Blowback, Boston, and the Lessons Learned for US Drone Strikes

While there are many elements of the response to the Boston Marathon bombing worth highlighting in relation to this blog’s ongoing coverage of drones and mainstream drone discourse, I would like to focus today on the UN rapporteur Richard Falk’s remarks about “blowback” and the subsequent response to his commentary.

Falk wrote an article on his blog a few days after the Boston Marathon bombing in which he challenged the “dominant reactions” found in mainstream political discourse. In particular, Falk was weary of the sort of reaction easily observed in the wake of 9/11, which he described as “holy wars fevers” in full embrace of Islamophobia. Instead, Falk strongly encouraged a meditative moment of self-scrutinizing in response to the bombing – for which he found hopeful signs in the immediate aftermath:

Listening to a PBS program hours after the Boston event, I was struck by the critical attitudes of several callers to the radio station: “it is horrible, but we in this country should not be too surprised, given our drone attacks that have killed women and children attending weddings and funerals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another caller asked “is this not a kind of retribution for torture inflicted by American security forces acting under the authority of the government, and verified for the world by pictures of the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib?” And another asked, “in light of the authoritative reports of officially sanctioned torture as detailed in the 577 page report of a task force chaired by two former senators, one a Republican, the other a Democrat, and containing senior military and security officials, has not the time come to apply the law to the wrongdoers during the Bush presidency”?

The Boston Marathon bombings were a fitting departure point for the rest of Falk’s discussion, as he then segued into a very general assessment of US foreign policy. Falk spoke of the “American global domination project” without much specifics – with the exception of US complicity in the continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories [not surprising given his work at the UN on that topic]. Falk concluded his commentary with a remark that has since been adduced as evidence of his ostensible point that the US government is ultimately responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings: “We should be asking ourselves at this moment, how many canaries will have to die before we awaken from our geopolitical fantasy of global domination?”

Falk’s article has since generated a remarkable outpouring of hostility towards his rather common-sense observations. Admittedly, much of this hostility has to do with unforgivable misinterpretations of his commentary. For instance, in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, the Israeli defense group UN Watch accuses Falk of “justifying” the Boston Marathon bombings on the basis of US foreign policy and then “blaming the Boston bombings on the Jewish state.” It doesn’t take much more than a sober reading of Falk’s article to find that he makes no such assertions anywhere in the piece. For her part, Rice tweeted:

Falk has also drawn the ire of at least one Congressional representative – Mike Kelly (R-PA) – who has since circulated a letter to Moon and to Obama condemning Falk for his “despicable comments blaming the U.S. and Israel for the horrific Boston Marathon terrorist bombings.” The letter continues:

We condemn Falk for his offensive belief that the Boston attack was justified because “[t]he American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post- colonial world” and his suggestion that the U.S. may “experience worse blowbacks” if it does not “rethink [its] relations to others in the world, starting with the Middle East.”

What’s remarkable in all of this, besides the fact that Falk never so much as hinted at these arguments, is that the surviving Tsarnaev brother, when confessing to his role in the bombing, made explicitly clear his motivations:

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has specifically cited the U.S. war in Iraq, which ended in December 2011 with the removal of the last American forces, and the war in Afghanistan, where President Obama plans to end combat operations by the end of 2014.

[Notice how desperately WaPo is trying to downplay these two horrendous events by describing them in terms of when they end(ed). A more realistic approach may be to describe the wars in terms of the tens of thousands of individuals killed or maimed, the millions of lives displaced and destroyed, and the total destruction of two nations.]

In light of this, what might account for this visceral rejection of the idea of blowback – itself a term coined by the CIA to describe the potential unintended consequences of their overthrow of elected Iranian prime minister Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh? What is it about US politicians and pundits that makes the idea of American culpability so anathema to our mainstream discourse? In his analysis of the “demonization” of Falk, Jeremy R. Hammond opines:

One is just not supposed to tell the public that U.S. foreign policy results in what intelligence analysts call “blowback”. This is a forbidden truth, reminiscent of the 2007 presidential debate when Rudy Giuliani condemned Ron Paul for making the completely uncontroversial statement that the 9/11 attacks were “blowback” for U.S. foreign policy, to which Dr. Paul replied by standing firm and repeating the uncomfortable truth before the audience. It is a point that Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, Alec Station, has also made in a commentary on the Boston bombings published at Foreign Policy Journalin which he remarks that “it is blatantly obvious from the evidence the authorities have presented to date that the attackers were motivated by what the U.S. government does in the Muslim world”.

To add my own observations, I would contend that the fear of self-criticism stems from a deeply rooted insecurity about the truth of American policy as it pertains to the rest of the world. Politicians and their sycophantic cheerleaders in the mainstream media do whatever they can do maintain the illusion that America is a benevolent, graceful superpower policing the world and stopping injustice anywhere it can. It’s missteps and its blunders are always excusable as well-intentioned slip-ups. Meanwhile, the world at large is generally an unsafe place in which jealous enemies attack us because they are fundamentally evil and “hate our freedoms,” which in turn justifies the aforementioned global policing. Social psychologists define this as a fundamental attribution error – one which (coincidentally) serves the holders of power in this country remarkably well, and establishes an illusion that couldn’t be further from the truth.

It isn’t much of a leap to see how this argument relates to drones. Just last week, a Yemeni by the name of Farea al-Muslimi testified in front of Congress that whenever his friends and neighbours think of the US “they think of the fear they feel at the drones over their heads. What the violent militants had failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.” And in January, US General Stanley McChrystal and former top commander in Afghanistan told Reuters

“The resentment created [by drone strikes] is much greater than the average American appreciates…[drones add to] the perception of American arrogance that says, ‘We can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.”

If we cannot appreciate the candour of our critics, and insist on clinging blindly to self-delusions about the decent nature of the American state and its policies, what hope do our hapless victims in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere have?


Links: April 26, 2013

Senate Immigration Bill Calls For a Drone-Patrolled Border ABC News

Israeli military shoots down drone Yahoo

Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing [Senate Judiciary Hearing]

Senate Hearing on Drone Warfare CommonDreams

Drone Fallout: Decoding the arrest of General Musharraf NewsVandal







Links: April 21, 2013

A Reporter Asked Jay Carney If Air Strikes That Kill Civilians Are ‘Considered Terrorism’ Business Insider

After Airstrike, Afghan Points to C.I.A. and Secret Militias NYT

Ex-Pakistani President Musharraf admits secret deal with U.S. on drone strikes CNN

Transferring CIA Drone Strikes to the Pentagon CFR

Industry: Drones Could Have Helped Boston Marathon Bombing Responders US News

Red Cross chief urges caution over covert drones TBIJ

US Resumes Trend of Drone Attacks on Yemen Common Dreams

Killing Terrorists, Creating More NYT

In Swat Valley, U.S. drone strikes radicalizing a new generation CNN

Drone strikes:

Yemen officials: US drone kills 2 militants AP

Latest reported US strikes: Pakistan April 17 & Yemen April 17 TBIJ

4 ‘militants’ killed in US drone strike in Pakistan The Long War Journal



Israeli official says drones could replace planes Business Week

Links: April 14, 2013

I’m taking a page from NakedCapitalism and introducing a new segment at TheDroneFallacy. From now on, there will be a regular list of “Links” to articles and other media related to drones (Sorry, there won’t be any cute animal pictures accompanying my Links).

Readers will be able to find all and any relevant information regarding drones that has come up between every posting of a “Links” segment, along with the usual commentary by myself and guest posters. Links considered particularly pertinent will be bolded for your convenience. I will no longer be posting articles from other sources as I used to, but if a piece is important enough I may make a separate post about it.

Without further ado, here are the links for today:

Drone War Secrets Leak HuffPost (featuring emptywheel’s own Marcy Wheeler)

Scott Shane Defends the Commander-in-Chief’s Language emptywheel

CIA’s Drone Lies and Congressional Oversight emptywheel

Secret US documents show Brennan’s ‘no civilian drone deaths’ claim was false The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (regarding this crucial McClatchy piece)

A Secret Deal on Drones, Sealed in Blood NYT

Why Did the CIA Stop Torturing and Start Killing? CFR

Targeted Killing Comes to Define War on Terror NYT

How a Single Spy Helped Turn Pakistan Against the United States NYT

After Continued Blow-Off, House Judiciary Requests Awlaki AND Signature Strike Memos emptywheel

Rights Groups, in Letter to Obama, Question Legality and Secrecy of Drone Killings NYT, and commentary from Marcy Wheeler

Three key lessons from the Obama administration’s drone lies Glenn Greenwald

Video: New Navy laser can shoot down drones, is headed for the Persian Gulf WaPo

No Warrant, No Problem: How The Government Can Still Get Your Digital Data ProPublica

White House responds to drone pressure: ‘We will continue to disclose as much as we can’ McClatchy


Google chief urges action to regulate mini-drones BBC

Lockheed Martin Has An Impressive New Drone Concept

By Robert Johnson, April 9 2013

Already obsessed with drones, the U.S. military is looking for new ones to fill a vital role.


America needs drones to guard its aging fleet in foreign waters, extend a ship’s strike distance using standard aircraft carrier ordnance, and do all of it based from the carrier itself. That will allow flight deck operations 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week with no pilots at risk, and no huge jets to re-fuel.

It’s a tall order that demands an array of technology that just barely exists and is scattered among various vehicles. Some drones are great at surveillance, some at blowing stuff up, and some at water-based landings, but one that will do all three is yet just a dream.

When the military wants its dreams made real it often goes to the place with a history of doing just that, Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks. The California-plant has been knocking out super-advanced military tech for decades, and it is one of four facilities in the race to produce this new drone.

BoeingNorthrop Grumman, and General Atomics round out the groups expected to compete against Lockheed. While each have a portion of the technology already in use, Lockheed alone is bringing technology from the most expensive weapons program in the history of the world.

By including elements of the F-35C vertical lift model, with proven components of the RQ-170 drone, Lockheed and Skunkworks may have a leg up on the competition.

To prove it the company released a concept video of its design. Called the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) the video lays out its impressive plans.

Obama’s drone war kills ‘others,’ not just al Qaida leaders

By Jonathan S. Landay, April 9 2013

Shamsi Airbase cropped

WASHINGTON — Contrary to assurances it has deployed U.S. drones only against known senior leaders of al Qaida and allied groups, the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified “other” militants in scores of strikes in Pakistan’s rugged tribal area, classified U.S. intelligence reports show.

The administration has said that strikes by the CIA’s missile-firing Predator and Reaper drones are authorized only against “specific senior operational leaders of al Qaida and associated forces” involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks who are plotting “imminent” violent attacks on Americans.

“It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative,” President Barack Obama said in a Sept. 6, 2012, interview with CNN. “It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.”

Copies of the top-secret U.S. intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy, however, show that drone strikes in Pakistan over a four-year period didn’t adhere to those standards.

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.”

In a response to questions from McClatchy, the White House defended its targeting policies, pointing to previous public statements by senior administration officials that the missile strikes are aimed at al Qaida and associated forces.

Micah Zenko, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, a bipartisan foreign policy think tank, who closely follows the target killing program, said McClatchy’s findings indicate that the administration is “misleading the public about the scope of who can legitimately be targeted.”

The documents also show that drone operators weren’t always certain who they were killing despite the administration’s guarantees of the accuracy of the CIA’s targeting intelligence and its assertions that civilian casualties have been “exceedingly rare.”

McClatchy’s review is the first independent evaluation of internal U.S. intelligence accounting of drone attacks since the Bush administration launched America’s secret aerial warfare on Oct. 7, 2001, the day a missile-carrying Predator took off for Afghanistan from an airfield in Pakistan on the first operational flight of an armed U.S. drone.

The analysis takes on additional significance because of the domestic and international debate over the legality of drone strikes in Pakistan amid reports that the administration is planning to broaden its use of targeted killings in Afghanistan and North Africa.

The U.S. intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy covered most – although not all – of the drone strikes in 2006-2008 and 2010-2011. In that later period, Obama oversaw a surge in drone operations against suspected Islamist sanctuaries on Pakistan’s side of the border that coincided with his buildup of 33,000 additional U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan. Several documents listed casualty estimates as well as the identities of targeted groups.

McClatchy’s review found that:

– 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.

Forty-three of 95 drone strikes reviewed for that period hit groups other than al Qaida, including the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as “foreign fighters” and “other militants.”

During the same period, the reports estimated there was a single civilian casualty, an individual killed in an April 22, 2011, strike in North Waziristan, the main sanctuary for militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

– At other times, the CIA killed people who only were suspected, associated with, or who probably belonged to militant groups.

To date, the Obama administration has not disclosed the secret legal opinions and the detailed procedures buttressing drone killings, and it has never acknowledged the use of so-called “signature strikes,” in which unidentified individuals are killed after surveillance shows behavior the U.S. government associates with terrorists, such as visiting compounds linked to al Qaida leaders or carrying weapons. Nor has it disclosed an explicit list of al Qaida’s “associated forces” beyond the Afghan Taliban.

The little that is known about the opinions comes from a leaked Justice Department white paper, a half-dozen or so speeches, some public comments by Obama and several top lieutenants, and limited open testimony before Congress.

“The United States has gone far beyond what the U.S. public – and perhaps even Congress – understands the government has been doing and claiming they have a legal right to do,” said Mary Ellen O’Connell, a Notre Dame Law School professor who contends that CIA drone operations in Pakistan violate international law.

The documents McClatchy has reviewed do not reflect the entirety of the killings associated with U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, which independent reports estimate at between 1,990 and 3,581.

But the classified reports provide a view into how drone strikes were carried out during the most intense periods of drone warfare in Pakistan’s remote tribal area bordering Afghanistan. Specifically, the documents reveal estimates of deaths and injuries; locations of militant bases and compounds; the identities of some of those targeted or killed; the movements of targets from village to village or compound to compound; and, to a limited degree, the rationale for unleashing missiles.


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.

The Haqqani network, for example, cooperates closely with al Qaida for philosophical and tactical reasons, and it is blamed for some of the bloodiest attacks against civilians and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. But the Haqqani network wasn’t on the U.S. list of international terrorist groups at the time of the strikes covered by the U.S. intelligence reports, and it isn’t known to ever have been directly implicated in a plot against the U.S. homeland.

Other groups the documents said were targeted have parochial objectives: the Pakistani Taliban seeks to topple the Islamabad government; Lashkar i Jhangvi, or Army of Jhangvi, are outlawed Sunni Muslim terrorists who’ve slaughtered scores of Pakistan’s minority Shiites and were blamed for a series of attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including a 2006 bombing against the U.S. consulate in Karachi that killed a U.S. diplomat. Both groups are close to al Qaida, but neither is known to have initiated attacks on the U.S. homeland.

“I have never seen nor am I aware of any rules of engagement that have been made public that govern the conduct of drone operations in Pakistan, or the identification of individuals and groups other than al Qaida and the Afghan Taliban,” said Christopher Swift, a national security law expert who teaches national security affairs at Georgetown University and closely follows the targeted killing issue. “We are doing this on a case-by-case, ad hoc basis, rather than a systematic or strategic basis.”

The administration has declined to reveal other details of the program, such as the intelligence used to select targets and how much evidence is required for an individual to be placed on a CIA “kill list.” The administration also hasn’t even acknowledged the existence of so-called signature strikes, let alone discussed the legal and procedural foundations of the attacks.

Leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees say they maintain robust oversight over the program. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., disclosed in a Feb. 13 statement that the panel is notified “with key details . . . shortly after” every drone strike. It also reviews videos of strikes and considers “their effectiveness as a counterterrorism tool, verifying the care taken to avoid deaths to non-combatants and understanding the intelligence collection and analysis that underpins these operations.”

But until last month, Obama had rebuffed lawmakers’ repeated requests to see all of the classified Justice Department legal opinions on the program, giving them access to only two dealing with the president’s powers to order targeted killings. It then allowed the Senate committee access to all opinions pertaining to the killing of U.S. citizens to clear the way for the panel’s March 7 confirmation of John Brennan, the former White House counterterrorism chief and the key architect of the targeted killings program, as the new CIA director. But it continues to deny access to other opinions on the grounds that they are privileged legal advice to the president.

Moreover, most of the debate in the United States has focused on the deaths of four Americans – all killed in drone strikes in Yemen, but only one intentionally targeted – and not the thousands of others who’ve been killed, the majority of whom have been hit in Pakistan.

Obama and his top aides say the United States is in an “armed conflict” with al Qaida and the Afghan Taliban, and the targeted killing program complies with U.S. and international laws, including an “inherent” right to self-defense and the international laws of war. Obama also derives his authority to order targeted killings from the Constitution and a Sept. 14, 2001, congressional resolution empowering the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those who perpetrated 9/11 and those who aided them, they say.

Time and again, the administration has defined the drone targets as operational leaders of al Qaida, the Afghan Taliban and associated groups plotting imminent attacks on the American homeland. Occasionally, however, officials have made oblique references to undefined associated forces and threats against unidentified Americans and U.S. facilities.

On April 30, 2012, Brennan gave the most detailed explanation of Obama’s drone program. He referred to al Qaida 73 times, the Afghan Taliban three times and mentioned no other group by name.

“We only authorize a particular operation against a specific individual if we have a high degree of confidence that the individual being targeted is indeed the terrorist we are pursuing,” Brennan said.

To be sure, America’s drone program has killed militants without risk to the nation’s armed forces.

The administration argues that drones – in Brennan’s words – are a “wise choice” for fighting terrorists. Over the years, the aircraft have battered al Qaida’s Pakistan-based core leadership and crippled its ability to stage complex attacks. And officials note it has been done without sending U.S. troops into hostile territory or causing civilian casualties “except in the rarest of circumstances.”

“Any actions we take fully comport to our law and meet the standards that I think . . . the American people expect of us as far as taking actions we need to protect the American people, but at the same time ensuring that we do everything possible before we need to resort to lethal force,” Brennan said at his Feb. 7 Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing.

Caitlin Hayden, national security spokeswoman for the White House, said late Tuesday that the Brennan speech is broad enough to cover strikes against others who are not al Qaida or the Afghan Taliban. While she did not cite any authority for broader targeting, Hayden said: “You should not assume he is only talking about al Qaida just because he doesn’t say ’al Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces’ at every reference.”

Some legal scholars and human rights organizations, however, dispute the program’s legality.

Obama, they think, is misinterpreting international law, including the laws of war, which they say apply only to the uniformed military, not the civilian CIA, and to traditional battlefields like those in Afghanistan, not to Pakistan’s tribal area, even though it may be a sanctuary for al Qaida and other violent groups. They argue that Obama also is strengthening his executive powers with an excessively broad application of the September 2001 use-of-force resolution.

The administration’s definition of “imminent threat” also is in dispute. The Justice Department’s leaked white paper argues the United States should be able “to act in self-defense in circumstances where there is evidence of further imminent attacks by terrorist groups even if there is no specific evidence of where such an attack will take place or of the precise nature of the attack.” Legal scholars counter that the administration is using an exaggerated definition of imminence that doesn’t exist in international law.

“I’m thankful that my doctors don’t use their (the administration’s) definition of imminence when looking at imminent death. A head cold could be enough to pull the plug on you,” said Morris Davis, a Howard University Law School professor and former Air Force lawyer who served as chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo Bay terrorism trials.

Since 2004, drone program critics say, the strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, fueling anti-U.S. outrage, boosting extremist recruiting, and helping to destabilize Pakistan’s U.S.-backed government. And some experts warn that the United States may be setting a new standard of international conduct that other countries will grasp to justify their own targeted killings and to evade accountability.


Other governments “won’t just emulate U.S. practice but (will adopt) America’s justification for targeted killings,” said Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations. “When there is such a disconnect between who the administration says it kills and who it (actually) kills, that hypocrisy itself is a very dangerous precedent that other countries will emulate.”

A special U.N. human rights panel began a nine-month investigation in January into whether drone strikes, including the CIA operations in Pakistan, violate international law by causing disproportionate numbers of civilian casualties. The panel’s head, British lawyer Ben Emmerson, declared after a March 11-13 visit to Pakistan that the U.S. drone campaign “involves the use of force on the territory of another state without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.”

The administration asserts that drones are used to hit specific individuals only after their names are added to a “list of active terrorists,” following a process of “extraordinary care and thoughtfulness” that confirms their identities as members of al Qaida or “associated forces” and weighs the strategic value of killing each one.

Yet the U.S. intelligence reports show that 43 out of the 95 strikes recorded in reports for the year ending in September 2011 were launched against groups other than al Qaida. Prominent among them were the Haqqani network and the Taliban Movement of Pakistan.

The Haqqani network is an Afghan Taliban-allied organization that operates in eastern Afghanistan and whose leaders are based in Pakistan’s adjacent North Waziristan tribal agency. The United States accuses the group of staging some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Kabul, including on the Indian and U.S. embassies, killing civilians, and attacking U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. But the Obama administration didn’t officially designate the network as a terrorist group until September 2012.


Its titular head is Jalaluddin Haqqani, an aging former anti-Soviet guerrilla who served as a minor minister and top military commander in the Taliban regime that sheltered al Qaida until both were driven into Pakistan by the 2001 U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. U.S. officials allege that the group, whose operational chief is Haqqani’s son, Sirajuddin, closely works with al Qaida and is backed by elements of the Pakistani army-led Inter-Services Intelligence spy service, a charge denied by Islamabad.

At least 15 drone strikes were launched against the Haqqani network or locations where its fighters were present during the one-year period ending in September 2011, according to the U.S. intelligence reports. They estimated that up to 96 people – or about 20 percent of the total for that period – were killed.

One report also makes clear that during the Bush administration, the agency killed Haqqani family women and children.

According to the report, an undisclosed number of Haqqani subcommanders, unnamed Arabs and unnamed “members of the extended Haqqani family” died in a Sept. 8, 2008, strike. News reports on the attack in the North Waziristan village of Dandey Darapakhel said that among as many as 25 dead were an Arab who was chief of al Qaida’s operations in Pakistan, and eight of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s grandchildren, one of his wives, two nieces and a sister.

The U.S. intelligence reports estimated that as many as 31 people were killed in at least nine strikes on the Pakistani Taliban or on locations that the group shared with others between January 2010 and September 2011. While U.S. officials say the Taliban Movement of Pakistan works closely with al Qaida, its goal is to topple the Pakistani government through suicide bombings, assaults and assassinations, not attacking the United States. The group wasn’t founded until 2007, and some of the strikes in the U.S. intelligence reports occurred before the administration designated it a terrorist organization in September 2010.

The U.S. intelligence reports estimated that the CIA killed scores of other individuals in 2010 and 2011 in strikes on other non-al Qaida groups categorized as suspected extremists and unidentified “foreign fighters,” or “other militants.” Some died in what appeared to be signature strikes, their vehicles blown to pieces sometimes only a few days after being monitored visiting the sites of earlier drone attacks, or driving between compounds linked to al Qaida or other groups.

“The first challenge in any war is knowing who you’re fighting, and distinguishing those that pose a credible threat to your interests and security,” said Swift.


The U.S. intelligence documents also describe a lack of precision when it comes to identifying targets.

Consider one attack on Feb. 18, 2010.

Information, according to one U.S. intelligence account, indicated that Badruddin Haqqani, the then-No. 2 leader of the Haqqani network, would be at a relative’s funeral that day in North Waziristan. Watching the video feed from a drone high above the mourners, CIA operators in the United States identified a man they believed could be Badruddin Haqqani from the deference and numerous greetings he received. The man also supervised a private family viewing of the body.

Yet despite a targeting process that the administration says meets “the highest possible standards,” it wasn’t Badruddin Haqqani who died when one of the drone’s missiles ripped apart the target’s car after he’d left the funeral.

It was his younger brother, Mohammad.

Friends later told reporters that Mohammad Haqqani was a religious student in his 20s uninvolved in terrorism; the U.S. intelligence report called him an active member – but not a leader – of the Haqqani network. At least one other unidentified occupant of his vehicle perished, according to the report.

It took the CIA another 18 months to find and kill Badruddin Haqqani.

Remi Brulin on State Secrecy and Targeted Assassinations, from Operation Condor to the Obama Administration

The problem with drones has never been with the technology itself. Certainly, drones have brought the vision of an Orwellian dystopia to the forefront of our minds. And yes, the administration has often tried to justify its use of drone strikes with the explanation that they are “surgical” and “precise” weapons of war. But the true threat to the people of this world lies not with the proliferation of drone warfare, but with the associated policies of states who choose to use them for their own purposes. The prevarication, the secrecy, the outright lies, and the arbitrary killing of individuals with no legal process undermine the very notions of accountability and democratic governance.

In a guest piece for today, Remi Brulin takes a cold hard look at one of the most egregious examples of this secrecy and state-sponsored terrorism in which the US is culpable, Operation Condor – an internationally-coordinated program between several Latin American regimes to actively suppress and “disappear” political opponents under the guise of fighting “terrorism” – while highlighting the secrecy still surrounding the United State’s exact role in this “international terrorist network” and the dangerous historical precedent thus being set. Brulin is currently a Visiting Scholar at NYU, and has taught classes on the American discourse on terrorism and the media at the Media, Culture and Communication Dept and at the Journalism Institute there. His phenomenal research on terrorism is alluded to in his piece; his dissertation can be found here, and an interview with Glenn Greenwald can be found here. Brulin has also written an article about  “terrorism experts” and El-Salvador for Foreign Policy which can be found here. Brulin’s article comes at an auspicious time, considering the recent passing of Margaret Thatcher (who was a close ally and supporter of General Augusto Pinochet, one of the despots responsible for Operation Condor) and the establishment of Wikileaks’s Public Library of US Diplomacy [PLUS D]. ramesses

The Past as Prologue: Secrecy and Impunity in the Other “War on Terrorism”

 by Remi Brulin

Imagine a world where the security forces of several non-democratic states “coordinate intelligence activities closely,” “operate in the territory of one another’s countries” and have established a program “to find and kill terrorists” anywhere around the world as part of a “war” against “terrorism.” Such a dystopian reality appears to be precisely what Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth had in mind when writing, in his December 7, 2010 letter to President Obama, that current US policies of “targeted killings” may “set a dangerous precedent for abusive regimes around the globe to conduct drone attacks or other strikes against persons who they describe in vague or overly broad terms as terrorists.”

Such a nightmarish vision is much more, however, than a description of what could be. The first sentence above is a description of what was, taken verbatim from an August 3, 1976 secret memorandum by Assistant Secretary for Latin America Harry Shlaudeman to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and describing the system of international cooperation between Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay known as Operation Condor. Between 1976 and 1980 these regimes would, thanks to an elaborate and modern intelligence network, closely collaborate to “disappear” hundreds of people across state borders, among them some members of guerrilla movements but mostly political opponents, former legislators and even Presidents, journalists, religious personalities, often killed after having been submitted to the worst kinds of torture. Entitled “The “Third World War” and South America,” this memorandum makes for fascinating reading as it highlights how, over 35 years ago, close allies of the United States had already developed both a set of specific practices implemented in secret and aimed at fighting “the terrorists,” and a full discourse emphasizing at every turn the fact that they were “at war” against “terrorism.” Only a few weeks later, Orlando Letelier would become the most prominent victim to date of Operation Condor, a Chilean citizen assassinated by the Chilean intelligence services in the streets of Washington D.C.

A few week ago, Argentina opened a major trial into Operation Condor. In contrast, no US official has ever been held accountable for their potential role in this program, a form of impunity bolstered by the continued refusal of the US government to declassify hundreds of documents that would shed light onto the exact nature and extent of its knowledge and involvement at the time. The Shlaudeman memorandum testifies to the dangers of a policy shrouded in secrecy and a complete lack of accountability. It also underlies the importance of current calls on the government to provide much greater transparency regarding “war on terrorism” policies such as “targeted killings” or the resort to extraordinary renditions and torture, policies which, at least to some degree, bear resemblance to some of Operation Condor’s practices.

At the most basic level, this memorandum reminds us that long before America’s current “war on terrorism,” other States did develop a similar discourse. That various regimes have, historically, used the concept of “terrorism” to delegitimize their enemies (and the cause they claim to fight for) and thus justify the use of often profoundly immoral methods against them (think France in Algeria in the 1950s, or South Africa in its fight against Mandela’s African National Congress from the 1960s onward) is neither a new nor a very original notion. The Latin American case is especially relevant to current discussions however, for at least a couple reasons. First,  because the United States government was intimately involved in some of the worst practices of these regimes, although the extent and exact nature of this involvement remains, to this day and especially as it pertains to Operation Condor, mostly unknown and classified. Second, because, as I document in my PhD dissertation, it is precisely in the Latin American context that the Reagan administration put the “fight against terrorism” at the heart of the American foreign policy discourse for the very first time. Not only that but, as I discussed in some detail in this interview with Glenn Greenwald, in doing so the US government essentially adopted the discourse used and developed by these authoritarian regimes during the previous decade.

Already in 1976 senior US officials were aware of the problematic nature of a discourse where “subversion” and “terrorism” were often used as synonyms, and were extremely broadly defined. As Shlaudeman explained:

The problem begins with the definition of “subversion” – never the most precise of terms. One reporter writes that “subversion has grown to include nearly anyone who opposes government policy.” In countries where everyone knows that subversives can wind up dead or tortured educated people have an understandable concern about the boundaries of dissent.

The Assistant Secretary of State was also rather doubtful of the seriousness of the threat faced by these regimes, noting that “the terrorists have had substantial accomplishments over the years” so that “the threat is not imaginary,” but adding that “it may be exaggerated” since after all, “broadly speaking, both terrorists and the peaceful left have failed.” Shlaudeman’s account also shows clear awareness, on the part of US officials, of the extreme nature of the methods used by these regimes. Indeed, he explained that “the terrorists […] have provoked repressive reactions, including torture and quasi-governmental death squads” and that these governments resorted to “bloody counter terrorism.” In the rest of the memorandum, however, such forms of violence are dealt with mostly through euphemisms, like in the following remark about Argentina: “We expect the military to pull up their socks and win. They have precedents to guide them, and the terrorists have no handy refuge in neighboring countries.” As this account shows and many other declassified documents confirm, despite doubts about the threat and knowledge of the extreme tactics used to counter it, US officials did clearly think of Operation Condor as a program aimed at “fighting terrorism,” and consistently described it as such. For example, in what was until the mid-1990s the only known cable referencing Condor, the FBI explained in late September, 1976 that:

“Operation Condor” is the code name for the collection, exchange and storage of intelligence data concerning so called “leftists,” communists and Marxists, which was recently established between cooperating intelligence services in South America in order to eliminate Marxist terrorist activities in the area. In addition, operation Condor provides for joint operations against terrorist targets in member countries of “Operation Condor.” […] A third and most secret phase of “Operation Condor” involves the formation of special teams from member countries who are to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries to carry out sanctions up to assassination against terrorists or supporters of terrorist organizations from “Operation Condor” member countries.

Significantly, Shlaudeman was also very aware of the great benefits that claiming to be fighting a “Third World War” afforded the Condor states since “It justifies harsh and sweeping “wartime” measures [and] emphasizes the international and institutional aspect, thereby justifying the exercise of power beyond national borders.” He then noted that much of the region’s militaries’ power was directly derived from such a claim, and warned of the long term danger this could pose:

What will remain is a chain of governments, started by Brazil in 1964, whose origin was in battle against the extreme left. It is important to their ego, their salaries, and their equipment-budgets to believe in a Third World War. At best, when Argentina stabilizes, we can hope to convince them that they have already won. The warriors will not like this.

A few weeks later, on September 21, the profound immorality and illegality of the Condor methods would be exposed for the whole world to see as Orlando Letelier was killed, alongside his colleague Ronni Moffitt, in the explosion of his booby-trapped car on Washington D.C.’s Embassy Row. As John Dinges noted, Letelier was “targeted as a dangerous democrat rather than a violent terrorist,” a man whose work against the Pinochet regime took place “not in secret but in public corridors of power.” Indeed, for months he had been lobbying Congress to stop US aid to Chile.

Immediately, politicians like Senator Kennedy and other commentators condemned this assassination as an act of “political terrorism.” Following the confession of Michael Townley, the United States indicted three high-level members of the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the Chilean intelligence services, including its former director (and Pinochet’s right-hand) Manuel Contreras, and requested their extradition. DINA had been set-up a few years before with help from the CIA, and there is some indication that Townley, who was a DINA agent, may also have worked for the CIA. In September 2000, a congressional report revealed that Contreras himself had been a CIA asset in 1975 and maintained contacts with the agency for years thereafter. Further investigation revealed that the bomb was built and placed under the car by Cuban-Americans from the Cuban Nationalist Movement. In 1979, the Chilean Supreme Court rejected the US’s call for extradition, leading the State Department to denounce the fact that “the three terrorists have been released from custody and are now free” and to repeat that Chile “has a duty to insure that this brutal act of terrorism does not go unpunished.”

For his part, Chilean Ambassador Manuel Trucco had immediately condemned the Letelier assassination as an “outrageous act of terrorism,” while blaming it on unidentified “hostile elements” and insisting that accusations against his government were “irresponsible” and represented a further “invitation to violence.” In this, the Letelier assassination fit the pattern of all other Condor operations, and indeed of all these regimes’ purely domestic modes of repression: implemented covertly, so as to give these regimes “plausible deniability,” it also enabled them to deliver an extremely clear message to their political opponents. It is this system of shadows, of illegal activities fully visible but denied by the authorities, of supposedly “out of control” and “independent” “death squads” targeting political opponents while official responsibility is denied, of people being “disappeared,” leaving their families with no possible recourse and faced with official silence, that created the pervasive feeling of dread and terror that hovered over Latin America for so many years.

If responsibility for the Letelier assassination was never claimed by Chile or any other Condor state, that these regimes considered such methods necessary and justified was exactly what their political discourse had always implied. After all, these leaders had insisted for years that they were “at war” with “subversives” and “terrorists,” while publicly stating their goals in ways that clearly suggested that they considered the use of any necessary methods as fully legitimate and justified. As Argentine General Luciano Menendez had infamously announced: “We are going to have to kill 50,000 people: 25,000 subversives, 20,000 sympathizers, and we will make 5,000 mistakes.” As demonstrated by several declassified documents, such policies were accepted and often enabled by the US government at the time.

On January 24, 2013, Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights program, called on the Obama Administration to collaborate with the newly-announced United Nations investigation into targeted killings, and expressed fears that such a program was “setting a dangerous precedent” for countries which have “less traditional respect for human rights and international law.” As the August 3, 1976 memorandum clearly shows, however, countries with very little respect for the rule of law and claiming to be fighting “terrorism” have already defended their practices by pointing to such precedents. Indeed, as Shlaudeman wrote, the Condor countries referred to Israeli practices to justify theirs: “They consider their counter-terrorism every bit as justified as Israeli actions against Palestinian terrorists and they believe that the criticism from democracies of their war on terrorism reflects a double standard.” A few years later, it would be Israel’s turn to use a similar argument: in response to Reagan’s criticism of the bombing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization headquarters in Beirut, which caused over 200 civilian casualties, on December 20, 1981 Prime Minister Begin summoned US Ambassador Samuel Lewis and stated:

You don’t have the right, from a moral perspective, to preach to us regarding civilian loss of life. We have read the history of World War II, and we know what happened to civilians when you took action against the enemy. We have also read the history of the Vietnam War, and your concept of “body counts.” We always make efforts to prevent casualties among civilians, but sometimes this is unavoidable.

At heart, these arguments are based not on claims regarding the legality or morality of such methods, but rather on a cold, realist assessment of the impunity that has accompanied them, historically, when used by powerful enough states. In Latin America, various Truth Commissions and high profile trials such as the one that just started in Argentina, have brought some level of legal and historical accountability. Former leaders have been convicted of a variety of extremely serious crimes, and have served long prison sentences, developments to a great extent made possible by declassification projects undertaken under Presidents Clinton (Chile) and Bush (Argentina.) Partly as a result of such transparency, as New York University’s Greg Grandin recently noted Latin American countries are, in a rather astonishing historical reversal, fully absent from the list of 54 States that became involved in the CIA’s post-9/11 torture and extraordinary renditions programs

US officials themselves, however, have never been held accountable for their role in this other “war on terrorism.” Former Secretary of State Kissinger, for example, has been called to testify several times by Latin American judges, demands that have always been rejected by the United States. Operation Condor thus stands as a perfect example both of the level of secrecy that continues (due to repeated refusals to declassify relevant official documents) to surround the nature and extent of American involvement in what can only be described as a giant “international terrorist network,” and of the existence of serious hints at actual complicity at the highest level of the US government. In ways eerily reminiscent of Latin America’s terrifying history of secretive “death squads,” recent reporting is hinting at the possibility of current cooperation between the US military (or the CIA) and various Afghan armed groups involved in killings and disappearances, while an investigation by The Guardian documents what appear to have been very clear links between US policies in El Salvador in the 1980s (also described, at the time, as part of the “fight against terrorism”) and its “counterinsurgency” strategy in Iraq.

Secrecy is fundamentally inimical to democratic rule, as it erodes trust while distorting and polluting public discourse. As Georgetown Law School Professor David Cole recently wrote, transparency about current US “targeted killings” policies that essentially allow the government “to kill its citizens in secret while refusing to acknowledge, even after the fact, that it has done so” is of the utmost importance. Indeed, he further noted, secrecy was exactly why Argentina’s policy of “disappearances” was so “deeply corrosive of democratic politics.”  Similarly John Dinges, probably the foremost American expert on Operation Condor, argues that the current Argentina trial should be seen as an opportunity for the United States to learn the right lessons from history and from that other “war on terrorism.” As he reminds us after noting the troubling similarities between the Letelier assassination and the logic that appears to underlie certain uses of drones by the Obama administration, “the tendency of a state to feel that they can move against their enemies in the most effective way possible is still there, and it is certainly not limited to dictatorships.”

President Obama’s suggestion, in January 2009, that we need to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” thus putting behind us what appear to have been very serious official crimes, was profoundly counterproductive. The chain of secrecy and unaccountability must be broken, and transparency restored, illuminating today’s practices as well as yesterday’s. Only then can we hope to make sure that the past represented by Condor was not simply a prologue of things to come.

UPDATE: Brulin tweeted about the whitewashing of Thatcher’s association with Pinochet in the NYT Obituary from today

11 Afghan Children Among Dead in Latest US/NATO Bombing

Civilians ‘killed when an air strike hit their houses’

by Jon Queally, published on April 8th,2013 at Common Dreams

NATO has not confirmed any civilian casualties, many of them children, resulting from its latest air strike. (Photo: Reuters)At least ten children are among the dead in eastern Afghanistan, according to officials in the country, following a NATO bombing overnight.

“Eleven children and a woman were killed when an air strike hit their houses,” saidWasefullah Wasefi, a spokeperson for the governor of Kunar province, where the attack took place.

In total, reporting on Sunday indicated that more than two dozen people were killed in thelatest example of civilian casualties in the ongoing US war in Afghanistan.

From Reuters:

A Reuters journalist saw bodies of 11 children when they were taken to Safai’s office in protest by their families and other villagers on Sunday.

The journalist did not see the body of a women and Safai said residents told him of the death. Women’s bodies are not displayed, according to custom.

Wasefi also said an American civilian adviser to the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, had also been killed in the operation. He said it had lasted several hours.

NATO would not confirm the operation nor the claims that many children had been killed.

“Very little information about this strike has come out,” said Al Jazeera correspondent Imtiaz Tyab.

“Al Jazeera has contacted NATO. We were told by a spokesperson that they were aware of the operation and that they have heard of some civilians who may have been injured in this strike.”

Agence France-Presse reports:

The children were killed during a joint Afghan-NATO operation in the Shigal district of Kunar province which borders Pakistan late on Saturday.

“Ten children and eight militants were killed in the strike, six women were wounded,” provincial spokesman Wasifullah Wasifi told AFP.

Al Jazeera reports that the air strike had been requested by coalition forces, not their Afghan allies. Adding:

Civilian deaths have been a long-running source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his international backers.

Karzai has forbidden Afghan troops from calling for air strikes and NATO advice crews not to fire at or bomb in populated areas.

Hearts, Minds and Dollars: Condolence Payments in the Drone Strike Age

by Cora Currier, April 5 2013

The U.S. drone war remains cloaked in secrecy, and as a result, questions swirl around it. Who exactly can be targeted? When can a U.S. citizen be killed?

(U.S. Army photo)Another, perhaps less frequently asked question: What happens when innocent civilians are killed in drone strikes?


In February, during his confirmation process, CIA director John Brennan offeredan unusually straightforward explanation:  “Where possible, we also work with local governments to gather facts, and, if appropriate, provide condolence payments to families of those killed.”

There’s little documentation of where and how such payments are being made. The government has released almost no information on civilian casualties sustained in drone strikes conducted by the CIA and the military in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Officials maintain they have been “in the single digits” in recent years, while independent researchers put the total for the past decade in the hundreds.

Certainly, though, drone strikes and condolence payments make for a striking match: The technological apex of war combined with an age-old method of compensating loss.

Such condolence payments featured prominently in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are now embraced by many military commanders and by human rights advocates, some of whom are pushing for a system to govern what had been an ad hoc practice for most of the 20th Century: recognizing the dignity of life, even during war, and even with what might seem like a mere token  acknowledgement.

The history of condolence payments

Condolence payments may be rooted in ancient custom, but they are a relatively recent addition to the terms and conduct of modern warfare. Neither U.S. nor international humanitarian law requires them, and they aren’t, in technical terms, an admission of wrongdoing.

In fact, the Army regulation on such payments (which are also called solatia) describes them as “an expression of sympathy toward a victim or his or her family,” in keeping with local custom. According to Center for Civilians in Conflict, an advocacy organization, the U.S. tradition of such payments dates back to the Korean War.

Foreign civilians have long had some recourse for compensation through the Foreign Claims Act, which permitted payments for damages caused by U.S. troops.

But the law doesn’t cover anything that happens during active combat – a significant exception in situations where U.S. troops are on the ground, intermingled with civilian populations. The line between combat and non-combat isn’t always clear. And even when soldiers feel their actions were justified, it is often to their advantage to recognize the harm done.

“Under the law of war, you can kill civilians, as long as their deaths are proportional to immediate military gain,” said Gary Solis, a professor at Georgetown Law. “But as a nation, we recognize it’s important to gain the trust of the people. As the complexion of war has changed, the significance of these payments has too.”

Condolence payments came to be seen as a key part of the battle for “hearts and minds” in Iraq and Afghanistan. But their implementation began slowly, and was marred by inconsistency. The U.S., after pressure from military lawyers and other advocates, allowed payments fairly early on in the Iraq War. But in Afghanistan, they were not approved until 2005.

“It wasn’t always popular with the soldiers, who would say, ‘We’re at war,’” said retired General Arnold Gordon-Bray, who led the 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 82ndAirborne Division in the first months of the invasion of Iraq. “But I would say, ‘We are going to leave, and the only thing that’s going to remain is the perception of America.’”

Gordon-Bray described scraping together cash for informal payments before they were officially approved, and before Congress funded a cache of spending money for condolences, humanitarian assistance, and other “goodwill” projects. (In Afghanistan, the military continues to distinguish between those congressionally funded “condolence payments” and “solatia,” which come out of a unit’s operating funds.)

Even once the payments were officially authorized, the policy for implementing them wasn’t clear or standardized and not all units paid them. For the local Iraqi population, there was often a lack of awareness about such payments and confusion about how to receive them.

Gordon-Bray said his team sometimes sought out surviving family members after a death. Soldiers also left cards behind after operations explaining how families could make claims.  Other times, the onus was on the victims to identify the unit that had caused the damage, to collect evidence, and to bring it to the military’s attention.

A military lawyer who served early on in Iraq told Congress in 2009 he occasionally had to turn down claims for lack of funds. He also said “two Iraqis who suffered substantially the same harm in different areas of the city would be treated very differently depending on what office they went to inside Baghdad to file their claim. [The] lack of standard rules really caused a lot of heartache.”

There is little public documentation of condolence payments, though some batches of claims have been released. The details in those claims are scant, but often revealing about the relationship between soldiers and civilians. 

One record, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, authorizes $1000 for “a Solatia payment for a lady whose son was killed by coalition forces.” He had been shot in downtown Kabul when troops fired to disperse a crowd. An email noted the mother had been given “a complete runaround” in tracking down compensation.

In 2006, soldiers fired on a taxi that did not slow down at a military checkpoint in Iraq, killing a woman inside. The military determined the checkpoint wasn’t adequately marked, and her family received a large payment, of $7,500.

“It’s hard to digest that the value of a human life is a few thousand dollars,” said Gordon-Bray, the general in Iraq. “But you know that in their economic situation, it is the equivalent of much more, and you feel better.”

Today in Afghanistan, according to a Pentagon spokesman, condolence payments can be up to $5,000 for a death or injury, or $5,000 for property damage. Greater amounts can be approved in certain cases. In fiscal year 2012, the U.S. made 219 payments, totaling $891,000, according to a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (Solatia are not included in those figures.)

“The people we meet don’t talk about the money so much as how they felt when they shook someone’s hand—the recognition,” said Erica Gaston, a senior program officer for the United States Institute for Peace, who works on Afghanistan issues.

According to Gaston and other advocates, it wasn’t until 2008 that payments became commonplace among U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, as part of a new emphasis on counterinsurgency.

Marla Keenan, managing director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said that that year saw a “strategic shift to ‘hearts and minds,’ which started to change the way commanders viewed condolence payments. It was a tool they could use to deal with populations.”

In 2007, General David Petraeus, then head of U.S. forces in Iraq, described the tactical element of condolence payments: “The quicker you can do it, the more responsive you can seem to be…the more concerned you are, the more valuable it is, and the more helpful it is to your operation.”

General James Conway, of the Marine Corps, was a bit blunter: “It doesn’t make anything right. It does make it a little better from a public relations perspective.”

Despite this embrace by military commanders, the payment systems can still seem improvised and imperfect.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has tried several times to create a permanent set of rules and dedicated source of funding for condolence payments.

“Senator Leahy believes we need legislation to authorize it which gives discretion to field commanders and includes guidelines so the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented every time the U.S. military is deployed in combat,” said Tim Rieser, his foreign policy aide.

Beyond Afghanistan

Should condolence payments become more codified, it is unclear how many, if any of those rules and requirements would apply to the world of targeted killings off the traditional battlefield. To date, the U.S. has yet to acknowledge any particular instance where a civilian was killed as a consequence of a drone strike outside Afghanistan – let alone if that person’s family was compensated.

Pentagon spokesman Bill Speaks said that “the Department of Defense has not made solatia payments” in Yemen or Somalia, where the U.S. has acknowledgedmilitary action. The CIA’s drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen remain officially secret.

Neither the White House nor the Pentagon would comment further on Brennan’s statement about condolence payments. The CIA also declined to comment.

There are occasional reports of condolence payments in Yemen and Pakistan, but the U.S. role in those payments — if there was one — remains unclear.

In Pakistan, officials paid roughly $3,000 to the families of more than 30 people killed in a March 2011 strike. Last September, after a drone strike in Yemen killedas many as 14 civilians, families of the victims blocked roads and demanded compensation. According to the Washington Post, the Yemeni government publicly apologized and offered “101 guns to tribal leaders in the area as a symbolic gesture.” Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula reportedly sent its own offers of condolence. (The embassies of Yemen and Pakistan did not respond to questions about condolence payments.)

In recent months several former military and diplomatic leaders have expressed concern about reliance on drones to target terror suspects, and potential “blowback” from the program. A focus on targeting militants overlooks broad resentment of U.S. military actions, they said, echoing the issue that strained U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. also sends vast amounts of aid and provides counterinsurgency trainingto countries where it is hunting Al Qaeda-linked militants.  Foreign aid to Pakistan includes earmarks for assistance to civilians harmed by military operations. That’s in part to acknowledge the impact of the U.S. presence in the region, said Rieser, Senator Leahy’s aide.

“But of course there is a limit to what we can do in a country whose government with which we often disagree, in a remote and dangerous region where implementing any program is difficult,” he said.

The Obama administration is reportedly planning to shift control of the targeted killing campaign to the military, which officials said could bring greater transparency and accountability (with a notable exception for strikes in Pakistan, which the CIA will continue to handle.) Brennan has also said recently the U.S. “should acknowledge it publicly” when civilians were killed.

The pace of drone strikes has dropped off drastically in recent months, with just two reported in Pakistan in the past month. How civilian deaths will be handled in a more transparent future remains to be seen.

“The U.S. could open up the ability to make these payments in any theater,” said Keenan, of Civilians in Conflict. “But in order to do it effectively, the U.S. has to engage on the ground. The whole point is acknowledging the harm.”

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