< The Week in Drones


Friday, February 08, 2013


BROOKE GLADSTONE: To some, drones are an elegant way to minimize collateral damage and American casualties. To others, drones are extrajudicial killing machines, raining death on both civilians and combattants, with almost no oversight. Whatever your opinion of drones, they were hard to ignore this week. It started Monday.

CORRESPONDENT:  NBC News has obtained a government document that lays out the legal argument to justify the President’s use of drones to kill al Qaeda suspects, including, in some cases, US citizens.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  This was the first real glimpse at the US government’s justification of any part of its drone policy. While it’s widely known that the US uses drones in the Middle East and Africa, until this week it was very rarely acknowledged.

During Tuesday's press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended the drone policy.

JAY CARNEY:  We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats, to stop plots, prevent future attacks and, again, save American lives. These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  But when asked to clarify what the government considers an ”imminent threat” it says is worthy of a drone strike, he ducked.

JAY CARNEY:  I would point you to the now released – it was not meant for public release but it’s not classified – the now released white paper which goes into some detail on that very issue.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Committee on Intelligence, released a statement saying, “The Committee continues to seek the actual legal opinions by the Department of Justice that provide details not outlined in this particular white paper.”

On Wednesday, the White House agreed to hand over the papers requested by Feinstein, probably to ease the confirmation of chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as the new director of the CIA. Brennan actually has spoken about the use of drones. Here he is in a 2012 speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

JOHN BRENNAN:  There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose, or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an act of battlefield, at least when the country involved can sense or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  While Brennan says there’s little evidence that the strikes are causing widespread anti-American sentiment, retired General Stanley McChrystal, who once led the military in Afghanistan, recently said that the strikes are, quote, “hated on a visceral level” and that the resentment they engender is greater than Americans know. At Brennan’s Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, he faced questions about the White House's reluctance to address civilian casualties. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden:

SENATOR RON WYDEN:  If the Executive Branch makes a mistake and kills the wrong person or a group of the wrong people, how should the government acknowledge that?

JOHN BRENNAN:  I believe we need to acknowledge it. We need to acknowledge it publicly.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The first reported drone strike against al Qaeda took place in Yemen in 2002. Reportedly during the Bush years, there was an American drone strike in Pakistan every 43 days. During the first two years of the Obama administration, there was a strike every four days. But how many have died as a result, and who are they? In the last few years, the New America Foundation, the Long War Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have each sought answers by extrapolating from news accounts of drone strikes. And they each found that the estimates of the US government, which tend to number civilian deaths in the single digits, are far too low.

At the end of 2011, a law clinic at Stanford University believed it could get a better accounting by conducting interviews on the ground in the place most targeted by drone strikes, Northwest Pakistan. So Stanford partnered with New York University and sent students there. Stanford Law professor James Cavallaro helped lead the project. Their findings, called, “Living Under Drones,” were released in September 2012.

JAMES CAVALLARO:  What we were hoping to add to the mix were individual accounts of particular strikes based on interviews with victims, witnesses, survivors in the region in North Waziristan most frequently targeted, and we were able to cross that information with other data from media sources, from governmental sources and provided thick accounts of a number of drone strike incidents.

And the other thing that we found, we found a good deal of information about the consequences to communities of living with drones overhead, firing missiles down at unknown times, where the people on the ground don't know who is going to be hit and so, they don’t know what is going to look like suspected terrorist or militant behavior. And we found psychological disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders.

We found a breakdown in the communities. Parents told us they don’t send their kids to school. People don’t go to religious services. They don't go to group meetings. They are very suspicious of each other. In effect, an entire area of Pakistan has been turned into a war zone, even though in theory the United States is not at war with Pakistan.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  In addition to the numbers being off, you found that the larger media narrative is also off because it offers a binary accounting. The dead are either civilians or they’re militants. What's wrong with that?

JAMES CAVALLARO:  What's wrong with that is the relevant inquiry is whether or not a particular person, as a matter of law, can be the subject of a targeted strike. Can you kill someone? And, instead of answering that question, what the media has done, in part following the lead of intelligence sources, both in the United States and Pakistan, is to ask whether or not someone is a militant.

So let me give you an analogy. Suppose a police officer in New York or Chicago shot and killed a young man and the only media inquiry was whether or not the young man might have participated in a gang, that wouldn’t be adequate by any – any stretch of the imagination. The question is was that person presenting a threat at the time he was shot by the police officer? Did he have a weapon? Was there an immanence to the danger presented or not, because if there wasn’t, at most you can arrest that person.

And the same principles apply in areas outside of war zones. And if there is no imminent threat, the United States cannot kill the person and then legitimate it by saying this person was a militant. Reporting what an anonymous official says without challenging that I think borders on irresponsible. I don't think the media would apply the same standards in the US.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Are you at all reassured that the President apparently signs off on all the kill lists?

JAMES CAVALLARO:  I'm not, and for two reasons. One, the kill lists are relevant only to what are known as personality strikes, which are strikes the target particular known individuals. The data show that those strikes are responsible for only two percent of those killed. The vast majority of hellfire missiles raining down from drones are signature strikes.

What that means is, rather than having a specific individual you have drone operators looking at screens of video coming in from drones flying overhead areas where militants or others are believed to operate, they identified behavior that allows drone operators to conclude that the people are militants and should be killed. So close to 98 percent, maybe more, of those who are killed are either low-level militants or civilians. And these are people who are not subject to review by the President.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  What do you think about what's happened this week? Has that moved the issue at all, that first you have this so white paper, as narrow as its focus is, being leaked to NBC. You have hearings in which the prospective head of the CIA, John Brennan, who is apparently the architect of the drone program, has been interviewed. Do you think that this will shake loose any more information?

JAMES CAVALLARO:  I think the events of the past week have been very important and they're encouraging. It's good that we see the white paper and that the other memoranda be released to congressional committees. Their contents are very disconcerting.

Moving forward, I think we need two things. One is we need much greater transparency. But two, it's not enough for the administration to say, these are what we think the standards are. The administration and US forces need to comply with the law. And there is strong evidence that that has not been the case to date.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Now you've done the research, you’ve released a report. You’ve corrected some facts. What difference does it make? Do you think US support for military drones is the result of people not fully understanding the impact that they have?

JAMES CAVALLARO:  Yes, I think that's a big factor. I think we have collectively accepted a narrative that is not accurate. As we provide more information, as we see that the standards that the administration has been using, even for US citizens, are fuzzy and depart from international and US norms, as we see increasing evidence of civilian deaths, as we see that drones and drone strikes foster recruitment to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that seek to do damage to the United States and as we see our own democratic process suffer the consequences of excessive secrecy, we’re more likely to reach the conclusion that, on the whole, the drone program is of more harm than it is benefit to our efforts to stop terrorism.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You’re positive that more information would turn people against the drone program. It's possible that other information, for instance, fewer American soldiers put at risk, the lower costs will convince significant members of the public that this is pretty good deal.

JAMES CAVALLARO:  A lot of this depends on what facts are out there. It's true that drones reduce the cost, in the short term, to the men and women in, in the United States military forces, the CIA and other governmental agents. That said, if indeed drones create significant anti-American hostility - and there are data on this - for instance, 74 percent of Pakistanis consider the United States an enemy; 90-something percent of Pakistanis have a negative understanding of the drones, and during the period of drone use in Pakistan, anti-Americanism has increased.

So in the mid-term and in the long-term, it may well be that even if drones occasionally hit a particular high-level terrorist target, there is a lot of evidence that suggests that drones serve as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups who seek to do damage to the United States and, and to Americans. We need a long-term understanding and not just a short-term assessment of, “Oh, the drone killed this bad person, so it must be good.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Jim, thank you very much.

JAMES CAVALLARO:  Thank you, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Jim Cavallaro is professor of law and director of the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic. We’ll link to their report, “Living Under Drones” on our website. 


James Cavallaro

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Brooke Gladstone