The recent publication by The Intercept of the “The Drone Papers” should have made an explosive splash both in the media and Washington, D.C. But the leak of classified documents has so far generated only modest media coverage (as of this writing, The New York Times has yet to cover it), and there has been no acknowledgment of it by elected officials.
The documents were provided by an anonymous source to an outlet with a strong reputation for muckraking journalism. They reveal how the CIA—an agency with no mandate to fight wars—and the Joint Special Operations Command vie for control of the remote-controlled battles fought in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. They also make clear that the U.S. is well aware of the vast civilian carnage from drones. In Afghanistan, “[d]uring one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets,” wrote Jeremy Scahill, who led the reporting. Scahill further determined that “the military designated people it killed in targeted strikes as EKIA—‘enemy killed in action’—even if they were not the intended targets of the strike.” The intrepid journalist has spent years tracing the inner workings of U.S. drone programs, revealing the results in his 2013 book “Dirty Wars” and a documentary film of the same name.
In Afghanistan, where the U.S. military has years of familiarity with the terrain and ostensibly has cultivated reliable intelligence sources, the drone program should have been working most efficiently. The Pentagon’s plan to root out Taliban and al-Qaida rebels in the Hindu Kush is called Operation Haymaker. In the words of The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux, “the military’s own analysis demonstrates that the Haymaker campaign was in many respects a failure. The vast majority of those killed in airstrikes were not the direct targets. Nor did the campaign succeed in significantly degrading al-Qaida’s operations in the region.” If the Afghanistan program has been a failure by the military’s own standards, the drone program is likely a bust in countries like Yemen and Somalia, too.
Even a drone operator who defended this type of war in an article on Politico.com admitted that things have gotten worse on the ground: “The military has quadrupled drone strikes over the past seven years; and now instead of hiding in Waziristan, al-Qaida is flourishing throughout the world.”
Sadly, the only action likely to result from the U.S. government in response to “The Drone Papers” is to attempt to determine the identity of The Intercept’s anonymous source and to strengthen its security clearance procedures. According to Scahill, “The Intercept granted the source’s request for anonymity because the materials are classified and because the U.S. government has engaged in aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers.” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who faces such prosecution, hailed his counterpart’s courage, saying on Twitter, “In an astonishing act of civil courage, one American just shattered an unspeakable lie.” He also called the revelations in “The Drone Papers” “the most important national security story of the year.”
Rights groups that have warned against the unethical and dangerous drone program for years immediately realized the significance of “The Drone Papers” and called for action. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed several lawsuits against the government on this issue, published a statement lauding The Intercept’s work and agreeing with the goals of the anonymous whistleblower. Amnesty International issued a call for Congress to immediately launch an independent investigation. Even the magazine Foreign Policy concurred, saying that the “revelations mandate a Congressional investigation,” but conceded, “that will never happen under the Obama administration’s watch.”
Indeed, Congress already had plenty of information about the drone program to launch an investigation, even before the release of “The Drone Papers.” It has not done so because it is fully complicit in these unmanned air wars. Elected officials are quietly sanctioning this form of warfare simply by refusing to discuss it. In fact, President Obama has continued the Bush administration’s reliance on Congress’ post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force to legally justify the use of drones. Somehow, because the aircraft that are carrying surveillance equipment and weapons are controlled remotely, they are treated as different from methods of traditional war, and thus, apparently are exempt from the rules of war.
Drone wars are not conventional wars. As “The Drone Papers” and other journalistic investigations reveal, they are part of a program of targeted assassinations of individuals that President Obama personally authorizes for death by drone. The so-called “kill list” is supposed to include known terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and some have been American and British citizens.
If the drone wars are simply targeted assassinations, and if the U.S. posthumously designates most victims as enemies, then it is irrelevant how many people are intended for killing and how many are accidentally killed. Rather then differentiating between intended targets and unintended casualties, we ought to view every single person killed by drones as innocent, given that none of them has ever been tried in a court of law or been sentenced to death. In fact, in a court of law, Obama would be tried for masterminding countless murders across international borders.
Even though “The Drone Papers” were released a few days after the first Democratic presidential debate, the controversial program should have been an issue raised by moderator Anderson Cooper. Candidates vying for the post of commander in chief ought to be confronted with the question of whether they would take over Obama’s personal role in singling out assassination targets when they occupy the White House. Regrettably, neither Bernie Sanders, who proudly declared that he supports the war in Afghanistan, nor Hillary Clinton, who has been hawkish on most of Obama’s wars, had to publicly declare their positions. Again, the drone program remains an open secret that everyone knows about but no one acknowledges during political discourse.
Just because our politicians refuse to address these wars does not mean the rest of the world is blind to them. Those who live in zones routinely traversed by U.S.-controlled drones live in constant fear. A report in The Atlantic quoted ordinary Pakistanis living in a tribal area. One woman said, “Because of the terror, we shut our eyes, hide under our scarves, put our hands over our ears.” A father of three told the reporter, “Drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.”
Our drone wars are neither intelligent nor accurate; they are neither effective nor moral. If only a fraction of the people terrorized by airstrikes lash out in hatred against the U.S., their anger would be a morally justifiable response. Our own responsibility as Americans in dismantling this form of warfare remains an imperative. Thanks to “The Drone Papers” and other such journalism, we can no longer claim ignorance or innocence on this issue.