In January, a barrage of American missiles struck a suspected Al Qaeda hideout in Pakistan. Unbeknownst to intelligence officials, however, American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, both kidnapped aid workers, were held hostage inside and died in the attack. Then three weeks ago, after a preliminary investigation, President Obama did something wholly unprecedented in his global war of “targeted killings”: he stepped up to a podium in the White House and apologized to Weinstein and Lo Porto’s families.
“One of the things that sets America apart from many other nations,” Obama said, “one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
Yet Obama’s square confrontation with his mistakes has never included an apology before—the overwhelming majority of as many as, by one count, 1,250 civilian deaths in what has become known as his “drone war” never get acknowledged by the administration at all, let alone elicit public contrition.
Now, a coalition of human and civil rights groups are pushing the administration to put its policies in line with Obama’s lofty rhetoric. Today, they wrote a letter to the president demanding that he do for all the alleged civilian victims of drone strikes what he’s doing in Weinstein and Lo Porto’s cases.
The groups—which include the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, CIVIC, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Columbia Law’s Human Rights Clinic, Human Rights First, Open Society Foundations and Reprieve—welcomed Obama’s promise of an independent investigation into Weinstein and Lo Porto’s deaths as well as the offer of compensation to their families.
“We write to urge your administration to adopt the same approach to all other U.S. counterterrorism strikes in which civilians have been injured or killed—regardless of their nationalities,” the coalition letter goes on. “To that end, your administration should establish a systematic and transparent mechanism for post-strike investigations, which are made public, and provide appropriate redress to civilian victims.”
And the rights groups came with suggestions of some places for the Obama administration to start: the letter included an appendix of ten cases—not “an exhaustive list, but ten examples of strikes in which civilian harm has been credibly alleged”—for the administration to investigate and make its findings known. The ten cases, based upon on-the-ground investigations of strikes by some of the groups on the letter, first appeared in post by a professor and three students from the Human Rights Clinic on the legal blog Just Security.
The list of strikes spans 2009 through 2014—covering a period of dramatic escalation of the drone war—and cites cases in Yemen and Pakistan, two hotbeds of Obama’s covert military strikes, totaling over 120 civilian casualties. The earliest such attack took place in Yemen with a cruise missile; according to the Human Rights Watch, 41 civilians—including 21 children and nine women, five of them pregnant—were killed. A 2012 strike in Pakistan killed 18 civilians, said the letter, ten of whom Amnesty International found “were killed by a second round of strikes targeting those who had arrived at the scene to help the wounded and recover the dead.”
And yet none of these scenes of unacknowledged but investigated carnage has elicited apologies. “This is the first time that they’re acknowledging it and apologizing for” civilian deaths, said Naureen Shah, of Amnesty International USA, in a phone interview. “And that’s pretty glaring because there is an obligation under international law to investigate credible allegations of loss of the right to life.”
Shah added that both human rights law and the laws of armed conflict require such investigations. “This is what the US government asks of countries all over the world,” Shah said. “This is just another example where the CIA wants to be an exception to the rules they apply all over the world.”
In an e-mail response to questions from The Nation, National Security Council assistant press secretary Ned Price said the administration can’t comment on specific operations, but that “the US government seeks to avoid [civilian casualties] if at all possible,” noting that “the standard that we hold ourselves to when conducting these kinds of operations is higher than that required by international law.” Price said when “it appears non-combatants may have been killed or injured, after-action reviews have been conducted to determine why.” (The reviews, however, are not made public, nor are aggregate statistics about combatants or civilians killed. Price declined to comment on why.)
In his April 23 remarks, Obama said “the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve to know the truth”—a statement difficult to reconcile with the administration’s general silence on civilian casualties. In one notable exception in 2013, the United States acknowledged that four of its own citizens had been killed in covert counter-terrorism operations—but it stated that only one of the four, the radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, had been “specifically targeted.” The other three American deaths, including Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, resulted in no explanations, and certainly no apologies. Indeed, the government stonewalled the Al-Awlaki family’s attempts to get answers in court about Abdulrahman’s death.
While the NSC’s Price said the release of information about Weinstein and Lo Porto’s deaths was disclosed “in order to continue to facilitate transparency when U.S. citizens are killed in our counterterrorism operations,” he did not offer a response to a follow-up about why the deaths of three other Americans had been acknowledged, but went unexplained.
Last year, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence passed a measure that would have required the administration to disclose the numbers of both “combatant” and “noncombatant civilian” deaths in drone strikes. But Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote to the committee’s chair and ranking member declaring that the administration was “currently exploring ways in which it can provide the American people more information about the United States’ use of force outside areas of active hostilities.” In response, Congress stripped the reporting requirements from the final bill.
More than a year later, there has been no follow-up—publicly, at least—from the administration. And that the intelligence committee’s ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) only said after Obama’s announcement of Weinstein and Lo Porto’s deaths that she was going over the strike “in greater detail” suggested, said Amnesty’s Shah, that there had been no behind-closed-doors follow-up either.
“I find it pretty ridiculous that the administration would quash the legislation and then not do anything,” Shah said.
The administration denied it had taken no action on its pledges for more transparency. Obama “has directed a policy process, which is ongoing, but has already produced results,” said the NSC’s Price. “For example, that process has been manifested in how the military has disclosed every recent lethal operation in Somalia.” (The administration hasn’t acknowledged any civilian casualties in any of these Somalia operations.)
Obama was clearly moved by Weinstein and Lo Porto’s deaths; he noted his “grief and condolences” and expressed regret. “I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations,” he said. Though he invoked “not just innocent Americans, but all innocent lives in our counterterrorism operations,” Obama has little to publicly show for all his claims to working towards more transparency—aside from apologies for two of some hundreds of cases.
Without mechanisms for proper investigations and redress, in other words, the drone war is killing civilians largely in the shadows, and it will likely continue to do so. “It’s a game of selective disclosure, where they tout the successes and obscure the evident failures,” said Shah. “The part that really, really bothers me is that this is a course that all future administrations can follow.”