Change We Can Believe In, XXXII
Change We Can Believe In: If We Killed ’em, They Were up to No Good
Yup, it’s really that simple. You trust our president, don’t you? He’s smart. And a constitutional law scholar. I sleep better, knowing that he’s watching out for us, deciding who should live and who should die.
Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported in a lengthy front-page piece in today’s NYT about how
Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. … [He] approves every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.
The article is based on conversations with a long list of past and present administration officials. It paints a largely positive picture of Obama and his drones, but every so often words of caution sneak out. For example (emphasis mine):
Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect 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.
Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.
This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.
But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.
“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
Harper’s Scott Horton, commenting today on this part of the article, observes (emphasis mine again) that
this is a very important disclosure. On one hand, it clarifies the basis for the CIA’s no-collateral-damage claim. On the other, it puts the drone program on very tenuous grounds under the laws of war. The U.S. military in Iraq, for instance, has previously disciplined officers who issued rules of engagement authorizing the targeting of all military-age males. A person cannot be presumed to be a terrorist simply because he is male, of military age, and happens to be in the same village as some terrorists—he must be engaged in conduct that makes him a combatant. Applied to targeting, this presumption raises serious war-crime issues. As the Times reports, the administration is currently limiting its use to the counting of persons unintentionally killed when a legitimate target has been struck, which theoretically leads only to false information about the number of innocent civilians killed. But the distinction isn’t actually quite so clear-cut: in deciding on a strike, an estimate of collateral damage has to be included. And if all able males are deemed legitimate targets, that process is being seriously distorted.
Near the end of the NYT article, Becker and Shane pull back from the details to provide a glimpse of the broader implications of our drone wars.
[Obama’s] focus on strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.
Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.
Imagine — Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize!