The U.S., of course, is not officially at war with Pakistan. But if anything, the CIA’s Predators and Reapers, despite getting the boot from a secret Pakistani air base late last year, only seem to be raining laser-guided missiles down on Pakistan’s tribal belt with increasing Hellfire. Indeed, early this morning at least 14 people were blown apart in the third strike in as many days, an offensive the New York Times reports as signifying Obama’s determination to forge ahead with the controversial covert campaign.
It’s a graphic illustration of how drones are utilized in regions of full (or downsizing) military operations, like Afghanistan, compared to Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan – areas where there are no U.S. boots on the ground. “In Afghanistan, a drone can circle overhead and provide intel to troops in contact with an enemy on the ground,” Sarah Holewinski, executive director of CIVIC, a civilian victims’ advocacy organization, told me. “If something goes wrong and civilians are harmed, troops can go back in and conduct a proper investigation, explain what happened to the families, and provide some form of amends for their losses.”
Jump the border into Pakistan, Holewinski said, and a different picture emerges. There, Predator and Reaper drones loiter thousands of feet overhead, firing at targets and rolling surveillance video of the aftermath. But even with leading-edge imaging technologies, these aircraft simply cannot execute proper investigations from vantage points so far removed from blast sites, according to Holewinski. The next of kin of drone victims receive no amends, let alone any official accounting of just what happened to their relatives. “When the system is set up so that you’re luckier to experience unspeakable tragedy as a war victim on one side of the border than the other," she said, “that is an indication that something needs to be fixed.”
Just what, exactly, is unclear. Because the attacks in Pakistan are carried out by the CIA, the president has blocked the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain documents pertaining to the shadow drone wars. The administration, however predictably, has been letting out in dribs and drabs assurances that only the bad guys have been taking heat. Last June, as he spoke of the previous year’s drone strikes, John O. Brennan, the president’s top counterterrorism advisor, claimed that there hadn’t been a single collateral death-by-drone "because of the exceptional proficiency, precision and capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”
Obama held that line earlier this year during a web interview sponsored by Google+. In what was his first public concession of the covert operations, he claimed that the CIA’s drone program was “kept on a very tight leash,” that these sorts of surgical strikes are not inflicting vast civilian casualties.
These assertions conflict drastically with work done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which issued an exhaustive report on drone attacks in Pakistan. According to the Bureau’s data, the reality of the drone program in the region could be far, far bleaker.
• 1,158 people have been wounded.
• 305 CIA attacks have taken place in Pakistan – 8 percent more than previously reported. Under President Obama alone there have been 253 strikes – one every four days.
• The minimum number of reported deaths is far higher than previously believed – with 40 percent more recorded casualties.
• The Bureau has collated credible news reports of 392-781 civilians being killed in the attacks.
In October 2011, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights brought Pakistanis impacted by drones to Islamabad for what they called the “Grand Waziristan Jirga”, a meeting with Westerners to vent about the devastating toll drones have had on their families and to condemn all forms of terrorism. In attendance was Tariq Aziz, 16, a local kid whose cousin had been killed by a Predator drone while driving his motorcycle. Three days after the meeting, Aziz and another cousin were both killed when a drone hit the car Aziz was driving.
Clive Stafford Smith, an American lawyer, attended the jirga. He remembers Aziz coming forward during the meeting. “He volunteered to gather proof [of drone strikes] if it would help to protect his family from future harm,” Smith later wrote in The New York Times. That Aziz never had a chance to follow through with his plans to collect information shook Smith’s understanding of the drone problem to its core:
My mistake had been to see the drone war in Waziristan in terms of abstract legal theory — as a blatantly illegal invasion of Pakistan’s sovereignty, akin to President Richard M. Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia in 1970. But now, the issue has suddenly become very real and personal. Tariq was a good kid, and courageous. My warm hand recently touched his in friendship; yet, within three days, his would be cold in death, the rigor mortis inflicted by my government… And Tariq’s extended family, so recently hoping to be our allies for peace, has now been ripped apart by an American missile — most likely making any effort we make at reconciliation futile.
It’s just one single, albeit horrific, case of mistaken droning. True. And we shouldn’t rush to take any numbers, even coming from the BIJ, at blind face value – often strikes happen in such remote areas that death tolls relayed to international wire services are only based off sketchy local reports. And yet Tariq’s story lends some credence to the Bureau’s report, which led Amnesty International to call on the Obama administration to be more transparent on the subject of drones.
Madiha Tahir, an independent journalist who reports extensively out of Pakistan on drone developments, would go a step further, warning that legalese can obscure legitimate concerns even as the dust tries to settle. In an interview at a recent drone summit in Washington, D.C., Tahir stressed concerns of pure justice and ethics, not “overly legalistic” concerns that may otherwise mistake laws for justice and ethics. “I think when we frame things legalistically, we tend to think that resolving problems in the legal texts will resolve them in the real world, when we actually know that is not what happens,” she said. "What we may end up doing, quite likely, is legalizing the war: then what?”
Support for drones isn’t confined to the halls of Washington. According to a Washington Post – ABC News poll conducted earlier this year, drone attacks are quite popular with the American public. If we’re to believe the February poll, 83 percent of Americans – 77 percent of whom define themselves as liberal Democrats – approve of drones.
This consensus extends to the liberal reaches of mainstream media. Ed Schultz, an MSNBC host and self-described “lefty”, cheered on the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya. (It’s worth noting that it was Aeryon Labs, a Canadian UAV manufacturer, that provided the rebels micro “scout” drones to bolster their taking of Tripoli.) “This isn’t Bush talk," Schultz thundered one night on his show. "This isn’t Iraq. It’s totally different than any other situation.”
Schultz then debated investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. Seemingly unable to refute any of Scahill’s claims, Schultz simply reiterated that this was different and, ipso facto, that he trusted Obama. Schultz presumably believes the line handed down to the public from NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who said last November that the alliance "carried out this [Libya] mission very carefully without confirmed civilian casualties.” But should he? An incomplete analysis of the campaign by the New York Times uncovered dozens of civilian casualties, including a number of women and children.
MSNBC’s questionable stance on Obama’s military decisions certainly doesn’t end with Schultz. During a recent appearance on Howard Stern’s radio show, Rachel Maddow asserted that drones “don’t change the politics of it [war] that much.” Maddow was on the program to plug her new book, Drift, a critique of the military that argues the problem isn’t the system itself, but rather specific politicians who’ve mucked it up. “The good news,” as Maddow put it in Drift, “is we don’t need a radical new vision of post-Cold War American power. We just need a ‘small c’ conservative return to our constitutional roots, a course correction.”
At this point the issue breaks down to a matter of perception. Liberals like Maddow and Schultz believe constitutional authority, if achieved, provides ample justification for the use of force. During the run up to the most recent invasion of Iraq, many Democrats criticized the Bush administration for failing to garner the support of more countries, let alone the Senate. Bush’s failures as a diplomat were contrasted with the political acumen of his father, who was granted Senate approval to pummel Mesopotamia. “The system had worked,” Maddow wrote. “Our Congress had its clangorous and open debate and then took sides. We decided to go to war, as a country."
If liberals are merely focused on the legal logistics of warfare, then their disagreements with the Obama administration are almost entirely semantic. So again, as Tahir asked: if legal, then what? After all, as far as Attorney General Eric Holder is concerned, drone strikes already are legal.
Months after two Predator’s dropped Hellfire missiles on alleged al-Qaeda leader – and American citizen – Anwar al-Awlaki, pulverizing him and three others, Holder told a group of Northwestern University law students that when citizens take up arms against the U.S., joining al-Qaida to plot attacks aimed at killing fellow Americans, there may be only one “realistic and appropriate response. We must take steps to stop them in full accordance with the Constitution,” Holder said. “In this hour of danger, we simply cannot afford to wait until deadly plans are carried out – and we will not. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.”
Transparency and legality are crucial, here. But the bipartisan consensus that has emerged on the prevalence of drone use has effectively shut down anything resembling a public debate on the morality of remote-controlled killing. The past year has seen vigorous grassroots campaigns aimed at congressional decisions on Internet privacy and reproductive rights, with much less discussion or protest around the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, passed in February, which doled the FAA $63 billion on orders to develop arrangements for the full integration of domestic drones by 2015.
In an AlterNet article published while the bill remained stalled in Congress, TransBorder Project director Tom Barry wrote that the Unmanned Systems Caucus was responsible for the amendment to the legislation which effectively opens American skies to drones in the coming years. “As one of its chief goals," according to Barry, “the House drone caucus aims to open U.S. airspace to the widespread use of drones by federal and local law enforcement agencies.” Even if the FAA is acceding to this demand for more and more domestic unmanned flights, he continued, "the drone caucus is not satisfied.”
The potential impact of the bill was immediately recognized by insider publications. Homeland Security Today promptly put General Atomics on its “Rising 10” list, explaining that as soon as the FAA’s reauthorizations go live, "General Atomics’ MALE UAVs will be able to operate and be more useful in homeland security operations.” What’s more, just this month the DoD extended General Atomics’ contract for another year for a cool $141.8 million. And this just in: The administration plans to arm Italy with either Predator Bs or Reaper drones, a move which could conceivably kick global (ally) sales of General Atomics’ line into overdrive.
But look beyond San Diego, beyond Anders’ fall to Earth and General Atomics and the Blue period and that three-car garage in Hacienda Heights. U.S. drone purchases have skyrocketed from $588 million to $1.3 billion over the last five years, and the Pentagon expects to shell out another $40 billion on UAVs over the next decade, according to a Congressional Office Budget Study. Just last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told cadets that anyone who thinks things will settle back to “real Air Force normal” once he departs as secretary, and once U.S. ground forces have withdrawn fully out of Iraq and Afghanistan per the president’s and NATO’s strategy, has got it all wrong. "This must not happen,” Gates warned. With assurances like these, why should General Atomics, or the myriad lawmakers the company greases, see anything but clear, drone-filled skies in their future?
As long as the secret kill lists that circulate at Obama’s so-called “Terror Tuesday” drone meetings bear names, General Atomics can expect no clouds to the horizon. And William Anders, however removed from the nitty gritty of actually assembling unmanned spy- and kill-craft and the sale thereof, may have a new ally at the big table. “If I were Catholic," General Counsel of the Department of Defense Jeh C. Johnson supposedly confided to others at one of these grim weekly gatherings, "I’d have to go to confession.”
Top image: USAF pilots with the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron remotely operate a Hellfire-equipped Predator MQ-1 out of Balad Air Base, Iraq, 2006 (via DoD/USAF/Cryptome)