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Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes

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Posted on Jan 13, 2013
Predator drone
Wikimedia Commons / Brigadier Lance Mans

By Cora Currier, ProPublica

This article originally appeared at ProPublica.

You might have heard about the “kill list.” You’ve certainly heard about drones. But the details of the U.S. campaign against militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia—a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s national security approach – remain shrouded in secrecy. Here’s our guide to what we know—and what we don’t know.

Where is the drone war? Who carries it out?

Drones have been the Obama administration’s tool of choice for taking out militants outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Drones aren’t the exclusive weapon – traditional airstrikes and other attacks have also been reported. But by one estimate, 95 percent of targeted killings since 9/11 have been conducted by drones.  Among the benefits of drones: they don’t put American troops in harm’s way.

The first reported drone strike against Al Qaeda happened in Yemen in 2002. The CIA ramped up secret drone strikes in Pakistan under President George W. Bush in 2008. Under Obama, they have expanded drastically there and in Yemen in 2011.

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The CIA isn’t alone in conducting drone strikes. The military has acknowledged “direct action” in Yemen and Somalia. Strikes in those countries are reportedly carried out by the secretive, elite Joint Special Operations Command. Since 9/11, JSOC has grown more than tenfold, taking on intelligence-gathering as well as combat roles. (For example, JSOC was responsible for the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.)  

The drone war is carried out remotely, from the U.S.  and a network of secret bases around the world. The Washington Post got a glimpse – through examining construction contracts and showing up uninvited – at the base in the tiny African nation of Djibouti from which many of the strikes on Yemen and Somalia are carried out. Earlier this year, Wired pieced together an account of the war against Somalia’s al-Shabaab militant group and the U.S.‘s expanded military presence throughout Africa.

The number of strikes in Pakistan has ebbed in recent years, from a peak of more than 100 in 2008, to an estimated 46 last year. Meanwhile, the pace in Yemen picked up, with more than 40 last year. But there have been seven strikes in Pakistan in the first ten days of 2013.

How are targets chosen?

A series of articles based largely on anonymous comments from administration officials have given partial picture of how the U.S. picks targets and carries out strikes. Two recent reports – from researchers at Columbia Law School and from the Council on Foreign Relations– also give detailed overviews of what’s known about the process.

The CIA and the military have reportedly long maintained overlapping “kill lists.” According to news reports last spring, the military’s list was hashed out in Pentagon-run interagency meetings, with the White House approving proposed targets. Obama would authorize particularly sensitive missions himself.

This year, the process reportedly changed, to concentrate the review of individuals and targeting criteria in the White House. According to the Washington Post, the reviews now happen at regular interagency meetings at the National Counterterrorism Center. Recommendations are sent to a panel of National Security Council officials. Final revisions go through White House counterterror adviser John Brennan to the president. Several profiles have highlighted Brennan’s powerful and controversial role in shaping the trajectory of the targeted killing program. This week, Obama nominated Brennan to head the CIA.

At least some CIA strikes don’t have to get White House signoff. The director of the CIA can reportedly green-light strikes in Pakistan. In a 2011 interview, John Rizzo, previously the CIA’s top lawyer, said agency attorneys did an exhaustive review of each target.

Doesn’t the U.S. sometimes target people whose names they don’t know?

Yes.  While administration officials often have frequently framed drone strikes as going after “high-level al Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks” against the U.S., many strikes go after apparent militants whose identities the U.S. doesn’t know. The so-called “signature strikes” began under Bush in early 2008 and were expanded by Obama. Exactly what portion of strikes are signature strikes isn’t clear.

At various points the CIA’s use of signature strikes in Pakistan in particular have caused tensions with the White House and State Department. One official told the New York Times about a joke that for the CIA, “three guys doing jumping jacks,” was a terrorist training camp.

In Yemen and Somalia, there is debate about whether the militants targeted by the U.S. are in fact plotting against the U.S. or instead fighting against their own country. Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been critical of the drone program, toldProPublica that the U.S. is essentially running “a counterinsurgency air force” for allied countries. At times, strikes have relied on local intelligence that later proves faulty. The Los Angeles Times recently examined the case of a Yemeni man killed by a U.S. drone and the complex web of allegiances and politics surrounding his death.

How many people have been killed in strikes?

The precise number isn’t known, but some estimates peg the total around 3,000.

A number of groups are tracking strikes and estimating casualties:

·         The Long War Journal covers Pakistan and Yemen.

·         The New America Foundation covers Pakistan.

·         The London Bureau of Investigative Journalism covers Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, as well as statistics from on drone strikes carried out in Afghanistan.

How many of those killed are have been civilians?

It’s impossible to know.

There has been considerable back-and-forth about the tally of civilian casualties. For instance, the New America Foundation estimates between 261 and 305 civilians have been killed in Pakistan; The Bureau of Investigative Journalism gives a range of 475 - 891. All of the counts are much higher than the very low numbers of deaths the administration claims. (We’ve detailed inconsistencies even within those low estimates.)  Some analyses show that civilian deaths have dropped proportionally in recent years.


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