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'Signature Strikes' and Obama's Empty Rhetoric on Drones

An indispensable look at what really happened when an American drone killed 42 people in Pakistan.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Paul Fleet/Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

 

On March 17, 2011, four Hellfire missiles, fired from a U.S. drone, slammed into a bus depot in the town of Datta Khel in Pakistan's Waziristan border region. An estimated  42 peoplewere killed. It was just another day in America's so-called war on terror. To most Americans the strike was likely only a one-line blip on the evening news, if they even heard about it at all.

But what really happened that day? Who were those 42 people who were killed, and what were they doing? And what effect did the strike have? Did it make us safer? These are the questions raised, and answered, in a  must-watch new video just released by Robert Greenwald's Brave New Foundation.

The attack was what has come to be called a "signature strike." This is when the CIA or the military makes the decision to fire based not on who the targets are but on whether they are exhibiting suspicious patterns of behavior thought to be "signatures" of terrorists (as seen on video from the drone). Given that the CIA is killing people it's never identified based on their behavior, one would assume a certain rigor has gone into defining the criteria for the kinds of behavior that get one killed.

So what's a signature behavior? "The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40," former ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter  told the Daily Beast's Tara McKelvey. "My feeling is one man's combatant is another man's -- well, a chump who went to a meeting." The New York Times  quoted a senior State Department official as saying that when the CIA sees "three guys doing jumping jacks," the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.

That day in Datta Khel, the signature behavior was a meeting, or "jirga," which is an assembly of tribal elders who convene to settle a local dispute. In this case, a conflict over a chromite mine was being resolved. And, in fact, the elders had informed the Pakistani army about the meeting 10 days in advance. "So this was an open, public event that pretty much everyone in the community and surrounding area knew about," says Stanford law professor James Cavallaro in the video.

Pretty much everyone in the community and surrounding area. But not U.S. intelligence. Or the head of the CIA. Or the president. Or the guy in Virginia or Nevada or some other undisclosed location pressing the button on the drone controller.

And so, almost all the tribal elders of the area were killed by the drone missiles. Akbar Ahmed is a retired Pakistani ambassador to the UK and now a professor at American University. "It's feeding into the sense that no one is safe, nowhere is safe, nothing is safe," he says in the video. "Even a jirga, the most cherished, the most treasured institution of the tribal areas. So we cannot even sit down and resolve an issue -- that is not safe anymore." As professor Cavallaro put it, "the loss of 40 leaders on a single day is devastating for that community."

And far from building stability in places like Pakistan, something the administration talks a lot about, in fact the strike actually removed, in one fell swoop, the most stabilizing forces in an entire community.

Jalal Manzar Khail was at his nearby home that day and remembers the attack, which also claimed four of his cousins. Khail's six-year-old son was later afraid -- not unreasonably -- to sleep in their house. "We cannot go home," Khail  recounts his son saying. "We have to spend the night in the tree." Khail adds, "Convey my message to Americans: The CIA and America have to stop ... they're just creating more enemies and this will last for hundreds of years."