The United States Does Not Know Who It’s Killing

A remorseful acknowledgment of the drone deaths of American civilians is not an acceptable answer for a counterterrorism policy out of control.

A NASA Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone aircraft, takes off during a Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel, or HS3, mission at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, on September 10, 2013. The HS3 mission uses two of the unmanned aircraft to fly over tropical storms and hurricanes to monitor weather conditions, utlilizing the Global Hawk's ability to fly as high as 19.8 km (12.3 miles), as far as 20,278 km (12,600 miles) and stay in the air for as long as 28 hours. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House released a statement today acknowledging the deaths of three U.S. citizens and one Italian citizen in recent U.S. counterterrorism operations. The statement and accompanying remarks by President Barack Obama are consistent with prior administration policy of admitting to the deaths of (most) American citizens by drone strikes, while refusing to provide transparency equal to that provided for almost all others killed. Under pressure from then-Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), then-Attorney General Eric Holder submitted a letter on May 22, 2013, that named four U.S. citizens killed in counterterrorism operations, with the caveat that three “were not specifically targeted by the United States.”

The White House statement released on Thursday morning and Holder’s admission reveal what should be the most disturbing aspect of these counterterrorism operations: The United States simply does not know who it is killing. In total, eight U.S. citizens are believed to have been killed in U.S. counterterrorism operations, and only one of them was specifically, knowingly targeted: Anwar al-Awlaki. Except for Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the other six unintended victims were characterized by U.S. officials — either before or after their deaths — as leaders or members of al Qaeda or al Qaeda-affiliated groups.

In fact, the U.S. government has still never officially acknowledged that its killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was unintentional. When the State Department was asked for details soon after his death was reported, it shamefully replied: “We are aware of media reports that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki has been killed; however, we have not received confirmation of his death from the government of Yemen. We have no additional information at this time.” An anonymous U.S. official later stated: “The U.S. government did not know that Mr. [Anwar] Awlaki’s son was there,” and that the intended target was an alleged Egyptian operative, Ibrahim al-Banna. It is disgraceful that President Obama has never issued a statement admitting to Abdulrahman al-Awlaki’s mistaken killing, released the results of an investigation into the circumstances that led to his death, or apologized to Awlaki’s family.

I’m not saying that these men are good guys. Except for Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, each of the other unknowingly targeted Americans might have been members of al Qaeda or affiliated groups, or provided material support for external terrorist plots. However, the policy that allegedly guides U.S. counterterrorism operations does not justify the killing of those unknown individuals who by chance are later determined to be terrorists. In fact, the policy claims that when U.S. citizens are knowingly targeted, “the Department of Justice will conduct an additional legal analysis to ensure that such action may be conducted against the individual consistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

Of course, if they are only revealed to be U.S. citizens after their death, no such additional legal analysis is possible to ensure the operation was consistent with the Constitution or U.S. law. And since the White House consistently refuses to provide any information about whether or how these individuals posed a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” we are forced to take its word that it was necessary to kill them. The policy also claims that the administration strongly prefers to capture Americans suspected of terrorism, rather than killing them. However, as I pointed out in my last column, the Obama administration simply does not adhere to its own policies.

Moreover, other policy fixes intended to protect against unintentional deaths of U.S. citizens would have been similarly pointless in most of these cases. Two years ago, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) co-sponsored the “Targeted Strike Oversight Reform Act of 2013.” This legislation purportedly adds an additional level of review to drone strikes against U.S. citizens who are “knowingly engaged in acts of international terrorism against the United States.” The act requires the director of national intelligence, within 15 days of receiving notification of a citizen’s having been specifically targeted, to “complete an independent alternative analysis (commonly referred to as ‘red-team analysis’) of the information.”

Sen. King claimed this legislation would “ensure that an independent group … reviews the facts and that the details of that review are shared with the Congressional Intelligence Committees.” The provision was placed into the classified annex of the Intelligence Authorization Act and signed into law in July 2014. But again, this only pertains to persons knowingly targeted by the administration. That means that in the cases of the eight American men killed by U.S. drone strikes, only for Anwar al-Awlaki would such a review have been possible.

The more important question for President Obama, who expressed his “profound regret” for the unintentional deaths of Dr. Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, is why this sentiment is reserved only for innocent noncombatants who happen to be Americans. Based upon the averages within the ranges provided by the New America Foundation, the Long War Journal, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been an estimated 522 U.S. targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 9/11, which have killed 3,852 people, 476 (or 12 percent) of whom were civilians.

However, whenever human rights groups produce credible reports about non-American civilians who are unintentionally killed, U.S. officials and spokespersons refuse to provide any information at all, and instead refer back to official policy statements — which themselves appear to contradict how the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations is supposed to be practiced. Moreover, even within traditional battlefields like Afghanistan or Iraq, the U.S. government refuses to provide information about harm caused to civilians. Last year in Afghanistan alone, the United Nations documented 104 civilian deaths “from aerial operations by international military forces.” There were no statements from the relevant military commanders or White House about any of these victims.

Earlier this month, during a question-and-answer session at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, CIA director John Brennan pledged:

“We, the U.S. government, the U.S. military, are very, very careful about taking action that’s going to have collateral civilian impact. A lot of these stories that you hear about — in terms of ‘Oh my god, there are hundreds of civilians killed,’ whatever — a lot of that is propaganda that is put out by those elements that are very much opposed to the U.S. coming in and helping.”

“Propaganda.” That’s how U.S. officials deride research that challenges their assertions.

Unfortunately, there have been hundreds of civilians killed by U.S. counterterrorism operations, despite the very real precautions that the CIA and military undertake to prevent them. This is why, as I have written often previously, the United States has an obligation to those American and non-American civilians killed by drones to commission a study into U.S. targeted killing policies similar to the extensive one conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Without a full and complete accounting of this lethal tactic that has come to define U.S. foreign policy throughout the world, we will always be forced to rely upon the selective pledges provided by U.S. officials.

In light of this morning’s announcement, senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have said that U.S. targeted killings policies should be reviewed. This obviously should have happened many years ago, and certainly after the CIA admitted on December 9, 2014, that it lacked the ability to “evaluate the effectiveness of the various tools, techniques, and operations used in our covert actions.” It is admirable that these congressional overseers recognize the need to do their oversight jobs today.

But if they cared so deeply about the treatment of the 119 suspected terrorists who entered the detention and interrogation program, 26 of whom were detained wrongfully, should they not be even more adamant about investigating the 3,800 civilians and suspected terrorists who have been killed from on high, and for whom there has been no recourse?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.