack Obama described Davis as “our diplomat” and dispatched his chief diplomatic troubleshooter, Senator John Kerry, to Islamabad. Kerry returned home empty-handed.
Many Pakistanis are outraged at the idea of an armed American rampaging through their second-largest city.
A passage in the Post’s report that seems revealing in a way that doesn’t serve the CIA’s interests is this:
[T]he documents also reveal a major shift in the CIA’s strategy in Pakistan as it broadened the campaign beyond “high-value” al-Qaeda targets and began firing missiles at gatherings of low-level fighters.
The files trace the CIA’s embrace of a controversial practice that came to be known as “signature strikes,” approving targets based on patterns of suspicious behavior detected from drone surveillance cameras and ordering strikes even when the identities of those to be killed weren’t known.
At times, the evidence seemed circumstantial.
On Jan. 14, 2010, a gathering of 17 people at a suspected Taliban training camp was struck after the men were observed conducting “assassination training, sparring, push-ups and running.” The compound was linked “by vehicle” to an al-Qaeda facility hit three years earlier.
On March 23, 2010, the CIA launched missiles at a “person of interest” in a suspected al-Qaeda compound. The man caught the agency’s attention after he had “held two in-car meetings, and swapped vehicles three times along the way.”
Other accounts describe militants targeted because of the extent of “deference” they were shown when arriving at a suspect site. A May 11, 2010, entry noted the likely deaths of 12 men who were “probably” involved in cross-border attacks against the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
Although often uncertain about the identities of its targets, the CIA expresses remarkable confidence in its accuracy, repeatedly ruling out the possibility that any civilians were killed.
One table estimates that as many as 152 “combatants” were killed and 26 were injured during the first six months of 2011. Lengthy columns with spaces to record civilian deaths or injuries contain nothing but zeroes.
Those assertions are at odds with research done by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, which released a report this week based on investigations of nine drone strikes in Pakistan between May 2012 and July 2013. After interviewing survivors and assembling other evidence, the group concluded that at least 30 civilians had been killed in the attacks.
White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged Tuesday that drone strikes “have resulted in civilian casualties” but defended the program as highly precise and said there is a “wide gap” between U.S. estimates and those of independent groups.
That someone targeted by a missile strike could be described as a “person of interest” is beyond Orwellian.
In law enforcement parlance, a person of interest is someone that authorities are investigating — someone who may end up being arrested.
To catch the “interest” of the Obama administration, however, apparently means marked for killing. Maybe the expression is an abbreviation: such-and-such is a person the U.S. would be interested in eliminating. A type of person who might be described in an addendum to Obama’s kill list — on his wish list. An opportunistic target; a person of interest.
What the report makes clear is that a person of interest turns out to be someone who catches the CIA’s attention on the basis of mere suspicion. The agency forms the impression this person’s up to no good and so kills him — just to be safe.
As damning as this account might sound, we then come to what can be called the bureaucrat’s defense: the records show…
Amnesty International can issue a damning report on the civilian casualties from drone strikes, but from Obama on downwards, everyone can plead innocence. How? By citing official records which show columns of zeros when it comes to civilians killed or injured.
Mistakes, there may have been a few, but every strike was launched on good faith by an honest American, serving this nation and blessed by God.
Nabeel Khoury writes: I recall the good old days in Yemen from 2004 to 2007—that is, relatively speaking. I was then the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, which pretty much enjoyed the run of the country, except for the northern region of Saada, which the government of Ali Abdallah Saleh denied us permission to visit due to the then ongoing war there. To be sure, coordination with local authorities were required, but I was able to obtain permission to go hiking in the gorgeous mountain regions around and south of Sanaa. On occasion, I was also able to travel unescorted to remote villages and actually spend the weekend. On one occasion, driving with a British friend in my personal vehicle, we stopped at an odd looking little place just off the road with a sign that said “Youth Sports Club.” On the first floor (literally) all conceivable brands of alcohol; on the second floor, all conceivable types of weapons. The shopkeeper quipped, “If you don’t see it, ask me; I’ll know where to get it for you!”
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) certainly existed then, although it had not yet acquired the name and notoriety that it now enjoys. It was a rare occasion, in those days, that U.S. forces or equipment were needed to directly go after an AQ operative.
So what happened, between 2007 when I left Yemen and 2013? The United States sent back home a few Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, the Iraq war ended and Yemeni foreign fighters returned home, and Osama Ben Laden was killed. Meanwhile the U.S. policy of using drones to track and kill AQAP elements went into full gear.
If we assess U.S. policy in Yemen from a security standpoint first, we would have to conclude that it has certainly not brought more security to the American diplomats in Yemen. Sanaa is now classified as an unaccompanied post, meaning it is too dangerous for diplomats to bring families with them. Further, diplomats who, until recently, tended to live on the economy, in villas and apartment buildings in the middle of downtown Sanaa, were first moved to a well guarded hotel near the Embassy compound in 2011, and consequently into crowded quarters on the compound itself. American diplomats wishing to go outside embassy walls to meet with Yemenis, now have to have heavy security escorts and are discouraged from all but essential meetings impossible to conduct on the compound itself. [Continue reading...]
I wasn’t scared of drones before, but now when they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?
- Nabeela, eight-year-old granddaughter of US drone strike victim Mamana Bibi
On a sunny afternoon in October 2012, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was killed in a drone strike that appears to have been aimed directly at her. Her grandchildren recounted in painful detail to Amnesty International the moment when Mamana Bibi, who was gathering vegetables in the family fields in Ghundi Kala village, northwest Pakistan, was blasted into pieces before their eyes. Nearly a year later, Mamana Bibi’s family has yet to receive any acknowledgment that it was the US that killed her, let alone justice or compensation for her death.
Earlier, on 6 July 2012, 18 male laborers, including at least one boy, were killed in a series of US drone strikes in the remote village of Zowi Sidgi. Missiles first struck a tent in which some men had gathered for an evening meal after a hard day’s work, and then struck those who came to help the injured from the first strike. Witnesses described a macabre scene of body parts and blood, panic and terror, as US drones continued to hover overhead.
The use of pilotless aircraft, commonly referred to as drones, for surveillance and so-called targeted killings by the USA has fast become one of the most controversial human rights issues in the world. In no place is this more apparent than in Pakistan.
The circumstances of civilian deaths from drone strikes in northwest Pakistan are disputed. The USA, which refuses to release detailed information about individual strikes, claims that its drone operations are based on reliable intelligence, are extremely accurate, and that the vast majority of people killed in such strikes are members of armed groups such as the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. Critics claim that drone strikes are much less discriminating, have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, some of which may amount to extrajudicial executions or war crimes, and foster animosity that increases recruitment into the very groups the USA seeks to eliminate.
According to NGO and Pakistan government sources the USA has launched some 330 to 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013. Amnesty International is not in a position to endorse these figures, but according to these sources, between 400 and 900 civilians have been killed in these attacks and at least 600 people seriously injured. [Continue reading...]
See Amnesty’s 76-page report, ‘Will I be Next?’ U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan.
A 97-page report produced by Human Rights Watch examines six US targeted killings in Yemen, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-2013. Two of the attacks killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.