A review of classified US intelligence records has revealed that the CIA could not confirm the identity of about a quarter of the people killed by drone strikes in Pakistan during a period spanning from 2010 to 2011.
According to a purportedly exclusive report by NBC News that mirrors findings of an April analysis by McClatchy, between September 3, 2010 and October 30, 2011 the agency’s drone program over Pakistan routinely designated those killed as “other militants,” a label used when the CIA could not determine affiliation, if any.
The review by NBC News paints both a confusing and troubling picture of the CIA’s reported drone strike success, which three former Obama administration officials feared could have missed or simply ignored mistakes.
Of the 14 months worth of classified documents reviewed, 26 out of 114 attacks designate fatalities as“other militants,” while in four other attacks those killed are only described as “foreign fighters.”
Even more irregular are the cases when entry records conflict on the number of those killed, with one such example indicating a drone attack had killed seven to 10 combatants, and another estimating 20 to 22 fatalities.
By comparison, McClatchy’s April review of drone strikes revealed that at least 265 of up to 482 people that the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior al-Qaeda leaders, but were instead “assessed” as Afghan, Pakistani and “unknown extremists.” Corroborating media accounts show that US drones killed only six top al-Qaeda leaders during the same period.
One key term in analyzing drone strike records are what are known as “signature” strikes, when drones kill suspects based on behavior patterns but without positive identification, versus “personality” strike, which is when drone targets are known terrorist affiliates whose identities are verified.
According to an anonymous senior intelligence official who spoke to NBC, at the peak of drone operations in Pakistan in 2009 and 2010 as many as half of all kills were classified as “signature” strikes.
One former senior intelligence official said that at the height of the drone program in Pakistan in 2009 and 2010, as many as half of the strikes were classified as signature strikes.
Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence from 2009 to 2010, addressed NBC’s report with the claim that the precision of drone strikes was superior to those of traditional battlefield weapons.
“In Afghanistan and Iraq and places where you have troops in combat … you know better with drones who you’re killing than you do when you’re calling in artillery fire from a spotter [or] calling in an airplane strike,” he said.
“This is no different from decisions that are made on the battlefield all the time by soldiers and Marines who are being shot at, not knowing who fired the shot, having to make judgments on shooting back or not. This is the nature of warfare,” added Blair.
As to just how analysts arrive at determining unverified, “signature” drone targets, that system relies on data which draws connections between the unidentified individuals and known militants. That might entail monitoring everything from the frequency that a suspect visits a particular location, meets certain individuals, or makes phone calls and sends emails.
During a key speech defending his administration’s use of targeted drone killings in May, President Obama defended the CIA’s drone program as a “legal,” “lethal” and “effective” counterterrorism tool, while at the same time acknowledging some civilian casualties.
A report entitled “Living Under Drones,” jointly released by Stanford University and New York University in 2012, is far less muted on civilian casualties, and argues that the civilian death toll in drone strikes over Pakistan is far higher than is reported.
In the classified reports reviewed by NBC News, for example, of the 600 some killed only one is listed as a civilian, a statistic which Micah Zenko, a drone expert at the Council on Foreign Relations described as “incredible.”
The Stanford-NYU report, for its part, bases its conclusions on 130 interviews, as well as a review of media reports, though the methodology employed can itself be a subject of debate.
Separately, an Associated Press investigation in 2012 reported that out of 10 drone strikes over a period of 18 months, Pakistani villagers claimed that only 70 per cent of those killed by US strikes were militants, with the rest either civilians or tribal police.