Tag Archives: civilian deaths

The Kill List and Drone Body Count

Just days after taking office, the president [Obamaa] got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. “The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House adviser recounted.  In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.

The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.  It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It 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.  Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.  “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

Excerpt, JO BECKER and SCOTT SHANE, Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will, NY Times, May 29, 2012

UK to Blame for the CIA Drone War?

A human rights group and a law firm took legal action Monday (March 12, 2012) against the British government, accusing it of passing on intelligence to assist U.S. covert drone attacks in Pakistan.  The London-based charity Reprieve and the law firm Leigh Day & Co. are filing papers to the High Court claiming that civilian staff at Britain’s electronic listening agency, GCHQ, could be liable as “secondary parties to murder” for providing “locational intelligence” to the CIA in directing its drone attack program.

The two are acting on behalf of Noor Khan, 27, a Pakistani whose father was killed by a drone strike in northwest Pakistan in March 2011 while attending a gathering of elders. More than 40 other people were killed in that attack, they said.

Reprieve, which helps death row prisoners and Guantanamo Bay inmates, urged the British government to be more transparent about its role — if any — in the drone program.  “What has the government got to hide? If they’re not supplying information as part of the CIA’s illegal drone war, why not tell us?” Reprieve director Clive Stafford Smith said.

British officials have never commented publicly on the drones. The Foreign Office and GCHQ declined comment on the legal action Monday, saying they could not speak about ongoing legal proceedings or and intelligence matters.

Since 2004, CIA drones have targeted suspected militants with missile strikes in the Pakistani tribal regions, killing hundreds of people. The program is controversial because of questions about its legality, the number of civilians it has killed, and its impact on Pakistan’s sovereignty.  U.S. officials do not publicly acknowledge the covert drone program but they have said privately that the strikes harm very few innocents and are key to weakening Al Qaeda and other militant groups.

Leigh Day & Co. did not detail what evidence the firm has regarding Britain’s alleged role in the drone program, but it cited media reports that quoted an anonymous GCHQ source as saying that the assistance it gave to the U.S. authorities was in ‘strict accordance’ with the law.  The law firm disputed that, saying GCHQ staff may be guilty of war crimes by passing along detailed intelligence to a drone program that violates international humanitarian law.

UK government sued for helping US drone strikes, Associated Press, March 12, 2012

Oil Curse and the the Unending Violence in Sudan

The United States accused Sudan of targeting civilians in recent airstrikes, including one that destroyed a Bible school in South Kordofan, an oil-rich Sudanese province that borders the newly-created independent country of South Sudan….The Sudanese government could not be immediately reached for comment, but has said in the past that it is targeting rebels in the area….

More than 78,000 people have fled South Kordofan and Blue Nile states since August last year after an armed rebellion took root, the United Nations reported. The Sudanese government is thought to have responded to the rebellion by conducting sustained air raids with the use of Russian-made Antonov bombers, which have raised concerns over civilian casualties.

Decades of civil war between the north and south, costing as many as 2 million lives, formally ended with a U.S.-brokered peace treaty in 2005. But before South Sudan gained independence in July of last year, human rights monitors expressed concerns that longstanding grievances could again lead to violence consuming the region.  In November, there were several days of bombings near an entry point for refugees at the border, the United Nations reported. It did not specify who launched the bombs.

U.S. accuses Sudan of bombing civilians, CNN.com, Feb. 3, 2012

The US Drone Program, who’s calling the shots?

When the United States on February 21, 2010, accidentally killed at least 15 civilians in southern Afghanistan, the missile attack responsible was prompted by ambiguous intelligence provided by a defense contractor that was aggressively misinterpreted by military personnel. The Army captain who called in the strike had no direct contact with the civilian analyst who was studying the video feed from a surveillance drone.

The 2010 airstrike was ordered after an employee of SAIC, Inc., watching the video feed, observed three four-wheel drive vehicles carrying men, women and children moving near a unit of American soldiers and considered them to be possibly hostile. During a post-incident inquiry, she told Maj. Gen. Timothy McHale that at one point the vehicles turned away from the U.S. troops and she was surprised to later learn that the vehicles had been attacked.

The SAIC video analyst was based in Okaloosa, Florida, while the Air Force pilot guiding the drone was sitting at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The Army captain who ordered the killing was in Afghanistan.

Due to the high number of support personnel needed to keep unmanned aircraft operational, the military is relying on civilians to sufficiently staff its drone missions. SAIC employs about 400 people analyzing battlefield video feeds.    Some pilotless planes, such as the Global Hawk surveillance drone, require as many as 300 people per mission. In contrast, a conventional fighter plane flown by a pilot requires less than 100 ground support members.

U.S. Drone Killing Program Threatened by Disconnect between Contractors and Military, AllGov.com, Jan. 03, 2012

NATO Claims Right to Impunity for Civilian Deaths in Libya

NATO’s seven-month air campaign in Libya, hailed by the alliance and many Libyans for blunting a lethal crackdown by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and helping to push him from power, came with an unrecognized toll: scores of civilian casualties the alliance has long refused to acknowledge or investigate.  By NATO’s telling during the war, and in statements since sorties ended on Oct. 31, the alliance-led operation was nearly flawless — a model air war that used high technology, meticulous planning and restraint to protect civilians from Colonel Qaddafi’s troops, which was the alliance’s mandate.  “We have carried out this operation very carefully, without confirmed civilian casualties,” the secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said in November.

But an on-the-ground examination by The New York Times of airstrike sites across Libya — including interviews with survivors, doctors and witnesses, and the collection of munitions remnants, medical reports, death certificates and photographs — found credible accounts of dozens of civilians killed by NATO in many distinct attacks. The victims, including at least 29 women or children, often had been asleep in homes when the ordnance hit.  In all, at least 40 civilians, and perhaps more than 70, were killed by NATO at these sites, available evidence suggests. While that total is not high compared with other conflicts in which Western powers have relied heavily on air power, and less than the exaggerated accounts circulated by the Qaddafi government, it is also not a complete accounting. Survivors and doctors working for the anti-Qaddafi interim authorities point to dozens more civilians wounded in these and other strikes, and they referred reporters to other sites where civilian casualties were suspected.  Two weeks after being provided a 27-page memorandum from The Times containing extensive details of nine separate attacks in which evidence indicated that allied planes had killed or wounded unintended victims, NATO modified its stance.  “From what you have gathered on the ground, it appears that innocent civilians may have been killed or injured, despite all the care and precision,” said Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for NATO headquarters in Brussels. “We deeply regret any loss of life.”  She added that NATO was in regular contact with the new Libyan government and that “we stand ready to work with the Libyan authorities to do what they feel is right.”

NATO, however, deferred the responsibility of initiating any inquiry to Libya’s interim authorities, whose survival and climb to power were made possible largely by the airstrike campaign. So far, Libyan leaders have expressed no interest in examining NATO’s mistakes.  The failure to thoroughly assess the civilian toll reduces the chances that allied forces, which are relying ever more heavily on air power rather than risking ground troops in overseas conflicts, will examine their Libyan experience to minimize collateral deaths elsewhere. Allied commanders have been ordered to submit a lessons-learned report to NATO headquarters in February. NATO’s incuriosity about the many lethal accidents raises questions about how thorough that review will be.  NATO’s experience in Libya also reveals an attitude that initially prevailed in Afghanistan. There, NATO forces, led by the United States, tightened the rules of engagement for airstrikes and insisted on better targeting to reduce civilian deaths only after repeatedly ignoring or disputing accounts of airstrikes that left many civilians dead.  In Libya, NATO’s inattention to its unintended victims has also left many wounded civilians with little aid in the aftermath of the country’s still-chaotic change in leadership.  These victims include a boy blasted by debris in his face and right eye, a woman whose left leg was amputated, another whose foot and leg wounds left her disabled, a North Korean doctor whose left foot was crushed and his wife, who suffered a fractured skull.  The Times’s investigation included visits to more than 25 sites, including in Tripoli, Surman, Mizdah, Zlitan, Ga’a, Majer, Ajdabiya, Misurata, Surt, Brega and Sabratha and near Benghazi. More than 150 targets — bunkers, buildings or vehicles — were hit at these places.

NATO warplanes flew thousands of sorties that dropped 7,700 bombs or missiles; because The Times did not examine sites in several cities and towns where the air campaign was active, the casualty estimate could be low.  There are indications that the alliance took many steps to avoid harming civilians, and often did not damage civilian infrastructure useful to Colonel Qaddafi’s military. Elements of two American-led air campaigns in Iraq, in 1991 and 2003, appear to have been avoided, including attacks on electrical grids.  Such steps spared civilians certain hardships and risks that accompanied previous Western air-to-ground operations. NATO also said that allied forces did not use cluster munitions or ordnance containing depleted uranium, both of which pose health and environmental risks, in Libya at any time.  The alliance’s fixed-wing aircraft dropped only laser- or satellite-guided weapons, said Col. Gregory Julian, a NATO spokesman; no so-called dumb bombs were used.

While the overwhelming preponderance of strikes seemed to have hit their targets without killing noncombatants, many factors contributed to a run of fatal mistakes. These included a technically faulty bomb, poor or dated intelligence and the near absence of experienced military personnel on the ground who could help direct airstrikes.   The alliance’s apparent presumption that residences thought to harbor pro-Qaddafi forces were not occupied by civilians repeatedly proved mistaken, the evidence suggests, posing a reminder to advocates of air power that no war is cost- or error-free.  The investigation also found significant damage to civilian infrastructure from certain attacks for which a rationale was not evident or risks to civilians were clear. These included strikes on warehouses that current anti-Qaddafi guards said contained only food, or near businesses or homes that were destroyed, including an attack on a munitions bunker beside a neighborhood that caused a large secondary explosion, scattering warheads and toxic rocket fuel.

NATO has also not yet provided data to Libyans on the locations or types of unexploded ordnance from its strikes. At least two large weapons were present at sites visited by The Times. “This information is urgently needed,” said Dr. Ali Yahwya, chief surgeon at the Zlitan hospital.  Moreover, the scouring of one strike site found remnants of NATO munitions in a ruined building that an alliance spokesman explicitly said NATO did not attack.  That mistake — a pair of strikes — killed 12 anti-Qaddafi fighters and nearly killed a civilian ambulance crew aiding wounded men. It underscored NATO’s sometimes tenuous grasp of battle lines and raised questions about the forthrightness and accuracy of the alliance’s public-relations campaign.  The second strike pointed to a tactic that survivors at several sites recounted: warplanes restriking targets minutes after a first attack, a practice that imperiled, and sometimes killed, civilians rushing to the wounded.

Pressed about the dangers posed to noncombatants by such attacks, NATO said it would reconsider the tactic’s rationale in its internal campaign review. “That’s a valid point to take into consideration in future operations,” Colonel Julian said.  That statement is a shift in the alliance’s stance. NATO’s response to allegations of mistaken attacks had long been carefully worded denials and insistence that its operations were devised and supervised with exceptional care. Faced with credible allegations that it killed civilians, the alliance said it had neither the capacity for nor intention of investigating and often repeated that disputed strikes were sound.

The alliance maintained this position even after two independent Western organizations — Human Rights Watch and the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or Civic — met privately with NATO officials and shared field research about mistakes, including, in some cases, victims’ names and the dates and locations where they died.  Organizations researching civilian deaths in Libya said that the alliance’s resistance to making itself accountable and acknowledging mistakes amounted to poor public policy. “It’s crystal clear that civilians died in NATO strikes,” said Fred Abrahams, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But this whole campaign is shrouded by an atmosphere of impunity” and by NATO’s and the Libyan authorities’ mutually congratulatory statements.

Excerpt,-

Cluster Bombs Ban Blocked by US, China and Russia

Four years of bargaining over cluster munitions have failed—despite a drive by America, backed by Russia and China, to promote a deal that would have curbed but not banned the devices.  Cluster weapons are a prime target for arms-control campaigners because of their indiscriminate effect. Such bombs or shells typically scatter hundreds of smaller submunitions over an area the size of a football pitch. When they work, they blast the enemy from the battlefield. But not every bomblet explodes. Those that remain menace civilians for decades, maiming, killing and blighting livelihoods. Children suffer most. Yet for most of the past decade, the big users and producers, the self-styled “key states”, have refused to consider any curb on their freedom to use the weapon. For years that stymied attempts to add a protocol on cluster munitions to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

A turning point came in 2006 amid outrage over Israel’s use of cluster weapons in Lebanon. Frustration over the paralysis of the UN process prompted Norway, backed by campaigners, to launch talks on a separate treaty to ban the weapons. By 2008, some 94 countries, including most NATO members, had signed a convention in Oslo that comprehensively banned the production, use, stockpiling or sale and transfer of all cluster munitions. Since then the number of signatories has climbed to 109.

That progress set the wheels turning in the UN talks. The big users and producers made what would once have counted as big concessions: one was a ban on use of the cruder cluster munitions made before 1980. These are the most likely to fail, leaving deadly unexploded bomblets. In another gesture, the big states backed new rules on reporting the size of stockpiles. Their draft would at least have regulated the cluster munitions held by countries never likely to sign the Oslo agreement—in other words more than 85% of world stocks. It would also have led to the destruction of far more devices than the Oslo deal ever could. To counter the contention that its proposal was a step backwards, America inserted language that allowed for the possibility of higher standards being imposed in future.

But those arguments did not impress. The 50-plus countries that opposed the draft protocol, and the campaigners who egged them on, complained that the text still allowed the use of cluster munitions known to cause unacceptable harm. The International Committee of the Red Cross said the American proposal would simply stimulate the development of devices that met the new standards but might still be lethally unreliable; and backsliding from the Oslo rules would set a bad precedent.

The big countries were cross. America (which has argued that a total ban on cluster munitions would make life impossible for NATO) expressed “deep disappointment”. Russia grumbled that opponents were “irrational” and China said they would bear indirect responsibility for future cluster-bomb casualties. Whatever their public stance, some smaller countries that rather like cluster munitions may be privately rejoicing over the talks’ failure.

The failure also exemplifies the declining clout of the big powers. Delegates in Geneva stressed that in multilateral talks, every country has a vote: mighty states must not count on cajoling weaker ones. And all sides said the process was complicated by the scrutiny of do-gooding outfits. Startled delegates found their interventions relayed to the world by Twitter even before they had finished speaking. Such transparency, some warn, reduces the room for diplomatic manoeuvre. In talks where the best is often the enemy of the good, this lack of flexibility can cause harm.

Few see much prospect of the CCW returning to cluster bombs in the foreseeable future. Before that happens, the chances are that stray bomblets will ruin or end a lot more innocent lives.

Arms control: Dead munitions, Economist, Dec. 3, 2011, at 74

The CIA Drone Program as a Violation of Human Rights

The Central Intelligence Agency’s drone program has come under attack by human-rights groups who say they are preparing a broad-based campaign that will include legal challenges in courts in Pakistan, Europe and the U.S.  WSJ’s Evan Perez has exclusive details of a British-based group taking legal action over an October drone mission that killed two youths in Pakistan.  The nascent effort is being modeled after the challenges brought by some of the same groups against the administration of President George W. Bush over detentions at the Guantanamo Bay military prison and in secret CIA “black sites,” say lawyers involved in the planning.

The British-based charity Reprieve and its Pakistani partners, in an initial step, sent a letter Dec. 2 to the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, asking about his role in authorizing a drone strike on Oct. 31 that the lawyers said killed two youths, age 12 and 16. The letter offers Mr. Munter a chance to “disavow what happened” before the group files suit.  U.S. officials deny any youths were killed, and identified the dead as al Qaeda facilitators. U.S. officials say that the drones are a centerpiece of the campaign against al Qaeda and that the CIA takes extraordinarily steps to target only wanted militants and minimize civilian casualties.

Reprieve says the aim of the campaign is to hold senior U.S. officials responsible for possible human-rights violations in the drone attacks.The Obama “administration needs to think about the potential international legal liability of their officials,” said John Bellinger, a former legal adviser for the State Department during the Bush administration who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re convinced they’re on the side of the angels and can’t believe someone might accuse them of war crimes.”

There is some precedent in recent years for using lawsuits and public campaigns to embarrass the U.S. and compel disclosures.  Legal actions filed in the U.S. and Europe helped expose details of clandestine CIA programs, prompting some governments to scale back their cooperation. These include the agency’s practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the U.S. moved prisoners to third countries for detention and questioning.

Mr. Munter and his spokesman didn’t respond to requests to comment. Lawyers said the planned lawsuit will accuse the ambassador of being a co-conspirator in the two deaths.  Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith said the group was also preparing to press European governments to detail their role in providing intelligence that allegedly has been used in the U.S. strikes. He said the group also intends to target European companies which help to build components used in the drone program.

While earlier legal campaigns produced few victories for human-rights groups, the attention they generated in some cases moved public opinion, resulting in policy changes.  A U.S. lawsuit against Boeing Co.’s Jeppessen unit, for its role as a CIA contractor in rendition flights, was turned back in 2009 by U.S. courts. But during its years under litigation, it brought attention and helped expose details about the CIA program.

In the U.S., the American Civil Liberties Union last year used a lawsuit on behalf of the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric who the U.S. said was a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to force the U.S. for the first time to explain why Mr. Awlaki was being targeted for killing.  The ACLU failed in the father’s aim to stop Mr. Awlaki from being killed. “That said, the case has served a purpose—it has provoked a public debate,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU lawyer who argued the case. He said the case “ultimately compelled the Obama administration to at least explain the understanding of the law. And ultimately the case was important in forcing a conversation about transparency.”  The ACLU is in discussions with family members about follow-up legal action. That includes a suit over another drone strike in Yemen that inadvertently killed the young son of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Mr. Smith acknowledged the uncertainty of bringing a lawsuit in Pakistan targeting Mr. Munter because of the immunities typically afforded to diplomats.  The letter sent by Reprieve’s Pakistani partners, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, to Mr. Munter says Tariq Aziz, 16, and Waheed Khan, 12, were killed in a drone strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area just days after participating in meetings in Islamabad organized by Reprieve, which gave cameras to Tariq and others to document drone strikes.  The Foundation’s letter to Mr. Munter says he may share in the liability for the deaths because, as ambassador, he is consulted before each strike, and can raise objections. The letter cites reports by The Wall Street Journal describing Mr. Munter’s role in the process.  U.S. officials deny that any innocent civilians, or children in particular, were killed in the Oct. 31 strike. The officials said the CIA is able to differentiate between adults and children and said they believe the individuals killed were adults who were involved in al-Qaeda’s activities.

ADAM ENTOUS,EVAN PEREZ and SIOBHAN GORMAN, Drone Program Attacked by Human-Rights Groups, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 9, 2011