Secret Wars and No Accountability: 5 Reasons Why 2013 Is Already Year of the Drone

For a war-weary American public, President Barack Obama’s inaugural address last month sounded perfect. “A decade of war is now ending,” the president said. “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

But on that day, a much different--and more honest--message blared through ABC News and out of a U.S.-piloted unmanned aircraft: the drone war being waged in secret and without accountability was here to stay. It’s become clear that, a month and a half into 2013, this year will see the continued use of drone strikes around the world. You can already call 2013 another year of the drone, if not the year of the drone.

ABC News aired an interview that day with outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Asked by journalist Martha Raddatz whether the 2014 pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would mean an increased reliance on drones, Panetta said: “I think that's reality. We've done that in Pakistan. We're doing it in Yemen and elsewhere. And I think the reality is it's going to be a continuing tool of national defense in the future.” Panetta further confirmed this grim reality in a February interview with Agence France Presse.

Additionally, the U.S. carried out a drone strike in Yemen on Inauguration Day, allegedly killing “four suspected al Qaeda militants,” although it’s impossible to say who exactly was killed, given that the U.S. does not publicly confirm strikes or keep track of civilian casualties.

The confirmation hearing for CIA director-to-be John Brennan and the disclosure of a memo justifying the assassination of American citizens has sparked even further discussion of drone policy and the covert war the Obama administration is waging.

Here are five reason why it's clear that 2013 will be an important year for U.S. drone policy.

1. Escalation in Drone Attacks

The slight decrease in drone strikes in 2012 was nothing but “a fluke,” as’s Jason Ditz writes. This year has already seen an escalation in the amount of drone attacks carried out in Pakistan and Yemen.

The Washington Post reported January 10 that “the CIA has opened the year with a flurry of drone strikes in Pakistan...A strike Thursday in North Waziristan was the seventh in 10 days, marking a major escalation in the pace of attacks. Drone attacks had slipped in frequency to fewer than one per week last year.” U.S. officials told the Post that the escalation was due to “a sense of urgency surrounding expectations that President Obama will soon order a drawdown that could leave Afghanistan with fewer than 6,000 U.S. troops after 2014.” The drone strikes, according to these officials, “are seen as a way to weaken adversaries of the Afghan government before the withdrawal and serve notice that the United States will still be able to launch attacks.” But they also increase the intense hatred for the U.S. in Pakistan because of the drone program, and provide a potent recruiting tool to Pakistani militants.

And before January 10, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) had documented that at least five other strikes had been carried out by the U.S. on Pakistan in the tribal areas. While hard numbers of casualties are tough to come by, the Bureau says that at least 20 people were killed in those strikes. Two civilians may have been among the dead in a January 8 strike.

CNN reported on a January 3 strike that reportedly killed 15 people; that operation also included two missiles fired “as people rushed to try to rescue the occupants,” according to Pakistani officials. The practice of firing on those trying to administer help to victims of drone strikes, know as a “double tap,” is being investigated as a war crime by United Nations officials. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism also collected data on a February 8 drone strike in Pakistan that reportedly killed four to nine militants.

Yemen has also seen an escalation in drone attacks this year. On January 23, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Obama administration had hit Yemen four times in a span of five days. A Yemeni official said the latest strike, which killed five on January 23, marked “a significant escalation in the U.S.-Yemeni campaign against that country’s Al Qaeda affiliate.” While the Times did not mention any reports of civilian casualties in the January 23 strike, the BIJ noted that “anonymous sources gave a contradictory account to Xinhua [and] said the strike missed the bikes, hitting a house belonging to Abdu Mohammed al-Jarrah. Two of his children were reportedly killed and three more family members injured.”

The BIJ also documented seven other strikes besides the January 23 drone attack. Those strikes on Yemen may have killed civilians as well, according to media accounts curated by the Bureau.

2. United Nations Inquiry

As the escalation in Obama administration-ordered drone strikes continued to make waves, the United Nations announced an inquiry into whether the targeted killings program is lawful. On January 25, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism said he would begin to investigate targeted killings by drones in Yemen, occupied Palestine, Pakistan and Somalia.

The countries that will be investigated for using drone strikes to assassinate people include the United Kingdom, Israel and the United States.

The rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, will focus on 25 case studies of drone strikes carried out in those territories. It promises to be the most high-profile UN investigations into drones, and will be presented to the UN General Assembly later this year.

Emmerson told Wired magazine that he would not shy away from the conclusion that war crimes have been committed if what he finds leads him to that fact. “In principle, events, for example, like double-tap strikes on first responders, or attacks on funerals could raise questions as to whether war crimes have been committed,” he said.

News of the inquiry was praised by human rights advocates. “We welcome this investigation in the hopes that global pressure will bring the US back into line with international law requirements that strictly limit the use of lethal force,” the American Civil Liberties Union’s Hina Shamsi said in a statement. “Virtually no other country agrees with the U.S.'s claimed authority to secretly declare people enemies of the state and kill them and civilian bystanders far from any recognized battlefield. To date, there has been an abysmal lack of transparency and no accountability for the US government's ever-expanding targeted killing program.”

3. Codifying Drones and Targeted Killings

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, the Obama administration accelerated its efforts to codify the targeted killings by drone program. And while Obama won the election, his administration has forged ahead with making the perpetual drone war permanent--and institutionalized.

The clearest attempt at institutionalizing the drone war is the Obama administration’s development of a so-called “playbook” on targeted killings, which was first revealed by the Washington Post. The “playbook” is supposed to set out the rules and regulations for when the U.S. can conduct killings of targets, including American citizens overseas and the process for how strikes by the U.S. military of CIA can be approved. Included in the “playbook,” according to reporting by Newsweek’s Daniel Klaidman, is the so-called “disposition matrix,” which “prescribes whether terrorist suspects should be killed, captured, or dealt with in some other way.” Ostensibly, as Klaidman writes, the “playbook” would be “a crucial check on a war without defined boundaries.” But that’s how critics of the drone war and civil liberties activists see it.

The “playbook” is “a step in exactly the wrong direction, a further bureaucratization of the CIA’s paramilitary killing program,” the American Civil Liberties Union’s Hina Shamsi told the Post. Furthermore, the Obama administration has agreed to carve out an exception for the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan--meaning the the vast majority of strikes will not come under the rules in the “playbook.” That means that the “playbook” will not cover the CIA’s “signature strikes,” which are drone attacks that are launched based on “patterns of life”--even when the identities of those targeted are not known.

The fact that there is the Kill List, that there is Tuesday Kill Day, that there are efforts to turn it into ongoing policy only makes fundamentally clear that this [drone campaign] has run wild, as will happen with bureaucracy,” said Robert Greenwald, the founder and president of Brave New Films (and an AlterNet board member) who has traveled to Pakistan to document the effects of the drone strikes there. “The original idea is that drones will be used in targeted assassinations on so-called high value targets who represent an imminent threat to the US. Well, now the bureaucracy has taken over, the forces who believe you can kill your way to safety have taken over, and we’re seeing the consequences.”

And while the “playbook” means the drone war will continue and will be institutionalized, there’s also a move to continue to allow the CIA to run wild in Pakistan.

They’re giving the CIA another year to kill as many people as it wants. And that is extremely worrisome,” said Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of the anti-war group CodePink and the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

4. Exposure of Memo on Assassinations of Americans

The scoop by NBC News investigative journalist Michael Isikoff that revealed the legal reasoning behind why the Obama administration thinks it has the right to kill American citizens has directed more attention toward U.S. drone strikes.

Isikoff published a Justice Department memo that laid out the administration’s convoluted attempt at justifying the killing of American citizens. The memo was a summary of the actual Office of Legal Counsel document that gave the administration cover to carry out a strike on Anwar al-Awlaki, an anti-American imam living in Yemen and an alleged member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (It’s important to note, though, that the Justice Department paper can be used to justify the killing of U.S. citizens by other means besides drone strikes that the covert war perpetrated by the Obama administration has used. These include Special Operations Force raids, cruise missile strikes and more.)

The memo said that America can order the killing of U.S. citizens if the person is a “senior operational leader” in Al Qaeda--”even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S,” as Isikoff reported. One of the justifications for killing an American citizen, according to the white paper, is if there is an “imminent” threat from the U.S. citizen.

But the memo has come under fire from civil liberties groups, who point out that the definition of “imminent” the Justice Department uses makes the word meaningless. It has also come under attack for other reasons. “One of the most dangerous aspects of the white paper is the claim that ‘there exists no appropriate judicial forum to evaluate these constitutional considerations’ either before or after a killing,” said the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Pardiss Kebriaei in a statement.

The publication of the memo has sparked a larger media conversation about the use of drones—as has the nomination of John Brennan to be head of the CIA. In the wake of the Brennan nomination, the New York Times published a harrowing tale of how drone attacks can go terribly wrong. The Times tells the story of Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni Islamic cleric who had denounced Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda members were angry with the cleric, and a contentious meeting was held between Jaber and the militants. But here’s what happened next: “As the five men stood arguing by a cluster of palm trees, a volley of remotely operated American missiles shot down from the night sky and incinerated them all, along with a camel that was tied up nearby,” the Times reports. “The killing of Mr. Jaber, just the kind of leader most crucial to American efforts to eradicate Al Qaeda, was a reminder of the inherent hazards of the quasi-secret campaign of targeted killings.”

5. Films and Activism

In response to the Obama administration’s escalation of drone attacks, activism against the covert war is ramping up. But it hasn’t been easy. As CodePink’s Benjamin, a long-time anti-war activist, explained to AlterNet: “It’s been very hard during the four years of the Obama administration to get people to pay attention to this and be outraged enough to do something. During the Bush years this would have been easy, and we would have had thousands and thousands of people out on the streets, but now its been very difficult and tedious.”

But Benjamin and Greenwald both see an uptick in public discussion of drone strikes, partly as a result of the escalation in attacks and the codification of the program. “I see a sea change between one year ago when I was just finishing up the book and now,” said Benjamin. “ can’t go a week without getting some new and important piece of information about the drones. There’s the issue of drones coming back to be used domestically, and that brings in a new constituency of libertarians. There’s more talk about it from the administration, and there’s more movement on the part of human rights and civil liberties groups.”

Benjamin is looking forward to a year of intense action against the drone war. And it started at the Brennan confirmation hearing. CODEPINK activists continually interrupted the hearing, raising questions that Senators would not raise with Brennan, the architect of the drone policy who is slated to be the head of the CIA. CODEPINK activists raised the question of the enemies the U.S. was creating by using drones and the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awalaki, the 16-year-old U.S. citizen and son of Anwar al-Awlaki. The administration has never explained how the young man was killed--and there were never any allegations made that he was an enemy of the country he was a citizen of.

In an interview, Benjamin explained what CodePink would be doing in the coming year. “We’re building momemtum for some kind of legislation [on drones] in Congress...and we’re working on mobilizations happening in the spring. There’s a national mobilization called for San Diego in the first week of April to focus on General Atomics, [a company that makes drones]. And then there’s a mobilization in upstate New York [at a military base where drones are remotely controlled], so there’s going to be a lot of activity in the spring.”

And then there are documentaries coming out about the covert war that is sure to spark even more conversation about drone strikes and the global war on terror. The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill is the focus of a new film called Dirty Wars, which premiered recently at the Sundance Film Festival and has already created a lot of buzz. A book by Scahill with the same name, based on years of investigative reporting at the front lines of America’s covert war, is slated to be released this year as well. While Dirty Wars focuses on Scahill’s investigation of the full breadth of the covert war--from Special Ops raids to cruise missile strikes--drone attacks are also a focus. We...see and hear directly from survivors of night raids and drone strikes, including the family of the first American citizen marked for death and being hunted by his own government,” the film’s website states.

Scahill explained to Democracy Now! that “the drone strikes are hitting in areas where they’re killing civilians. And what it’s doing is it’s turning people in Yemen that might not be disposed, have anything against the United States, into potential enemies that have a legitimate grudge against America.”

Greenwald of Brave New Films will also be releasing a film based on his investigations of the drone attacks in Pakistan. Greenwald explained that he “researched, interviewed, filmed and investigated a variety of people around the drone issue--those who have been directly impacted, with family members killed or injured, those who are injured themselves, politicians including Imran Khan, doctors, legislators, and others.

“That’s the basis for our film, and our campaign, which will be making clear to people that there is not only a human toll, but there’s a moral toll and there’s a security toll. As [Pakistani politician and critic of drone strikes] Imran Khan said to me, ‘yes there were a hundred fanatics in the Waziristan area, but with your drone policy now you have a million people who have a deep hatred for the United States because they’ve had family members killed.’ Our film, in the tradition of other films we’ve done, will be both investigative and also be something that people can screen and organize around. It can inform and can make clear the multiple problems with the drone policy.”

Greenwald remains hopeful that the tide of public opinion, which is still in favor of drone strikes, can be turned around. “Yes there’s a lot of support for it right now, but I think that there’s a lot of work ahead. I think we can expose not just drones, but as with Afghanistan, the notion that you are safer by invading, occupying or assassinating,” he said.

People crave information, crave investigation and crave some factual analysis...How can you stand up and say that there’s no collateral damage, and there’s 178 children who have been killed?”

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.