Posts

Manned Flights Kill Civilians Too

NPR’s Kelly McEvers just released a story with some on-the-ground reporting on attacks in Yemen attributed to the US. She focuses closely on an attack on Jaar I’ve discussed before in the context of reports on Obama’s embrace of signature strikes in Yemen.

I noted, for example, that this strike happened as anonymous Administration sources seeded a bunch of stories about a Kill List, falsely suggesting that the Administration only killed people whose identities they knew.

There is absolutely no reason to believe, for example, that Obama–or even John Brennan–knew the identity of the up to 8 civilians who were killed by a drone in Jaar, Yemen, on May 15. All anyone knew about them, according to reporting, is that they ran out after an earlier drone strike to look at the impact site. Boom! They were never on any Kill List, but they are nonetheless just as dead as Quso is.

And they rolled out that campaign amid disputes about who was responsible for the attack–and whether it was carried out with drones or manned aircraft.

I find the competing stories being told interesting, particularly in light of questions about who leaked information on the latest Underwear Bomb “plot.” At first, a “government official” toldChina’s Xinhua news that the Yemeni military had executed the attacks.

Earlier in the day, a botched air strike carried out by Yemeni warplanes hit a residential building near a compound used by al- Qaida militants in the insurgents-controlled town of Jaar, killing at least eight civilians and injuring five others, a government official said.[my emphasis]

But later, “three Yemeni security officials” blamed the strikes on drones, not the Yemeni military.

Two suspected U.S. drone strikes killed seven al Qaeda militants and eight civilians in the southern part of Yemen on Tuesday, three Yemeni security officials said.

It was the latest of several U.S. strikes in Yemen, which is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, described by U.S. officials as the al Qaeda affiliate that poses the most serious threat to the United States.
At least seven civilians were injured in the Tuesday strikes, the officials said.

In other words, this attack seems like a royal fuckup that elicited some real spin on the part of the Administration to explain away.

Which is interesting, given that McEvers’ report–or at least the description of the sound of a plane, as distinct from a drone–seems to support the manned aircraft claims.

In Jaar, a town in southern Yemen, an entire block has been reduced to rubble by what residents say was a powerful airstrike on May 15.

[snip]

At this particular site, witnesses say the strikes rocked the town in the morning, just as many residents of Jaar were out buying breakfast. Residents say they heard a plane, and a house on the main street was flattened. One man inside died instantly. Read more

Will al-Libi Killing Be Used to Justify Drone Strikes on Mourners, First Responders?

Back in early February, a report from Chris Woods and Christina Lamb at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism delivered the shocking news that CIA targeting practices for drone attacks include the intentional targeting of mourners at funerals and first responders to initial attacks:

The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of  civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals, an investigation by the Bureau for the Sunday Times has revealed.

/snip/

But research by the Bureau has found that since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children.  A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. The tactics have been condemned by leading legal experts.

As Woods and Lamb point out, targeting mourners and first responders is a practice that is both heinous and likely to include civilian deaths along with those who are military targets. However, it now appears that the strikes that took out Abu Yahya al-Libi included both a strike on mourners and possibly a strike on first responders, so it seems likely now that there will be a push from Obama administration figures to provide a patina of glory derived from taking out al-Qaeda’s number two in command to a practice that Woods and Lamb pointed out amounts to “little more than extra-judicial executions”.

Before it was known that al-Libi had likely been killed, Glenn Greenwald pointed out yesterday that Monday’s strikes had been aimed at mourners and I pointed out that locals in the vicinity feared a follow-on strike hitting first responders. Greenwald cited and quoted from a Guardian article pointing out the mourner aspect of the strike. More details come from this article in Pakistan Today:

A US drone targeted a compound believed to be used by militant commanders Mullah Nazir and Commander Malang in the Wocha Dana Beermal area of South Waziristan.

While officials in various intelligence agencies have confirmed al-Libi’s death, officials in the United States endorsed that al-Libi was the target of Monday’s drone strike. There has not been any confirmation or rejection of the report by al Qaeda yet. According to reports, the militants had gathered in the compound to condole the death of Malang’s brother who was killed the previous day in a drone attack in the same area.

Multiple reports indicate that two missiles were used in the attack that killed al-Libi. Read more

At What Point Will the Administration Admit “American interests” Equal “What the Saudis Want”?

There are a couple of stories this weekend on our undeclared war in Yemen that deserve some close focus.

As I pointed out in the wake of the NYT and Daily Beast stories on drone targeting, the Administration had been successfully distracting attention from Obama’s embrace of signature strikes directed out of John Brennan’s office by focusing on the vetting that goes (or went) into the Kill List.

With that in mind, compare how Greg Miller reports on those issues in this story. A key source or sources for the story are one or more former US official who describe a liberalization of the Kill List.

Targets still have to pose a “direct threat” to U.S. interests, said a former high-ranking U.S. counterterrorism official. “But the elasticity of that has grown over time.”

[snip]

One of the U.S. objectives in Yemen has been “identifying who those leaders were in those districts that were al-Qaeda and also in charge of the rebellion,” said a former senior U.S. official who was involved in overseeing the campaign before leaving the government. “There was a little liberalization that went on in the kill lists that allowed us to go after them.”

[snip]

The effort nearly ground to a halt last year amid a political crisis that finally forced Yemen’s leader for three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down. As he fought to cling to power, U.S. officials said they became concerned that he was trying to direct U.S. strikes against his adversaries under the guise of providing locations of supposed terrorist groups.

“There were times when we were intentionally misled, presumably by Saleh, to get rid of people he wanted to get rid of,” said the former U.S. official involved in overseeing the campaign.

Now, as I noted, both the AP and Daily Beast emphasized the importance of Mike Mullen (who left on September 30, the day we killed Anwar al-Awlaki) and James Cartwright (who left on August 3) to Kill List vetting. That was an aeon ago in our war on Yemen, though the discussion of pulling back on targeting because we finally admitted to ourselves that Ali Abdulllah Saleh was playing a double game with us did happen while they were still around. And, for the moment, I can’t think of any other similarly high-ranking people who have left.

Now compare what these former officials said with what current officials are telling Miller (well, ignore Tommy Vietor, because he’s obviously blowing smoke).

“We’re pursuing a focused counterterrorism campaign in Yemen designed to prevent and deter terrorist plots that directly threaten U.S. interests at home and abroad,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council. “We have not and will not get involved in a broader counterinsurgency effort.”

But other U.S. officials said that the administration’s emphasis on threats to interests “abroad” has provided latitude for expanding attacks on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the Yemen affiliate is known. Read more

Beatings Drone Strikes Will Continue Until Morale Improves'>Brennan to Pakistan: The Beatings Drone Strikes Will Continue Until Morale Improves

There was yet another US drone strike in Pakistan today. According to Bill Roggio at Long War Journal, today’s strike is the fourth strike in six days. After the first strike in this series, I posed the question of whether that strike was more politically based than strategically based, as the strike came just two days (Roggio has it as one day after the summit, but there are large time zone differences; the summit ended on Monday in Chicago and the first strike was early Wednesday local time in Pakistan) after US-Pakistan negotiations on reopening NATO supply routes through Pakistan broke down at the NATO summit in Chicago and on the very day that Dr. Shakeel Afridi was sentenced for treason because he helped the CIA to gather intelligence that aided the US raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

There is now ample evidence to believe that politics are indeed behind the recent strikes and, as Marcy and I have been noting on Twitter, they likely will continue on a virtually daily basis to make the political points that the US is stressing. Recall that after the first strike in the series, I quoted a Guardian article that also came to the conclusion the strike was politically motivated:

The attack came as Washington runs out of patience with Islamabad’s refusal to reopen supply routes for Nato troops in Afghanistan.

US drone strikes have complicated negotiations over the routes, which Pakistan closed six months ago in retaliation for US air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border. Pakistan’s parliament demanded the strikes stop after the attack, but the US refused.

In today’s report, Roggio provides a quote with direct evidence that the strikes now are tied politically to the impasse over reopening the supply routes (although it seems likely that Dana Rohrabacher isn’t the only one advocating the use of a “stick” on Pakistan over the Afridi sentencing, too):

A US intelligence official involved in the drone program in the country told The Long War Journal that the strikes would continue now that Pakistan has refused to reopen NATO’s supply lines for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

“There certainly hasn’t been a shortage of targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas,” the official said. “Unfortunately the politics of getting the GLOC into Afghanistan has trumped the targeting of bad guys in Pakistan’s tribal areas,” the official said, referring to the Ground Lines of Communication.

But hold on just a minute here. Note the misdirection in this quote. Despite the claim that the US is “targeting bad guys” with these strikes, Roggio reports elsewhere in this article that no high value target has been reported as killed in today’s attack. In fact, he reports that there have been 17 US drone strikes in Pakistan this year, but only two high value targets have been killed in them.

Where have we heard someone recently trying to make the false claim that “signature strikes” are targeted rather than based simply on patterns of activity? Why that would be in John Brennan’s April 30 drone speech, which Marcy has cleanly dissected as a failed attempt to direct attention away from the war crimes committed regularly in signature strikes.

Roggio’s anonymous source says basically that the strikes will continue until the political situation improves. Despite the source’s claim that the strikes target “bad guys” the evidence instead shows that these are signature strikes that at best target mid-level or even lower level militants who happen to be in areas “known to harbor insurgents”. Given how closely this misdirection about targeting mirrors Brennan’s speech (and the fact that Brennan himself now controls signature strikes) it seems likely that the strikes themselves are Brennan’s way of telling Pakistan that the beatings will continue until morale improves.

The Assassination Czar’s War Crimes Dodge: Revisiting John Brennan’s Targeted Killing Speech

Now that John Brennan is in charge of selecting which patterns of behavior we should target with drones, it ought to be easy to charge him with war crimes. The at least eight civilians we killed in Jaar a number of weeks after Brennan seized control of targeting? John Brennan killed them, presumably based not on intelligence about who they were and what ties to AQAP they had, but because they ran out of a house after an earlier strike.

John Brennan is choosing to target people in Yemen without making adequate efforts to avoid civilian casualties. Given that we know he’s making these choices, you’d expect someone to try to hold him accountable.

Of course, such an effort would present all kinds of difficulties. You can’t really make a legal case against Brennan based on anonymous sources in an AP story. Furthermore, moving the drone program into the National Security Council makes it inaccessible to FOIA and, probably, to full Congressional oversight.

Most of all, though, Brennan appears to be preemptively crafting his defense.

When Brennan gave his drone speech on April 30, I–and a few other people–noted that the speech was already outdated. Brennan did admit, unequivocally, that we use drones to kill people.

So let me say it as simply as I can.  Yes, in full accordance with the law, and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives, the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.

Yet he spoke repeatedly of targeting specific individuals.

Without question, the ability to target a specific individual, from hundreds or thousands of miles away, raises profound questions.

[snip]

In this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al-Qaida or its associated forces are legitimate military targets. [my emphasis]

Thus, he wasn’t talking about the program in Yemen that–perhaps 10 days earlier–had been expanded to target patterns rather than individuals. Rather, he was pretending that the program remained limited to personality strikes, strikes against known targets.

The speech always seemed like an attempt to put the best spin on the program. But the approach makes even more sense now that we know Brennan is the one who has legal liability for making these targeting decisions.

When and if anyone were to charge Brennan for war crimes for targeting civilians, for example, he will point back to these paragraphs as “proof” of his “belief” that we were not targeting civilians.

Targeted strikes conform to the principles of distinction, the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted.  With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qaida terrorist and innocent civilians.

Read more

US Drone Strike in Pakistan Reeks of Political Retaliation Yet Again

Map of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. Note Orakzai and North Waziristan are as close as 50 milies in some spots. (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, US drones killed four more people in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This strike comes at a critical time in US-Pakistan relations, as many believed that the US and Pakistan would announce an agreement reopening NATO supply routes through Pakistan at last weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago. Instead of reaching agreement, however, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari was essentially shunned at the meeting. Today’s strike adds to that insult, as Pakistan has been objecting strenuously to US drone strikes as an imposition on Pakistan’s sovereignty. Despite US claims that Pakistan does nothing to stop insurgents in the FATA, Pakistani jets also killed 12 people today in Orakzai Agency, which is near North Waziristan and also within the FATA.

Drone strikes in Pakistan by the US have occasionally been interrupted by various diplomatic issues. For example, there was a lull of over a month at the height of negotiations over the release of Raymond Davis.  One of the most notorious US drone strikes was on March 17, 2011, the day after Raymond Davis was released. This signature strike killed over 40, and despite US claims (was that you, John Brennan?), that those killed “weren’t gathering for a bake sale” it was later determined that the majority of those killed were indeed civilians at a jirga to discuss local mineral rights. Because it was so poorly targeted, this strike always stood out in my mind as the product of an attitude where high-level US personnel demanded a target, no matter how poorly developed, simply to have something to hit since drone strikes had been on hold over the Davis negotiations and there was a need to teach Pakistan a lesson.

Not too long after that strike, another strike seemed to be timed as a response to negotiations gone bad. On April 13, 2011, there was a drone strike in South Waziristan that occurred while Pakistan’s ISI chief was in transit back to Pakistan after discussions with the US over drones was cut short.

With those strikes as background, today’s strike may well be another example of the US deciding to send in a strike to make a political point. The Guardian seems to see the strike in the same way, and notes how the strikes may affect negotiations:

The attack came as Washington runs out of patience with Islamabad’s refusal to reopen supply routes for Nato troops in Afghanistan. Read more

The Jeremy Scahill Yemen Executive Order

For the record, I don’t think the Obama Administration would be so brazen as to freeze Jeremy Scahill’s assets because he reported critically on Obama’s Yemen policy. But the Executive Order they’re rolling out today is reportedly written so broadly so as to make something like that possible.

The unusual order, which administration officials said also targets U.S. citizens who engage in activity deemed to threaten Yemen’s security or political stability, is the first issued for Yemen that does not directly relate to counterterrorism.

Unlike similar measures authorizing terrorist designations and sanctions, the new order does not include a list of names or organizations already determined to be in violation. Instead, one official said, it is designed as a “deterrent” to “make clear to those who are even thinking of spoiling the transition” to think again.

[snip]

The order provides criteria to take action against people who the Treasury secretary, in consultation with the secretary of state, determines have “engaged in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security or stability of Yemen, such as acts that obstruct the implementation of the Nov. 23, 2011, agreement between the Government of Yemen and those in opposition to it, which provides for a peaceful transition of power . . . or that obstruct the political process in Yemen.”

It covers those who “have materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support” for the acts described or any person whose property has already been blocked, as well as those who have acted on behalf of such people.

The explanation this anonymous official seems to have given Karen DeYoung is that the order is a way to make sure Ali Abdullah Saleh’s family butts out of affairs in Yemen (which would work, given that he presumably does have significant assets in the US). Using Saleh’s wealth as a way to try to keep him out of Yemeni politics is a nice idea (though the agreement itself could have done more to enforce this).

But Saleh’s not a US citizen. So why explicitly include US citizens in the order?

Moreover, since the language borrows material support language from terrorist sanctions, and since terrorist material support extends to First Amendment protected activities (as Tarek Mehanna knows well), and since Obama has already made sure a journalist remains jailed in Yemen, then what protection is there for people who say that using signature strikes in Yemen is boneheaded, or suggesting that investing all our energies in Saleh’s Vice President doesn’t really constitute a meaningful solution in Yemen?

And to make things worse, the anonymous official tries to tell DeYoung that this sanction is not the first of its kind. It was used twice before: in 2006 in Cote d’Ivoire and in 2009 in Somalia. That is, precisely this kind of sanction has been used twice–and has twice failed to do anything to bring about meaningful stability.

But the single most troubling aspect of this EO is that is guaranteed to be selectively enforced. After all, the Saudis aren’t exactly great friends of “political processes” anywhere, particularly in their backyard, and surely they’re waiting to bomb more Houthis. Yet what are the chances that any Administration would freeze the very significant assets of Saudi citizens in the US–even those operating outside official channels?

Read more

Judy Miller, Barabara Starr, and an Influx of Intelligence

I’m going to disappoint Jim by not dedicating a full post to Judy Miller’s graceless rant about the AP’s Pulitzer win, in which she whines that the AP hasn’t taken Ray Kelly’s insistence that his NYPD’s spying is legal seriously enough. I already had to fisk Miller’s credulous regurgitation of Ray Kelly’s defense of the NYPD here and then remind her that journalists should be in the business of sorting out false claims from true ones here. Given her past failures to write credibly on the AP’s NYPD series, I trust no one will make the mistake of doing anything but dismissing everything she has to say about the AP series.

But since I’ve already started a post about mouthpieces for those in power, maybe I should take a look at what Miller’s close kin, Barbara Starr, had to say about expanded drone strikes in Yemen.

The lead in Greg Miller’s story on this emphasized how little intelligence we would have on the expanded drone strikes.

The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.

Securing permission to use these “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.

Compare that with the headline and lead in Barbara Starr’s version.

Intel influx leads to increased U.S. strikes in Yemen

The increased pace of counterterrorism strikes in Yemen by U.S. drones and aircraft is a result of what U.S. military and intelligence officials describe as improved intelligence about the leadership of the al Qaeda movement in that country.

Read more

Is the “Roger” Profile Yet Another InfoOp in Support of Signature Strikes?

Greg Miller got a lot of buzz this weekend for his profile of the head of CTC, whom he calls “Roger.” The article is in no way unbalanced–Miller makes it clear that Roger is an asshole and suggests he might bear some responsibility for the Khost bombing.

But I couldn’t help but wonder whether the story was another in a series of articles designed to pressure David Petraeus to resume signature strikes–those drone strikes that target a pattern rather than an individual high level target.

After all, the article ends by conflating a description of Roger’s effort to push signature strikes with Osama bin Laden’s killing.

“He came in with a big idea on a cold, rainy Friday afternoon,” said a former high-ranking CIA official involved in drone operations. “It was a new flavor of activity, and had to do with taking senior terrorists off the battlefield.”

The former official declined to describe the activity. But others said the CTC chief proposed launching what came to be known as “signature strikes,” meaning attacks on militants based solely on their patterns of behavior.

Previously, the agency had needed confirmation of the presence of an approved al-Qaeda target before it could shoot. With permission from the White House, it would begin hitting militant gatherings even when it wasn’t clear that a specific operative was in the drone’s crosshairs.

Roger’s relentless approach meshed with the Obama mind-set. Shortly after taking office, Obama met with his first CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, and ordered a redoubled effort in the fight against al-Qaeda and the search for the terrorist group’s elusive leader.

From 53 strikes in 2009, the number soared to 117 in 2010, before tapering off last year.

The cumulative toll helped to crumple al-Qaeda even as CTC analysts finally found a courier trail that led them to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Yet it somehow neglects to mention why the signature strikes tailed off: because last March’s Shiga strike–launched over our Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter’s, objections in the days after the Raymond Davis release, and killing a significant number of civilians set off an extended debate in the Administration over the relative value of the signature strikes. The debate ended by giving newly confirmed CIA Director Petraeus final say over signature strikes, which has resulted, thus far, in a move away from their use.

Read more

Drones Killing Fewer Civilians, But Still Killing Diplomacy

In an article describing how our use of drones in Pakistan continues to mobilize public opinion against US involvement, the NYT includes this description of how militants claim to be limiting the efficacy of some drone strikes.

During an interview last month in Shawal, a thickly-forested district of plunging valleys that became a haven for Al Qaeda after 2001, a senior Taliban commander, Wali ur-Rehman, ordered his fighters to scan a newly arrived car with a camcorder. Mr. Rehman explained that the camera could somehow detect otherwise invisible signals from the “patrai” — local slang for small electronic tracking devices that, many tribesmen believe, guide American missiles to their target.

“This is our new weapon,” said Mr. Rehman, who has a $5 million United States government bounty on his head, pointing to the Sony camera. “It has saved a lot of lives.”

Whether that was true is unclear, although a former C.I.A. official confirmed that the agency does use tracking devices to identify targets. Either way, Mr. Rehman’s camcorder served a gruesome secondary purpose: recording the last testimony of tribesmen accused of spying for the United States, dozens of whom have been tortured and executed.

That is, the Taliban have developed some way to scan for locally applied sensors the drones use to assist targeting. And–the NYT suggests but doesn’t say explicitly–those found assisting in targeting with those sensors have, in the past, been treated as spies for the CIA (though the story notes that the Taliban has backed off executing such people after concern about some innocent deaths).

That’s one change in drone warfare, it seems. Though I’m struck by NYT’s thin coverage of another: David Petraeus’ new targeting rules. It notes the increasing precision of the drone strikes.

Accounts of civilian casualties play a major role in Pakistani anger toward the drones. An extraordinary claim by President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, last June that there had not been “a single collateral death” over the previous year drew an indignant response. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which monitors the toll, counted “credible media accounts” of between 63 and 127 nonmilitant deaths in 2011, and a recent Associated Press investigation found evidence that at least 56 villagers and tribal police had been killed in the 10 largest strikes since August 2010. But analysts, American officials and even many tribesmen agree the drones are increasingly precise. Of 10 strikes this year, the local news media have alleged civilian deaths in one case. The remainder of those killed — 58 people, by conservative estimates — were militants.

And notes the Administration debate that resulted in changed drone rules.

The pace has relented, with 64 strikes recorded in 2011, down from 117 in 2010, according to the Long War Journal, a Web site that closely monitors the strikes. A lively debate inside the Obama administration last summer gave the State Department greater say in the strikes. The final say, however, still rests with David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director.

But it doesn’t talk about one of the key reasons why the revised targeting has resulted in fewer civilian casualties: the move away from “signature strikes” which target patterns of behavior rather than named targets. Here’s how the WSJ described the change in a seminal article from last year.

Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known. The bulk of CIA’s drone strikes are signature strikes.

Read more