White House admits killing civilians with drone strikes, denies breaking law

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By Mark Schone

Two leading human rights groups released detailed reports on U.S. drone strikes Tuesday that accuse the government of killing civilians and violating international law. The White House admitted killing civilians, but denied breaking the law, saying the strikes were "precise" and "lawful."

Amnesty International, which studied 45 drone strikes in Pakistan in 2012 and 2013, said the U.S. violated the internationally recognized “right to life” and may have committed war crimes.

“There are real threats to the U.S. in the region,” said Naureen Shah, Amnesty’s advocacy adviser, “but it is hard to imagine that a 68-year-old grandmother or a 14-year-old boy are among them. Something clearly went wrong and the U.S. government needs to come clean.”

Human Rights Watch, which focused on six drone strikes in Yemen over the past four years, said the U.S. is undermining its own efforts against al Qaeda with drone attacks.

“The U.S. says it is taking all possible precautions during targeted killings, but it has unlawfully killed civilians and struck questionable military targets in Yemen,” said Letta Tayler, HRW’s senior counterterrorism researcher. “It’s long past time for the U.S. to assess the legality of its targeted killings, as well as the broader impact of these strikes on civilians.”

Asked about the reports Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that “we would strongly disagree” with claims that the U.S. had acted contrary to international law.

“U.S. counterterrorism actions are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective,” said Carney.  “I think it’s important to note that by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

Carney said President Obama had a “commitment to transparency” and had “laid out the legal and policy framework” for the administration’s counterterrorism strategy in a May 23 speech at the National Defense University.

“The president directly addressed the issue of civilian casualties in that speech, and he made it clear that it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war,” said Carney. Carney, added, however, that there is a "wide gap" between U.S. assessments of civilian casualties and nongovernmental reports.

HRW’s report, “Between a Drone and al Qaeda,” alleges that two of the Yemen attacks it examined killed civilians “indiscriminately” in violation of the laws of war, and that others may have targeted people who were not legitimate targets. HRW researchers spent six weeks in Yemen and interviewed more than 90 people, including witnesses and relatives of those killed, and reviewed evidence that included ordnance and video. Researchers were able to visit two attack sites, but security concerns prevented visits to the others.

Read the HRW report here.

According to HRW, the strikes killed 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians. One drone-assisted attack in central Yemen in September 2012 allegedly struck a passenger van and killed 12 civilians.

“The bodies were charred like coal – I could not recognize the faces,” said Ahmad al-Sabooli, 23, who was interviewed by HRW. He soon realized, however, that three of the bodies were his mother, his father and his younger sister.

HRW said that an August 2012 drone attack killed a local cleric who had preached against al Qaeda, as well as his cousin, a local police officer.

Amnesty’s report, called “Will I Be Next?,” studied all 45 reported U.S. strikes in North Waziristan, Pakistan, between January 2012 and August 2013 but conducted detailed field research on nine and interviewed more than 60 survivors.

An October 2012 drone strike, according to Amnesty, killed a grandmother named Mamana Bibi as she was working in a field near her house, and in view of her grandchildren. Her granddaughter Nabeela is now afraid of the U.S. aircraft overhead.

“I wasn’t scared of drones before,” said Nabeela, 8, “but now when they fly, I wonder, will I be next?”

Read the Amnesty report here.

In July 2012, according to Amnesty, two drone strikes in the same spot killed 19 laborers, including a 14-year-old boy. The first barrage of missiles hit a tent in which men had gathered for a meal, and after villagers came to look for survivors, a second set of missiles hit the crowd.

“Some people lost their hands. Others had their heads cut off. Some lost their legs. Human body parts were scattered everywhere,” said a resident of Zowi Sidgi village.

U.S. intelligence officials have downplayed the number of civilian deaths from drone strikes. In a 2011 speech, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who is now CIA director, said that "for nearly the past year, there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency (and) precision" of U.S. counterterror strikes. Later, the CIA acknowledged civilian deaths to Congress but said they were in the “single digits.”

A spokesperson for the National Security Council said Monday she could not comment on reports she had not yet seen. Like Carney, she said President Obama had demonstrated his “commitment to transparency” during a speech on drone policy at the National Defense University.

“The president spoke at length about the policy and legal rationale for how the United States takes action against al Qaeda and its associated forces,” said Caitlin Hayden. “As the president emphasized, the use of lethal force, including from remotely piloted aircraft, commands the highest level of attention and care. Of particular note, before we take any counterterrorism strike, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”

In a separate report, U.N. Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson said that the U.S. had killed far more civilians than it had acknowledged with drone strikes, as many as 58 in Yemen, and at least 400 in Pakistan, and said the U.S. had created “an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency” by failing to disclose its own figures.

Last week, a White House spokesperson asked to comment on the UN report also cited the president’s speech at the NDU on drone policy. During the speech, the president acknowledged civilian deaths and said, “They will haunt us for as long as we live.” He didn’t provide any hard numbers or estimates.

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