Obama’s Criminal Drone War

President Obama has relied on the lethal drone program as a “low cost” way to eliminate “terrorists,” but the project has institutionalized an imprecise strategy of human slaughter that violates international law and creates more enemies, writes Marjorie Cohn at Truthdig.

By Marjorie Cohn

A new whistleblower has joined the ranks of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou and other courageous individuals. The unnamed person, who chose to remain anonymous because of the Obama administration’s vigorous prosecution of whistleblowers, is a member of the intelligence community.

In the belief that the American public has the right to know about the “fundamentally” and “morally” flawed U.S. drone program, this source provided The Intercept with a treasure trove of secret military documents and slides that shine a critical light on the country’s killer drone program. These files confirm that the Obama administration’s policy and practice of assassination using armed drones and other methods violate the law.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, 2015. (Photo credit: United Nations.)

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, 2015. (Photo credit: United Nations.)

The documents reveal the “kill chain” that decides who will be targeted. As the source said, “This outrageous explosion of watchlisting, of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences, without notice, on a worldwide battlefield, it was, from the very first instance, wrong.”

These secret documents demonstrate that the administration kills innumerable civilians due to its reliance on “signals intelligence” in undeclared war zones, following cell phones or computers that may or may not be carried by suspected terrorists. The documents show that more than half the intelligence used to locate potential targets in Somalia and Yemen was based on this method.

“It isn’t a surefire method,” the source observed. “You’re relying on the fact that you do have all these powerful machines, capable of collecting extraordinary amounts of data and intelligence,” which can cause those involved to think they possess “godlike powers.”

“It’s stunning the number of instances when selectors are misattributed to certain people,” the source noted, characterizing a missile fired at a target in a group of people as a “leap of faith.”

The Obama administration has never provided accurate civilian casualty counts. In fact, CIA director and former counterterrorism adviser John Brennan falsely claimed in 2011 that no civilians had been killed in drone strikes in nearly a year. In actuality, many people who are not the intended targets of the strikes are killed.

“The Drone Papers” tell us the administration labels unidentified persons who are killed in a drone attack “enemies killed in action,” unless there is evidence posthumously proving them innocent. That “is insane,” the source said. “But [the intelligence community has] made ourselves comfortable with that.” The source added, “They made the numbers themselves so they can get away with writing off most of the kills as legitimate.”

The administration’s practice of minimizing the civilian casualties is “exaggerating at best, if not outright lies,” according to the source.

Since the U.S. is involved in armed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, international humanitarian law, namely, the Geneva Conventions, must be applied to assess the legality of targeted killing. The Geneva Conventions provide that only combatants may be targeted.

From January 2012 to February 2013, a campaign dubbed Operation Haymaker was carried out in the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. According to “The Drone Papers,” during a five-month period almost 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. This campaign paralleled an increase in drone attacks and civilian casualties throughout Afghanistan. What’s more, the campaign did not significantly degrade al-Qaida’s operations there.

The U.S. is violating the right to life enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Because the U.S. ratified this treaty, it constitutes binding domestic law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which states, “Treaties shall be the supreme law of the land.”

Under international humanitarian law, an “armed conflict” requires the existence of organized armed groups engaged in fighting of certain intensity. The groups must have a command structure, be governed by rules, provide military training and have organized acquisition of weapons, as well as communications infrastructure.

Legal scholars, including University of Cambridge professor Christine Gray, have concluded that “the ‘war against Al-Qaeda’ does not meet the threshold of intensity of a non-international armed conflict, and Al-Qaeda does not meet the threshold of an organized armed group.”

The U.S. is not involved in “armed conflict” in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Thus, the law enforcement model must be applied to assess the legality of actions in those countries. This model limits the use of lethal force to situations where there is an imminent threat to life and nonlethal measures would be inadequate.

In 2013, as President Obama gave a speech at the National Defense University, the administration released a fact sheet that said the target must pose a “continuing, imminent threat to US persons” before lethal force may be used. But Obama has waived the imminence requirement in Pakistan.

Although a spokesperson for the National Security Council told The Intercept that “those guidelines remain in effect today,” “The Drone Papers” state that the target need only present “a threat to US interest or personnel.” This is a far cry from an imminence requirement. And once the president signs off on a target, U.S. forces have 60 days to execute the strike. A 60-day period flies in the face of the imminence mandate for the use of lethal force off the battlefield.

Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, affirms that a targeted killing is lawful only if required to protect life and no other means, such as capture or nonlethal incapacitation, is available to protect life.

Besides being illegal, Obama’s preference for killing instead of apprehension prevents the administration from gathering crucial intelligence. Obama stated in 2013, “America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists; our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute.”

But Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told The Intercept, “We don’t capture people anymore.”

Slides provided by “The Drone Papers” source cite a 2013 study by the Pentagon’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force that said “kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees and captured material.” The task force recommended capture and interrogation rather than killing in drone strikes.

The American public is largely unaware of the high number of civilian casualties from drone strikes. A study conducted by American University professor Jeff Bachman concluded that both The New York Times and The Washington Post “substantially underrepresented the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, failed to correct the public record when evidence emerged that their reporting was wrong and ignored the importance of international law.”

Gregory McNeal, an expert on national security and drones at Pepperdine School of Law, wrote that in Afghanistan and Iraq, “when collateral damage [civilian casualties] did occur, 70 percent of the time it was attributable to failed, that is, mistaken, identification.”

“Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association,” “The Drone Papers” source notes. If “a drone attack kills more than one person, there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate. So it’s a phenomenal gamble.”

Drones are Obama’s weapon of choice because they don’t result in U.S. casualties.

“It is the politically advantageous thing to do, low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” according to former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

Part of the damage, as Flynn pointed out, is that drones make the fallen into martyrs. They create “a new reason to fight us even harder,” he said.

The United Nations charter’s mandate for peaceful resolution of disputes and prohibition of military force except in self-defense is not a pipe dream. A study by the Rand Corp. concluded that between 1968 and 2006, 43 percent of incidents involving terrorist groups ended by a “peaceful political resolution with their government,” 40 percent “were penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies,” and only 7 percent were ended by the use of military force.

Nevertheless, The Wall Street Journal reported that the military plans to increase drone flights by 50 percent by 2019.

In describing how the special operations community views the prospective targets for assassination by drone, “The Drone Papers” source said, “They have no rights. They have no dignity. They have no humanity to themselves. They’re just a ‘selector’ to an analyst. You eventually get to a point in the target’s life cycle that you are following them, you don’t even refer to them by their actual name.” This results in “dehumanizing the people before you’ve even encountered the moral question of ‘is this a legitimate kill or not?’ ”

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed three lawsuits seeking information about the government’s use of lethal drones. Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is calling for increased transparency and congressional oversight of the drone program.

“The report makes it clear,” Ellison noted, that “the U.S. drone program operates on highly questionable legal ground and offends our principles of justice.”

Drone pilots operate thousands of miles from their targets. But many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some are refusing to fly the drones. In September, the Air Force Times ran a historic ad, paid for by 54 U.S. veterans and vets’ organizations, urging Air Force drone operators and other military personnel to refuse orders to fly drone surveillance and attack missions.

“The Drone Papers” source implores us to take action to stop this travesty. “We’re allowing this to happen,” the source said. “And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it.”

The newly released documents are a clarion call to us all to demand that our government stop the killing. It is illegal, it is immoral, and it makes us more vulnerable to terrorism.

Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, a former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. See Marjorie’s blog (www.marjoriecohn.com) This article first appeared on Truthdig [http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/drone_papers_revelations_are_a_cry_for_ending_the_slaughter_20151105


16 comments for “Obama’s Criminal Drone War

  1. Mortimer
    November 9, 2015 at 14:35

    I wrote a little piece back in 06 titled ‘Killing innocent civilians from afar then driving home to a blue eyed blond’ — It was a sardonic sneer at what I saw as a cowardly manner of waging war.

    In the LA Times today is a report of the US Air Force having difficulty recruiting arm-chair/joy-stick Hellfire-missile-dispensing pilots… .


  2. Joe Tedesky
    November 7, 2015 at 02:32

    If the U.S. is stretching the parameters of who is exactly the enemy, with these drone kills, then what can be made from this. One, it puts up a false front for none to be the wiser, such as the American public. Two, the real enemy will know just how vicious drone America can really be. Attacking the innocents, may result in stirring up local hate against the insurgents. Although, as a side effect, this may recruit more victims to join the insurgent rebellion. Blowback, could be good for the Homeland Security business, so who gives a hoot. Bring it on!

    There is probably no link what so ever to this, but I fine the Doctors Without Borders gunship bombing attack a curious thing. DWB spoke out, and made their organizations feelings known, about how they viewed the TTP & TTIP agreements. DWB is concerned about patents, and drug prices, which will prevent many in the third world countries, pharmaceuticals they very much need. I’m not saying by DWB being attacked, that this tragedy was a result of their policy on the trade agreements, but if it were, then oh boy we have truly become the evil empire.

    If this drone kill mine set doesn’t turn you off, then think about this, you don’t need to be armed in order for an overreacting jumpy cop to blow you away. Reverend Wright said it best, when he said, ‘the chickens have finally come home to roost’.

    We citizens need to change course, we are better people than this!

    • Bob Van Noy
      November 8, 2015 at 12:42

      “We citizens need to change course, we are better people than this!”

      We certainly are Joe, I constantly read and refer to Consortium News for confirmations just like yours. I’ve finished reading “The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot,” and l’ve been negativity impressed by the establishment of “Ratlines” out of Nazi Germany. They were extensive, powerful, in many cases the worst of the worst, many if not most were unauthorized. Many of these individuals thrived in our “free environment”. America is much the worse off because of it.
      As we see more and more dumbfounding headlines like “Obama’s Criminal Drone War”, it becomes clear that we have become them… I won’t do that and I know that you won’t either…
      Thanks Joe.

  3. Northern Observer
    November 6, 2015 at 16:35

    This is as fine and well but you need to be fair in your indictment or it loses meaning. When you condemn the us government and then drone program you need to also condemn Islamic imamns amd ulama who endorse jihad as a legitimate mode of ware fare. The scholars of al azhar and the members of Saudis ministry of Islamic affairs should be charged by the international criminal court for crimes against humanity.

  4. Abe
    November 6, 2015 at 13:58

    The Pentagon’s Law of War Manual: Part three
    By Thomas Gaist

    The Department of Defense (DOD) Law of War Manual represents the most advanced ideological expression of the striving of US imperialism to dominate and control the entire world by means of military force.

    […] enormously significant as an official assertion by the US ruling elite of its “right” to demolish entire societies and peoples in pursuit of its political goals. Undoubtedly, the DOD manual was crafted with an eye toward legalizing, after the fact, the crimes committed against Iraq by US imperialism.

    Under the manual’s guidelines, direct mass killing of civilians is effectively legalized, so long as the relevant US military officers consider that attacks around or against civilian targets are weighed “in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained.” (P. 187)

    Commanders are authorized to conduct operations that they know will lead to large numbers of civilian deaths, as long as their subjective assessment finds that such operations contribute to “the broader imperatives of winning the war.” This applies even when the “military advantage” to be gained from a proposed attack could not be understood by an “outside observer,” i.e., on the basis of any objective or universal criteria.

    “The military advantage expected to be gained from an attack might not be readily apparent to the enemy or to outside observers because, for example, the expected military advantage might depend on the commander’s strategy or assessments of classified information,” the manual states. (P. 213)

    “The weighing or comparison between the expected incidental harm and the expected military advantage does not necessarily lend itself to empirical analyses,” the document adds. (P. 128)

    “In less clear-cut cases, the question of whether the expected incidental harm is excessive may be a highly open-ended legal inquiry, and the answer may be subjective and imprecise,” the manual declares. (P. 245)

    In defining what constitutes a legitimate military target, DOD employs a definition that is so broad as to encompass the entire economy and civilian population of enemy states. The manual authorizes destruction of basic infrastructure, including housing stock, power generation facilities, water facilities, and food supply chains of enemy states. Any object that contributes to the “war-fighting capacity” of the enemy nation, even in an indirect manner, is declared by the manual to be a legitimate target. (P. 206)

    “The term ‘military objective’ means combatants and those objects during hostilities which, by their nature, location, purpose, or use, effectively contribute to the war-fighting or war-sustaining capability of an opposing force,” the manual reads.

    “It is not necessary that the object provide immediate tactical or operational gains or that the object make an effective contribution to a specific military operation. Rather, the object’s effective contribution to the war-fighting or war-sustaining capability of an opposing force is sufficient… The advantage need not be immediate.” (P. 210)

    “The law of war does not require that attacks on a military objective be conducted near ongoing fighting, in a theater of active military operations, or in a theater of active armed conflict.” (P. 199)

    In a critique of the target selection practices called for by the manual, entitled “The Defense Department Stands Alone on Target Selection,” Professor Adil Haque of the Rutgers School of Law-Newark notes that the manual effectively authorizes US commanders to carry out attacks regardless of the civilian death toll that is likely to result.

    “A deeply troubling provision in the Defense Department’s new Law of War Manual suggests that commanders are not legally required to minimize civilian casualties when selecting between different targets,” Haque writes. “The United States is not legally required to select targets so as to reduce collateral harm to civilians.”

    Large sections of the manual are devoted to siege, enforced starvation and occupation of densely populated urban areas. It authorizes the erection of ghettos and security cordons to restrict the movement of civilians.

    • F. G. Sanford
      November 6, 2015 at 17:26

      This new manual strikes me as an attempt to justify war crimes in the minds of those brainwashed to commit them. Principles of proportionality and distinction, long held to be fundamental to justifying use of force and target selection, appear to be completely ignored. One suspects the assumption here is that, now that the empire has achieved “full spectrum dominance”, we will never lose, and therefore never have to justify our behavior. Clearly this manual would never have passed muster as a legitimate defense at Nuremberg. One wonders to what extent the ultimate target upon which these tactics might b unleashed is domestic rather than foreign, which renders the speculation irrelevant from a war crimes perspective.

    • Abe
      November 6, 2015 at 23:57

      The label “victor’s justice” (in German, Siegerjustiz) is a situation in which an entity participates in carrying out “justice” on its own basis of applying different rules to judge what is right or wrong for their own forces and for those of the (former) enemy. The difference in rules amounts to hypocrisy and leads to injustice.

      The term was coined by Richard Minear in Richard Minear, Victors’ justice: the Tokyo war crimes trial (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971).

      Robert H. Jackson, chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, declared “That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.”

      However, the Nuremberg Criminal Court (and subsidiary courts like the Dachau International Military Tribunal) prosecuted only Axis nationals or collaborators. This led to the paradox that no one from the Soviet Union was charged although Germany and the USSR had started World War II in a coordinated effort. So while German defendants were charged with War of aggression for Germany’s attack on Poland, no one from the Soviet Union was charged although the USSR had attacked Poland as well. Similarly, no one was charged due to the Soviet invasion of Finland or the annexations of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and parts of Romania, nor due to other Soviet war crimes, such as the Katyn massacre.

      The Nuremburg Tribunal in its Judgment said “Crimes against international law are committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced.”

      Jackson said that the Nuremburg court was a practical effort “to utilize international law to meet the greatest menace of our times – aggressive war.”

      However, Jackson warned, “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

      Since World War II, the accusation of victor’s justice has arisen in every subsequent conflict where war crimes prosecutions have been made.

      The International Criminal Court (ICC) was set up in 2003 as a treaty arrangement between member states in an attempt to provide a neutral international court that avoids the accusation of “victor’s justice”, and that would prosecute all alleged war crimes, on either side of any conflict.

      The United States has not joined the ICC, and critics of this decision sometimes claim that this comes out of a desire for victor’s justice.

    • Peter Loeb
      November 7, 2015 at 08:04


      With many thanks to Abe in his comment, we should all bear in
      mind, that the REAL policies are NOT those politicans give
      in publoic (an all sides, no exceptions.

      “The truth gets curiouser and curiouser…”Lewis Carroll in
      “Alice and Wonderland”

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  5. Abe
    November 6, 2015 at 13:50

    Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013)

    This feature-length documentary film released by Robert Greenwald investigates the impact of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere.

  6. dahoit
    November 6, 2015 at 13:38

    Drone strikes originated in Zionland,the first I remember was them blowing up a parapalegic Hamas member.
    Such wonderful people,Shillary loves them.(their do re mi and ability to brainwash the body politic.)

  7. a nurse
    November 6, 2015 at 11:59

    “The Drone Papers” source implores us to take action to stop this travesty. “We’re allowing this to happen,” the source said. “And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it.”

    The newly released documents are a clarion call to us all to demand that our government stop the killing. It is illegal, it is immoral, and it makes us more vulnerable to terrorism.

    Agreed. And while we’re at it, the following program (also “immoral” and “illegal”) should be addressed and stopped, as well.


    • Mortimer
      November 6, 2015 at 13:23

      I’ve spent the morning reading reviews of late 90’s writings of Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, specially “Present Dangers.” These guys prime ambition is US world dominion. They’re sick with it. We will not/cannot back out of the mess we’ve started in the Middle East. It appears world wide conflagration is inevitable.

      See this Report from Asia Times:

      It’s quite depressing… .

  8. F. G. Sanford
    November 6, 2015 at 11:14

    This reminds me of an experience I had many, many years ago. I occaisioned to attend an informal talk given by a Marine Corps General who spoke on “law of just war”, among other things. He recounted a story about two of his subordinate General Officers who were fond of exchanging humorous communications. One ended his messages with, “Write your Mother”, and the other with, “Take No Prisoners”. He objected to the first because the mother in question was deceased. But he was horrified by the second, because it implied that one of the most sacrosanct tenets of battlefield conduct could be made light of by one of his officers. Apparently, things have changed a great deal since those days…

    • Bob Van Noy
      November 6, 2015 at 12:17

      Exactly F.G. Sanford. Certainly there are wars worth fighting. It may even be a fundamental aspect of human nature… But, over time, there have been what might be referred to as humanitarian limitations. If an enemy is defeated you let them surrender with honor, at that point, they become your burden. Any number of battlefield scenarios may apply, but, at the center of it all, is a sense of “human decency” that cannot be crossed. This admittedly odd concept is at the very heart of what it means to be an American, for me. Therefore, in my judgment, the President and our military, are committing war crimes with remote drone warfare. I choose to separate my self from this kind of action in my name as a citizen.

    • Abe
      November 6, 2015 at 16:44

      What days were “those days”?

      America has had precious few young men unwilling to drop fire on people.

      Hugh Clowers Thompson, Jr. (April 15, 1943 – January 6, 2006) was a United States Army warrant officer in 123rd Aviation Battalion, 23rd Infantry Division, who played a major role in ending the My Lai Massacre in Sơn Mỹ Village, Sơn Tịnh District, Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, on March 16, 1968.

      During the Mỹ Lai Massacre, Thompson and his Hiller OH-23 Raven crew, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, stopped a number of killings by threatening and blocking officers and enlisted soldiers of Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division. Additionally, Thompson and his crew saved a number of Vietnamese civilians by personally escorting them away from advancing United States Army ground units and assuring their evacuation by air. Thompson reported the atrocities by radio several times while at SÆ¡n Mỹ. Although these reports reached Task Force Barker operational headquarters, nothing was done to stop the massacre. After evacuating a child to a Quảng Ngãi hospital, Thompson angrily reported to his superiors, in person at Task Force Barker headquarters, that a massacre was occurring at SÆ¡n Mỹ. Immediately following Thompson’s report, Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker ordered all ground units in SÆ¡n Mỹ to cease search and destroy operations in the village.

      In 1970, Thompson testified against those responsible for the My Lai Massacre. Twenty-six officers and enlisted soldiers, including William Calley and Ernest Medina, were charged with criminal offenses, but all were either acquitted or pardoned. Thompson was condemned and ostracized by many individuals in the United States military and government, as well as the public, for his role in the investigations and trials concerning the Mỹ Lai Massacre.

      • Bob Van Noy
        November 6, 2015 at 16:58

        Abe, thank you so very much for pointing out Hugh Thompson, one great American Hero and one of my personal favorite Americans who under much duress, did the noble thing both in Vietnam and again here in this country when he was attacked again and again, and it hurt him terribly. In Nixon’s era of “America, Love It Or Leave It”…

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