Billed as the “first-ever completely virtual interview from the White House,” YouTube and Google+ hosted an event this evening called “Your Interview with the President.” President Barack Obama answered video questions and also took questions from a few individuals who were selected to be a part of a “hangout.” The questions were on the economy, education and a few were on digital freedom and foreign policy issues.
Two questions of interest, given Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s interview last night on 60 Minutes, were questions on drone use. A young male asked about drones and how they have caused many civilian casualties. The setup for the question was connected to an article that ran in the New York Times today on a fleet of surveillance drones the State Department is employing in Iraq for protection.
Obama answered the question by criticizing the NYT article and said that he thought it was “overwritten” because the US is not engaged in a bunch of drone attacks in Iraq. That would be a fair criticism if there was any suggestion at all in the article that drones are being used to kill Iraqis right now.
The first paragraph clearly states:
A month after the last American troops left Iraq, the State Department is operatinga small fleet of surveillance drones here to help protect the United States Embassy and consulates, as well as American personnel. Some senior Iraqi officials expressed outrage at the program, saying the unarmed aircraft are an affront to Iraqi sovereignty.
Obama then said he wanted to make sure people understood drones have not caused a huge number of casualties. The government has only been using “precise” strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates. He said there’s a “perception” that the US is engaging in a bunch of strikes “willy nilly” when what is happening is a “targeted effort” to get people on a list, who want to hit Americans and American facilities.
This is a terribly indifferent answer when considering the reality of the impact of drone strikes carried out by America. In fact, it might give one the impression that there have been no civilian casualties and only members of al Qaeda or members from affiliated groups have been targeted and killed. The reality is, according to work done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), 168 children have been killed during the seven years that the CIA has been launching drone strikes in Pakistan. These dead children account for 44% of the 385 civilians reportedly killed in drone attacks.
The answer also obscures the truth that drone strikes have not always been carried out against people whose identities are entirely known. A Wall Street Journal article showed in November of last year that the CIA uses something called “signature strikes” against “groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known.” These kind of strikes make up the “bulk” of the “CIA’s drone strikes.”
The US government consistently disputes reports in the aftermath of attacks, when countries claim innocent civilians have been killed. Those killed are almost always “militants” no matter how old they are.
Obama said the program for strikes is “kept on a very tight leash” and that it isn’t run by a “bunch of folks in a room somewhere making decisions.” That’s correct. The program is actually much more totalitarian in its nature. As described in an article published to promote the PBS FRONTLINE documentary “Top Secret America”:
A couple of times a month, a pleasant-sounding secretary from the CIA’s CTC trekked across the agency’s campus to its old headquarters building, took the elevator to the seventh floor of executive suites, and handed acting CIA general counsel John Rizzo a manila envelope marked “top secret,” with a standard pink routing slip attached to the outside. Rizzo was involved in daily operations in the decade following the 9/11 attacks. He had been part of the spy world for thirty-three years, and never had he found himself in such a strange and lonely position. He would remove the two-to-five-page dossier from the envelope and read it alone in his office. It was information on the habits and history of the next man whom officers at the CTC wanted to kill — without a hearing, without giving the targeted man a chance to refute the information or even to admit guilt and surrender. Instead, Rizzo, the lawyers at the CTC, and the head of the National Clandestine Service (formerly the CIA Directorate of Operations) would act as judge and jury on these terrorism files. [emphasis added]
The person asking the question about drone use spoke up and got in a follow up question. This time he asked the question that is at the center of the New York Times article: “Do they [drones] send the message that the US is interfering in other country’s affairs?”
Obama responded that America has to be “judicious” in how it uses drones and understand that “our ability to respect the sovereignty of other countries and to limit the incursions into other territories is enhanced by our ability” to spot operatives. The ability is improved by going after “suspects” from al Qaeda along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan with drones because for the US “to get the men other ways would require more intrusive military actions.”
What Obama is saying, of course, is in order to prosecute the “war on terrorism” (which the Obama administration does not call the “war on terrrorism” anymore), Americans must accept that the US can either use robotic warfare that intrudes the air space of sovereign countries or it can use troops and much more military equipment, which intrudes upon the ground space of sovereign countries. Either way, there are people in these countries that give us carte blanche to respond because they are believed to pose a “threat” to America and the US must be able to strike at them without being restricted by a country’s government.
And, when Obama says America must be “judicious,” he does not acknowledge the way in which America is going in and targeting individuals like US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and killing them without due process.
Obama concluded, I am “looking forward to a time when al Qaeda is no longer an operative network and we can refocus our assets on a lot of other issues” but there is “still a lot of plots directed at the US.” Al Qaeda is “weakened” but America still has “got a lot of work to do.”
What kind of work though? The American people are expected to trust the president as the government continues to suggest there is this network of boogeymen extremists out there that will stop at nothing to kill Americans and go after American targets. That may be true but the sober reality is much closer to the following from think tanker John Mueller:
Outside of war zones, the amount of killing carried out by al Qaeda and al Qaeda linkees, maybes, and wannabes throughout the entire world since 9/11 stands at perhaps a few hundred per year. That’s a few hundred too many, of course, but it scarcely presents an existential, or elephantine, threat. And the likelihood that an American will be killed by a terrorist of any ilk stands at one in 3.5 million per year, even with 9/11 included.
In fact, the use of drones is probably more likely to radicalize people and pose a larger threat to Americans than the few hundred remaining members of al Qaeda.
It should be noted this was a “post-State of the Union conversation.” Drones were never mentioned in the recent State of the Union address so without this event put on by YouTube and Google+ the president would have gone about his business not saying a word about how the government is increasingly relying on robotic warfare.
The words Obama offered on drones also are notable because he didn’t dispute the use of drones in Pakistan. Typically, the Administration has refused to acknowledge the use of drones but as The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill remarked on Twitter yesterday: “Obama confirms drone use. Whew! Now we can finally have this discussion.”