The CIA Will Keep Killing Civilians With Drone Strikes Because The 'Rules' For Drone Strikes Aren't Actually Rules

from the more-like-a-list-of-'it-would-be-nice-if...'-requests dept

Extrajudicial killing by pilotless air strikes is just something our government does now. Weaponized drones are sent out to eliminate enemies of the United States, supposedly under the guidance of the Dept. of Justice and some presidential policy directives. But the rules aren’t rules. They appear to be set in stone when the legal authority behind these drone strikes is questioned. But they’re much more fluid when they “need” to be… like, say, after a drone strike takes out more than its intended target. [h/t Chris Soghoian]

Last week, the U.S. officials disclosed that two Western hostages, U.S. and Italian aid workers Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, were killed on Jan. 15 by a U.S. drone strike aimed at al Qaeda militants in Pakistan…

Last week, Mr. Obama apologized for the killings and took personal responsibility for the mistake. He called the operation “fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region…”

But what guidelines? Certainly not those that supposedly govern these strikes. According to those guidelines, the target must be determined to be an “imminent threat” before the strike can be authorized. EXCEPT:

President Barack Obama tightened rules for the U.S. drone program in 2013, but he secretly approved a waiver giving the Central Intelligence Agency more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else to strike suspected militants, according to current and former U.S. officials.

These rules were in place to prevent exactly what occurred in this drone strike: civilian casualties. In Pakistan, this condition does not apply. So, rather than have the CIA hold off until it had gathered more intelligence, the strike was carried out at the agency’s discretion.

Obama apparently issued a Presidential Policy Directive on drone strikes in 2013. Whatever it changed in the existing policies has yet to be implemented. It certainly didn’t revoke the CIA’s Pakistan pass. Rules don’t apply in that country’s borders. And there’s no way of telling if the similar waiver exempting Iraq and Syria has been withdrawn.

The DOJ’s drone strike memo says targets must present a “continued” and “imminent” threat. This wording alone ensures only minimal investigative standards need to be met before authorizing a drone strike in any country the US currently has a military presence. (Or adjacent to that country…) Because troops may be targeted by terrorist groups, any suspected terrorists in the area can be considered “imminent threats” simply because of their proximity — not their actions.

This language — along with multiple administrative waivers — has turned drone strikes into something performed almost exclusively at the CIA’s discretion. Sure, there’s some oversight of the program, but like a majority of US intelligence oversight, it’s mainly words rather than deeds.

Here’s what drone killing oversight looks like:

About once a month, staff members of the congressional intelligence committees drive across the Potomac River to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., and watch videos of people being blown up.

As part of the macabre ritual the staff members look at the footage of drone strikes in Pakistan and other countries and a sampling of the intelligence buttressing each strike, but not the internal C.I.A. cables discussing the attacks and their aftermath.

So, the CIA holds a monthly snuff filmfest for intelligence oversight committees. Figuring moving pictures are worth thousands of words, it then withholds the thousands of words justifying its decision to carry out a strike. Despite this process being clearly aimed at minimizing objections and questions, intelligence committee heads still offer their support of the program and the agency running it, even when they clearly don’t trust the CIA on other issues.

When Ms. Feinstein was asked in a meeting with reporters in 2013 why she was so sure she was getting the truth about the drone program while she accused the C.I.A. of lying to her about torture, she seemed surprised.

“That’s a good question, actually,” she said.

Cognitive dissonance has long been a feature of intelligence committee leadership. Sen. Feinstein has now done this twice — the other time being her outrage over the CIA spying on her staffers, while simultaneously offering her support for NSA programs that performed similar functions.

The CIA holds an extreme amount of power, one that can be used carelessly and/or thoroughly abused. And no one — at any level of government — has done anything more than encourage it to handle drone strikes as it sees fit. And all the while, the rules continue to shift, molding themselves to each situation, often applying retroactive forgiveness for legally-questionable strikes.

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Comments on “The CIA Will Keep Killing Civilians With Drone Strikes Because The 'Rules' For Drone Strikes Aren't Actually Rules”

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59 Comments
tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yeah, because no one hated us and ran terror attacks against us before we started retaliating for the terror attacks they ran against us!

Oh, come on! The US has a long history of pulling dirty shit, long before drones made it so easy for them to do so. The US has been undermining democratically elected governments for at least a century, even while lieing through its teeth when caught red handed.

JEDIDIAH says:

Re: Re: Re: Check out the Sobieski room...

…except “the people who hate us” have been trying to take over the west since their religion was founded. Some of our most interesting and significant historical figures were embroiled in this centuries long conflict.

When people are talking about re-instating the Caliphate, it’s really ignorant to willfully ignore history in favor of “current events”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Check out the Sobieski room...

“…except “the people who hate us” have been trying to take over the west since their religion was founded. Some of our most interesting and significant historical figures were embroiled in this centuries long conflict.”

You mean the Catholics and the IRA?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Check out the Sobieski room...

You mean the Catholics

More people are killed by Islamists each year than in all 350 years of the Spanish Inquisition combined.

and the IRA?
More civilians were killed by Muslim hijackers in two hours on September 11th than in the 36 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Check out the Sobieski room...

How about we compare them to the US military instead?

Diffcult to do because a lot of the deaths attributed to the US military – see for eaxmple here
turn out out to have been carried out in practice by the Islamists. Bad US policy caused by an inability to let go of the Russians as an an enemy is responsible for both.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Burning civilians alive with missles out of nowwhere, torturing prisoners and treating them like dogs imho it isn’t that sure anymore who the terrorists are. My best guess is that it depends on where you live.

We in the West are (rightly) self critical in these matters – but please don’t be under any illusions about the way other countries view these things. Unlike the West they aren’t the least bit embarassed or apologetic.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

We are self critical about these matters? Since when? Name one report in the mainstream media that says something like “we killed some civilians and our government will be held accountable for that”.

I don’t ask for every strike against civilians to be condamned just one, one example that realy changed something.

Anonymous Coward says:

The laws, rules, and treaties SHOULD be what govern these things including the relevant UN security council resolutions on the subject. Our treaties are supposed to be the foreign policy on the subject. If the people in charge don’t know they should.

The death of the innocent hostages is tragic but what do you do with militant terrorists who won’t stop hostage taking?

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Whatever happened to extraction teams?

Too expensive, too unreliable, and creates a horrible PR mess when they fail. Ask Jimmy Carter. They only barely pulled off the Abottabad caper. They had to destroy one of the choppers when it crashed. They were damned lucky they didn’t lose any seals. Imagine having to explain to all the Support Our Troops people that you’d actually killed some of them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The death of the innocent hostages is tragic but what do you do with militant terrorists who won’t stop hostage taking?

You go get them. IN PERSON. That’s why we have the largest military budget of any country on the planet. That’s why we have umpty-zillion intelligence programs, some of which are illegal and/or unconstitutional. That’s why we have multi-billion dollar weapon systems. That’s why we have enormous military forces.

What good is all that if they can’t even manage to take out a few terrorists and rescue some hostages? Is it too much to expect some return on our investment?

Maybe the FBI could take some time out from making up fake plots and recruiting stooges to them to help out. Maybe the NSA could stop spying on Americans and spy on actual real live terrorists for a change. Maybe the CIA, which is supposed to be pretty good at killing people, could dispatch some of their more sociopathic operatives. Maybe the TSA could offer up some of its personnel as substitute hostages — because then we could just leave them there and solve two problems at once.

But I suppose it’s much easier to avoid all the muss and fuss and just push buttons from thousands of miles away, then collect a medal for it.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: A chance to surrender...

Maybe it’s worthwhile to give them that chance.

Of course, it would help if we didn’t have the reputation of torturing our captured POWs or unlawful combatants. But we dug that grave, ourselves.

But now it’s okay to kill civilians. That’s what the bad guys do in the movies so that you know they’re the bad guys.

And now it’s what we do.

Padpaw (profile) says:

This is what leads a country to declare war on the US. Much like how the US keeps attacking other countries for various reasons.

So Americans you have a simple choice. You either get your out of control government under control or you wait for someone to decide enough is enough and subjects your country to what your government has been using your military to subject much of the third world to.

Personally I would prefer you take back your government as anything that attacks America will screw up Canada

Rekrul says:

Obama's apology

“Recently, a couple of civilians were killed in a US drone strike. I am deeply sorry [that the public found out about this]. This was of course an accident […al release of information]. We will institute tighter controls [on our drone information] in the future. I take full responsibility [for not ensuring that embarrassing information like this is kept secret].”

JEDIDIAH says:

Re: Responsibility?

What’s the usual consequences for a soldier or an officer being responsible for perpetrating a friendly fire incident?

Sure you can be against “warfare in general” but that’s something else. Once you’re past that then things not going to plan just come with the territory. Modern civilians don’t seem to understand that at all.

The Pentagon was too good with it’s own propaganda about “surgical warfare”.

beltorak (profile) says:

It's really easy to take responsibility for something when there are zero repercussions

> Last week, Mr. Obama apologized for the killings and took personal responsibility for the mistake.

Um, no. If he took *personal* responsibility, he would be on trial for some form of homicide. Or maybe he is offering to be put on trial, but he knows no one is going to take him up on that offer.

An apology without remorse for your actions (*not* “remorse” for the outcome) is as smoke blown up our asses. May as well just say “We blew up some innocent folks” and leave it at that.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Hemmingway lamented the way war was becoming impersonal

Where once we met people on the field mano a mano, in WWI we hid behind machine-gun emplacements and swept the field without having to look clearly at the lives we were taking.

Actually in the 19th century with the rise of artillery, that was the same thing.

And we’ve been able to get further and further away. At the point in time that someone could kill a city of people across the globe with a MIRV ICBM, the notion of war having that personal touch.

The drone pilot is literally phoneing it in.

The suicide bomber is still getting acquainted with those he’s about to kill, but the question remains what is left of him to care, when he has been rendered into a payload delivery system. Whether hopped up on drugs or ideology or outrage (probably all three) he may not be coherent enough to be considered rational anymore.

So it comes down to his handler. The one who launched him in the first place.

Anonymous Coward says:

Fire up the war machine

Those pesky Dems sound more and more like Repubs every day. They love the military/industrial complex. But maybe worse than the Repubs, they love killing American citizens. Not only did they kill hostages, they killed some American citizens acting as terrorists. Yea, they are terrorists, but they were killed w/o a trial.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Fire up the war machine

“Yea, they are terrorists, but they were killed w/o a trial.”
Like every person hit by a drone strike. If a country thinks that a person is acting against its laws then put them to trial. But just killing them goes against everything a modern country stands for. Ask for extradition, abduct them but put them infront of a freaking court and give them a fair trial. If you don’t do that then you are not better than a 3rd world dictatorship.
And from that point of view there is no difference between Rep or Dem.

justme says:

I repeat. . .

Posted this comment in a story last week but worth repeating!

The NSA and CIA should only have the authority to collect information, they should never have the authority to conduct operation’s. Any military or diplomatic actions should be left to the military, state department, or elected representatives.

Allowing these agencies to carry out operations has helped create the majority of the resentment toward the U.S. around the world and left us with dealing with the blow back for decades.

Personanongrata says:

Posthumous Pardon... Oh Boy!

The CIA Will Keep Killing Civilians With Drone Strikes Because The ‘Rules’ For Drone Strikes Aren’t Actually Rules

But hey! No worries, if it turns out that the person killed in the drone strike wasn’t affiliated with terrorists they will be posthumously cleared of all wrong doing.

What could be better than that?

An who says US government sanctioned assassination programs don’t work? What do they know?

Padpaw (profile) says:

Re: Posthumous Pardon... Oh Boy!

actually the US put out a statement several years back(I forget which branch it was in particular).

Basically any person above the age of 12 or 16 I think it was, are declared armed combatants if they are in the blast of the drone strike.

There are no innocent civilians when it comes to drone strikes apparently

Anonymous Coward says:

Good for Obama to accept responsibility. Case closed!
Nothing else will happen.

And the CIA is still operating on the “trust us” policy.
We had to do this because we had to.

It is somewhat insane that it still seems acceptable for the CIA to go and kill/assassinate people across the globe.

You won’t see other nations sending death squads or drone squadrons into the states to hunt for “most assuredly” ‘terrorists’.
If it kills just one terrorist, it was the right thing to do? Plus their neighbours and the first responders with the double-tap. Which will all be retro-actively classified as possible terroristics.

Hasn’t Pakistan got nuclear weapons to discourage such madness?

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