Since President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, an estimated 2,464 people have been killed by drone strikes targeted outside of the United States’ declared war zones; this figure was posted in February 2015 by Jack Serle and the team at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who maintain a database of all known strikes—based on fieldwork, media reports, and leaked documents—which provides a clearer picture of the scale and impact of the US drone program than the episodic reporting provided by corporate media.
According to Bureau data, al-Qaeda members comprise only 4 percent of the total 2,379 people killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan as of October 2014, just over ten years after the first such strikes. Of the total killed, about 30 percent could be identified and 11 percent were defined as militants. Little is known about the remaining 1,675 unnamed victims. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported these numbers after conducting a yearlong investigation that compiled information from various sources to provide an overview of drone strike casualties.
US drone missions are flown mainly over Pakistan, where the CIA aims to weaken al-Qaeda and limit its movement into neighboring Afghanistan. The use of unmanned drones is seen as a way to minimize involvement and resentment in a country that is characterized by the New Yorker as “unstable” and that is known to possess over a hundred nuclear weapons. While the unofficial drone war for control over the Pakistan–Afghan border ended in mid-2013, the drone campaign continued with five strikes recorded in January 2015, the most since July of 2014. In the month of January, additional strikes were reported to kill at least forty-five in Somalia and three in Yemen, where a twelve-year-old child was among the casualties.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s findings undermine the validity of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim that “the only people we fire a drone at are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest level.” Regardless of whether or not those killed were in fact dangerous, the inability to account for their identities invites skepticism toward US military operations and raises moral concerns about basic respect for human dignity.
In April 2015, Jeremy Scahill reported that a US military base in Ramstein, Germany, is the “the high-tech heart of America’s drone program.” Top-secret US documents obtained by the Intercept, Scahill reported, provide “the most detailed blueprint seen to date of the technical architecture used to conduct strikes with Predator and Reaper drones.” Most drone pilots operate in the US, but depend on Ramstein to control their aircraft.
Corporate news coverage of US drone strikes tends to rely heavily on official government sources, many of whom are not authorized to know about those strikes, much less to discuss them publicly. (“Congress members have been muzzled by executive claims of secrecy to protect national security and/or co-opted by lobbyists representing drone manufacturers.” Andy Lee Roth, “Framing Al-Awlaki: How Government Officials and Corporate Media Legitimized a Targeted Killing,” Censored 2013: Dispatches from the Media Revolution, eds. Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth [New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012], 353–54.) Exceptional occasions sometimes force government officials to reveal more about the killing programs. For instance, in April 2015, President Obama publicly apologized for a January drone strike in Pakistan that had accidentally killed two al-Qaeda hostages, including an American aid worker, Warren Weinstein. The New York Times’ coverage included front-page news analysis by Scott Shane that included criticism of the drone strike program. For example, the article quoted Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, on how Obama’s statement “highlights what we’ve sort of known: that most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.” Notably, Shane’s analysis made use of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s research to show the scope of US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas since 2004.
New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo also deserve credit for their April 2015 report, “Deep Support in Washington for C.I.A.’s Drone Missions,” which made waves in Washington and among the establishment press for publicly identifying three high-ranking CIA officials with key roles in secret drone operations. Consistent with usual practice, the CIA had asked the Times to withhold the names. Among the three CIA officials revealed by Mazzetti and Apuzzo was Michael D’Andrea, whom they identified as “chief of operations during the birth of the agency’s detention and interrogation program,” and who subsequently, as head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, “became an architect of the targeted killing program.” D’Andrea, they revealed, “presided over the growth of C.I.A. drone operations and hundreds of strikes in Pakistan and Yemen during nine years in the position.”
However, the reports by Shane, Mazzetti, and Apuzzo prove exceptional in corporate news coverage of the US drone programs. More typical in this regard is the treatment offered by Newsweek in an April 2015 cover story, “Can America Win a War?” This piece identified drone strikes as one of the “twin prongs of U.S. strategy abroad” that are “often unreliable, discredited or unsavory.” The article went on to balance Alexander Cockburn’s critique—that drone strikes against alleged high-value targets increase violence against US and allied troops—with the perspective of former National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA director and retired Air Force general Michael V. Hayden—who, Newsweek reported, “insists that drone strikes on Al-Qaeda were crucial in preventing another big attack on the United States.” The Newsweek coverage quoted Hayden at least nine separate times, more than any other source. It made no mention of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s findings about drone strikes’ civilian death toll.
Jack Serle, “Almost 2,500 Now Killed by Covert US Drone Strikes Since Obama Inauguration Six Years Ago,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, February 2, 2015, http://www.thebureauinvestigates
Jack Serle, “Get the Data: A List of US Air and Drone Strikes, Afghanistan 2015,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, February 12, 2015, http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2015/02/12/us-drone-war-afghanistan-list-american-air-strikes-2015/#AFG009.
Steve Coll, “The Unblinking Stare: The Drone War in Pakistan,” New Yorker, November 24, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/24/unblinking-stare.
Abigail Fielding-Smith, “John Kerry Says All those Fired at by Drones in Pakistan are ‘Confirmed Terrorist Targets’—But with 1,675 Unnamed Dead How Do We Know?” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, October 23, 2014, http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2014/10/23/john-kerry-says-all-those-fired-at-by-drones-in-pakistan-are-confirmed-terrorist-targets-but-with-1675-unnamed-dead-how-do-we-know/.
Jack Serle, “Only 4% of Drone Victims in Pakistan Named as al Qaeda Members,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, October 16, 2014, http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/namingthedead/only-4-of-drone-victims-in-pakistan-named-as-al-qaeda-members/?lang=en.
Jeremy Scahill, “Germany is the Tell-Tale Heart of America’s Drone War,” Intercept, April 17, 2015, https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/04/17/ramstein/.
Student Researchers: Jordan Nakamoto (College of Marin) and Dylan Morrissey (Claremont McKenna College)
Faculty Evaluators: Susan Rahman (College of Marin) and Andy Lee Roth (Pomona College)