Shielded from public scrutiny, the drone war keeps killing civilians

The unacknowledged toll of the US government’s weapon of choice

(Originally written 10/11/21)

The first attack the United States made in the War on Terror was a drone strike, and it failed. On October 7, 2001, a CIA Predator drone team spotted the Taliban Supreme Commander entering a building complex in Kandahar, and launched a hellfire missile into an empty truck outside. Two bodyguards were killed, but Mullah Omar and his senior staff escaped. U.S. military leadership were furious — not least because it wasn’t clear who had actually authorized the attack, within CIA or the Air Force. At the time, this intelligence failure and the ill-defined command structure responsible for it were considered bugs to be worked out in an otherwise promising weapons strategy: remotely-piloted aircraft armed with cameras and lightweight precision missiles. These aircraft could survey regions for hours and launch missiles to within a meter of a target, all at relatively little expense and zero risk to US personnel. Hundreds of strikes later, those bugs have become defining qualities of the US drone program, a bureaucratic beast with little congressional oversight which has killed an unknowable number of people, hundreds of whom may have been civilians classified by default as insurgents.

The technological instrument is hardly impressive — General Atomics’ Predator and Reaper drones are slow, cheap ($32 mil per Reaper), and easily stopped by conventional anti-air defenses. But the device itself is just the blunt end of a vast intelligence network spanning numerous federal agencies and foreign nations, which covertly gathers and analyzes data on all perceived threats to national security anywhere in the world. This global surveillance network is coordinated in real-time, allowing NSA analysts eavesdropping on cellphone activity in Somalia to relay their suspicions to drone operator teams in Nevada controlling a Reaper via satellite transmission through Ramstein Air Base in Germany, leading to a kill. Past presidents have justified this apparatus as not just necessary but humane, a more discriminating form of war enabled by technology. But in twenty years of drone warfare, basic questions about the legality of drone operations, the ethical consequences of remote combat, and even the numbers of people killed by American drones have gone unanswered. Instead, the use of drones has quietly grown in both scope and volume over four administrations, until its unchecked use became a normal function of the government — and in particular, the personal judgment of the President. Now, another botched strike and the official lies about its civilian toll have exposed the poorly constrained violence of the government’s secretive assassination policy.

On August 29th, six drones circled over Kabul for hours surveilling the city for suspicious activity near the airport. In the afternoon, one of them launched a hellfire missile into the parked car of Zemari Ahmadi, killing him, two of his colleagues, and seven children who had crowded around the car to greet him as he came home.

On Sept. 1st, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, announced the Air Force had conducted a drone strike, killing one terrorist and two Isis-K ‘facilitators’ with no known civilian casualties. “This was a righteous strike,” Milley said. It was reported as such by every major news outlet, and had not reporters been in Kabul to cover the evacuation that might have been the final word. But Mathieu Aikins, who broke the story of the ‘A-team’ killings in Wardak province in 2011, investigated the Pentagon’s account for The New York Times with Christoph Koettl, Evan Hill and Eric Schmitt. Using a combination of interviews with witnesses and video evidence from CCTV cameras, they uncovered a different version of events.

We now know the Air Force had tracked Ahmadi’s movements all day, tipped off that terrorists in a white Toyota sedan were plotting a follow-up to the suicide bombing which killed 182 people at Hamid Karzai International Airport three days earlier. When Ahmadi left his home that morning in a company-owned white Toyota, the drone operators clocked him as a suspect and his boss’s home as ‘an Isis-K safe house.’ They watched Ahmadi pick up two colleagues, stop for breakfast, and go to work at an ‘unidentified compound’ — later found to be the office of Nutrition and Education International, a California-based NGO. His boss there had filed applications for Ahmadi and his family to receive refugee resettlement in the United States. When Ahmadi left the office, they saw him fill tanks with water and load them into his trunk. They took these to be explosive containers. The NYT’s interviews later revealed Ahmadi’s neighborhood had a water shortage.

His house was less than five kilometers from Hamid Karzai airport, and once he’d parked in the driveway the drone operators decided it was their last chance before more civilians were put in danger. They scanned the courtyard for a few seconds, saw an adult approach the vehicle whom they “assessed to be a co-conspirator,” and fired. Gen. Milley claimed the resulting explosion was too large and sustained to have come from a hellfire missile, implying there were explosives in the car. The Pentagon now suggests a gas canister near the vehicle may have ignited the secondary explosion. They also claim they never saw the children, at least not until it was too late.

The revelations have largely been interpreted within the context of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan[1]: a final indignity after twenty years of failed nation-building or a grim metaphor for the entire invasion. As Gen. Milley later put it, the killings were a ‘tragedy of war.’ But such a framing discounts the role drones have played in exceeding the confines of traditional warfare and overlooks the unlawful expansion of executive authority — to surveil and assassinate anybody they choose — which drones have helped facilitate. This attack won’t be the end of America’s ‘forever wars.’ If anything, it portends the future of American military strategy, given that the withdrawal of the last US ground troops from Afghanistan has led President Biden to reassert the government’s ‘over the horizon’ capabilities — meaning remote warfare.

There are different explanations on different registers for the August 29th strike, from an overall lack of accountability afforded by decades of executive overreach, to the inherently messy nature of waging a war against shadowy non-state entities halfway across the globe. The reason Zemari Ahmadi, two others, and seven children were killed last month, however, is that the superior surveillance enabled by drone technology led operators to the wrong conclusion.

The drone program draws intelligence on potential targets from informants on the ground, electronic signals intercepted from network-connected devices with the help of the NSA, and the live video/thermal feeds of the UAVs themselves. In the military, JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) analysts coordinate this intelligence to arrange ‘kill/capture’ missions supposed to take out people that have been placed on a secret kill list by an unknown process determined by the chief executive. This is the “find, fix, finish” method, which almost always results in “finishing” via drone strike. Another method, used by both the military and CIA, are so-called ‘signature strikes’ which are based on opportunistic detection of suspicious behavior through constant video surveillance, and are often justified in self-defense. This was the case with the August 29 strike.

Insiders such as whistleblower Daniel Hale and former sensor operator Brandon Bryant say the program has used its intelligence to kill important terrorist leaders, but that an institutional disregard for civilians and excessive faith in this intelligence regularly leads to gratuitous and unlawful deaths, which are systematically unreported. The “Drone Papers,” a trove of internal documents leaked to The Intercept in 2015, revealed that nearly 9 out of every 10 people killed over one year-long campaign were not the intended target. This July, Daniel Hale received a 45-month prison sentence for stealing government documents. In his guilty plea, he said he felt “it was necessary to dispel the lie that drone warfare keeps us safe, that our lives are worth more than theirs.”[3]

Our inability to fully answer the question ‘How did this happen?’ is, in one sense, the answer: the veil of secrecy which limits public knowledge of the program also ensures that drone operators, their commanders, and civilian officials from the CIA up to the President can act with impunity. Begun in earnest when the CIA believed they had spotted Osama Bin Laden from an unarmed Predator drone in September 2000, the unofficial use of armed drones expanded into a cornerstone of the War on Terror as the tempting alternative to risking American lives.

“There’s a long history of the US encountering insurgency campaigns, and discovering that counterinsurgency on the ground is much more difficult than they expected it to be,” says Prof. Hugh Gusterson, anthropologist at the University of British Columbia and author of the 2016 study Drone: Remote Control Warfare. “So they start to look for other ways to run counterinsurgency campaigns that don’t produce dead Americans in body bags. In the Vietnam war, what that meant was the turn to an air strategy, so Nixon started to rely on massive bombing from the air, and to de-emphasize troops on the ground. The Reagan administration in El Salvador and Nicaragua tried to outsource counterinsurgency to Central American forces, rather than send in Americans, and now the latest version in this attempt to do counterinsurgency without putting American bodies at risk is to rely on drones.”

President Obama himself said as much in 2013: “The very precision of drone strikes and the necessary secrecy often involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites. It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.”[4] The technological achievements which allow drone operators sitting in air-conditioned rooms in Creech Air Force Base in Nevada to remotely track and kill potential threats to national security abroad have also facilitated thousands of deaths, including at least several hundred civilians, many of them children.[5]

Furthermore, The New York Times’ findings cast doubt on the hundreds of other reported strikes in remote areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, where the US military is the only source for the number and identities of those killed. For decades, independent groups such as Human Rights Watch, The Long War Journal, New America, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (now Airwars) have tried to document the impact of drone warfare on civilians. But the inaccessibility of the areas where strikes occur often forces them to rely on local media or state officials of varying credibility, leading observers to adopt a conservative methodology and report quite broad ranges of potential casualties. Separating those casualties into civilians and militants is even harder, further widening the groups’ margins of error.

“I write in my book Drone that it is really literally impossible to know how many people have been killed in those strikes, and what portion of those were civilians,” Gusterson says.

In a gesture toward transparency, President Obama had ordered the military to start annually publishing the number of civilians killed by drones outside Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria in 2016. Their figures drastically undershot those reported by independent organizations. The administration suggested the discrepancy may be due to ‘terrorist propaganda,’ and assured the public that its intelligence provided the best possible accounting for the dead. The government’s usual method, however, is hardly foolproof:

“The methodology that the US uses is that they will circle in the aftermath of a strike for several hours, and the drone operators themselves do an estimation of the people they killed,” Gusterson says. “You have to remember that the people may each be in several pieces at this point, so counting the number of dead is problematic.” Drone operators may never know for certain how many people they killed in a strike, but determining who they killed — armed insurgents, unarmed men or women, or children — is even less straightforward. “Given that insurgents don’t wear uniforms, and that you’re looking at it from 5000 feet in the air, that’s an extremely imprecise estimation, and it’s being done by people who have a conflict of interest. They have a motivation to interpret civilians as insurgents,” Gusterson says.

In a 2012 exposé for the NYT, Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported that the program “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” Daniel Hale affirmed this to The Intercept in 2015.

President Obama’s 2016 executive order was accompanied by a casualty report from the Director of National Intelligence on drone victims from 2009–2015 in areas outside active hostilities. The government’s estimate of civilian casualties was 64–116, less than half the lowest independent group’s figures. As independent observers pointed out, the uncertainty of the range belied the Administration’s confidence in the precision of its intelligence. One strike alone in Pakistan in 2009 is reported to have killed more than 60 people, potentially exceeding the government’s lower bound.

In a footnote, the DNI report responded to the charge that any men 15–55 were considered justified targets, claiming that “it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants,” but vaguely defined the term combatant to include, in addition to actively hostile individuals and those belonging to hostile groups, “an individual who is targetable in the exercise of U.S. national self-defense.” The report contained no division of casualties by year or information on individual strikes, precluding independent groups from investigating the disparity. The executive order mandating official reporting of civilian casualties was officially rescinded by Donald Trump in 2019 after ignoring it the previous year. Biden has yet to make clear his policy.

The August 29th attack was a rarity, in the sense that the military publicly acknowledged the mistake. But such mistakes are nothing new. Since its inception, the drone program has been marred by intelligence failures that have resulted in the killing of innocents.

“I’ve been reading the accounts of that strike [Aug. 29], and they are strikingly similar to descriptions of another terrible drone strike in Afghanistan, in 2010, in Uruzgan province,” Gusterson says. “That strike killed 20 civilians including a number of women and children; they were quite sure they were killing Taliban, and they were completely wrong.”

There are numerous reports of mass civilian killings from drone strikes on weddings, funerals, election campaign convoys, and tribal council meetings — even so-called ‘double-tap’ strikes on the rescuers responding to a prior strike. But the 2010 Uruzgan attack, perpetrated on a convoy of families traveling to town, is especially revealing: the military used the same rationale to justify its decision as on August 29th, and the full transcript of the actual conversation between the drone operators has been made public (through a FOI request by the LA Times).

“They had intelligence suggesting that the Taliban were preparing to attack US forces nearby, so there was this sense of urgency that they had to act quickly to save lives from a terrorist attack,” Gusterson says. This intelligence was that multiple US monitoring systems heard a voice on an open radio channel early that morning say, “They are here,” referring to a nearby US Special Forces patrol dropped in the night. “Let us get all the mujaheddin together and defend this place.” The voice could have been anybody with a handheld radio, and decoy communications are a known tactic employed by insurgents, but once U.S. observers saw the convoy, they felt sure it was the summoned Taliban force. The lead car flashing its headlights at another vehicle was taken as covert signaling, confirming their suspicions. “If you read the official statements about the standards the drone operators use, and then you read the transcript between those drone operators, it is very hard to reconcile the two,” Gusterson says.

The L.A. Times feature on the Uruzgan attack reported that Predator drone operators had started surveying two SUVs and a pickup truck traveling toward Khod — near where the Special Forces patrol had dropped — before dawn, looking for evidence that would “positively identify” them as Taliban insurgents. Their evidence was visual confirmation of “21 MAM [military-age males],” the anonymous Taliban summons, and a possible rifle sighting among the convoy. When a screener reported seeing one or more children, the camera operator said, “Bullshit…where?” The pilot said, “Why didn’t he [the screener] say ‘possible’ child? Why are they so quick to call fucking kids but not to call shit a rifle.” The camera operator responded, “I really doubt that children call. Man, I really … hate that.” Later, when the ground team radio operator confirmed the identification, he said, “Twelve or thirteen years old with a weapon is just as dangerous.” At 5:18 AM the convoy stopped and some got out to pray. “This is definitely it. This is their force. Praying? I mean, seriously, that’s what they do, ” said the sensor operator. The mission intelligence coordinator said, “They’re going to do something nefarious.” At 5:30 AM the drone’s camera operator said, “That truck would make a beautiful target.” Interviews with local elders suggest the number of men and women killed was 23, including two boys under 4. No weapons were found. Interviews later showed the convoy consisted of families bringing kids to school and goods to market.

“It’s like there is this palpable hunger to attack, whereas the official statements give the impression that there’s this immense restraint and caution, and that people don’t press the button until they’ve been reassured it really is the right thing to do,” Gusterson says. “But you see in that transcript that people are actually itching to attack, and are waiting to see something that could be interpreted as evidence that could meet the official criteria.”

Public outcry over the killings led Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal to ban use of the term ‘military-age male,’ give screeners a direct voice channel to ground operators, and send letters of reprimand to six officers involved. But as the Aug. 29 incident shows, too little has changed to protect civilians and hold the government accountable.

The Uruzgan case also provides an example of the role SIGINT — intercepted electronic communications — plays in the drone program. The Taliban summons broadcast publicly was instantly picked up by several U.S. monitoring systems, though neither the identity nor location of the individual could be ascertained. Despite this incomplete picture, drone operators took it to mean the targeted convoy was filled with Taliban insurgents. This phenomenon of analysts drawing firm conclusions from fragmentary, decontextualized, and easily fooled SIGINT pervades drone operations, according to whistleblower Daniel Hale and retired Air Force drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant. “People get hung up that there’s a targeted list of people,” Daniel Hale told The Intercept anonymously in 2015. “It’s really like we’re targeting a cell phone. We’re not going after people — we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.”

The “Drone Papers” Hale leaked to The Intercept in 2015 reveal the extent to which the program relies on SIGINT rather than information obtained from human sources (via local informants and interrogation) or documents. Gilgamesh and Shenanigans are NSA-supplied surveillance systems attached to JSOC and CIA drones, capable of spoofing cell towers to trick all active cell phones in the area into revealing their geolocation data. The NSA also supplies technology for capturing calls, messages, and any other kind of data emitted by wireless electronic devices. This data is used to both identify possible targets (for instance, in the case that a device has contacted known terrorists’ phones) and for locating the targets themselves. Daniel Hale told The Intercept that the vast majority of strikes during his time with JSOC were based on SIGINT. An internal 2013 study of JSOC’s drone program, requesting greater resources, lamented that over half its intelligence on targets came from SIGINT, much of it from foreign partners.

The problem is that, as the Pentagon’s internal study states, SIGINT is “neither as timely nor as focused as tactical intelligence.” When SIGINT is used to locate targets, it is the SIM card in their phones which analysts trace. Insurgents quickly learned this practice and often swap SIM cards or use multiple phones. In cases where targets are unaware their phone is being tracked, they may lend it to family or friends, who sometimes become the target of a drone strike. Similarly, the dependence on foreign countries for intelligence creates the potential for US drones to carry out attacks on political opponents of the regime, as some suspect was the case in the election convoy attack.

Operators are supposed to confirm the identity of their targets by looking for defining physical characteristics, such as clothing or gait, from the video feeds of their drones. In 2015, many drones did not have high-definition video. Leaked documents speak of the “soda straw effect,” where operators see their targets as though through a 15,000-foot straw. A Special Forces major on the 2010 Uruzgan strike, when asked why he delayed reporting casualties after the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) picture from the drones came back, responded, “The ISR? Literally, look at this rug right here, sir, that’s what an ISR looks like.”[6] Hale told The Intercept that civilians “absolutely” have been killed as a result of these practices.

The August 29th strike also showcases how drone operators interpret genuine intelligence through a narrow framework with only one option — kill, or do nothing. A key piece of information guiding the surveillance and ultimate killing of Zemari Ahmadi was that a white Toyota sedan would be involved in an imminent terrorist attack on the airport. Ahmadi’s company-issued car fit the bill, and the military congratulated themselves on a close-call operation. The day after the strike, ISIS-K launched rockets at Hamid Karzai International Airport from a white Toyota parked nearby.

Gen. McKenzie stood by the military’s decision on August 29th, saying it met the Obama-era “near certainty” standard for ensuring no civilians were targeted. No one will be court-martialed or face internal discipline. He did offer that the military was “exploring the possibility of ex gratia payments to those affected by the strike,” presumably meaning those still alive.

Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has said that multiple Congressional committees will investigate the accident and that hearings with White House and Pentagon officials have already been scheduled. The public outrage sparked by this latest attack on civilians, however, has been overshadowed by the debacle of the evacuation. Certainly, it hasn’t reached the same level as during President Obama’s first term, when his failed promise to close Guantanamo Bay, refusal to prosecute the Bush Administration’s war crimes, and escalation of drone warfare in the face of multiple casualty-laden strikes brought a storm of criticism.

President Obama had felt compelled to answer those charges in 2013, when — in the same speech at National Defense University quoted above — he acknowledged the drone program’s flaws and promised to make it less opaque and more accountable. Eight years later, the only thing that has changed is the attention the media gives the issue. “Journalists and the American people aren’t really interested in the story anymore,” says Gusterson. But drones are poised to become the American government’s primary weapon overseas — the Air Force already trains more pilots to fly drones than planes — and after a six-month lull the Biden administration has started ramping up its attacks again. Without rigorous new oversight, drone operators are sure to err again.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/17/us/politics/pentagon-drone-strike-afghanistan.html

[2] https://www.longwarjournal.org/pakistan-strikes-hvts

[3] https://theintercept.com/2021/07/27/daniel-hale-drone-leak-sentencing/

[4] https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/05/23/remarks-president-national-defense-university

[5] https://www.longwarjournal.org/us-airstrikes-in-the-long-war

[6] Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, Andrew Cockburn, Picador 2016.

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Editorially independent of the university, Brown Technology Review explores developments in technology and considers the economic, social, and political impacts. BTR pulls insight from both industry and academia, aiming to provide readers a holistic perspective.

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