double tap

Researcher Exposes Government, Military Lies About Civilian Drone Deaths in Afghanistan

A tweet this morning by Daphne Eviatar alerted me to a very important article by Spencer Ackerman at his new home with the Guardian. Ackerman interviewed Dr. Larry Lewis, who is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses but is also described by National Defense University as a Current Field Representative to the Joint Staff J7, Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis Division. In speaking with Ackerman, Lewis referred to a study he conducted with access to classified data, where his work had a remarkable finding:

Larry Lewis, a principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, a research group with close ties to the US military, studied air strikes in Afghanistan from mid-2010 to mid-2011, using classified military data on the strikes and the civilian casualties they caused. Lewis told the Guardian he found that the missile strikes conducted by remotely piloted aircraft, commonly known as drones, were 10 times more deadly to Afghan civilians than those performed by fighter jets.

Ackerman points out in the article that Lewis mentions some of this work in a recently published article in Prism, which is published by NDU (note: To make things clearer to folks reading Marcy’s work on Snowden, I will call the journal Prism and not PRISM, even though the Guardian is once again breaking the news and the journal uses all caps in its name). Although NDU doesn’t make it easy to find the most recent issue of Prism, I finally found a pdf of the entire latest issue here, where the article by Lewis and coauthor Sarah Holewinski (who is at the Center for Civilians in Conflict) can be found on pages 57 to 65.

Lewis and Holewinski open by framing the issue of protection of civilians as a lesson that the US military has to learn repeatedly:

Civilian casualties can risk the success of a combat mission. While not new, this is a lesson us defense forces have had to repeatedly relearn. Historically, civilian protection and efforts to address harm became priorities only when external pressures demanded attention. As the Pentagon reshapes its defenses and fighting force for the next decade, continuing this ad hoc pattern in the future is neither strategically smart nor ethically acceptable.

As Ackerman notes in the Guardian article, the Prism article makes mention of the finding regarding civilian drone casualties in Afghanistan outpacing those from conventional aerial attacks:

The assumption that UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) strikes are surgical in nature is also belied by research on recent combat operations in Afghanistan. There, UAS operations were statistically more likely to cause civilian casualties than were operations conducted by manned air platforms.

Lewis and Holewinski describe the impact of both failing to protect civilians and lying about operations in which civilians have died. After describing relatively well-known examples of drone strikes in Pakistan that included such horrors as a double-tap targeting rescuers, the strike on a jirga addressing mining issues that killed up to 40 civilians or deaths at a restaurant, Lewis and Holewinski move back to Afghanistan:

Independent investigations are not always correct in their assessment of civilian deaths; however, the inability of the U.S. to adequately investigate the outcome of its clandestine UAS strikes calls into question official denials of civilian harm. The U.S. has stated that these strikes kill only combatants; however, operations in Afghanistan are replete with examples where all the engaged individuals were believed to be combatants, but a later investigation found many or all were civilians misidentified as combatants.

The continued claims of lack of civilian deaths despite hard evidence to the contrary takes a huge toll both on US credibility and on what takes place in the war theater:

A growing body of research, including that conducted by this article’s authors, shows that civilian casualties (CIVCAS) and the mishandling of the aftermath can compel more people to work against U.S. interests. Indeed, America’s image has suffered for years under the weight of anger and dismay that a nation, which stands by the value of civilian protection in wartime, seemed indifferent to civilian suffering.

Sadly, this is a lesson that has not been learned by such luminaries as Barack Obama, Diane Feinstein and John Brennan. As Ackerman points out:

While the drone strikes remain classified, several senior Obama administration officials and their congressional allies have described them as notable for their precision. John Brennan, now the CIA director responsible for the agency’s drones, said in 2012 they provide “targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists”. While defending the strikes as legal and “targeted”, Obama conceded in May that “US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars”. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, said in February that drones kill only “single digits” worth of civilians annually.

It does not appear that we have even gotten to a “least untruthful” official US accounting of the civilian casualty rates due to drones. In the meantime, our credibility will continue to suffer and our enemies will continue to accumulate.

ICRC President Visits Obama, Brennan, Hagel Regarding “International Humanitarian Law”

ICRC President Peter Maurer (Wikimedia Commons)

ICRC President Peter Maurer (Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, yesterday completed four days of meetings with US officials in Washington. According to the blog site for the ICRC, Maurer met with President Barack Obama, senior members of Congress and a number of high-ranking government figures, including “Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole.”

It is perhaps not surprising that since there is a widespread hunger strike at Guantanamo (and since the ICRC visited Guantanamo earlier this month), detention issues were high on the list of topics for the meetings:

A focus of Mr Maurer’s visit was detention-related matters. “The United States, including its Congress, must urgently find a way to resolve all pending humanitarian, legal and policy issues relating to the detention of persons held at Guantanamo Bay, including those deemed to no longer represent a threat that justifies their continued detention there,” said Mr Maurer.

But Guantanamo was not the only topic. It comes as a welcome development to me that Maurer would widen the scope of discussion with key figures such as Obama, Brennan and Hagel to remind them of their duties under international humanitarian law:

“We enjoy a robust and multi-faceted dialogue with the United States, and my visit was an opportunity to discuss issues and contexts of mutual concern such as Syria and Afghanistan,” said Mr Maurer. “The United States values the mandate, positions and input of the ICRC and I am confident that this interaction will continue to bring concrete results, notably in terms of implementation of and respect for international humanitarian law in current and future battlefields.”

Especially when it comes to Obama and Brennan, it is striking that this statement can be construed as saying that the US needs to implement international humanitarian laws and to respect them. Although not stated outright, it is impossible to come to any other conclusion than to believe that the ICRC now believes that the US does not abide by international humanitarian law. I would think that the US practice of targeted killings, which is viewed by the UN as an issue for international law (and where the UN has called “double tap” drone strikes war crimes) would likely have been a topic for Maurer when talking with Brennan, who has played a key role in ordering drone strikes.

Sadly, I don’t share the ICRC’s optimism regarding our government’s respect for the “mandate, positions and input of the ICRC”. We need look no further than the sad news out of Guantanamo yesterday where it now appears that hundreds of thousands of confidential files and communications belonging to Guantanamo defense lawyers have been provided to the prosecution. In addition, a number of key files seem to have disappeared. From Carol Rosenberg: Continue reading

Brennan Attacks First Responders Again

In a sane world, John Brennan would be on his best behavior while his nomination to lead the CIA is pending approval in the Senate. Sadly, the world we inhabit has become so insane that Brennan’s “best behavior” appears to be a return to drone strikes that come with alarming frequency and include so many missiles fired at each target that it seems likely Brennan has returned to the war crime of attacking first responders who are attempting to rescue survivors at the attack site.

I had noted last May that at least some US drone strikes appeared to have underpinnings that were as political as they were strategic, and my belief in that premise was strengthened as Brennan and the CIA escalated attacks to near daily at the time when US-Pakistan relations had reached a low point during negotiations to re-open NATO supply routes through Pakistan. Although some of the attacks I have described as political seem to have been very poorly targeted, especially the attack that killed 42 people gathered for a jirga just after the release of Raymond Davis, I was encouraged as the attacks slowed and appeared to be targeted on stronger underlying intelligence last fall and this winter.

However, it appears that the pace of attacks is picking up once again, both in frequency and in the number of people killed in each attack. Bill Roggio noted in Long War Journal that the attack on Sunday was already the fourth attack of January in only its sixth day. That attack left 17 dead, although it appears that three separate compounds were targeted in the attack. Today, we have yet another strike, bringing the total to five in eight days. Today’s attack, at least according to the Express Tribune, came in two separate waves, and raises the question of whether the US is once again targeting first responders who are trying to rescue survivors:

US operated armed drones fired missiles in Mir Ali and Essukhel area of North Waziristan in two sorties early on Tuesday morning killing at least eight people, Express News reported.

According to Express News, the CIA-operated drones first fired at least eight missiles at a compound in Haiderkhel area of Miranshah  killing five people. Four people were also injured in the attack.

Locals are sifting through the rubble to recover the bodies of the dead and rescue the injured.

In a second attack in as many hours, drone attacks killed at least three people.

Although the Express Tribune article could be read in a way to believe that the two sorties might not have hit the same compound, an article by Reuters and two different AP articles in the New York Times and Washington Post all make it clear that today’s attack concentrated on a single compound. Going back to the information in the Express Tribune article, then, we see eight missiles fired in the first volley. We have no information on how much time passed between missiles or if first responders had time to get to the scene and begin rescue operations. However, the second sortie, described as within two hours, seems quite likely to have been carried out despite the presence of “Locals” described by the Express Tribune as “sifting through the rubble to recover the bodies of the dead and rescue the injured”.

Such is the moral rectitude of the man who has been nominated to be the Director of the CIA. He has once again knowingly targeted first responders who were attempting to rescue survivors from a previous attack.

Update: Long War Journal now reports that today’s strikes were on two different compounds. The primary conclusion about targeting first responders still stands, since it still is being reported that eight missiles were fired at the first compound.

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