Tag Archives: John Brennan

Naming the Dead of the CIA Drone War

Naming the Dead is a project run by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit research organisation based in London. The project aims to identify those killed in CIA drone strikes on Pakistan.  Over the past nine years, the tribal region of Pakistan’s north west has been hit by hundreds of drone attacks as the CIA has sought to stamp out al Qaeda fighters and the militant groups that have given them shelter.  Missiles launched from these high-tech, unmanned aircraft have hit homes, cars, schools, shops and gatherings. At least 2,500 people have been killed, according to data already collected by the Bureau as part of our wider Covert Drone War research.

Senior US officials have described drones as highly precise weapons that target and kill enemies of the US. John Brennan, who oversaw the development of the drone campaign and is now director of the CIA, has called drone technology an ‘essential tool’ for its ‘surgical precision – the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumour called an al Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it.’

Those killed by drones include high-ranking militant leaders – figures such as Abu Yahya al Libi, al Qaeda’s feared second-in-command, or Baitullah Mehsud, commander of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP).  But according to credible media reports analysed by the Bureau, the dead also include at least 400 civilians. Some were unlucky enough to be nearby when militants were attacked. Others were killed alongside their husbands or fathers, who were believed to be militants. Still others were mistaken for terrorists by drone operators sitting thousands of miles away.

In most cases, there is little information available about who the drones are really killing. Most of the dead – an estimated four-fifths of those killed – are believed to be militants. But their deaths are typically reported as a number – their names, origins and livelihoods remain a mystery.  For so many people to die in obscurity, unnamed and unacknowledged, is a tragedy. But it is a further tragedy that the public, and even policy makers, are unable to properly test whether drones are ‘highly precise weapons’ when so little is known about who is actually dying.

Through Naming the Dead, the Bureau aims to increase the transparency around this conflict and inform the public debate. Initially this project will record all names published in open-source material – in credible reports by journalists, in legal documents presented in court, in academic studies and in field investigations carried out by human rights groups.  In the future, the Bureau aims to identify more of the dead on a regular basis, and to uncover more details of those who have been killed. Where possible we will provide further identification – where they were killed, and their occupations, full names and ages. In the remote areas of Pakistan where drone strikes take place, official identification is rare. Few people possess identification cards, birth certificates, or even documents recording their relatives’ deaths. But wherever possible this project will provide documentation recording a person’s death.

Photographs of the destruction of a particular site are included in the database. Affidavits, photos, hospital records, student identification and transcripts of interviews with researchers are all provided when available. Over time, the Bureau aims to build on such currently scarce records in an attempt to properly scrutinise the little that is reported, and the claims being made – on all sides.

Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Djibouti, the US Permanent Drone War Base

Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti…began as a temporary staging ground for U.S. Marines looking for a foothold in the region a decade ago (2001). Over the past two years, the U.S. military has clandestinely transformed it into the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone, a model for fighting a new generation of terrorist groups.  The Obama administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the legal and operational details of its targeted-killing program. Behind closed doors, painstaking debates precede each decision to place an individual in the cross hairs of the United States’ perpetual war against al-Qaeda and its allies.  Increasingly, the orders to find, track or kill those people are delivered to Camp Lemonnier. Virtually the entire 500-acre camp is dedicated to counterterrorism, making it the only installation of its kind in the Pentagon’s global network of bases.

Secrecy blankets most of the camp’s activities. The U.S. military rejected requests from The Washington Post to tour Lemonnier last month. Officials cited “operational security concerns,” although they have permitted journalists to visit in the past.  After a Post reporter showed up in Djibouti uninvited, the camp’s highest-ranking commander consented to an interview — on the condition that it take place away from the base, at Djibouti’s lone luxury hotel. The commander, Army Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Baker, answered some general queries but declined to comment on drone operations or missions related to Somalia or Yemen.

Despite the secrecy, thousands of pages of military records obtained by The Post — including construction blueprints, drone accident reports and internal planning memos — open a revealing window into Camp Lemonnier. None of the documents is classified and many were acquired via public-records requests.  Taken together, the previously undisclosed documents show how the Djibouti-based drone wars sharply escalated early last year after eight Predators arrived at Lemonnier. The records also chronicle the Pentagon’s ambitious plan to further intensify drone operations here in the coming months.

The documents point to the central role played by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which President Obama has repeatedly relied on to execute the nation’s most sensitive counterterrorism missions.  About 300 Special Operations personnel plan raids and coordinate drone flights from inside a high-security compound at Lemonnier that is dotted with satellite dishes and ringed by concertina wire. Most of the commandos work incognito, concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base…

In Washington, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps to sustain the drone campaign for another decade, developing an elaborate new targeting database, called the “disposition matrix,” and a classified “playbook” to spell out how decisions on targeted killing are made.

Djibouti is the clearest example of how the United States is laying the groundwork to carry out these operations overseas. For the past decade, the Pentagon has labeled Lemonnier an “expeditionary,” or temporary, camp. But it is now hardening into the U.S. military’s first permanent drone war base.

In August, the Defense Department delivered a master plan to Congress detailing how the camp will be used over the next quarter-century. About $1.4 billion in construction projects are on the drawing board, including a huge new compound that could house up to 1,100 Special Operations forces, more than triple the current number.  Drones will continue to be in the forefront. In response to written questions from The Post, the U.S. military confirmed publicly for the first time the presence of remotely piloted aircraft — military parlance for drones — at Camp Lemonnier and said they support “a wide variety of regional security missions.”….For nearly a decade, the United States flew drones from Lemonnier only rarely, starting with a 2002 strike in Yemen that killed a suspected ringleader of the attack on the USS Cole.  That swiftly changed in 2010, however, after al-Qaeda’s network in Yemen attempted to bomb two U.S.-bound airliners and jihadists in Somalia separately consolidated their hold on that country. Late that year, records show, the Pentagon dispatched eight unmanned MQ-1B Predator aircraft to Djibouti and turned Lemonnier into a full-time drone base.

The impact was apparent months later: JSOC drones from Djibouti and CIA Predators from a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula converged over Yemen and killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric and prominent al-Qaeda member.  Today, Camp Lemonnier is the centerpiece of an expanding constellation of half a dozen U.S. drone and surveillance bases in Africa, created to combat a new generation of terrorist groups across the continent, from Mali to Libya to the Central African Republic. The U.S. military also flies drones from small civilian airports in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, but those operations pale in comparison to what is unfolding in Djibouti.

Lemonnier also has become a hub for conventional aircraft. In October 2011, the military boosted the airpower at the base by deploying a squadron of F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets, which can fly faster and carry more munitions than Predators…

In March 2011, a Predator parked at the camp started its engine without any human direction, even though the ignition had been turned off and the fuel lines closed. Technicians concluded that a software bug had infected the “brains” of the drone, but never pinpointed the problem.  “After that whole starting-itself incident, we were fairly wary of the aircraft and watched it pretty closely,” an unnamed Air Force squadron commander testified to an investigative board, according to a transcript. “Right now, I still think the software is not good.” …

“This [Djibouti] is not an outpost in the middle of nowhere that is of marginal interest,” said Amanda J. Dory, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for Africa. “This is a very important location in terms of U.S. interests, in terms of freedom of navigation, when it comes to power projection.”

The U.S. military pays $38 million a year to lease Camp Lemonnier from the Djiboutian government…

Excerpts, Craig Whitlock, Remote US base at core of secret operations, Washington Post, Oct. 26, 2012