Political director of The Huffington Post UK
Yesterday, I was a panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Morning Live show on which, for once, I was able to debate the morality of the Obama administration’s CIA drone programme in Pakistan. There has been little discussion of the specific details of the programme in the mainstream media, on either side of the pond, and the recent US presidential debate on foreign policy saw moderator Bob Schieffer ask Mitt Romney (and not Barack Obama) a single, loaded and unfocused question on the issue.
Now, in the wake of a Pakistani man taking the British government to court over its alleged involvement in the killing of his father in a US drone strike in Waziristan, British media organisations are starting to pay attention.
But here are five things they – politicians, journalists, security ‘experts’, etc – don’t tell you about drone strikes – four out of five of which I managed to squeeze into yesterday’s discussion on the BBC (and which resulted in fellow panellist and former home secretary David Blunkett, to his credit, suggesting he may have to rethink his support for drones):
1) Despite their supposed ‘accuracy’ and ‘precision’, a study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism says CIA drones have been responsible for between 474 and 881 civilian deaths in Pakistan since mid-2004 – including 176 Pakistani children, who were just as innocent as Malala Yousafzai.
2) These civilian casualties are not always “collateral damage”, “accidents” or the result of “errors” – drones are used, for instance, to launch follow-up attacks on rescuers and mourners. In February, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that “the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals.” The BIJ says at least 50 rescuers were killed by drones and more than 20 mourners. Such deliberate, cold-blooded, ‘double-tap’ strikes are typically, of course, the hallmarks of a terrorism campaign.
3) The New America Foundation recently revealed that the number of “high level” targets killed as a percentage of total drone-related casualties is only 2%. In fact, the US government now launches more “signature” strikes – in which the targets are not specific, identifiable individuals, but groups of unknown, unidentified people who seem to be involved in “suspicious” behaviour – than it does “personality” strikes – which target known terrorist leaders.
4) Anyone who is killed in a CIA drone strike, it seems, is automatically a “militant”. In May, the New York Times revealed that the Obama administration “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants… unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”. Forget guilt or innocence, if you happen to be a Pakistani male aged, say, 18-34, walking down the same street as a terror suspect, you’re fair game.
5) The CIA’s own former general counsel, John A. Rizzo, has described drone attacks as “murder”. The UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, said over the summer that drone strikes in Pakistan may amount to “war crimes” and has since launched an investigation into them.
Is it any wonder then that drone-targeted Pakistan was the only nation, out of 21 countries polled by the BBC World Service, where members of the public favoured Mitt Romney over Barack Obama?
You can watch the afore-mentioned segment on Sunday Morning Live on the BBC iPlayer here (it starts around 27 minutes in…)
If you would like further information on drone strikes, read the new Stanford University/NYU report, “Living Under Drones”, check out the excellent work done by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism and follow US blogger Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) on Twitter.