Drone strikes veiled in secrecy – A call for transparency

CREECH AFB, Nev. -- A MQ-9 Reaper flies above Creech AFB during a local training mission here. The 42nd Attack Squadron currently operates the MQ-9. (Photo by Paul Ridgeway)

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he lack of transparency of drone programs entails multiple problems. The imperative of enhancing transparency and allowing declassification becomes evident when looking at the infamous killing of Mamana Bibi. In the alleged US drone strike on 24 October 2012 in North Waziristan, Pakistan, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was killed, and up to nine people were injured, including 8 children. It remains unclear what exactly happened and what the aim of this attack could have been. Interviews with drone operators and victims portray an unclear obscure picture of the events of 24 October 2012.

In response to growing scepticism President Obama addressed the US drone program in his speech at the National Defence University in May 2013. When Obama mentioned the “necessary secrecy” resulting in “shielding the government against public scrutiny” and the temptation to perceive lethal force as a “cure-all for terrorism”, he addressed some of the main reasons behind the devastating effects of drone strikes during his administration.

The very precision of drone strikes and the necessary secrecy often involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites.  It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.[1]

The negative impacts of a non-transparent and non-accountable lethal counter terrorism program are multiple and entail dramatic impacts on killed or injured victims, their relatives and communities. Most often they do not receive any explanation, reparation or acknowledgement.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with the involvement of many other secretive institutions like the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have been assumed primarily responsible for setting up covert lethal drone missions. On the operational side it was, however, as latest revelations suggest, the Air Force Special Command (AFSOC) that always flew the drones. It is well known that the CIA works under the policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of its operations. By nature of the set up many facts on drone strikes and underlying policies remain uncertain or at least unconfirmed by the government, which makes the work of civil society, media and international organisations very difficult, but first and foremost it opens the doors for abuse.

In the short intense history of the weapon system numerous dubious cases were reported and a dangerous precedent has been set. Hundreds of civilians (though the exact number is uncertain) were killed in legally doubtful strikes. Drones were frequently used, outside conventional battlegrounds like in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Gaza, raising fundamental questions regarding the applicability of the legal framework and the sovereignty of involved nations. There is still no consensus, how International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law has to be applied, especially due to controversial inconsistent armed conflict definitions. While the US claims to be involved in a “Non-International Armed Conflict with Al-Qaida, Taliban and associated Forces that are transnationally operating”, the second most important drone nation, Israel, claims to act in an “International Armed Conflict” with Palestine.

Experts claim that the legal framework would be in place to regulate the use of drones, but the law is just not being followed.

The drone should follow the law, not the law follow the drone.[2]

If it however would be followed the technical capabilities of drones could potentially even reduce incidental civilian loss, as long as being used in strict compliance with humanitarian law:

If used in strict compliance with the principles of humanitarian law, they can reduce the risk of civilian casualties by significantly improving overall situational awareness. The ability of drones to loiter and gather intelligence for long periods before a strike, coupled with the use of precision-guided munitions, is therefore a positive advantage from a humanitarian law perspective.[3]

However, to make proper legal regulation possible, the first crucial step is to open up the US drone program and declassify.

The Case – Mamana Bibi

Looking closer at an infamous drone strike the need for transparency becomes evident. On 24 October 2012 in North Waziristan, Pakistan, an alleged US drone strike killed 68-year-old Mamana Bibi and injured up to nine people, including 8 children. Most of them were grandchildren of the deceased. When the two missiles hit the field, Mamana Bibi was picking Okra, while the children were playing, coming home from school or helping their grandmother. Mamana Bibi was reportedly hit two times and remains the sole confirmed casualty. The majority of the injured were hit by shrapnel, consequently needed expensive surgeries and suffer from long-term repercussions. Until today the family is left without compensation or explanation and live in fear of a next strike. There is no statement of any US official regarding this strike. A recently leaked official document, which records details on civilian casualties in US drone strikes, could have shed light on the case. However, no civilian death or injuries are mentioned in the document, while it was noted that one person died in the attack.[4] According to unnamed Pakistani intelligence officials, cited in Amnesty International’s report “Will I be next?” [5] , 10 minutes before the strike happened, an alleged Taliban was using a satellite phone on a road nearby. Obviously this cannot be a convincing explanation and it remains unknown what the actual target was.

Initial reports described the events utterly different: Pakistani government officials stated, that up to five militants were among the dead and the building close to the field was a military “compound”.[6] After Amnesty’s detailed on the ground investigations, the death toll was however reduced to one. Mamana Bibi’s son, Rajiq Ur Rehman and a part of the injured children were interviewed several times and in October 2013 they became the first drone victims in a hearing at US congress. Rafiq Ur Rehman challenged those early media reports and strengthened that his mother was the only deceased. He denied that militants were around and emphasised that his family are “government people, school teachers, not militants”[7].

The Sight of Drone Operators

A team of drone operators attacking an apparently innocent woman in close proximity of children suggests a very disturbing dark picture of the people behind the trigger. The most prominent drone operator, who spoke up and delivered a valuable insight into his world, was Brandon Bryant. After 5 ½ years being a sensor operator he quit his service, as he was convinced that, through his involvement in the killing of an American citizen (Anwar Al-Awlaki[8]) without due process, he violated the oath he swore on the constitution. It is an odd fact that Obama also referred to his oath to defend the constitution, when he explained America’s drone policy at the National Defence University.

Bryant decided to speak up and share his experiences to clarify speculations and misinformation about the US drone program. One of those misperceptions he wanted to resolve, was that drone operators act careless or feel indifferent, as the people they are chasing are thousands of miles away and they are operating “merely” through computer screens. After having conducted numerous interviews with drone operators, the Journalist, Chris Woods, confirms Bryant’s appeal.

[…] what I have found really interesting is just how much the operators care about what they have done and some of them are still haunted by what they’ve done and I think that was a surprise. [9]

Brandon Bryant was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD rates have indeed shown to be higher among drone operators in comparison to “ordinary” combat pilots, which probably comes from a more “intimate” connection to the events on the ground. Usually operators are observing their targets for a long period before they are ordered to strike, and after the strike they have to stay above the scene and watch the results of their action.

The Predator drone can stay in the air for like 18 to 32 hours, so they just had us watch and do damage assessment and see if anyone would come and pick up the body parts or anyone would care who these people were, we watched long enough that the body cooled on the ground and they would call us of target.[10]

Drone operators see a very clear image. Even though the lens coverage is still limited and the quality not at all perfect, they can distinguish men and women and read numbers on car plates.

Another former drone operator, Bruce Black, raised doubts on whether the case at hand, had really been a drone strike. It not plausible that an entire drone operator’s team went crazy and deliberately targeted an old lady and children. Also Bryant stated that the US would never deliberately target women or children. Additionally Black referred to a further important signature of drone strikes, the missile type, which can be confirmed by analysing missile fragments and the place of impact. Drones like the Predator carry laser-guided Hellfire Missiles. In Amnesty International’s report pictures show Rafiq Ur Rehman besides an impact crater in the fields. Bruce Black doubts that a Hellfire Missile could have caused this crater.

“For every Predator, it takes 175 people to keep it airborne for 24 hours. There are a zillion eyes looking always,” Black said. “I don’t know if that lady was hit by a predator or not. If there was a crater in the ground, maybe she stepped on a land mine. The Hellfire (guided missile), a 10-pound warhead, it’s very small, it doesn’t cause a crater. It’s used as a fragmentation device. If there was a crater in the ground where she was, I don’t think she was hit by a predator.”[11]

Without the involvement of the responsible authorities it seems at least very difficult if not impossible to find a convincing explanation for the death of Mamana Bibi. In a democratic society the public has a right to know, what steps their government takes to counter terrorism. The lack of transparency not only results in multiple serious violations of the rights of victims, but also in public condemnation and arguably an unsustainable counter terrorism approach. To declassify information on drone strikes and on the drone program as such, would be a step that would benefit all sides.

[toggle title=”References” state=”open”]

[1] The White House Office of the Press Secretary: U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities, 23 May 2013 available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/2013.05.23_fact_sheet_on_ppg.pdf (consulted on: 13 September 2014).

[2] Woods, Chris: Consensus grows among UN states for greater transparency on drone civilian deaths, available at http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2013/10/26/consensus-grows-among-un-states-for-greater-transparency-on-drone-civilian-deaths/ (consulted on: 03 March 2014).

[3] Emmerson, Ben: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, A/68/389, 18 September 2013, para. 28 available at http://justsecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/2013EmmersonSpecialRapporteurReportDrones.pdf (consulted on: 24 June 2014).

[4] Ross, Alice: Leaked official document records 330 drone strikes in Pakistan, available at http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2014/01/29/leaked-official-document-records-330-drone-strikes-in-pakistan/ (consulted on: 03 March 2014)

[5] Amnesty International: Will I be next? US drone strikes in Pakistan, ASA 33/013/2013, Amnesty International Publications, 2013.

[6] See: https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/01/11/obama-2012-strikes/ (consulted on: 3 March 2014)

[7] Panorama: The Secret Drone War, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01pcyfc/Panorama_The_Secret_Drone_War/ (consulted on: 03 March 2014).

[8] The US born, Yemeni radical cleric, Anwar Al-Awlaki was killed in 2011 in Yemen by a CIA strike according to B. Bryant with major contribution of JSOC.

[9] Interview with Chris Woods, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 28 January 2014, London.

[10] Democracy Now: A Drone Warrior’s Torment: EX-Air Force Pilot Brandon Bryant on His Trauma From Remote Killing, 25 October 2013 available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_l6ec62l6I (consulted on: 03.03.14).

[11] Fenton, James: Retired military drone operator shares experience of remote piloting, 25 November 2013 available at http://www.daily-times.com/four_corners-news/ci_24600432/retired-military-drone-operator-shares-experience-remote-piloting (consulted on: 03 March 2014).


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