For drone war advocates, the legitimacy of the targeted killing program rests on the notion that those targets pose a threat to America and US troops in neighboring Afghanistan. The AUMF and the principle of “imminence” supposedly form the legal basis of the drone war.
As the Obama administration has said, drone strikes are authorized only against “specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces” involved in the Sept. 11, 2001. “It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative,” Obama said on CNN. “It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.”
There are basically three categories of people who still believe drone strikes adhere to these standards: (1) right-wing hawks, (2) Obama/Democratic Party sycophants, and (3) the general public, which refuses to read the newspaper.
The rest of us – those paying attention – have known for years that the execution of the drone war has exceeded its already broad legal limits and that the vast majority of those killed in such bombings have not been “specific senior operational leaders in al-Qaeda.”
According to classified documents that Landay obtained, the US has deliberately targeted for death by drone “groups other than al Qaida, including the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as ‘foreign fighters’ and ‘other militants.'”
“At other times, the CIA killed people who only were suspected, associated with, or who probably belonged to militant groups.”
John Hudson at Foreign Policy estimates from the numbers in Landay’s reporting that less than 2 percent of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan were described by the government’s own classified documents as senior members of al-Qaeda.
Consider also the New York Times piece by Mark Mazzetti, which confirmed that the very first drone strike in Pakistan, in 2004, targeted an individual that posed no threat to the US, but was instead a local rabble-rouser that the Pakistani government wanted gone. So the CIA did them a favor: The bombing killed the target “and several others, including two boys, ages 10 and 16.”
Add to this newest string of evidence the finding last year that the Obama administration “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
Landay’s findings are new and important, but by no means comprehensive. “The administration has declined to reveal other details of the program, such as the intelligence used to select targets and how much evidence is required for an individual to be placed on a CIA ‘kill list,'” he reports. “The administration also hasn’t even acknowledged the existence of so-called signature strikes, let alone discussed the legal and procedural foundations of the attacks.”
Much of the disagreement about the drone war arises from the fact that the program – and virtually all of its important details – is still technically secret. Indeed, one thing the Obama administration has explicitly kept secret is the identities (when they are known) of the victims of drone strikes. Now why in the world would that information be kept secret?
Those parts of US foreign policy that are of questionable legality or are particularly cold-blooded in their execution must be kept secret in order to avoid public and judicial scrutiny. If the ugly parts of the drone war – like the fact that its illegal, kills civilians, and represents a radical expansion of executive power – were out in the open, the administration might be predisposed to some accountability. Keeping the public ignorant is absolutely essential to the proper functioning of Obama’s foreign policy.
Thanks to selective leaks and good journalism, however, we know enough. And Landay’s reporting, as Zenko points out, is the latest piece of proof that the Obama administration has been lying through its teeth about the drone war.