It turns out that the Obama administration has not been honest about who the CIA has been targeting with drones in Pakistan. Jonathan Landay, national security reporter at McClatchy Newspapers, has provided the first analysis of drone-strike victims that is based upon internal, top-secret U.S. intelligence reports. It is the most important reporting on U.S. drone strikes to date because Landay, using U.S. government assessments, plainly demonstrates that the claim repeatedly made by President Obama and his senior aides -- that targeted killings are limited only to officials, members, and affiliates of al Qaeda who pose an imminent threat of attack on the U.S. homeland -- is false.
Senior officials and agencies have emphasized this point over and over because it is essential to the legal foundations on which the strikes are ultimately based: the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force and the U.N. Charter's right to self-defense. A Department of Justice white paper said that the United States can target a "senior operational leader of al-Qa'ida or an associated force" who "poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States." Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration targets "specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces," and Harold Koh, the senior State Department legal adviser dubbed them "high-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks." Obama said during a Google+ Hangout in January 2012: "These strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and going after al-Qaeda suspects." Finally, Obama claimed in September: "Our goal has been to focus on al Qaeda and to focus narrowly on those who would pose an imminent threat to the United States of America."
As the Obama administration unveils its promised and overdue targeted-killing reforms over the next few months, citizens, policymakers, and the media should keep in mind this disconnect between who the United States claimed it was killing and who it was actually killing.
Landay's reporting primarily covers the most intensive period of CIA drone strikes, from September 2010 to September 2011. "[T]he documents reveal estimates of deaths and injuries; locations of militant bases and compounds; the identities of some of those targeted or killed; the movements of targets from village to village or compound to compound; and, to a limited degree, the rationale for unleashing missiles," he writes.
While he provides few direct quotes from the documents, his most important finding is this:
At least 265 of up to 482 people who the U.S. intelligence reports estimated the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior al Qaida leaders but instead were "assessed" as Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists. Drones killed only six top al Qaida leaders in those months, according to news media accounts.
Forty-three of 95 drone strikes reviewed for that period hit groups other than al Qaida, including the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as "foreign fighters" and "other militants."...
At other times, the CIA killed people who only were suspected, associated with, or who probably belonged to militant groups.
This scope of targeting complicates the Obama administration's claim that only those al Qaeda members who are an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland can be killed. In reality, starting in the summer of 2008, when President Bush first authorized signature strikes in Pakistan, the vast majority of drone-strike victims were from groups focused on establishing some form of Sharia law, attacking Pakistani security forces, and destabilizing Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban and attacking U.S. servicemembers. The United States essentially replicated the Vietnam War strategy of bombing the Vietcong's safe haven in Cambodia. In addition, the CIA was engaging in "side payment strikes" against the Pakistani Taliban to eliminate threats on Islamabad's behalf. This was not a secret to anyone following the CIA's drone program. As I wrote as early as March 2009:
The covert program that began as an effort to kill high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban officials responsible for previous international terror attacks (and who continue to provide strategic guidance to the global jihadist movement) has since led to the CIA's serving, in effect, as a counterinsurgency arm of the Pakistani air force.