Human Rights

Intelligence Documents Suggest Obama Administration Lied About Who Drones Kill

The reports, obtained by McClatchy, show targeted assassinations go beyond Al Qaida leaders.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

The Obama administration hasn’t been forthright about who it kills with drones, according to classified intelligence reports obtained by McClatchy.

Contradicting previous rhetoric claiming the U.S.’s targeted killing program only targets “specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaida and associated forces,” the documents corroborate existing reports that hundreds of “other” Pakistanis and Afghans have died at the hands of the Obama administration’s drone attacks. McClatchy’s analysis goes into numbers and details:

The intelligence reports list killings of alleged Afghan insurgents whose organization wasn’t on the U.S. list of terrorist groups at the time of the 9/11 strikes; of suspected members of a Pakistani extremist group that didn’t exist at the time of 9/11; and of unidentified individuals described as “other militants” and “foreign fighters.

At least 265 of up to 482 people who the U.S. intelligence reports estimated the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior al Qaida leaders but instead were “assessed” as Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists. Drones killed only six top al Qaida leaders in those months, according to news media accounts.

The documents also provide a glimpse into the Obama administration’s seemingly thin rationale for executing some attacks. Contrary to claims of the CIA program’s precision and “exceedingly rare” civilian casualties, the intelligence reports proves that “drone operators weren’t always certain who they were killing.” McClatchy’s report notes that several drone victims “died in what appeared to be signature strikes,” or attacks carried out based on a “signature” pattern of behavior, rather than a known identity.  

The documents also reveal a breadth of targeting that is complicated by the culture in the restive region of Pakistan where militants and ordinary tribesmen dress the same, and carrying a weapon is part of the centuries-old tradition of the Pashtun ethnic group.

As others have pointed out, the documents merely support what several investigative journalists have already revealed—that the scope of Obama’s drone targets extend far beyond its stated standards. Reports from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that up to 3,581 people, including up to 884 civilians, have died in drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to 2013.

Steven Hsieh is an editorial assistant at AlterNet and writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @stevenjhsieh.