How the Media Fails to Highlight the Illegality of US Drone Strikes

Josh Watts, 14 June 2012 | 1 Comment

Categories: Pakistan | USA | Drones | War | The Independent |

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Under the Obama administration, the frequency of US drone strikes - what Professors Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann have termed 'Washington's Phantom War' - have increased dramatically.1 Indeed, President Barrack Obama's 'speciality', John Pilger observes, 'is the use of drones armed with Hellfire missiles against defenceless people'. Confirming this assertion, a senior fellow at the respected Brookings Institution claimed in 2009 that '600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks' which 'suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died', adding that, 'To reduce casualties, superb intelligence is necessary. Operators must know not only where the terrorists are, but also who is with them and who might be within the blast radius'. On this point, the Washington Post reported on 19 April 2012 that the CIA was 'seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terroism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said' - a 'practice [which] has been a core element of the CIA's drone program in Pakistan for several years'. Furthermore, Bergen and Tiedemann point out that ‘On average, only one out of every seven U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan kills a militant leader. The majority of those killed in such strikes are not important commanders but rather low-level fighters, together with a small number of civilians’.2 The CIA’s attempt to ‘expand its covert drone campaign’ is, then, of great concern.

On 6 June, The Independent reported that the ‘US claims al-Qa‘ida scalp as drone attack kills terror network’s No 2’ – what the United States considered ‘a signal victory in its battle to defeat al-Qa’ida’. The report raises numerous questions.

Noteworthy in the article, is the way in which the comments of US officials are taken at face value and the legality of Washington’s actions are unchallenged. For example, the Obama spokesman, Jay Carney, was quoted as telling reporters ‘We [the United States] have confirmation of his death’, though he ‘offer[ed] no further elaboration’, the paper noted. This is presumably acceptable, because ‘The US does not comment directly on drone missions, which are covert’. Whether or not such ‘drone missions’ are legal - covert or overt - is not considered. That they are covert, however, suggests them to be illegal, though no such logic is employed. The paper reported that a Washington official ‘suggested’ that the militant ‘was “among al-Qa’ida’s most experienced and versatile leaders” and had “played a critical role in the group’s planning against the West, proving oversight of the external operations efforts”’. Once again, these charges are merely ‘claim[s]’, ‘suggest[ions]’, though no ‘further elaboration[s]’ are offered to support them. Nevertheless, the charges are accepted as justification for eight years of ‘clandestine US drone strikes’ which kill both suspected militants and innocent civilians – indeed, the report quotes a lawyer who represents the families of civilians killed by drone strokes, who ‘said it was initially reported that six people had been killed in yesterday’s operation but that once rescuers reached the area they found that 16 people had been killed’. The lawyer added that ‘In the last two weeks 56 people have been killed by drone strikes’. These claims are not disputed: thus, the majority of those ‘killed in the pre-dawn strikes’ on a ‘mud house’ were neither Abu Yahya, nor one of ‘several foreign fighters’; they were, then, civilians. This conclusion is neglected entirely and, consequently, does not undermine the right of the US to perform these ‘covert’ operations.

The Independent regards the drone programme as ‘controversial’, observing that ‘the US has aggressively defended the drone attacks and their frequency has increased during the Obama administration, who reportedly personally approves or vetoes the so-called “kill list” for each strike’. No evidence is offered to back the ‘aggressive [sic] defen[ce]’ of the drone attacks. Similarly, Obama’s ‘approv[ing] or veto[ing]’ a ‘kill list’ is apparently uncontroversial, and raises no questions, moral or otherwise. According to the Pakistani foreign ministry, US ambassador Richard Hoagland ‘was informed that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty’, but, to borrow the paper’s phrase, the report ‘offer[s] no further elaboration’.

As a drone strike which killed 16 was able to ‘scalp’ al-Qa’ida, ‘eliminat[ing]’ one who ‘US officials believe[d] . . . was one of only a few network commanders in a position to approve terror operations and issue fatwas’, readers may be inclined to consider the policy a success, irrespective of moral and legal constraints. In fact, in a discussion of the Post article of 19 April, independent journalist Glenn Greenwald references two journalists, both of whom argue – with regards to drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, respectively – that the attacks increase the threat of terror, as opposed to reducing it. As Peter Hart of US media watchdog FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) comments, in regards to a New York Times report of the Abu Yahya killing: ‘It's inarguable that the drones kill people the U.S. government wants to kill, and some it doesn't intend to kill. But does this really qualify as "combating militancy"?’ The Independent, meanwhile, neither critiques nor criticises the ‘use of controversial remote-controlled aircraft’ – proof again of its complacency in taking the comments of Washington officials at face value.

The headline (‘US claims al-Qa‘ida scalp as drone attack kills terror network’s No 2’) also merits a brief comment. Firstly, that Abu Yahya is al-Qa’ida’s ‘No 2’ is only suspicion. Thus, the ‘terror network’s No 2’ has not necessarily been killed. In this respect, the headline is misleading. Furthermore, the term ‘scalp’ is one with gruesome connotations, carrying sinister undertones. If, following a terrorist organisation’s attack which killed a US or UK commander, representatives of the organisation publicly referred to the attack as having ‘scalp[ed]’ British or American forces, there would be, we can be sure, widespread outrage and condemnation; the type of language used would be considered violent, inflammatory, callous and cynical rhetoric. In the context of the suspected ‘general manager’ of a ‘terror network’ however, such language ushers not even a hint of unease.

As outlined in the opening, the United States’ ‘covert’ drone missions are hardly a meticulous exercise in precision. Evidence indicates that, more often than not, civilians are the unfortunate victims of these ‘controversial’ strikes. However, because the intended targets are suspected to be high-ranking members of terrorist organisations, these civilians’ deaths are seemingly justified. As Patrick Cockburn observes: ‘The drones have even been presented as being more humanitarian than other forms of warfare, simply by claiming that any dead males of military age killed in a strike must have been enemy combatants’.3 In reporting ‘the biggest success yet in the eight-year history of clandestine US drone strikes’, The Independent related uncritically the claims of Washington officials – who, any rational person may presume, would not necessarily adopt a non-partisan approach to such matters (to say the least) – even when it is conceded that the officials offer ‘no further elaboration’. Such a report, therefore, in effect accepts a ‘controversial’ foreign policy which is known to kill civilians. In this respect, The Independent’s report is strongly in accord with governmental policy – a fact which demands both scepticism and scrutiny.

For more analysis of news coverage on US drone strikes, see our previous articles Justifying Targeted Assassinations: the BBC on the Effectiveness of Drone Strikes and The Unworthy Victims of US Drones Attacks


1. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, ‘Washington’s Phantom War: The Effects of the U.S. Drone Program in Pakistan’, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2011 (90:4), pp. 12-18.

2. Bergen and Tiedemann, Foreign Affairs.

3. Patrick Cockburn, ‘America is deluded by its drone-warfare propaganda', The Independent on Sunday, 10.06.12.

Categories in which this article appears: Pakistan | USA | Drones | War | The Independent |

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Comments (1)

1. Tony Hillier18 June 2012 09:34

This article disappointingly after reading the headline, does not in my opinion go far enough into the 'legality' of the drone attacks.

But thanks anyway.


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