One-Third of Americans Known to Have Been Killed in Drone Strikes Were US Servicemen

I agree with Greg Sargent. It is depressing (though I find it unsurprising) that a majority of Democrats support drone strikes on American terrorist suspects overseas.

The Post has just released some new polling that demonstrates very strong support for Obama’s counterterrorism policies, including 83 percent of Americans approving of his use of drone strikes against terror suspects overseas.

This finding, however, is particularly startling:

What if those suspected terrorists are American citizens living in other countries? In that case do you approve or disapprove of the use of drones?

Approve: 65
Disapprove: 26


And get this: Depressingly, Democrats approve of the drone strikes on American citizens by 58-33, and even liberals approve of them, 55-35.

The Democratic Party has, under Obama, significantly abandoned a commitment to civil liberties and rule of law, so I’m unsurprised by these results.

But I wonder how Americans would vote if they learned that one-third of Americans known to have died in US drone strikes were servicemen? Here’s the list:

Kamal Derwish, killed November 5, 2002, purportedly as collateral damage on a strike against Abu Ali al-Harithi; Derwish is alleged to have recruited the Lackawanna Six

Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Smith, killed in friendly fire incident on April 6, 2011

Navy Medic Benjamin Rast, killed in same friendly fire incident on April 6, 2011

Anwar al-Awlaki, killed September 30, 2011; Awlaki had ties to AQAP, though the Administration has never released evidence to support their claim he was “operational”

Samir Khan, killed in same September 30 drone strike, purportedly as collateral damage; Khan was a propagandist for AQAP

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, aged 16, killed in drone strike on October 14, 2011, purportedly collateral damage in a strike aimed at Fahd al-Quso, who was indicted in the Cole bombing

Civil libertarians have long noted that the government’s lack of transparency undermines their (possibly entirely legitimate) claims that Awlaki was an imminent threat and the others really were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But the case of Smith and Rast points to the other real problem with Obama’s drone program: targeting is prone to analytical errors and Americans may shoot before they’ve confirmed that targets are enemy forces.

A Marine and a Navy medic killed by a U.S. drone airstrike were targeted when Marine commanders in Afghanistan mistook them for Taliban fighters, even though analysts watching the Predator’s video feed were uncertain whether the men were part of an enemy force.


The incident closely resembles another deadly mistake involving a Predator in early 2009. In that attack, at least 15 Afghan civilians were killed after a Predator crew mistook them for a group of Taliban preparing to attack a U.S. special forces unit.

In that case, analysts located at Air Force Special Operations Command in Florida who were watching live battlefield video from the aircraft’s high-altitude cameras also had doubts about the target. Their warnings that children were present were disregarded by the drone operator and by an Army captain, who authorized the airstrike.


Air Force analysts who were watching the live video in Terre Haute, Indiana, noted that the gunfire appeared aimed away from the other Marines, who were behind the three. The analysts reported that gunshots were “oriented to the west, away from friendly forces,” the Pentagon report says.

But the Predator pilot in Nevada and the Marine commanders on the ground “were never made aware” of the analysts’ assessment.

When that pilot targeted Rast and Smith, he believed he was targeting someone, at the least, with ties to the Taliban. That is, these servicemen were erroneously and tragically “suspected” of being terrorists. And while some friendly fire is to be expected in a war zone, with drones, such friendly fire stems not from the immediate fog of war, but poor communication and analysis spread out across the globe, and that poor communication and analysis plagues our drone program generally.

So whether the issue is secret intelligence that may or may not back Administration anonymous leaks about the risk of these “suspected terrorist” targets, or our inability to properly identify the enemy, asking whether American support the drone killing of “terror suspects” grossly simplifies the murky mess that qualifies someone as a “suspect” worthy of targeting.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

20 replies
  1. Benjamin Franklin says:

    It’s not just drones. Remote detonation makes it far too easy to kill. Dropping ordnance from a piloted aircraft has the same disconnect. Faceless, dehumanized objects do not elicit the same caution as hand-to-hand combat or sighted gunfire.

    But drones seem the most sanitized, and error-prone method.

  2. Jim White says:

    For all the yammering that goes on about how accurate drone attacks are, just your data here on friendly fire deaths should be enough to put that to rest. If you compared the frequency of friendly fire deaths per use of drones to that from any other weapon system used by the military, I’m betting drones would be higher by many orders of magnitude.

  3. Phil Perspective says:

    First, I am not sure I believe Kaplan’s numbers. Second, when does Kaplan report on the cock-up’s re: drones? Do they ever? If they did, less people would support their use regardless.

  4. rugger9 says:

    Why hasn’t the Army captain been court-martialed? Or the chain of command that prevented the analysts’ report from reaching the captain and Marines. The captain owns this, but the chain of command that allowed him to fire without knowing exactly who the target was [no consensus] owns a share of this as well. Especially if the Marines knew their medic was being targeted they would have said something, pronto. They’re very protective of the medics.

  5. PeasantParty says:

    @Phil Perspective: First, I agree with you on Kaplan’s numbers.

    Second, I believe Kaplan’s numbers are monetarialy and ideologically skewed.

    And Third, Did I tell you I don’t believe that Kaplan poll? :-)

  6. JTMinIA says:

    About a year ago I watched a hearing on C-SPAN as to whether drone-strikes, especially when controlled by civilians, violated a whole host of international laws and treaties. The answer was pretty much “yes.” Did anything ever come of that?

  7. jo6pac says:

    @JTMinIA: Yes, millions was poured into research and the drones will soon make their own decisions on who to kill. Problem fixed what could go wrong?

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I hope this issue has more legs than that supposedly non-lethal Tasers are used by police, often illegally, to kill hundreds of people a year.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I also hope that other reporters make the observation that similar or greater collateral damage can be expected here as drones are increasingly used for domestic “policing”. The Brits, for example, will be using more than a thousand drones to aid in “policing” the upcoming summer Olympics in London. The government has promised none of them will be armed. One hopes that MI-5 and the current incarnation of Special Branch got the memo.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Perhaps I forgot that the Obama administration likes to pretend that drone critics are “al Qaeda enablers”.

  11. MadDog says:

    Speaking of US drone strikes, via the Moonie Times comes trigger-happy former Army Vice Chief of Staff and “Forever War” promoter retired General Jack Keane with his newest bestest idea yet:

    “General: ‘Use drones to kill’ the Taliban in Pakistan

    A longtime adviser to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan says now is the time for President Obama to change strategy and target Taliban leaders ensconced in Pakistan, using drones and other tactics employed to kill al Qaeda operatives over the past 10 years.

    “We kill them. We use drones to kill them, just like we did al Qaeda,” said retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, just back from a two-week tour of the battlefield and consultations with U.S. commanders. “The president has to change the policy and issue a ‘finding’ that this is a covert operation under the province of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

    A White House spokesman declined to comment Wednesday…


    …As for Taliban talks, Gen. Keane said killing the leaders would increase pressure on the Taliban to hold real discussions, not to manipulate the U.S.

    “The Taliban has not, in my judgment, in any significant way changed their fundamental goal and objective, which is to take over Afghanistan and return to running that country,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have negotiation talks with them. I think we should. But we’ve got to be clear-eyed about it…”

  12. CTuttle says:

    @rugger9: @4 Why the f*ck are they even using Drones as ‘Close Combat Air Support’ in the first f*cking place…? I’m damn sure glad I retired before all that horsesh*t…! *gah*

  13. CTuttle says:

    @Eureka Springs: *heh* I was stationed there in Ft. Smith Ark, when it was known as the Joint Readiness Training Center, before it moved to Ft. Polk…! Btw, ES, It’s been like forever since I’ve crossed threads with ya…! *g*

  14. thatvisionthing says:

    New podcast up at Antiwar Radio:

    Chris Woods, documentary producer and freelancer for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, discusses his article Obama terror drones: CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals;” why these attacks qualify as state terrorism by any sensible definition; how the MSM enables government officials to smear their critics behind a veil of anonymity; the circumstantial evidence that former CIA Director Leon Panetta was responsible for the targeting of rescuers and funeral goers; and why the time is ripe for formal investigations, now that Obama himself has outed the “secret” war in Pakistan.

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