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Fewer than 2 percent of drone-strike victims in Pakistan are senior al Qaeda leaders

Despite White House assurances that its lethal drone policy merely targets "senior operational leaders" of al Qaeda and its associates, a new McClatchy report finds that the majority of drone targets in Pakistan include a mix of unidentified "extremists" and lower-level Afghan and Pakistani militants. The blockbuster report is based on copies of "top-secret U.S. ...

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Despite White House assurances that its lethal drone policy merely targets "senior operational leaders" of al Qaeda and its associates, a new McClatchy report finds that the majority of drone targets in Pakistan include a mix of unidentified "extremists" and lower-level Afghan and Pakistani militants.

The blockbuster report is based on copies of "top-secret U.S. intelligence reports" obtained by reporter Jonathan Landay and includes data on drone strikes in Pakistan in a 12-month period ending in September 2011. Here’s Landay’s breakdown of the data:

– At least 265 of up to 482 people who the U.S. intelligence reports estimated the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior al Qaida leaders but instead were "assessed" as Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists. Drones killed only six top al Qaida leaders in those months, according to news media accounts.

Forty-three of 95 drone strikes reviewed for that period hit groups other than al Qaida, including the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as "foreign fighters" and "other militants." …

– At other times, the CIA killed people who only were suspected, associated with, or who probably belonged to militant groups.

A pie chart of the data quite dramatically demonstrates how few senior al Qaeda members were targeted in the year analyzed by McClatchy:

*Between September 2010 and September 2011.

According to McClatchy, the documents "show that drone operators weren’t always certain who they were killing," which raises questions about Barack Obama’s assurances that lethal killings are "not speculative" and that targets must be plotting "imminent" attacks on America. If you don’t even know the identity of the target, how is the decision not "speculative"?

Some advocates of the drone program trust the administration’s judgment, and feel that the White House deeming targets dangerous — even if they had no association with al Qaeda — is sufficient. But for others, the McClatchy report may only confirm allegations that terror suspects are killed with an insufficient degree of background information and oversight.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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