Columbia report on US drone warfare & policies

One year after the United States launched a drone strike and executed US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and US citizen Samir Khan in Yemen, Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic and the Center for Civilians in Conflict have released a report that aims to further ignite debate over drone technology that has quickly become the future of warfare.

Titled, “The Civilian Impact of Drone Strikes: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions,” concludes “all variations of targeting procedures have a civilian impact.” The report does not attempt to draw “firm conclusions about drone use and civilian harm” but rather aims to challenge “current assumptions about drones as a panacea for counterterrorism efforts.”

The report admits that the number of people killed by drones is debatable, however, it adds so too is the number of people designated as “militants” or “civilians.” And it focuses in on the secrecy surrounding US covert drone operations, what is known about the role of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in carrying out attacks and what it says are the “inherent limits of using drone platforms outside of full-scale military operations, which has implications for civilian protection and harm response.”

Naureen Shah, Acting Director of the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia, told Firedoglake the “degree of secrecy” around drone strikes is “unprecedented,” expressing a concern that is become more and more common. “The US government is refusing to say that these operations are conducted by CIA [or] JSOC themselves. The government is refusing to say how many are being killed.” And, according to Shah, policymakers have gone along with the secrecy is because of “the mistaken belief” in the “greatness” of drone technology.

According to the report, there are three forms of intelligence the US is using for strikes: drone video, signals intelligence and human intelligence. It is true drones have the capability of surveillance for long periods where they can gather “huge amounts of information,” but that does not necessarily guarantee pinpoint accuracy. If “intelligence and underlying analysis is incorrect,” it could be difficult to distinguish between a civilian and a “targeted individual.” Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel has noted, “You can only see so much from 20,000 feet.” In fact, in April 2011, the report mentions a Predator was “unable to discriminate the highly distinctive combat outline of two Marines (with full battle equipment) from the irregular enemy” during a “combat engagement involving the Marines and the Taliban.”

There is also the issue of what the report terms the “soda straw” effect. A drone can zoom in to pinpoint a target, but if it loses the “wider picture of the area—like viewing a small amount of liquid through a soda straw, instead of the entire glass,” then “the soda straw effect creates a risk that civilians may move into the vicinity of the strike without being noticed by drone operators.” For example, drone pilot Matt J. Martin targeted a truck in Afghanistan of “insurgents.” Two young boys Martin had not expected appeared after Martin had fired a missile. All he could do is watch as the two boys were killed along with those in the truck.

Signals transmitted through communication and electronics systems have their use, but drone strikes are being launched in “low-technology environments.” The report describes:

…The value of phone intercepts is limited by several factors. First, in low-tech environments, it may not be possible to corroborate phone intercepts with other signals intercepts, if they do not exist. Second, phone intercepts are easily subject to manipulation. Members of armed organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan are reportedly aware that the US relies on phone communications for intelligence, and deliberately mislead US operators. Where the location of a phone is being used to find a target, individuals can deliberately swap SIM cards or phones. Third, even absent direct manipulation, the accuracy of signals intelligence is limited. Where the location of a phone is being used to identify a target, the target may not be the person holding the phone at the time of the strike. Accuracy will also be affected by the GPS limitations of the particular phone technology being used, the quality of the network, and whether or not the location can be triangulated–all factors which are limited in northern Pakistan and other regions in which drones operate…

The “reliability and vetting of local informants and foreign cooperating government personnel” is questionable. Informants are reportedly paid “$300-$1000 or more” and there are multiple stories suggesting, “Families and rival groups use locator chips to have their enemies targeted and to settle personal vendettas.” Local informants may offer “sketchy” information, leading to drone operators firing on people without confirming their identity. And intelligence may be obtained from foreign governments or military officials, who may seek to have the US target their “enemies” instead of the individuals or groups the US wants to target.


The report draws attention to what it concludes is a “common misperception”—the idea “US drone strikes fall neatly into two programs: the military’s overt drone strikes in Afghanistan and the CIA’s covert strikes beyond Afghanistan.”

…US government disclosures—mostly in the form of leaks to the press— suggest that the military and CIA are both involved in covert drone operations around the world.

Conventional military forces have some involvement in operations conducted by the CIA. Air force personnel reportedly pilot drones owned by the CIA. However, the scope and frequency of this cooperation and assignation is unclear. In particular, it is unknown whether personnel seconded to the CIA follow CIA protocols, and whether they continue to be bound by Department of Defense rules of engagement and directives. Because CIA and military cooperation is not limited to the operation of drones, these questions also apply to contexts such as intelligence-gathering and detention…

The profound secrecy makes it possible for the CIA and JSOC to conceal drone operations. Moreover, the report makes a salient point about the “blurring roles” between the CIA and JSOC. Recall, President Barack Obama “swapped” General David Petraeus and Leon Panetta

…General Petraeus is now the director of the CIA, but as commander of the military’s CENTCOM he oversaw the expansion of special operations, including JSOC authority. Panetta, now director of the Department of Defense, presided over the CIA’s rapid escalation of drone strikes in Pakistan under Obama. We note that, in practice, this exchange may in some instances benefit civilian protection, since General Petraeus was a primary driver behind counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan that favored limiting civilian casualties as a strategic imperative…

The report alludes to problems that stem from the militarization of intelligence operations. For example, CIA and JSOC have become increasingly indistinguishable on the ground:

…“[C]o-mingling at remote bases is so complete that US officials ranging from congressional staffers to high-ranking CIA officers said they often find it difficult to distinguish agency from military personnel,” reported the Washington Post in 2011. According to another report, “American military and intelligence operatives are virtually indistinguishable from each other as they carry out classified operations in the Middle East and Central Asia.” During the al-Awlaki strike, “the operation was so seamless that even hours later, it remained unclear whether a drone supplied by the CIA or the military fired the missile that ended the al-Qaeda leader’s life.” Being unable to identify which agency carried out an operation could make it difficult for the public and policymakers to assign responsibility in the event of abuses or mistakes, particularly for civilians looking for an explanation or redress…

That may be a key reason why JSOC has been granted responsibility to carry out operations. In Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture, he suggested what made JSOC appealing was the “near-total secrecy” in which this “relatively small, nimble” group is able to operate.

… Until recently, the Defense Department did not even officially acknowledge its existence. Some of its missions were so compartmentalized that they took place without the relevant combatant commander’s knowledge. Moreover, unlike the CIA, JSOC was not required by law to brief Congress on its clandestine operations. Law and politics so constrained Obama’s ability to influence counterterrorism policy. It’s easy to appreciate the lure of JSOC, which was sometimes referred to as the president’s “secret army.”…

JSOC was President George W. Bush’s personal army, a squad he could issue direct orders. For example, in September 2003, Bush issued an Al Qaeda executive order that “authorized JSOC operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and a dozen other countries, reportedly including Pakistan and Somalia.” This order was never made public and, under Obama, Petraeus has reportedly expanded and updated the order to support the US military’s “clandestine activity in the Middle East.”

Civilian Impact 

Like a report released by clinic at the law schools of Stanford and New York University on September 25, this report affirms the reality that the civilian impact of drones is being entirely overlooked and ignored or, at best, downplayed. Adding to the debate, the Columbia report suggests that civilians mistakenly targeted are experiencing “stigmatization” because of the “fabled precision of drones.”

The fabled precision of drones can mean that civilian victims of drone strikes are assumed by their community to be connected to militancy. Victims face the double burden of dealing with the physical attack and also clearing their name.

In one drone attack in Pakistan, instead of striking a Taliban hideout, missiles hit the house of Malik Gulistan Khan, a tribal elder and member of a local pro-government peace committee. Five members of his family were killed. “I lost my father, three brothers, and my cousin in this attack,” said Adnan, his 18 year-old son. Adnan’s uncle claimed, “We did nothing, have no connection to militants at all. Our family supported the government and in fact…was a member of a local peace committee.” The family provided Center for Civilians in Conflict with detailed documentation of the deaths of the five family members, including a report from the Assistant Political Agent of South Waziristan and a local jirga requesting that the government pay compensation.

The Columbia report summarizes the “psychological toll” civilians experience from drones. The conclusions are, again, similar to conclusions in the Stanford/NYU report:

Civilian deaths, injuries, displacement, and property loss caused by conflict are always traumatic for the population. Covert drone strikes take a particular toll, striking unannounced and without any public understanding of who is—and importantly, who is not—a target. For victims in particular, there is no one to recognize, apologize for, or explain their sorrow; for communities living under the constant watch of surveillance drones, there is no one to hold accountable for their fear.

But, perhaps, the most important aspects of the report are the points where conventional wisdom promoted by policymakers is entirely discounted or discredited. For example, the report includes a note from David Kilcullen, former counterinsurgency adviser to General David Petraeus, and Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security and a former US army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, on why the US drone war is guaranteed to have unintended consequences:

Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.

This is only a glimpse into the report. For more, read the full report here.