While that might be a feat worthy of the record books, President Obama did something else during his address that America has become accustomed to: he lied to the world.
Speaking Monday during a live web-chat hosted by Google, the president took on a series of issues submitted by the American people. Over the span of 45 minutes, President Obama addressed the Stop Online Piracy Act while refusing to side with either end of the argument, admitted to the world that he isn’t all that swell of a dancer and took a query from a professional puppeteer. In between ignoring the real issues or offering any sort of solid solution to the nation’s biggest problems, the president did put something rather important out for the world to ponder: America’s ongoing drone missions aren’t really all that bad.
If you ask anyone outside of the Oval Office — or especially America — they might tell you otherwise.
Tackling a question posed on drone strikes, President Obama defended the ongoing missions on Monday, saying they were necessary to target terrorists in a most effective manner. “For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military action than the ones we’re already engaging in,” the president said on the topic of drones. While an argument could easily be made that operating drone missions in lieu of putting boots on the ground is best for the US Armed Forces, the president put a lot on the line Monday when he downplayed the result of the strikes.
Those drone attacks, carried out by unmanned aircraft controlled thousands of miles away, don’t do a lot of harm, said the president. According to Obama, drones had “not caused a huge number of civilian casualties” and he added that it’s “important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.”
How small is that not-so huge number? If you ask anyone outside of the American intelligence community, they’ll tell you it is in the hundreds.
But what’s a few hundred civilian deaths, right?
Obama suggested that continuing the drone program would not be detrimental to the safety of foreign citizens, but studies conducted outside of the US say otherwise. Last summer, the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism argued that since America began drone strikes, at least 385 civilians had been executed in US-led attacks. Of those statistics, the Bureau added that around half of the dead were children under the age of 18.
If you don’t take the word of foreign reporter’s, even American intelligence can confirm that the “not a huge number” statistic might be a bit of an exaggeration. One senior US official speaking on condition of anonymity added to CNN last year that CIA drone strikes had taken the lives of 50 civilians in all. As drone strikes go unreported and deaths unaccounted for, the actual number, unfortunately, is probably much higher than what either the CIA or the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can come up with. In a single strike last March, 26 Pakistanis were killed during a US strike over Islamabad. Once all deaths were accounted for, it was revealed that over a dozen of the deaths in that single raid were suffered by innocent civilians.
When the Bureau of Investigative Journalism released their findings last year, they said that the number of civilians killed in US drone strikes were probably 40 percent higher than what the US was actually reporting. Between 2004 and 2011, they put the estimate of civilian deaths at a figure of 385, but added in the research that the toll could actually come close to tallying 775 casualties.
Which, if you ask President Obama, is not a huge number.
If 775 isn’t a huge number, than 56 is practically a fraction. That’s the number of children executed by US drones in the first 20 months of the Obama administration.
“Even one child death from drone missiles or suicide bombings is one child death too many,” responded Unicef to the news at the time.
In 2009 alone, almost 600 civilians were killed on the ground in Afghanistan, and the United Nations put 60 percent of that figure as a direct result of airstrikes, drone or otherwise. In Pakistan, civilians say they are terrified of the robotic planes and the damage that they have already done. “There was not a single Taliban militant in Pakistan before 9/11 but since we joined this war, we are facing acts of terrorism, bombing and drone strikes,” Movement for Justice leader Imran Khan told the press in 2011.
In Libya, where the United States never even engaged in an official war, according to Obama, American troops launched 145 drone strikes in an attempt to oust the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in a matter of months. As with most drone missions, the Department of Defense has not released any official statistics on what casualties were caused by the strikes.
Regardless of what damage a drone strike can have on enemy insurgents, experts say that the toll visited on civilians is several times that of militants. In a 2009 report from the Brookings Institute, Senior Fellow Daniel L Byman wrote that “for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.”
In Pakistan where drone strikes have become practically commonplace, civilians are terrified that they will become the next accidental target of American aircraft. Saadullah, a teenage boy who spoke with a BBC reporter last year, lost both of his legs in drone strikes. Three of his relatives, all civilians, have also been killed by American strikes. Asghar Khan, an elder in Islamabad that also spoke to BBC, said three of his relatives were also shot down in airstrikes.
“My brother, my nephew and another relative were killed by a drone in 2008,” said Khan. “They were sitting with this sick man when the attack took place. There were no Taliban.”
A decade after the US began so-called cooperation with Pakistani intelligence, anti-American sentiments continue to grow as do the number of casualties. “When we intervene in people’s countries to chase small cells of bad guys, we end up alienating the whole country and turning them against us,” counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen tells the Brookings Institute.
Now as the US puts surveillance drones over the skies of Iraq even after that war has officially ended, yet another country is becoming concerned that drones will drop bombs on their own civilians. “We hear from time to time that drone aircraft have killed half a village in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the pretext of pursuing terrorists,” 37-year-old café owner Hisham Mohammed Salah told the New York Times just this week. “Our fear is that will happen in Iraq under a different pretext.”
Under the Pentagon’s new revised budget, the US will phase out around 100,000 military staffers while adding droves of drones to its already established arsenal of robotic planes. Will drones soon become the United States’ not-so-secret weapon and phase out its Armed Forces personnel entirely? It’s not out of the question. After all, a drone strike authorized by Obama last year led to the death of two American citizens with alleged terrorist ties.
Don’t worry, though. Obama says these things are kept on a tight leash. Who actually pulls on that is as good of a guess as anyone’s, though. In November, the Wall Street Journal wrote that the “signature” strikes that account for most of the CIA’s drone missions only end up on the desk of the president after they are carried out. The US must only inform Pakistan of those strikes, by the way, if they believe the death toll will exceed 20.
Which really isn’t that big of a number either.
Survivors of three Americans killed by targeted drone attacks in Yemen last year sued top-ranking members of the United States government, alleging Wednesday they illegally killed the three, including a 16-year-old boy, in violation of international human rights law and the U.S. Constitution.
“The government has killed three Americans. It should account for its actions. This case gives us an opportunity to do that,” Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a press call.
The suit, (.pdf) being litigated by the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, seeks unspecified damages and highlights the government’s so-called unmanned drone “targeted killing” program that the ACLU and the center maintain have killed thousands, including hundreds of innocent bystanders overseas.
The suit, the first of its kind, alleges the United States was not engaged in an armed conflict with or within Yemen, prohibiting the use of lethal force unless “at the time it is applied, lethal force is a last resort to protect against a concrete, specific, and imminent threat of death or serious physical injury.” The case directly challenges the government’s decision to kill Americans without judicial scrutiny.
At bottom, Jaffer said, “the question is whether the government is justified in killing without charging them or trying them for anything.”
The suit is brought on behalf of cleric Anwar Al-Aulaqi, who the Obama administration claimed was a recruiter and planner for al-Qaida, who was known for his blog, Facebook page and YouTube videos. The U.S. authorities claim he had contacts with the 9/11 hijackers, the underwear bomber and others. He was killed Sept. 30 last year. Also killed was Samir Khan, the editor of the English magazine Inspire, which allegedly was published by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Two weeks later, the cleric’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, was killed in a separate Yemen attack.
The defendants include Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus, U.S. Navy Adm. William H. McRaven and U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Votel.
Citing U.S. officials, the Washington Post has reported that the son and Khan were not intended targets.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond for comment. The administration refuses to release the Justice Department memo that legally justifies targeting Americans, and according to the New York Times, President Obama approves or denies who gets added to the “kill list.”
The center of the US drone war has shifted to Yemen, where 23 American strikes have killed an estimated 155 people so far this year. But you wouldn’t know about it — or about the cruise missile attacks, or about the US commando teams in Yemen — by reading the report the White House sent to Congress about US military activities around the globe. Instead, there’s only the blandest acknowledgement of “direct action” in Yemen, “against a limited number of [al-Qaida] operatives and senior leaders.”
The report, issued late Friday, is the first time the United States has publicly, officially acknowledged the operations in Yemen and in nearby Somalia that anyone with internet access could’ve told you about years ago. But the report doesn’t just fail to admit the extent of the shadow war that America is waging in the region. It’s borderline legal — at best. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 requires the president to inform Congress about any armed conflicts America is engaged in. Friday’s report isn’t just uninformative about Yemen. It doesn’t even mention the US campaign in Pakistan, even though the Defense Secretary says America is “at war” there.
“The American people are well aware of the threat that al-Qaida poses, and in a democratic society, they have a right to know what actions their government is taking in an effort to protect them. A well-informed public is critical to maintaining the legitimacy of, and in turn our ability to sustain, our ongoing counterterrorism efforts.” These are the words not of some good government crusader or some critic of the president, but of an administration official, explaining the White House’s recent report in an email to Danger Room.
The report does exactly the opposite, however: obscuring the shadow wars that America is waging in the region, rather than illuminating them; actively undermining the public’s right to know, rather than reinforcing it.
Since it was passed in the 1970s, White Houses have routinely ignored the War Powers resolution, which requires the president to get Congress’ authorization if he keeps troops in a hot zone longer than 60 days. President Clinton never got that permission when he sent US forces in Kosovo in the 1990s; Obama did the same sidestep last year when he dispatched American jets and ships to help take out the Gadhafi regime in Libya.
The Obama administration argues that the operations in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and countless other locations are kosher, because Congress authorized military force against al-Qaida 11 years ago, right after 9/11. But many of the groups that US forces are now fighting didn’t exist in their current form back then. And the White House won’t say when we’ll know how this war against al-Qaida is won.
“We are fighting a war in the FATA (NW Pakistan), we are fighting a war against terrorism,” said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday, referring to the tribal areas of Pakistan that the U.S. has spent three years bombing heavily. Was that so hard to admit?
For years, it has been. Neither the Bush nor Obama administration has been forthright about the starkest fact of the recent war on terrorism: most of it takes place in western Pakistan. As CIA director and now Pentagon chief, Panetta has been one of the key architects of the accelerated drone-and-commando war the U.S. wages there in what amounts to an open secret. In 2009, the critical year in that acceleration, Danger Room boss Noah Shachtman started pressing the Obama administration for disclosure about a war the U.S. waged in all but name.
It’s hard to imagine the reverberations Panetta’s comment will have amongst Pakistanis: polls indicate most don’t realize there’s a drone war going on at all. Americans are understandably preoccupied with domestic economic anxiety. The U.S. government, in other words, might have obscured its shadow war for nothing.