The blind-sight politics of the drone wars

Drone sky

Graphic by Courtney Williams/The Cougar

There has been a leak of classified documents by an Intelligence whistle-blower reminiscent of Edward Snowden. This time, the documents shed light on the heinous manner in which the drone wars were conducted in Yemen and Somalia from 2011 through 2013.

The once-classified documents reveal that drones were responsible for the ruthless assassination of hundreds of innocent civilians haphazardly labeled ‘Enemies Killed in Action’, despite the White House’s previous boasts that the drone program is precise, and civilian deaths are minimal.

“The public has the right to understand the process by which people are placed on kill lists and ultimately assassinated on orders from the highest echelons of the U.S. government,” the whistle-blower, whose identity remains anonymous so as to avoid prosecution, said.

These documents were put together as a study by the highly funded Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance Task Force. They give a detailed look into how the United States Intelligence personnel gather information on potential targets.

It explicitly states how these targets’ profiles were placed in condensed formats referred to as “Baseball Cards” and then sent through a chain of command for ultimate approval by the President. After his approval, a 60-day period ensued for execution in finding, fixing and finishing the approved targets.

The White House released a set of standards and procedures for conducting strikes back in 2013. They said the U.S. will use lethal force “only against a target that poses a continuing imminent threat to U.S. persons.”

But data gathered by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported a minimum of 239 assassinations in Yemen alone, 53 of which were civilian.

In an attempt to stress the reliance these drones have on signal intelligence, according to the source, “the entire time you thought you were going after this really hot target, you wind up realizing it was his mother’s phone the whole time.”

The sources of information account for more than half of the intelligence used to track the intended targets. These attacks have an unreliable dependence on intelligence that is faulty and, at times, provided by foreign partners who may or may not have ulterior motives.

Nonetheless, there’s been little to no coverage in the media regarding the deaths of these civilians. The only public outcry was earlier this year in April when an American and an Italian hostage were killed in Pakistan in a drone strike conducted by the CIA.

“The assessment of the pros and cons of drones have to be made in the context of the alternatives, which are greater troop presence and direct engagement of the enemy versus complete military withdrawal,” said political science assistant professor Zachary Zwald.

“It remains a military option because the public does not have an appetite for prolonged occupied military missions.”

Should we be relying on sturdier data that pinpoints and confirms imminent threats so that we’re not so quick to jump the drone?

The U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counter-terrorism also lists vague criteria required for the use of lethal force. It requires a “near-certainty” that the terrorist target is present and furthermore, “near-certainty” that non-combatants, or civilians, will not be injured or killed.

This ambiguous and ill-defined generalization of what suffices as reason to carry out an attack leaves an unfathomable amount of room for error.

Sanjuanita Gonzales is a print journalism sophomore and may be reached at [email protected]


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