Cora Currier

Obama's Deadly Drone War Is Still Shrouded In Secrecy

Nearly six months ago, President Obama promised more transparency and tighter policies around targeted killings. In a speech, Obama vowed that the U.S. would only use force against a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” It would fire only when there was “near-certainty” civilians would not be killed or injured, and when capture was not feasible.

We don’t know the U.S. count of civilian deaths

The administration says that it has a count of civilian deaths, and that there is a “wide gap” between U.S. and independent figures. But the administration won’t release its own figures.

Outside estimates of total civilian deaths since 2002 range from just over 200 to more than 1,000.  The Pakistani government has given three different numbers: 400, 147, and 67.

McClatchy and the Washington Post obtained intelligence documents showing that for long stretches of time, the CIA estimated few or no civilian deaths. The documents also confirmed the use of signature strikes, in which the U.S. targets people without knowing their identity. The CIA categorized many of those killed as simply “other militants” or “foreign fighters.” The Post wrote that the agency sometimes designated “militants” with what seemed like circumstantial or vague evidence, such as “men who were ‘probably’ involved in cross-border attacks” in Afghanistan.

The administration reportedly curtailed signature strikes this year, though the new guidelines don’t necessarily preclude them. A White House factsheet released around Obama’s speech said that “it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.” It did not say that people must be identified. (In any case, the U.S. has not officially acknowledged the policy of signature strikes.)

Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed only that four Americans have been killed by drone strikes since 2009: Anwar al Awlaki and his sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman,Samir Khan, and Jude Kenan Mohammed. Holder said that only the elder Awlaki was “specifically targeted,” but did not explain how the others came to be killed.

Although Obama said that this disclosure was intended to “facilitate transparency and debate,” since then, the administration has not commented on specific allegations of civilian deaths.

We don’t know exactly who can be targeted

The list of groups that the military considers “associated forces” of Al Qaeda is classified. The administration has declared that it targets members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and “elements” of Al Shabaab, but there are still questions about how the U.S. determines that an individual belonging to those groups is in fact a “continuing and imminent threat.” (After the terror alarm that led to the closing of U.S. embassies this summer, officials told the New York Times they had “expanded the scope of people [they] could go after” in Yemen.)

This ties into the debate over civilian casualties: The government would seem to consider some people legitimate targets that others don’t.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth studies of particular strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, respectively. They include eyewitness reportsof civilian deaths. (Most of the deaths investigated happened before the Obama administration’s new policies were announced, although the administration has not said when those guidelines went into effect.) The reports also raised questions of the legalityof specific strikes, questioning whether the deaths were all unavoidable casualties of legitimate attacks.  

It does not appear that the U.S. plans to expand strikes against Al Qaeda to other countries – officials have reportedly told Iraq, for example, it won’t send drones there. But the U.S. has established a surveillance drone base in Niger, and fed information from drones to French forces fighting in Mali.

We don’t know if the U.S. compensates civilian casualties

CIA director John Brennan suggested during his confirmation hearing that the U.S. made condolence payments to harmed families. But there is little evidence of it happening. U.S. Central Command told ProPublica that it had 33 pages related to condolence payments – but wouldn’t release any of them to us.

We don’t always know which strikes are American

While unnamed officials sometimes confirm that strikes came from U.S. drones, other attacks may be from PakistaniYemeni, or even Saudi planes.

(It’s also worth noting that the U.S. has also used cruise missiles and Special Forces raids. But the bulk of U.S. counterterrorism actions outside Afghanistan in recent years appear to rely on drones.)

We don’t know the precise legal rationale behind the strikes

Some members of Congress have seen the legal memos behind targeted killing of U.S. citizens. But lawmakers were not granted access to all memos on the program.

Other congressmen have introduced bills with more reporting requirements for targeted killings. (Proposals for a “drone court” for oversight have not gotten very far.)

It’s far from clear that any of that additional oversight would lead to public disclosure.

The government and the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times arestill locked in court battles over requests for drone documents. While a judge has ruled the CIA can no longer assert the “fiction” that it can’t reveal if it has any interest in drones, the agency hasn’t been compelled to release any information yet. The government has also so far fought off disclosure of legal memos underpinning targeted killings.

And here are some things we’ve learned through leaks and independent reporting:

How the U.S. tracks targets: Documents provided by Edward Snowden to the Washington Post detailed the NSA’s “extensive involvement.” Lawyers in a terrorism-related case also uncovered reports that government surveillance of their client may have led to a drone strike in Somalia. The Atlantic published a detailed account of Yemen using a child to plant a tracking chip on a man who was killed in a U.S. strike.

What people in the countries affected think: The Pakistani government’s cooperation with at least some U.S. drone strikes – long an open secret – has now been well-documented. Public sentiment in the country is vividly anti-drone, even when violent Taliban commanders are killed, and politicians continue to denounce them as American interference. Limited polling in the region most affected by drones is contradictory, with some saying that at the very least, they prefer drones to the Pakistani military campaigns. Life in those areas is between a drone and a hard place: Residents told Amnesty International of the psychological toll from drones, and theyalso face reprisals from militants who accuse them of spying.

Yemen’s president continues to openly embrace U.S. strikes, though the public generally opposes them – particularly those strikes that hit lower-level fighters, or those whose affiliations with Al Qaeda aren’t clear. Foreign Policy recently detailed the aftermath of an August strike where two teenagers died. Their family disputes they had any link to terrorism.

The physical infrastructure: More of the network of drone bases across the world has been revealed – from the unmasking of a secret base in Saudi Arabia to the fact that drones had to be moved off the U.S. base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, after crashes and fear of collision with passenger planes.

The CIA’s role: The administration had reportedly planned to scale back the CIA’s role in targeted killing, moving control of much of the drone program to the military. But the CIA reportedly still handles strikes in Pakistan and has a role in Yemen as well.

The history of the programs: Revelations continue to change our understanding of the contours of the drone war, but two books published this year offer comprehensive accounts – The Way of the Knife, by Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, and Dirty Wars, by Jeremy Scahill.

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Big Win for War Profiteers: Obama Rolls Back Limits on Arms Exports

The United States is loosening controls over military exports, in a shift that former U.S. officials and human rights advocates say could increase the flow of American-made military parts to the world’s conflicts and make it harder to enforce arms sanctions.

Critics, including some who’ve worked on enforcing arms export laws, say the changes could undermine efforts to prevent arms smuggling to Iran and others.  

Brake pads may sound innocuous, but “the Iranians are constantly looking for spare parts for old U.S. jets,” said Steven Pelak, who recently left the Department of Justice after six years overseeing investigations and prosecutions of export violations.

“It’s going to be easier for these military items to flow, harder to get a heads-up on their movements, and, in theory, easier for a smuggling ring to move weapons,” said William Hartung, author of a recent report on the topic for the Center for International Policy.

In the current system, every manufacturer and exporter of military equipment has to register with the State Department and get a license for each planned export. U.S. officials scrutinize each proposed deal to make sure the receiving country isn’t violating human rights and to determine the risk of the shipment winding up with terrorists or another questionable group.

Under the new system, whole categories of equipment encompassing tens of thousands of items will move to the Commerce Department, where they will be under more“flexible” controls. Final rules have been issued for six of 19 categories of equipment and more will roll out in the coming months. Some military equipment, such as fighter jets, drones, and other systems and parts, will stay under the State Department’s tighter oversight.

Commerce will do interagency human rights reviews before allowing exports, but only as a matter of policy, whereas in the State Department it is required by law.

The switch from State to Commerce represents a big win for defense manufacturers, who have long lobbied in favor of relaxing U.S. export rules, which they say put a damper on international trade. Among the companies that recently lobbied on the issue: Lockheed, which manufactures C-130 transport planesTextron, which makes Kiowa Warrior helicopters, and Honeywell, which outfits military choppers.

Overall, industry trade groups and big defense companies have spent roughly $170 million over the last three years lobbying on a variety of issues, including export control reform, a ProPublica analysis of disclosure forms shows.

The administration says in a factsheet that “spending time and resources protecting a specialty bolt diverts resources from protecting truly sensitive items,” and that the effort will allow them to build “higher fences around fewer items.” Commerce says it will beef up its enforcement wing to prevent illegal re-exports or shipments to banned entities. The military has also supported the relaxed controls, arguing that the changes will make it easier to arm foreign allies.

An interview with Commerce Department officials was canceled due to the government shutdown, and the State Department did not respond to questions.

The shift is part of a larger administration initiative to update the arms export process, which many acknowledge needed to be streamlined. But critics of the move to Commerce say that decision has been overly driven by the interests of defense manufacturers.

“They’ve cut through the fat, into the meat, and to the bone,” said Brittany Benowitz, who was defense adviser to former Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., and recently co-authored a paper on the pending changes.

“I think it’s fair to say that the views of the enforcement agencies and actors charged with carrying out the controls haven’t won the day,” said Pelak, the former Justice Department official.

Current controls haven’t prevented the U.S. from dominating arms exports up to now: In 2011, the U.S. concluded $66 billion in arms sales agreements, nearly 80 percent of the global market. The State Department denied just one percent of arms export licenses between 2008 and 2010.

At a recent hearing, a State Department official touted the economic benefits, saying the “defense industry is going to become even more competitive than they are already.”

Under the new policy, military helicopters, transport planes and other types of military equipment that typically need approval may be eligible for license-free export to 36 allied governments, including much of Europe, Argentina, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.

According to Colby Goodman, an arms-control expert with the Open Society Policy Center, once an item is approved for that exemption, it’s not clear that there will be any ongoing, country-specific human rights review. (The State Department hasn’t yet responded to our request for comment on that point.)

Goodman is particularly concerned about Turkey, where in the last year authoritiesviolently suppressed protests and “security forces committed unlawful killings,” according to the most recent State Department Human Rights report.

Under the new system, some military parts can now be sent license-free to any country besides China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan or Syria. Other parts that are deemed not “specially designed” for military use, while also initially banned from those countries, have even fewer restrictions on re-exports.

Spare parts are in high demand from sanctioned countries and groups, which need them to keep old equipment up and running, according to arms control researchers. Indonesia scrambled to keep its C-130s in the air after the U.S. blocked exports for human rights violations in the 1990s. In a report on trade in arms parts, Oxfam noted that by the time of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, Muammar Qaddafi’s air combat fleet was in dire shape, referred to by one analyst as “the world’s largest military parking lot.” Goodman said Congolese militia members may be using aging arms that the U.S. sold decades ago to the former Zaire.

Pelak says the changes will make enforcement harder by getting rid of part of the paper trail as parts and munitions exit the U.S.: “When you take away that licensing record, you put the investigation overseas.” His office handled dozens of cases each year in which military items had been diverted to prohibited countries. The Government Accountability Office raised concerns last year about Commerce’s enforcement abilities as it takes control of exports that once went through the State Department.

The president is authorized – in fact, required – to revise the list of items under State Department control. But the massive shift to Commerce means that laws and regulations that were designed with the longstanding State Department system in place may now be up to presidential prerogative.

Vetting for human rights compliance is one such requirement. The Commerce Department said it will also continue to publicly report the sales of so-called “major defense equipment.”

Other laws may not get carried over, however. For example, if firearms are moved to Commerce, manufacturers may no longer have to notify Congress of foreign sales.

Several organizations, including the Center for International Policy, the Open Society Policy Center, and the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, have called on the administration to hold off moving some military items from the State Department, and have asked Congress to apply State’s reporting requirements and restrictions to more of the military items and parts soon to be under Commerce control.

In one area, the administration does appear to have temporarily backed off – firearms and ammunition. Any decision to loosen exports for firearms could have conflicted with the president’s call for enhanced domestic gun control.

According to a memo obtained by the Wall Street Journal last spring, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security both opposed draft versions of revisions to the firearms category. (The Justice Department press office is out of operation due to the government shutdown, and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.) Shifting firearms was also likely to be a lightning rod for arms control groups. As the New York Times’ C.J. Chivers has documented, small arms trafficking has been the scourge of conflicts around the world.

Draft rules for firearms and ammunitions were ready in mid-2012, according to Lawrence Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group for gun manufacturers. The Commerce Department even sent representatives to an industry export conference to preview manufacturers on the new system they might fall under.

But since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last December, no proposed rule has been published.

Keane thinks the connection is irrelevant. “This has nothing to do with domestic gun control legislation. We’re talking about exports,” he said. “Our products have not moved forward, and we’re disappointed by that.”

The defense industry has long pushed for a loosening of the U.S. export controlsInitial wish-lists were aimed at restructuring and speeding up the State Department system, where the wait for a license had sometimes stretched to months. The current focus on moving items to Commerce began under the Obama administration.

The aerospace industry has been particularly active, as new rules for aircraft are the first to take effect. Commercial satellites had been moved briefly to Commerce in the 1990s, but when U.S. space companies were caught giving technical data to China in 1998, Congress returned them to State control. Last year, satellite makers successfully lobbied Congress to lift satellite-specific rules that had kept them from being eligible for the reforms.

Newer industries want to cash in, too. Virgin Galactic wrote in a comment on a proposed rule that the “nascent but growing” space tourism industry was hindered by current rules. At a conference in 2011, the chief executive of Northrup Grumman warned of “the U.S. drone aircraft industry losing its dominance” if exports weren’t boosted. (Drones are regulated under missile technology controls, and are mostly unaffected by the current changes.)

Lauren Airey, of the National Association of Manufacturers, named two main objections to the current system. First off, fees: Any company that makes a product on the State Department list has to be registered whether or not they actually export, with yearly costs starting at $2,500. There’s no fee for the Commerce list.

Secondly, any equipment that contains a listed part gets “lifetime controls,” Airey said. If a buyer wants to resell something, even for scrap, they need U.S. approval. (For example, the U.S. is currently debating whether to let Turkey re-sell American attack helicopters to Pakistan.) Under Commerce, “there are still limitations, but they are more flexible,” Airey said.

Airey’s association (and other trade groups) makes the case that foreign competitors are “taking advantage of perceived and real issues in U.S. export controls to promote foreign parts and components – advertising themselves as State-Department-free.” Airey demurred when asked for an estimate on the amount of business lost: “It’s hard to put a number directly on how much export controls cause U.S. companies to be avoided.”

An Aerospace Industries Association executive noted at a panel this spring, “We really did not move the needle at all by complaining about the fact that we weren't making as much money as we wanted to.”

But at a recent hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, members of Congress highlighted economic impact.

“In my district in Rhode Island,” said David Cicilline, D-R.I., “as many of our defense companies are looking to expand their business, really, to respond to declines in defense domestic spending, international sales are becoming even more important and really critical…to the job growth in my state.”

William Keating, D-Mass., said that “with declining defense budgets, arms sales are even more critical to the defense industry in my state to maintain production lines and keep jobs.”

“That would not have been the response a decade ago,” said one staffer who works on the issue. “National security hawks would have been worried about defense items moving to the Commerce list. The environment on the Hill has dramatically changed.”

One concern came from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which believes that easing controls on military technology and software could actually lead to more outsourcing of production.

William Lowell, who spent a decade of his 30 years at the State Department directing defense trade controls, told ProPublica that the move represents a major shift in the U.S. attitude towards international arms trade. U.S. policy has long been aimed at “denying the entry of U.S. military articles of any type into the international gray arms market – for which small arms and military parts are the lifeblood,” Lowell wrote incomments opposing the new rules. “Commercial arms exports have never been considered normal commercial trade.”

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Why Won’t President Obama Free More Prisoners?

This originally appeared on ProPublica.

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White House Inquiry Into Brutal Afghan Massacre Kept Secret

Soon after taking office, President Obama pledged to open a new inquiry into the deaths of perhaps thousands of Taliban prisoners of war at the hands of U.S.-allied Afghan fighters in late 2001.

Now it says it has concluded its investigation – but won’t make it public.

The investigation found that no U.S. personnel were involved, said White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. Other than that, she said, there is “no plan to release anything.”

The silence leaves many unanswered questions about what may have been one of the worst war crimes since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, including why previous American investigations were shut down, and how evidence was destroyed in the case.   

“This is not a sufficient answer given the magnitude of what happened here,” said Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy for Physicians for Human Rights, the organization that originally uncovered mass graves where the prisoners were buried.

The long saga began in November 2001, when Taliban prisoners who had surrendered to Northern Alliance commander Abdul Rashid Dostum were transported in shipping containers without food or water. According to eyewitness accounts and forensic workby human rights investigators, hundreds of men died of suffocation while others were shot, and their bodies buried at the desert site of Dasht-i-Leili.

Dostum was working closely with U.S. troops at the time. Surviving prisoners allegedthat Americans were present at the loading of the containers – but the Pentagon has said repeatedly that it had no evidence that U.S. forces participated or were even aware of the deaths. (Dostum has denied any personal involvement, and claims that roughly 200 men died in transit, from battlefield wounds.)

In the fall of 2002, the U.S., U.N., and even Dostum himself expressed support for an investigation. But none got underway. In the summer of 2009, prompted by a New York Times report that Bush administration officials had actively discouraged U.S. investigations, President Obama ordered a new review of the case.

Hayden, the White House spokeswoman, said the new investigation “was led by the intelligence community,” and found that no Americans – including CIA officers, who were also in the region – were involved.

She declined to answer the following lingering questions:

  • What was the scope of the investigation? Former Bush administration officials who had been involved in the initial U.S. response to Dasht-i-Leili told ProPublica that they had not been contacted for a new inquiry. Physicians for Human Rights said it received only tepid responses to its queries from the administration over the past several years.
  • Did the investigation cover the allegations, reported in the New York Times, that Bush administration officials had discouraged inquiries by the FBI and State Department?
  • Did the U.S. help with related inquires by the U.N. or the Afghan government? Even absent direct involvement of U.S. personnel, government documents make clear that the U.S. knew about the allegations early on. The U.S. was in an alliance with Dostum, and was the de facto power in the country after the invasion. An Afghan human rights official told ProPublica last month, “I haven’t seen any political or even rhetorical support of investigations into Dasht-i-Leili or any other investigation into past atrocities, from either Bush or Obama.”
  • Did the new investigation cover revelations that graves were disturbed and evidence removed as late as 2008? What, if anything, did the U.S. do to help protect the site over the years?

A parallel investigation began by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2010 also never made headway. The committee staffer leading that investigation was former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who is currently serving time in federal prison for revealing the name of an undercover officer to a reporter.

In letters from prison to ProPublica and an interview published recently in Salon, Kiriakou said that Secretary of State John Kerry, who was then chairman of the committee, personally called off the investigation. The State Department declined to comment, but a former Senate aide to Kerry called Kiriakou’s account “completely fabricated.”

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Want to Know Who the U.S. is at War With? Sorry, That's Classified

This originally appeared on ProPublica.

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Who Is America At War With? The Answer is Classified

In a major national security speech this spring, President Obama said again and again that the U.S. is at war with “Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.”

At a hearing in May, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked the Defense Department to provide him with a current list of Al Qaeda affiliates.

The Pentagon responded – but Levin’s office told ProPublica they aren’t allowed to share it. Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for Levin, would say only that the department’s “answer included the information requested.”

A Pentagon spokesman told ProPublica that revealing such a list could cause “serious damage to national security.”

“Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks.”

It’s not an abstract question: U.S. drone strikes and other actions frequently target “associated forces,” as has been the case with dozens of strikes against an Al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen.

During the May hearing, Michael Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, said he was “not sure there is a list per se.” Describing terrorist groups as “murky” and “shifting,” he said, “it would be difficult for the Congress to get involved in trying to track the designation of which are the affiliate forces” of Al Qaeda.

Sheehan said that by the Pentagon’s standard, “sympathy is not enough…. it has to be an organized group and that group has to be in co-belligerent status with Al Qaeda operating against the United States.”

The White House tied Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and “elements” of Al Shabaab in Somalia to Al Qaeda in a recent report to Congress on military actions. But the report also included a classified annex.

Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law who served as a legal counsel during the Bush administration and has written on this question at length, told ProPublica that the Pentagon’s reasoning for keeping the affiliates secret seems weak. “If the organizations are ‘inflated’ enough to be targeted with military force, why cannot they be mentioned publicly?” Goldsmith said. He added that there is “a countervailing very important interest in the public knowing who the government is fighting against in its name."

The law underpinning the U.S. war against Al Qaeda is known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, and it was passed one week after the 9/11 attacks. It doesn’t actually include the words “associated forces,” though courts and Congress have endorsed the phrase.

As we explained earlier this year, the emergence of new or more loosely-aligned terrorist groups has legal scholars wondering how effectively the U.S. will be able to “shoehorn” them into the AUMF. During the May hearing, many lawmakers expressed concern about the Pentagon’s capacious reading of the law. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., described it as a “carte blanche.”

Obama, in his May speech, said he looked forward “to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.” But he didn’t give a timeframe. On Wednesday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., introduced an amendment that would sunset the law at the end of 2014, to coincide with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was voted down the same day, 185 to 236.

The AUMF isn’t the only thing the government relies on to take military action. In speeches and interviews Obama administration officials also bring up the president’s constitutional power to defend the country, even without congressional authorization.

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U.S. Has Nothing to Say About 10-Year-Old Killed in Drone Strike

On June 9, a U.S. drone fired on a vehicle in a remote province of Yemen and killed several militants, according to media reports.

It’s the first prominent allegation of a civilian death since President Obama pledged in a major speech in May “to facilitate transparency and debate” about the U.S. war on al Qaida-linked militants beyond Afghanistan. He also said “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” in a strike.

So what does the administration have to say in response to evidence that a child was killed?

Nothing.

National security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden would not comment on the June 9 strike or more generally on the White House position on acknowledging civilian deaths. She referred further questions to the CIA, which also declined to comment.  

The president’s speech was the capstone on a shift in drone war policy that would reportedly bring the program largely under control of the military (as opposed to the CIA) and impose stricter criteria on who could be targeted. In theory, it could also bring some of the classified program into the open. As part of its transparency effort, the administration released the names of four U.S. citizens who had been killed in drone strikes.

An official White House fact sheet on targeted killing released along with the speech repeated the “near-certainty” standard for avoiding civilian casualties. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated it a few days later, when he told an audience in Ethiopia: “We do not fire when we know there are children or collateral — we just don't do it.”

But White House press secretary Jay Carney said in late May that “this commitment to transparency…does not mean that we would be able to discuss the details of every counterterrorism operation.”

The new White House statements don’t address what happens after a strike, even in general terms.

CIA Director John Brennan offered one of the few public explanations of how casualties are assessed during his nomination hearing in February. Before his confirmation, Brennan was the White House counterterrorism adviser, and is considered to be the architect of Obama’s drone war policy.

He told senators that, “analysts draw on a large body of information — human intelligence, signals intelligence, media reports, and surveillance footage — to help us make an informed determination about whether civilians were in fact killed or injured.”

Brennan also said the U.S. could work with local governments to offer condolence payments. As we’ve reported, there’s little visible evidence of that happening.

At the hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Brennan if the U.S. should acknowledge when it “makes a mistake and kills the wrong person.”

“We need to acknowledge it publicly,” Brennan responded. Brennan also proposed that the government make public “the overall numbers of civilian deaths resulting from U.S. strikes.”

Neither overall numbers nor a policy of acknowledging casualties made it into Obama’s speech, or into the fact sheet. Hayden, the White House spokeswoman, would not say why.

The government sharply disputes that there have been large numbers of civilian deaths but has never released its own figures. Independent counts, largely compiled from news reports, range from about 200 to around 1,000 for Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia combined over the past decade.

Researchers agree that the number of drone strikes and civilian deaths have dropped during the past year. (Before Obama’s speech, an administration official attributed this partly to the new heightened standards.) The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which generally has the highest tally of civilian dead, has found there were between three and 16 civilians reportedly killed in about 30 drone or other airstrikes in Yemen and Pakistan so far this year. No strikes have been reported in Somalia.

“Official” statistics might not be much help without knowing more about how they were compiled, said Sarah Holewinski, head of the advocacy group Center for Civilians in Conflict.

That’s because it’s still not clear how the U.S. distinguishes between civilians and “militants,” or “combatants.”

In so-called signature strikes, operators sometimes fire on groups of people who appear to be engaged in militant activity without necessarily knowing their identities. The newly instituted drone rules reportedly roll back the military’s ability to use signature strikes, but the CIA can keep firing in Pakistan under the old rules at least through the end of the year.

An administration official told ProPublica last year that when a strike is made, “if a group of fighting-age males are in a home where we know they are constructing explosives or plotting an attack, it's assumed that all of them are in on that effort.”

The new White House fact sheet contradicts that, stating: “It is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.”

From the outside, in a strike like the recent one in Yemen, it’s impossible to know how these things were determined.  McClatchy reported that the target, Saleh Hassan Huraydan, had “largely unquestioned” ties to al Qaida. Yemeni officials said he arranged to bring money and fighters from Saudi Arabia to Yemen.  

As for Huraydan’s young brother, “They may not have realized who was in the car. Or they may have realized it and decided collateral damage was okay,” Holewinski says.

The same questions dog the death of another boy that the administration has acknowledged: the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric tied to terror attacks. Awlaki and his son were killed in separate strikes in Yemen in the fall of 2011. The boy, Attorney General Eric Holder has said, was “not specifically targeted.”

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'Black Sites' and 'Renditions': A Public Indictment Could Shed Light on CIA’s Secret Program

This article was produced by and originally appeared at ProPublica.

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'Signature Strikes' On Unidentified People: The Drone War Doctrine We Still Know Nothing About

The nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director has prompted intense debate on Capitol Hill and in the media about U.S. drone killings abroad. But the focus has been on the targeting of American citizens – a narrow issue that accounts for a miniscule proportion of the hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in recent years.

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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Drones

This story originally appeared at ProPublica on May 31, 2012.

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ALEC and ExxonMobil Push Loopholes in Fracking Chemical Disclosure Rules

One of the key controversies about fracking is the chemical makeup of the fluid that is pumped deep into the ground to break apart rock and release natural gas. Some companies have been reluctant to disclose what's in their fracking fluid. Scientists and environmental advocates argue that, without knowing its precise composition, they can't thoroughly investigate complaints of contamination.

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