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The ‘Drone President’: Rhetoric Versus the Atrocious Facts

Donald Kaufman
Correspondent
Donald Kaufman is an L.A.-based producer, composer and mix engineer. He is also the songwriter and frontman of the band Visceral Design. After graduating from Berklee College of Music, Kaufman began…
Donald Kaufman

Drone / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

President Obama, dubbed “The Drone President” by some, faces rising criticism over a program that has very little oversight, a mounting death toll and results that can be seen as war crimes.

On Monday in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf exposed the major inconsistencies of Obama and CIA Director John Brennan, who claims the president “requires near-certainty of no collateral damage” before he will approve a drone attack.

The Atlantic reports:

The notion that the Obama Administration has carried out drone strikes only when there is “near-certainty of no collateral damage” is easily disproved propaganda. America hasn’t killed a handful of innocents or a few dozen in the last 8 years. Credible, independent attempts to determine how many civilians the Obama administration has killed arrived at numbers in the hundreds or low thousands. And there is good reason to believe that they undercount the civilians killed.

Why the disparity between what American officials claim and what others report? The New York Times provided a first clue back in 2012, when it reported that the U.S. “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.” The same sort of dishonest standard was described last year when a whistleblower provided The Intercept with a cache of documents detailing the U.S. military’s drone killings in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. One campaign, Operation Haymaker, took place in northeastern Afghanistan.

“Between January 2012 and February 2013,” The Intercept reported, “U.S. special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.” That’s one campaign of many in just one country where drone killings happen.

The Obama administration said last week that it will disclose how many people have been killed by U.S. drones. Although this seems a step in the right direction, according to PBS much more information is needed.

PBS reports:

Yet key questions will remain unanswered — including the full scope of the U.S. drone program. The U.S. doesn’t publicly disclose all the places its drones operate, so the report isn’t expected to detail specific countries where people died.

Instead, it will offer an aggregate assessment of casualties outside of areas of “active hostilities” — a designation that takes into account the scope and intensity of fighting and is used to determine when Obama’s specific counterterrorism policies apply. Iraq and Syria, where U.S. airstrikes are pummeling the Islamic State group, currently are on that list and won’t be in the report, said a senior administration official, who wasn’t authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.

In addition to counts for Iraq and Syria, death tolls from drone airstrikes in Afghanistan will be omitted. The legitimacy of these numbers may be questioned also because CIA numbers in the past have differed greatly from those of sources on the ground. An example was in May 2011: The CIA reported killing nine militants and told the public no civilians were killed, but The New York Times uncovered that a report compiled by British and Pakistani journalists found that six civilians died in the strikes.

On Monday, Rolling Stone provided lessons learned after profiling four “repentant drone operators.” One particularly alarming insight is that terrorist groups are gaining support with each drone attack. Recruiting members after drone attacks has proved so successful that members of the Taliban are handing out DVDs showing drone-strike victims. According to former drone sensor operator Michael Haas, drone operators referred to the alcohol they consumed as “drone fuel” and regularly used drugs, facts he believed his superiors were well aware of.

Read documents provided to The Intercept by a whistleblower that show the inner workings of the U.S. drone program.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included a sentence saying Bernie Sanders opposes the use of attack drones. Actually, he has said that as president he would continue drone strikes, but only “very selectively.”

— Posted by Donald Kaufman

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