Nat Hentoff: Civilian casualties mount as war drones on

2010-03-04T00:00:00Z Nat Hentoff: Civilian casualties mount as war drones onNat Hentoff The Billings Gazette
March 04, 2010 12:00 am  • 

As our air war against terrorists accelerates — with strikes by pilotless drone planes, helicopters, et al. — unintentional civilian deaths and serious injuries mount. A Feb. 22 Wall Street Journal report from Kabul begins: “U.S. Special Operations Forces (hunting down Taliban) ordered an air strike that killed at least 27 civilians, and the soldiers may not have satisfied rules of engagement designed to avoid the killing of innocents, Afghan and coalitions officials said.”

Are these unilateral, president-authorized civilian killings justified in this global war against those who “want to kill us,” as our presidents have said?

Should corollary civilian deaths matter to us as Americans? Shouldn’t we know more about them? With regard to the actual targets of these strikes by, among others, the growing fleet of pilotless drones — including advanced models — the American Civil Liberties Union filed on Jan. 13 a Request Under (the) Freedom of Information Act (Expedited Processing Requested) that asks penetrating questions of the departments of Defense, State and Justice (including the Office of Legal Counsel, of which John Yoo is a notorious graduate). And, of course, there are also questions for the shadowy CIA to answer.

Obama remains silent

Only limited, and soon abandoned, attention has been paid by the press to these queries that, as of this writing, have yet to be answered by the government. If President Obama’s silence continues, there may well be a lawsuit by the ACLU. I no longer expect Congress to be exercised by such stretchings of our increasingly quaint rule of law. Therefore, the ACLU forthrightly asks:

“We seek information about the legal basis in domestic, foreign (and) international law for the use of drones to conduct targeted killings, and the rules and standards that the Armed Forces and the CIA use to determine ...

“The targets ... especially in the face of anticipated civilian causalities.” To what extent, I would add, are these drone strikes called off if civilian casualties are anticipated?

But all this information is classified. Should it be secret, however, when the ACLU tries to find out who actually makes these terminal targeting decisions in real time? What are their qualifications for these death-and-life rulings?

“Reports also suggest,” the ACLU FOIA request continues, that in addition to Air Force and Special Forces personnel, nonmilitary personnel including CIA agents are making targeting decisions, piloting drones and firing missiles.”

Particularly disturbing, “Defense contractors also appear to be playing an important part in the drone program.” What training do they get in deciding who gets killed?

No military oversight

In a challenge worthy of Obama’s personal attention, the ACLU goes on: “It appears, therefore, that lethal force is being exercised by individuals who are not in the military chain of command, are not subject to military rules and discipline or oversight.”

This creates a disquieting concern: “Without official sources of information, current estimates of the number and proportions of civilians killed vary widely.” For instance, the ACLU points out, “Pakistani authorities believe 90 percent of those killed in drone strikes were civilians.” But CIA Director Leon Panetta “assured the Pacific Council on International Policy (May 18, 2009) that drone strikes involve ‘a minimum of collateral damage.’ ” Say it plain: The damage is civilian deaths.

What was the 2009 “minimum” in Pakistan, as Panetta defines “minimum”?

Here we go again, Mr. President — providing the terrorists with valuable recruiting tools. I know you don’t want to look back at your predecessors’ lethal mistakes, but you yourself are increasing targeted killings and corollary fatal mistakes right now, and we citizens are in the dark. Shouldn’t we know under what American laws and international treaties you are involving us in these civilian deaths?

Nat Hentoff is a senior fellow at the Libertarian Cato Institute.

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