The Slatest

The U.S. Is Still Dropping Bombs Without Knowing Who Is Under Them

President Obama waves after speaking about his administration’s drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 2013. 

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

For those who took seriously President Obama’s stated goals of restoring accountability and legal legitimacy to U.S. counterterrorism operations, the 2013 speech at the National Defense University was one of the most significant watersheds of his presidency. In retrospect, though, it was one of the biggest disappointments.

In the speech, Obama pledged to rescind and replace the open-ended post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. Since then, he has continued to use its authority and even launched a war under it—the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He promised to recommit the administration to closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay. But detainee transfers slowed to a crawl for the first 10 months of 2014, and the Pentagon is now racing to transfer as many as possible before Congress can put a stop to the process entirely. He vowed that whenever possible, the U.S. would seek to capture terrorists rather than kill them in the field. But all indications suggest that targeted killing remains the preferred option for dealing with al-Qaida leaders. Now, we can add “signature strikes”—airstrikes, usually involving drones, targeting what appear to be terrorist facilities rather than specific terrorists—to the list.

The administration has been extremely reluctant to discuss signature strikes, rebuffing a number of attempts from Congress and the media seeking the legal rationale behind them. But at NDU, Obama appeared to be discussing signature strikes when he said that in defense of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, the U.S. would continue to carry out strikes not only against high-ranking al-Qaida figures, “but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces.” But, he continued, by the end of 2014 when that combat mission was scheduled to end, “we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we’ve made against core al-Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.” Officials at the time said that under new guidelines, drones would be used only against targets who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans.” In July 2013 the AP reported that the CIA was operating under much stricter guidelines and had been instructed to drop the practice of signature strikes.

However, yesterday, the administration revealed that a Jan. 15 drone strike in Pakistan killed two hostages, an American and an Italian, as well as an American member of al-Qaida. Officials hadn’t known that any of them were in the compound, and the New York Times reports today that “American officials acknowledged that the Jan. 15 attack was a signature strike, but said that the C.I.A. had assessed with ‘high confidence’ that the compound in the Shawal Valley was being used by Qaeda operatives.” White House spokesman Josh Earnest also said yesterday that a later strike, which killed American al-Qaida propagandist Adam Gadahn, had not targeted him or any other specific individual. Rather, the CIA had good reason to believe based on intelligence or surveillance merely that it was an al-Qaida compound that al-Qaida leaders were likely to frequent.  

The practice of using “pattern of life” analysis to justify drone strikes was first approved by President Bush in 2008 and became a core part of U.S. counterterrorism practice in Pakistan under Obama. In 2012 a former military official acknowledged to the Washington Post  that the CIA “killed most of their ‘list people’ when they didn’t know they were there.” The identities of those killed only became clear later. Or as a stark Times headline put it today, the CIA is “often unsure about who will die” when they launch a strike. The practice was approved for use in Yemen in 2012.

Human rights groups, including the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, have been particularly critical of signature strikes because of the increased potential for civilian casualties. That, sadly, didn’t attract all that much public attention until this week, when one of those casualties turned out to be an American.

The continued use of signature strikes also calls into question other statements about the drone program. For instance, U.S. officials said in February that the U.S. was no longer adding new names to its “kill list” of al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan, but that’s much less significant if strikes aren’t specifically targeting people on the list anyway.

It’s not hard to figure out why the strikes are continuing. “Combat operations” may have formally ended in Afghanistan, but there are still U.S. troops in the country and they’re playing a much more active role than was envisaged in 2013. That role may only increase in coming months with concerns growing about ISIS’s expansion and the Taliban formally announcing the start of the 2015 summer fighting season

Whatever the reasons, like other aspects of the drone program, the decision to continue launching strikes without specific information was and continues to be taken without public disclosure. At this point you’d have to be pretty naïve to take this administration’s counterterrorism pledges seriously.