In the waning months of his presidency, the Obama administration has finally released an assessment of civilians killed in its drone strikes outside areas of “active hostilities.” An Executive Order accompanying the assessment also promises the protection of civilians in counter-terrorism operations, an acknowledgement of responsibility for civilian casualties, and financial compensation for victims or their families.
According to the three-page summary released by the Director of National Intelligence, the US has killed 64 to 116 “non-combatants” in 473 US drone strikes since 2009. It is impossible to compare the government’s aggregate assessment to much more thorough, case-specific information compiled by independent sources such as the The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Even still, the government figure is absurdly low and previous reporting on civilian deaths in just a handful of drone strikes already approaches the high-end of casualties admitted to by the government.
And yet to quibble with the numbers, even as it is necessary, would be to miss the point. The release of the assessment and the Executive Order has precious little to do with the long-awaited transparency. Instead, it is a calculated attempt to ensure Obama’s legacy is untainted by a program of extrajudicial murder and wanton killing, one which extends beyond any recognizable battlefield.
The drone program has changed in important ways under the Obama administration, but much of its justification dates back to the last years of the Clinton administration. After the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, high level officials in the Clinton administration including CIA Director George Tenet believed the US was at war with al-Qaeda. Even though the Clinton administration did not carry out any targeted killings against al-Qaeda members, it was establishing the legal justifications. The Reagan era ban on assassinations, for example, was interpreted by the administration to not apply to terrorists. The CIA was given the authority to assassinate al-Qaeda members if their capture was not considered feasible.
After 9/11, President Bush passed a secret order explicitly granting the CIA the authority to carry out assassinations, even if capturing the target was feasible. A small group at the White House, which included President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, were to decide the targets. The authority to carry out targeted killings would not be limited to the battlefield. Nor would such trivial things as the right to due process would be of concern.
The first known CIA strike soon took place outside an active war zone. In November 2002, six al-Qaeda members were killed by a Predator drone strike in Yemen. The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur for extra-judicial killings, Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir, called the strike “a truly disturbing development” and condemned the attack as an arbitrary deprivation of the right to life. The UN’s two subsequent Special Rapporteurs for extra-judicial killing would later repeat these criticisms in at least a dozen more reports.
The Bush administration would go on to carry out 52 drone strikes outside war zones, all of them taking place in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and at least one in the Philippines. In the final year of his second term, President Bush authorized increased drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, an increase President Obama would maintain.
The Obama administration, which carried out the vast majority of drone strikes, would also make significant changes to the program. Since Guantanamo Bay was no longer an option to indefinitely imprison terror suspects, the administration was confronted with the impossibility of holding suspects it captured. Killing them, it turned out, was the only option left. “Once the interrogation was gone,” admitted CIA lawyer John Rizzo, “all that was left was the killing.”
In April 2013, for example, US drone strikes targeted an al-Qaeda suspect named Hammed al-Radmi in the Yemeni village of Wessab, killing him and four others. “In an area like Wessab,” wrote a local Yemeni activist, “there is nothing easier than capturing a man like al-Radmi. Two police officers would have been more than capable of arresting him.” Drone strikes had become the weapon of choice under Obama.
The Obama administration would also go on to develop a disposition matrix, as part of an effort to institutionalize the practice of targeted killing and transform “ad-hoc elements into a counter-terrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war.” The matrix, as the Washington Post reported in 2012, “contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations.” The database would be a “work in progress,” with names routinely being added to the list.
Throughout his two terms, the Obama administration has championed the policy of executing individuals it suspects of having ties to terrorist groups in any part of the world, claiming the right to be judge, jury, and executioner and declaring the entire world a battlefield. It has cemented drone warfare as a bipartisan consensus, ensuring the next president inherits a drone program that is “an everyday part of the war machine” and entrenched within “a long-term legal and procedural framework.”
But that barely scratches the surface of Obama’s drone legacy. The administration has also authorized “signature strikes” based on behavioral pattern of the targets, without knowing exactly who it is killing. It has targeted rescuers, medical personnel, and funerals. According to a report by the legal charity Reprieve, US drone strikes killed 1,147 people while attempting to kill 41 men on its Kill List, exposing its inaccuracy.
Reports also suggest the administration counts all military-aged males as combatants, even as the administration now denies that claim. The former US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, insists the criteria for targeting someone is that he should be between the ages of 20 and 40. In Munter’s words: “My feeling is one man’s combatant is another man’s—well, a chump who went to a meeting.” Documents leaked to The Intercept confirm the claim.
After seven years of running a secret, unaccountable program of targeted and mass killing, the Obama administration is now attempting to salvage its legacy by releasing casualty figures which obscure more than they reveal. Its Executive Order prioritizing the protection of civilians can easily be ignored by the next president, who may justifiably claim that even the Obama administration did not abide by its measures.
The belated release of casualty figures and the Executive Order are unlikely to satisfy the countless unnamed victims of Obama’s drone strikes. As Faheem Qureshi, who was badly wounded and lost two uncles and a cousin in a 2009 strike, told a reporter: “If there is a list of tyrants in the world, to me, Obama will be put on that list by his drone program.”