Dennis Blair, President Obama’s first Director of National Intelligence, reiterates today in the New York Times a view he enunciated recently at an Aspen Institute event, namely, that the unchecked use of Predator and Reaper drones against Al Qaeda in Pakistan is a bad idea. In “Drones Are Not the Answer,” Blair says that the drone attacks are increasing “hatred” of the United States in Pakistan and damaging our ability to work with the government of Pakistan on things that really matter. While acknowledging that past drone attacks have weakened Al Qaeda, Blair asserts:

“Drone strikes are no longer the most effective strategy for eliminating Al Qaeda’s ability to attack us.… The important question today is whether continued unilateral drone attacks will substantially reduce Al Qaeda’s capabilities. They will not.”

And he concludes:

“If we are ever to reduce Al Qaeda from a threat to a nuisance, it will be by working with Pakistan, not by continuing unilateral drone attacks.”

Blair, who’s in a position to know, fails to dispute the Obama administration’s contention that drone attacks in Pakistan have been 100 percent accurate, killing zero civilians. (He does point out that “media accounts of heavy civilian casualties are widely believed” in Pakistan, but he ought to have told us if the administration’s hard-to-believe statements are inaccurate.)

Just last week, the Times reported on a study by the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism that “concluded that at least 45 civilians were killed in 10 strikes during the last year.” And the Times’s own reporting “suggests reasons to doubt the precision and certainty of the agency’s civilian death count.” In recent years, there have been widely divergent accounts of various drone strikes, with the United States saying that a particular attack killed only Al Qaeda militants while local authorities, villagers and some anti-US elements cite numerous innocent bystanders killed. While some reports of civilian deaths are obviously inflated for propaganda value, the US claim that civilian casualties are minuscule and that in recent attacks not a single noncombatant has died are ludicrous. The British report says that between 385 and 775 civilians died in 291 drone attacks.

In an editorial yesterday, the Times opines:

“Perfection is rare in life; in war, rarer still. Yet the Central Intelligence Agency says it has a yearlong perfect record of no civilian deaths from its campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan. We find that hard to believe. So do many Pakistanis, journalists and independent experts, including those who support the drone program. Lacking proof, the claim fuels skepticism about American intentions and harms United States-Pakistani relations.”

And the editorial concludes:

“Drones are becoming central to modern warfare. The United States needs to be honest about what it can do and about its failings as well. It will have little ground on which to fault other countries for strikes that cause civilian casualties if it does not own up to its own errors, compensate victims’ families and keep working hard to make fewer errors in the future.”

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