January 2011 drone strikes protest (photo: Moral Low Ground)

(update below)

A study from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), released last week, further documents the United States’ use of drones in Pakistan. The report, according to BIJ editor Iain Overton, “lays bare the reality of the drone war” and shows the extent to which CIA drone strikes kill children. And, the report suggests the deaths of children in attacks are on the rise.

Not surprisingly, US officials have been working to discredit the findings any way they can. On Friday, Chris Woods, lead reporter on the BIJ project, addressed the attempts by the CIA and anonymous “US officials,” who assert the BIJ’s work rests on “unsubstantiated allegations” from a “Pakistani spy” and the “data itself” is suspect.

The “spy” whom US officials claim has an “agenda” that is “crystal clear” is Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer, who once worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). On July 18, he filed charges against former legal counsel to the CIA, John Rizzo, for authorizing drone strikes that allegedly killed “mostly innocent civilians.” Akbar also has written about Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor whose identity was uncovered after he killed two Pakistani men he believed to be armed and was jailed by Pakistani authorities and charged with two murders and illegal possession of firearms. Akbar contended Davis should never have enjoyed any amount of diplomatic immunity.

Akbar’s work as a lawyer is nothing but a thorn in the side of the US military and intelligence establishment. It comes as no surprise that the US would want to castigate Akbar and smear him by labeling him a spy.

The London-based legal charity Reprieve defends Akbar:

The CIA is so desperate to cling to its ‘no civilian deaths by drone’ narrative that it is smearing the one Pakistani lawyer who is making a real effort to find out the truth. Unnamed CIA agents say Shahzad Akbar is ISI. That is as false as the CIA’s tattered claim not to have killed a single civilian in Pakistan in the past year.

Indeed, in the face of this report, the CIA is holding fast to the claim that no civilian deaths have taken place in strikes. They are viciously working to defend the fraudulence of President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, who maintains, “There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

A CIA spokesperson states:

We see the battlefield in real time; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism doesn’t. This group’s allegations about individual strikes are, in every case, divorced from the facts on the ground.

What does that even mean? Is the CIA seeking to discredit BIJ on the basis that BIJ goes back and looks at media reports, witness testimonies, NGO field reports, secret US government cables, leaked intelligence documents and accounts from journalists, politicians and former intelligence officers while the CIA simply on-the-fly comes up with a casualty number and that is what the agency considers to be “accurate” in the aftermath of strikes no matter what?

As Overton stated in reaction to the attempt to discredit the BIJ project, “It comes as no surprise that the US intelligence services would attack our findings in this way.  But to claim our methodology is problematic before we had even published reveals how they really operate. A revelation that is reinforced by the fact that they cannot bring themselves to refer to non-combatants as what they really are: civilians and, all too often, children.”

More Than 80% of CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan Have Happened under Obama

The BIJ project finds 291 CIA attacks have taken place, eight percent more than reported previously. Under President Obama, 236 strikes have taken place, one every four days, which means more than eighty percent of CIA drone strikes have taken place under Obama. Somewhere around ten strikes have led to the deaths of at least 45 civilians have been killed in the past year (which means on average four civilians have died in each strike in the past year—that’s some accuracy).

The project finds over 160 children have been killed. According to the project, one in three attacks under President George W. Bush killed children. At least 385 civilians have died in strikes. And, in possibly the first attempt to properly document the number of injuries in drone strikes, the BIJ project finds 1,114 people have been wounded.

The project describes each strike carried out under Bush and Obama thus far. For example:

Ob181 – January 1 2011
♦ 4-6 total killed
♦ 0-6 civilians reported killed
After waiting two hours with drones still overhead, rescuers (either militants or villagers) attempted to retrieve the dead and injured from Ob180 but were attacked. Up to six people were killed.

The findings led Sam Zarifi of Amnesty International to declare, “The Obama administration must explain the legal basis for drone strikes in Pakistan to avoid the perception that it acts with impunity. The Pakistan government must also ensure accountability for indiscriminate killing, in violation of international law, that occurs inside Pakistan.” In fact, that is what Akbar, whom the CIA calls a spy, is trying to do: challenge the legality of drone strikes. And, clearly establishing what is legal and not legal about drone strikes is exactly what the US does not want to do, preferring to keep courts from deliberating on the issue in the same way the Bush administration worked to keep courts from deliberating on the issue of torture.

The “Pakistan Papers” & the US Drone Program

It’s worth recalling what WikiLeaks revealed in its recent release of the “Pakistan Papers”—US State Embassy cables from Pakistan, which were published by the Dawn Media Group.

A cable on a congressional delegation led by US Senator Patrick Leahy showed President Asif Ali Zardari in May of 2009 requested the US use drone technology so his forces could take out the militants. He welcomes “the acquisition of modern technology” believing drones would make it more difficult for media or anyone else to criticize the actions the Pakistani military might take to protect Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Another cable  highlighted the reaction in Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of what was believed to be the first drone attack in the settled areas of the Northwest Frontier Province, outside of the tribal areas. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani sharply condemns the strike within “Pakistan proper,” which US diplomat Anne Patterson describes as a “watershed event.” A “vehemently secular” leader, Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) Deputy Parliamentary Leader Haider Rizvi, claims he will not be able to handle the growing popular and political pressure from these attacks and declares the Pakistan people “had not made their peace with drone attacks in the tribal areas and a shift into mainland Pakistan was even more inflammatory.”

Perhaps, most significant was the revelation that Pakistan General Ashfaq Kayani, Chief of Army Staff, asked then-US CENTCOM commander and Admiral William J. Fallon in January 2008 to assist in providing “continuous Predator coverage of the conflict area.” He expresses interest in procuring Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) and asks the US to “grant or loan them to Pakistan.”

A Dawn editorial reacts to BIJ’s study and addresses the secrecy, which shrouds the drone program in Pakistan and further complicates the situation:

…Is Pakistan still assisting in the strikes? The army sends out signals that it wants the strikes `to end`, but is silent about complicity, past or present. Is the Shamsi airbase still in America`s control and are drones flying from there? Again, silence. Apparently torn between the efficacy of the strikes — as vouched for earlier this year by a senior Pakistan general posted in North Waziristan — and not wanting to politically `own` the strikes, the army, and other Pakistani officials, appear willing to continue with a dualist policy on the drones. Could lives be saved if there were more openness by both the US and Pakistani states about the strikes? Arguably they could, for then target selection and the outcome of the strikes would be open to greater public scrutiny — allowing the drones to continue to take out bad guys without attracting so much bad publicity.

As of May, a Washington Pew Centre survey found only 11 percent of Pakistanis viewed the US and President Obama favorably. This low approval rating is surely a result of the way the US continues to conduct military and intelligence operations that result in civilian deaths from drone strikes and possibly even night raids. Additionally, two out of three Pakistani journalists, according to a study conducted in February, consider drone strikes to be “acts of terrorism.” (Though, the same 395 Pakistani journalists surveyed didn’t consider the 2008 Mumbai attacks or the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl to be terrorism.)

There have been a number of protests by Pakistanis in response to the shedding of blood of civilians in drone strikes. In April, one protest attempted to block a US supply route

A Zero Tolerance Policy Toward Reporting on Drone Strikes

For the CIA, the BIJ project is something that must be undermined immediately because it has the capacity to undo any “progress” the CIA has made in its efforts to shape perceptions of the use of US drones in Pakistan. Already, the media rarely reports on strikes. Access to the site of strikes, according to Dawn, is rare. “Corroborating claims of civilian deaths” is difficult. And, the US government, according to CNN, operates under a policy of “no comment” on “suspected” drone strikes, meaning they rarely verify that the US was behind drone attacks even though the US is currently the only country using drone technology in conflicts.

Few in Washington challenge the use of drones. Drone strikes have become part of the bipartisan national consensus on national security.

If anyone who has experience in Washington does dare to speak out, they will be challenged immediately. critiques will most certainly overlook the human impact of the drone strikes, cast doubt on whether Pakistanis are justified in being angry with Americans and merely include Pakistani leaders in the decision-making process. For example, that is essentially what former director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, suggests in an op-ed published by the New York Times today.

Blair is correct to note, “The raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May showed Pakistan that the United States would respect its sovereignty only so far.” But, a “cooperative campaign” that employs drones is not likely to solve the problem. The issue is the 21st Century warfare itself.

The use of drones is part of ensuring US soldiers don’t have to see the brutal realities of war up close and feel any pain or empathy for a people whose lives are routinely violated by a US presence in Pakistan. Each day the US government refuses to end its illegitimate, inhumane and possibly illegal operations, it radicalizes more and more people increasing the possibility of blowback some time in the future.

Update

Here is Chris Woods on Democracy Now! this morning: