Silence of the Drones

Exclusive: Even as the United States has withdrawn from Iraq and has begun to wind down the Afghan War, the lethal reach of the U.S. military has been extended into other countries through Predator drones. What is less known is the full human and political costs, writes ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

Several friends of mine are among the 35 American activists assembling in Pakistan in recent days in an effort to seek ground truth on the impact of U.S. drone strikes on civilians there. I will be holding them and their Pakistani hosts and co-travelers in the Light, as my Quaker friends like to say, and will now try to do my part in what follows to put this dangerous journey in perspective.

The American group, organized by Code Pink Women for Peace, is meeting this week with a wide swath of Pakistanis, including representatives of the various political parties. Today, former U.S. diplomat and Army Col. Ann Wright was scheduled to address the Institute of Strategic Studies, Pakistan’s largest think tank, which advises the Foreign Office.

The MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)

Similar events are scheduled in Islamabad until the weekend, when hundreds of Pakistanis will join the Americans in a caravan of cars and vans on the six-hour drive from Islamabad to Waziristan in the northwest, where the drones do most of their killing and maiming.

As I said good-bye to two of my friends late last week, their backpacks seemed extraordinarily heavy. It occurred to me later that I was visualizing the extra weight of the twin burden of shame they bear for our country’s drone attacks: (1) the toll the drone strikes have taken on Pakistani citizens; and (2) the embarrassment generated by the disingenuous denials by U.S. officials from President Barack Obama, to his counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, to U.S. diplomats, right down to media cheerleaders and lower-ranking computer functionaries.

Hunched under one of those backpacks was Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy. Before departing he wrote “Why I’m Going to Pakistan: Under Scrutiny, the Drone Strike Policy Will Fail.”

Here is how he described what the travelers hoped to accomplish:

“If people have to confront the actual reality of the Pakistan drone strike policy – the reality in which its impact is mostly about killing and terrorizing civilians and alienating Pakistani public opinion from the United States as opposed to the fairy tale in which it is all about wasting top-level ‘bad guys’ the political story will fall apart.”

The Political Story

Reluctant as I am to quote my one-time debate partner Donald Rumsfeld, one of his (autobiographical) aphorisms seems altogether apt here: “Some people lie and get away with it!” President Obama is either advised by liars on civilian casualties from drone strikes, or he thinks he can “lie and get away with it.” It has to be one or the other.

Answering a question during a live video “hangout” on Jan. 30, Obama’s words were reminiscent of the infamous “modified limited hangout” characteristic of the Nixon White House. Obama insisted that the drone targets were “on a list of active terrorists,” as if that made the killing, ipso facto, okay.

Asked about the increase in the number of drone strikes under his presidency and whether the loss of civilian life was worth it for U.S. interests, the President said:

“I want to make sure the people understand, actually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties. For the most part they have been very precise precision-strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates. …. It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.”

Tight Leash?

Just four months later, a May 29 New York Times article on Obama’s secret “Kill List” revealed how the President rationalized his claim that the number of civilians killed was “not huge.” Far from “a very tight leash,” it was a numbering gimmick.

The Times report quoted several Obama administration officials admitting that all military-age males in a strike zone are counted as combatants, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. (Yes, you read that right posthumously.)

Small wonder that counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan could claim in June 2011 that there had been zero civilians killed in Pakistan for almost a year. And small wonder that another senior administration official could tell the Times several months later that the number of civilians killed by drone strikes in Pakistan was in the “single digits.”

In April 2012, Brennan was still at it, describing civilian casualties from drone strikes as “exceedingly rare” as if saying something often enough can make it true.

One former senior intelligence officer did express serious misgivings. “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the former officer told the Times. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

So much for posthumous exoneration.

For people with a conscience this is a lot to take in; to reflect on; and to take responsibility for as an American citizen.  Serious though these issues are, there are times when a satirical touch can cut to the chase not to trivialize this sadder-than-sad reality, but rather to render it easier to understand and drive them home its full import. In my view, Stephen Colbert performed a useful service a few weeks after the New York Times published its report on the “Kill List.”

The Real Story

A Stanford/NYU study titled “Living Under Drones” and released last week concluded that far more civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan than U.S. counter-terrorism officials admit.

The study cites statistics complied by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the non-profit organization based at City University in London, indicating 474 to 884 civilian deaths since 2004, including 176 children. The Bureau, a non-profit organization based at City University in London, has eyewitness sources on the ground in Pakistan.

“Real people are suffering real harm” but are largely ignored in government or news media discussions of drone attacks, said James Cavallaro of Stanford, one of the Stanford/NYU study’s authors. As to Robert Naiman’s reference to “wasting top-level bad guys,” the study concluded that only about 2 percent of drone casualties were top militant leaders.

The report also concludes that the drone attacks have not made America safer, but rather have increased resentment against the U.S. among Pakistanis. So, even for those without moral qualms about killing innocent people, the drone attacks make little sense from a practical point of view.

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables of 2007 and 2008 show that the Pakistani military initially acquiesced in the drone attacks in the northwest tribal area, but acquiescence gradually became the result of coercion. And no one and especially not the Pakistanis appreciate being coerced. Former President Pervez Musharraf recently said that, no matter what Pakistan wanted, it was too weak militarily to oppose the drone attacks.

Widespread popular resentment is reflected, however, in recent statements by the Pakistani foreign ministry rejecting claims of tacit approval by Pakistan. An official statement on Friday bluntly rejected such claims, adding that “drone attacks are illegal, counterproductive, in contravention of international law and a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.”

The day before, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’d, asked why anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is among the world’s highest, answered with one word: “Drones.” And the Pakistani parliament has unanimously demanded an end to the drone strikes.

Groping to Understand

Then why do them? To “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” the 50 to100 al-Qaeda who remain in the area and/or other “high-value bad guys?” If you are satisfied with that explanation, you need not read on.

I think we need to consider all the possibilities, however inhuman or outlandish they may seem. If the U.S. aim is to antagonize the 180 million people of a proud, strategically located nation armed with nuclear weapons, and to fill recruitment stations with “militants” bent on avenging relatives and friends on the receiving end of the drones’ “Hellfire” missiles, drone operations are a smashing success.

Could this be the actual aim of U.S. policy? Although stranger things have happened, I am inclined to rule out this suggestion as a mite too cynical and bizarre. This, even though I recognize the power of U.S. arms manufacturers, together with generals driven by the prospect of profit and promotions provided by perpetual war.

The power of this kind of influence, however, should be kept in mind. In recent years, I have learned to be less surprised by the mindset exemplified by people like former General and now CIA Director David Petraeus, who has predicted glibly that our grandchildren will still be fighting the kind of wars in which he, deservedly or not, made his name.

This is the same Petraeus who, still a general in February 2011, shocked Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s aides by suggesting that Afghan parents might have burned their own children in order to blame U.S. military operations. This is the same Petraeus who is running the drone attacks on Pakistan.

Wooden Heads and Lemmings

More likely, hewing to the drone-attack approach can be attributed, at least in part to what Barbara Tuchman in her The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam describes as wooden-headedness:

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

A variant might be called the “lemming factor,” which is particularly influential during an election campaign with the overriding requirement to shun any sign of weakness or lack of honor for “the fallen.”

“Two lemmings are chatting while standing in the line to the cliff. One says to the other, ‘Of course we have to go over the edge. Anything else would dishonor all the lemmings that have gone before us.’”

Remember, none of our troops get killed in these drone attacks. They can do the killing from a safe distance sitting at a computerized play-station. And the drones are relatively cheap. Most important, we can be seen as doing something against the feared al-Qaeda and other terrorists.

And, somehow, the Pakistanis won’t mind very much, goes the thinking. Or what can they do about it, after all?

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may cling to the (forlorn) hope that relations with those who hold the real power in Pakistan will not really suffer, especially if the U.S. shows determination and uses the traditional mix of flattery, threats, money and sophisticated military hardware to cultivate Pakistani military leaders.

U.S. policy makers may even harbor the naive expectation that, with continued efforts to “educate” the Pakistanis, they will “shift their strategic calculus” (as then Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy put it two years ago) away from India, and focus instead on helping the U.S. pull its chestnuts out of the fire in Afghanistan.

If all this seems naive and feckless, that’s because it is. But Americans don’t know that. And the killing from drone strikes continues. And that’s why it is fitting and proper for American activists to be sticking their necks out in traveling to the area to see for themselves.

Is there no one with any sense? The answer is yes. Take former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter who opted out of a third year in Islamabad apparently out of frustration having to implement the hare-brained policies devised at the Pentagon, CIA, and White House.

Highly qualified and perceptive people leave; Munter retired after more than a quarter-century in the Foreign Service on Sunday for reasons that are clear enough, even given the timid valedictory he gave on Sept. 25 at the Carnegie Foundation.

Just five days short of being out-the-door, Munter’s words remained diplomatic far too much so. What came through clearly was his exasperation at having to implement a myopic, counterproductive policy toward a nuclear-armed state with the world’s sixth largest population.

Although he did not say it right out, Munter words reflected frustration with a feckless U.S. policy unable to look beyond the sacred cow of counter-terrorism and whatever it is the U.S. is still trying to do in Afghanistan.

There, as Munter gingerly put it, U.S. and Pakistani interests “do not align that well,” despite the efforts of people like Panetta and Clinton to persuade the Pakistanis to revise their strategic view of the region.

The centerpiece of Munter’s presentation was a recounting of a long list of indignities that, as ambassador, he was forced to spend so much of his time cleaning up after.

The Nov. 26, 2011 killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by U.S. air attacks against suspected insurgents/militants/terrorists (call them what you will) in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area; the refusal of the Pentagon to apologize; Pakistan’s shutdown of U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan; the CIA/Raymond Davis affair; the CIA/Navy SEAL incursion into Abbottabad and killing of Osama bin Laden with no prior notification; the mutual acrimony that ensued you name it.

Munter bemoaned the reality that 2011 was a very bad year, without specifically attributing blame. But, guess what he left out of the litany. Drones.

Munter winced when, the last questioner asked him how the U.S. “could possibly persuade people [Pakistanis] to work with us,” as drones continue to take their toll.  This drew an eloquent filibuster on subjects unrelated to drones.

Munter waxed eloquent on the deep reservoir of good will that America enjoys among Pakistanis; how “95 percent of Pakistanis care deeply about the U.S.”; the reasons behind the close military relationship we enjoy; etc., etc.

The questioner asked again, “What about the drones?’ Munter swallowed hard and, referred to “Title 50” (of the U.S. Code governing intelligence), and said, “This is an issue that I can’t talk a lot about because of the way this works in our government.” At that point he seemed to revert to standard talking points:

“When you travel in the country and talk with people who are not part of the elite, I never ever ever ever ever got a question about the drones. … It’s not a deep issue in Pakistan. It’s an important one, but not a deep one.  That said, among the elites it’s a very important issue, and elites matter.”

“I’d like to see us be able to talk about drones, to have an honest back and forth about what our policy is,” he continued, “but at this point we’re not able to do that.”

So here’s the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan bemoaning, in a far too gentle, non-threatening way, the lack of honest discussion of drones that are attacking the country in which he is the President’s senior representative. Remarkable. You see, that’s “the way this works in our government.”

Maybe Munter will be less tongue-tied today on his first day or retirement. But his speech at Carnegie just days before he left government provides scant hope that he will step out of the ethos of Establishment Washington to expose the immoral and counterproductive policy of drone attacks, rather than filibuster and obfuscate.

And that is a huge part of the problem. With the important exception of the three courageous Foreign Service officers who loudly quit right before the U.S. attack on Iraq, those with direct experience with the shortcomings of U.S. policy rarely let the rest of us in on their conclusions no matter how important the issue.

And so it falls to activists like the ones assembled by Code Pink to get below the State Department talking points and, unfettered by career or end-of-career inhibitions, give us honest answers to questions on key issues like the drones. Let’s hope against hope that their findings get appropriate play in U.S. media.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served for 30 years as an Army and then CIA intelligence analyst and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).


9 comments for “Silence of the Drones

  1. McMillan
    October 4, 2012 at 13:53

    Once again, an excellent piece by Mr. McGovern. The only item he left out is these same drones will soon be coming to a city near you. It never ceases to amaze me how we keep coming up with these dumb-ass policies as if we are going to force people to submit to our will. If our leaders would just stop and ask the question, “How would the American people react if a foreign invader tried this in the US?” Short answer is we would fight tooth and nail to get rid of them. If we were really serious about getting rid of terrorism we would show the world why ours is a better system; but we can’t because our system is about exploitation and protecting the interests of the ruling class.

  2. F. G. Sanford
    October 1, 2012 at 16:55

    Notwithstanding the moral bankruptcy of our current drone warfare policy, we have once again ‘played our cards’ too soon. National security concerns alone should warrant the relegation of our most sophisticated weaponry to exigencies which constitute sovereign threats. The strategic advantage of technologically advanced weapons has a dismally short half-life once they are deployed. We dropped nuclear bombs on Japan, and by 1949, the Soviets had them too. As soon as a weapons system is deployed, countermeasures technology goes into warp drive. We’ve wasted the “element of surprise” of stealth and a host of other technologies on hubristic and unnecessary conflicts. Our “Fearless Leaders”, in keeping with the Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale model, just can’t wait to try out every new “secret weapon”. Iran has already captured one of our drones. Perhaps they’ve reverse engineered it, perhaps they haven’t. Much to his chagrin, Adolf Hitler’s introduction to the Soviet T-34 tank spoiled his plans. Informed by an attitude that the Soviets were subhuman, he remarked, “Who could have believed…[they could make such progress]?” Needless to say, the revenge exacted by the Soviet Army was remorseless in its cruelty. And, nobody blamed them at all. We must ask ourselves: “Will the world have much sympathy for us if these people retaliate?”

    • incontinent reader
      October 1, 2012 at 19:34

      Excellent points- both from a strategic and tactical perspective. But would you also say that the people who seem to have the influence are the military contractors who benefit both from overuse and obsolescence so that they can maximize sales and revenue? (And, to paraphrase what Madeleine Albright was reported to have said to Colin Powell, “what good is the military if you can’t use it?”- though in this case, I guess your point is, “what good will your military be if you use it too soon”)

      Re: Iran, you are right, they are producing their own drones and, as you suggest, may have already reverse engineered the one that fell in their lap. See, for example:
      and related links in this article, and,

      And their local artists also seem to have been entrepreneurial about it and gotten a jump on Mattel in the GI Joe market. (See:
      I wonder if they will avoid the sanctions and show up at Target and Walmart.

      • F. G. Sanford
        October 2, 2012 at 08:25

        Lobbyists ‘wag the dog’ and politicians vote for pork to benefit their congressional districts. All the critical decisions appear to be made ‘outside the loop’ of congressional oversight. When we decide to destabilize some banana republic, whose idea is it, really? None of this stuff is ever on the ballot. We appear to have one ‘loose cannon’ episode after the other, and all of them at the behest of some invisible corporate campaign benefactor. It looks like Americans vote to be kept in the dark, tacitly admitting that they are childish, illiterate, unwilling to tackle complex thoughts and grateful to be spared any knowledge of the real issues. It isn’t hard to find examples to prove this is true. There was a big flap about releasing details of the Abottabad raid. I’d be more concerned about how much technology the Chinese got from the wrecked helicopter. Americans are occupied with the cowboy hero worship aspect, never stopping to consider that we may have given away twenty years of research and development to kill one irrelevant, decrepit old fart. If a real threat comes along, have we already played our hand? Who knows, but the immediate gratification aspect was the PR coup. For all I know, they could have thrown a dead goat overboard in that body bag.

    • richard
      October 1, 2012 at 20:18

      Hey F.G.
      Sanford u seem a keen critic but you do not have any foreign policy to put forth to protect Americans do you ?
      nor a Idea how to deal with those that are training and prospering attacks on American interests and how and why would your ideas are be going to be successful in all aspects.
      so maybe you should just shut up and stay in your safe home knock on wood.

      • F. G. Sanford
        October 1, 2012 at 20:38

        So…are you trying to say you disagree with me…or the author of the article?

      • incontinent reader
        October 2, 2012 at 17:06

        Richard- After all of these unprovoked wars we have initiated in other peoples’ back yards, do you still not know why they would want to fight back and attack our interests? Put yourself in their place. Would you roll over and play dead, or would you fight to defend your home? Unfortunately, in our case after 9/11, the American people were fed a line by our leaders, and let them attack the wrong people (i.e., Afghanistan and Iraq).

        Re: how to protect our interests now, we did (and do still) have the opportunity to do business with the Taliban re: the TAPI pipeline and resource (mineral and energy) development if we don’t keep trying to kill them and forcibly control them; Iran does want to negotiate a “grand bargain with us”- and the investment possibilities in their country are limitless; Pakistan would like to get beyond getting clobbered by drones and building their economy with oil and gas pipelines, etc., etc. All of these are opportunities that could jumpstart the economy. ours and theirs, but you can’t do it unless you are willing to trade and use diplomacy; and when everyone has some skin in the game you have more of a chance to develop a stable and mutually prosperous relationship. Using diplomacy doesn’t mean you don’t keep a strong military option as a last resort, but using it as a first resort will guarantee that you will be attacked in response, and will also make the strategic mistake pointed out by F.G. Sanford, that by using our most advanced weaponry when we didn’t have to, we revealed it to our potential enemies, and thereby made ourselves less safe.

        So, you might try thinking in a more sophisticated way as to what would protect our interests and what would not protect them.

  3. incontinent reader
    October 1, 2012 at 16:30

    Pakistan is seeing the UN raise the issue of “missing persons” and “human rights” as a potential pretext to invade or destabilize Balochistan, while the UN is doing nothing to address the US drone attacks.

    (See, for example,
    also, see:

    The geopolitical value of Balochistan to Pakistan would include controlling critical transit routes for a TAPI pipeline, and an IPI pipeline, where either pipeline would provide Pakistan with much needed natural gas, and much needed revenue to develop its economy, including investing in Balochistan. U.S. strategy would seem to be focused on splitting off Balochistan from Pakistan in order to dismember, balkanize and weaken Pakistan, to gain a further foothold in Central Asia in order to prop up our presence in Afghanistan and Azerbaijan, and to facilitate the building of a TAPI pipeline, and prevent the completion of an IPI pipeline.

  4. incontinent reader
    October 1, 2012 at 14:40

    Ray, Thank you for another excellent and much needed article. The hard truth of all of this is, that while the Administration is shredding what is left of our “national honor and morality” (whatever that means right now) with this type of high tech carnage, our genius planners who are responsible for it are at the same time destroying our geopolitical future with Pakistan. Pakistan’s leadership has realized that if it is to survive, it must lean to allies- such as China, Russia……..and Iran- allies that will respect its core interests- e.g., national sovereignty, economic viability and independence, and a fair resolution of its over 60 year-old dispute with India over Kashmir- and that is what it is now doing. Nor should one expect that the U.S. will be able to retain its influence- military bases or not- merely by buying off Pakistan’s leadership, or importing a new wave of Al Qaeda from Libya to destabilize the country, even though right now it is making a clandestine effort to sever Balochistan from Pakistan to gain a further foothold in the region.

Comments are closed.