London Sunday Times
June 3, 2012
Drone One Force
Obama was elected to end wars, but to defeat Al-Qaeda he has deployed a squadron of silent killers, writes Christina Lamb
President Barack Obama welcomed George W Bush back to the White House on Thursday for the unveiling of his predecessor’s official portrait. Bush joked that in a crisis Obama could look at the painting and ask, “What would George do?” Obama had a more serious message. Nobody could appreciate the difficulties of being president until they sat in the chair, he said. “In this job no decision that reaches your desk is easy. No choice you make is without costs.”
Usually the hardest decision for a president is to send troops into war. But Bush and Obama share a rare bond: deciding who will die in countries with which the US is not at war.
Decision days are known as Terror Tuesdays. Obama sits in the black swivel chair at his desk in the Oval Office with John Brennan, his counterterrorism czar, and General Martin Dempsey, his chief military adviser, and scrutinises photographs and sketchy biographies one official refers to with macabre humour as the “J Crew catalogue of jihad”.
Together they select who will be the next target of unmanned drones 7,000 miles away in the mountains of Pakistan, the deserts of Yemen or the streets of Somalia. Once Obama approves a killing, instructions are transmitted to an office block in northern Virginia. Inside are computer monitors, keyboards and maps. A person who looks like an office worker sits at a desk with a hand on a joystick and watches a live feed from a drone hovering over the tribal areas of Pakistan. When he sees figures entering a vehicle, he presses the button and an explosion fills the screen. It might look like a video game but in the real world the button has launched a 5ft Hellfire missile at 1,000mph.
Unless the person killed is a top target with a recognisable name, no information is released. This is a CIA operation that officially did not exist until the president confirmed the programme in an online chat in February.
The greatest impact the drones have had in the US is through the television thriller Homeland, starring Damian Lewis as a marine captured by Al-Qaeda who becomes radicalised when a CIA drone kills scores of civilians, including a child he had grown close to. But controversy is growing about the extent to which Obama has ramped up the programme.
AFTER lunch in Virginia on May 21, 2010, missiles slammed into houses in the mountain village of Mohammed Khel in North Waziristan where it was about midnight.
To the CIA it was a success. Six militants were killed including the main target, Al-Qaeda’s chief finance official, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid — aka Saeed al-Masri. But two women and three children also died, one of them a 10-year-old girl named Fatima, about the same age as Obama’s younger daughter. A local journalist went to the hospital and took a photograph of Fatima shortly before she died, then returned to the scene of the explosions where he found fragments of a US-made Hellfire missile.
The image of Obama personally signing off on attacks such as the one that killed Fatima raises questions. Not only is he a devoted father but he campaigned as the anti-George Bush, opposed the war in Iraq and pledged to close Guantanamo Bay, end rendition and bring terrorists to trial in civilian instead of military courts. So lofty was his rhetoric that Obama was awarded the Nobel peace prize in his first year in office.
Yet within days of his inauguration, on January 20, 2009, Obama was using the killing machine he inherited from Bush. On January 23, missiles hit a roomful of what the CIA call “people of interest” in the village of Karez Kot. They were the wrong people: 19 civilians died, including four children.
Until now it had been thought Obama was initially unaware of the civilian deaths. But a new book, Kill or Capture by Daniel Klaidman, reveals that Obama knew within hours. Klaidman quotes an anonymous participant at a subsequent meeting with the president: “You could tell from his body language that he was not a happy man.”
Yet the strikes continued and the progamme expanded. From 2004 to 2008, Bush authorised 42 drone strikes, all in Pakistan, according to the New America Foundation, which catalogues them. Obama has authorised more than 300, sometimes up to three a week.
Beyond the battlefields of Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, US drones have been used to target suspected militants and terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, as well as to conduct surveillance over Colombia, Mexico, North Korea, the Philippines, Turkey and Iran. There is a network of bases in at least 12 locations on three continents from Jalalabad to Djibouti to the Seychelles. Yet the programme has never been approved by Congress and there has been remarkably little debate about it. How did Obama grow to embrace this deadly form of mechanised technology?
Partly it was due to frustration with Pakistan, which has refused to close havens for Islamist militants. The vast majority of the 314 drone strikes believed to have been personally authorised by Obama occurred there; strikes in warzones such as Afghanistan can be authorised by the military. Conveniently, the tribal areas are off limits to reporters so graphic reports of civilian deaths are rare. For the Obama administration, drones have been a vital tool in eviscerating Al-Qaeda. The letters of Osama Bin Laden, captured in Abbottabad, warned operatives to travel only on cloudy days.
Most of the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 suspected militants or terrorists killed by the US outside the battlefield have died via drone strikes. They were chosen by a sort of Grim Reaper debating society.
According to a report in The New York Times: “Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.”
CIA lawyers then write a cable asserting that that person poses a grave threat to the United States. These are legalistic and carefully argued, often running up to five pages. Once approved the CIA general counsel signs “concurred” in a box and they go to the president for his final say.
Reverend Alvin Love, a Chicago preacher and friend of Obama’s, says the president has never specifically mentioned drones but has told him some parts of his job weigh heavily on him. “If a decision like that has to be made he’d rather be the one to make it,” he said. “He wouldn’t push the responsibility on someone else.”
How many killings will be enough? Obama’s former chief of staff, William Daley, told The New York Times that the president and his advisers understood they could not keep adding names to a kill list, from ever lower in Al-Qaeda’s ranks: “At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”
Obama has also approved “signature” strikes targeting training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants from Pakistan to Yemen. Critics say the target criteria are not stringent enough. Pointing out that men loading a truck with fertiliser could be bomb-makers but could also be farmers, one State Department official told the newspaper that “when the CIA sees three guys doing jumping jacks, the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp”.
One attack killed 42 people in North Waziristan on March 17 last year, the day after Pakistan released Raymond Davis, an American CIA contractor jailed for killing two motorcyclists in Lahore. He was freed after payment of blood money said to be about $2.3m. Pakistani officials believed the attack was retaliation.
Brigadier Abdullah Dogar, who commanded Pakistani forces in the area, said: “I was sitting there where our friends say they were targeting terrorists and I know they were innocent people.”
The strikes hit a tribal meeting to resolve the disputed ownership of local mines, he said. “It was held in broad daylight, people were sitting out in [the] bus depot when the missile strikes came. Maybe there were one or two Taliban — they have their people attending — but does that justify a drone strike which kills 42 mostly innocent people?” “Drones may make tactical gains,” he added, “but I don’t see how there’s any strategic advantage. When innocent people die, then you’re creating a whole lot more people with an issue.”
Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, believes drones have served as a recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has tripled its membership to more than 1,000 since attacks started there in 2009. “Mistakes made by the US killing innocent women and children has led to a significant recruiting boom — AQAP use the pictures of shattered women and kids to stir up anger,” he said. Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism czar, argues that the US has the right to strike terrorists anywhere in the world. “The United States takes the legal position that … we have the authority to take action against Al-Qaeda and its associated forces,” he said last year.
Some international law experts disagree, asking how the US would react if another state, such as China or Russia, took similar action.
Drone use is likely to spread as ground troops leave Afghanistan and the US relies more on covert air action. The Congressional Research Service says the military’s cache of unmanned aerial vehicles has grown from just 10 in 2001 to more than 7,000. These range from missilelaunching Predators and the larger Reapers to tiny prototypes shaped like hummingbirds.
Some senior military staff are unhappy that the CIA has its own fleet.
“If we have a CIA drone programme that operates on the premise that the president can tell anyone to pull the trigger and kill someone anywhere at any time, then have we not undermined the Geneva conventions and the whole rationale behind international humanitarian law?” asks Colonel Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo.
“Why have a military and the rules that go with it when the president can just pick and choose when and where the law applies?” Yet Obama seems eerily reconciled. At a White House correspondents’ dinner two years ago, he noted that in the audience were the Jonas Brothers — an American boy band. “Sasha and Malia [Obama’s daughters] are huge fans,” he said, “but boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words for you: Predator drones. You will never see it coming.”
Assassinated by drone
August 2009 Baitullah Mehsud Pakistan The head of the Pakistani Taliban, Mehsud was reported to command a 20,000-strong army of militants. He was killed in a missile strike on a farmhouse
May 2010 Mustafa Abu al-Yazid Pakistan A founding member of al-Qaeda, and third-incommand.
He is thought to have helped finance the 9/11 attacks and was killed in a night-time missile strike
August 2011 Atiyah Abd al-Rahman Pakistan Appointed second-incommand of al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s death, but was killed shortly afterwards with three others in a drone attack
September 2011 Anwar al-Awlaki Yemen An extremist preacher who inspired several attacks, including the plot to blow up a plane with a bomb concealed in underpants. Killed by a squadron of four drones
May 2012 Fahd al-Quso Yemen An al-Qaeda leader who had a role in the bombing of the USS Cole warship which killed 17 American sailors in 2000. Killed by a drone-fired missile as he stepped out of his vehicle
1 CIA HQ Langley Intelligence from spies is used to compile a list of terrorist targets that should be killed or captured
2 The White House On ‘Terror Tuesdays’, President Obama is presented with the list, which includes pictures of potential targets and a biography. He personally approves or rejects each one
3 Local intelligence Missions to attack selected targets are planned out
4 Local airfield A ground crew launches the Predator drones using a remote control
5 CIA control room Once the drone is airborne, control switches to Langley. When the target has been located, final approval is given to strike
6 Target locked The drone’s operator, sitting in an air-conditioned office, sends the command to fire one or more Hellfire missiles
All the president’s drones
MQ-1 Predator Length 27ft Wingspan 55ft Range 770 miles Cruise speed 84mph Weapons Two Hellfire missiles
MQ-9 Reaper Length 36ft Wingspan 66ft Range 1,150 miles Cruise speed 230mph Weapons Four Hellfire missiles and two bombs
RQ-170 Sentinel* Length 15ft Wingspan 85ft Range More than 550 miles Cruise speed 400mph Weapons None