Obama is setting a terrifying precedent for the next president to kill people in secret

Trevor Timm

These types of strikes backfire on the US, sowing hatred in the populations of bombed countries and breeding sympathy for al-Qaida

US drone graffiti in Yemen
Yemeni man looks at graffiti showing a US drone

THE OBAMA administration is again allowing the CIA to use drone strikes to secretly kill people that the spy agency does not know the identities of in multiple countries - despite repeated statements to the contrary.
That’s what we learned this week, when Nasir ­al-Wuhayshi, an alleged leader of al-Qaida, died in a strike in Yemen. While this time the CIA seems to have guessed right, apparently the drone operators didn’t even know at the time who they were aiming at - only that they thought the target was possibly a terrorist hideout.

It’s what’s known as a “signature” strike, where the CIA is not clear who its drone strikes are killing, only that the targets seem like they are terrorists from the sky.
Signature strikes has led to scores of civilians being killed over the past decade, including two completely innocent hostages less than two months ago. It’s a way of killing that’s been roundly condemned by human rights organizations and that some members of Congress have tried to outlaw.
The incredible dangers behind such a policy are obvious. Here’s how the New York Times described it when the White House’s ‘kill list’ was first revealed in 2012:
The joke was that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers – but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.
It was so controversial that, in 2013, President Obama announced new “rules” for drone strikes that tightened requirements for when the CIA or any government agency could attempt to kill someone and were, in theory, meant to be the end of signature strikes.
One of the rules was that a drone target had to be an “imminent threat” to the US and there had to be a near certainty that civilians would not be killed. (One would assume it’s close to impossible to call someone an “imminent threat” when you don’t even know who that person is.)
But it has become increasingly clear that the “rules” are virtually meaningless and the Obama administration is setting a terrifying precedent for the next president who can change or expand them on a whim.
After the “rules” were announced in 2013, the Associated Press reported that the US was going to stop signature strikes everywhere, including in Pakistan.
Then we found out, through the Wall Street Journal, that actually, no, the president issued a secret waiver for Pakistan and part of the rules didn’t apply there.
Now just this week, we’ve learned from the Washington Post that Obama, at some point, issued another waiver on the “imminent” rule for Yemen, allowing the CIA to continue signature strikes there unabated. According to their report: “US officials insisted that there was never a comprehensive ban on the use of signature strikes in that country” to begin with.
In other words, a key part of the drone “rules” Obama laid out in public don’t apply in the two countries where the CIA conducts virtually all of its drone strikes. Oh, and the “imminent threat” rule doesn’t apply in Afghanistan either, the only other country where the US military is regularly conducting its strikes.
As is typical with the US government’s extrajudicial killing policy, there was no public debate about any of the changes to the supposed rules, or even announcement that they ever changed - only an unofficial leak to a journalist after the latest killing.
Beyond the enormous human rights consequences related to such a dangerous policy, these types of strikes backfire on the United States, sowing hatred in the populations of bombed countries and breeding sympathy for al-Qaida where there was none before.
This is why, as the Washington Post suggested in a separate article this week, drone strikes might be as effective at helping the spread of al-Qaida as killing its leaders.
It was only two months ago when a US drone accidentally killed two innocent hostages, one of whom was a US citizen, via a signature strike.
At the time, President Obama publicly apologized and vowed to deliver a “full” investigation - even while absurdly refusing to acknowledge it was a drone strike that actually killed them.
What happened to that investigation? If the government’s extreme secrecy surrounding drones is any indication, we’ll probably never know. It’ll likely be locked in a safe with a classified stamp on it, destined never see the light of day. In its place, the CIA has a new example to only extend its grip on extrajudicial killing.
Source: The Guardian

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