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Victims of U.S. Special Operations Raids Gone Wrong Are Lucky to Get a Sheep

The families of two men mistakenly killed by a U.S. drone want Obama to apologize. But U.S. law doesn't require the U.S. government to do anything to acknowledge it.

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The families of a police officer and an anti-Qaeda cleric killed by an U.S. drone strike in Yemen are asking an American court to compel U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to admit their deaths were a mistake. Legal experts say their quest is likely to fail, and if the past is any indication, their best chance to get anything from Washington was if a special operator had given them a farm animal.

Instances where the United States has acknowledged mistakes made during special operations — a tag drone strikes fall under — are exceedingly rare. One example took place in 2010, after a Special Forces team gunned down an Afghan prosecutor, a police chief, and three unarmed women in Khataba, Afghanistan.

The incident, first denied by DoD, infuriated locals and politicians in Kabul. The Pentagon eventually admitted mistakes, and Vice Adm. William McRaven, then-head of Joint Special Operations Command, traveled to the village to apologize. As a gesture, he brought along a sheep, which was slaughtered as part of a traditional Afghan gesture for forgiveness.

The families of a police officer and an anti-Qaeda cleric killed by an U.S. drone strike in Yemen are asking an American court to compel U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to admit their deaths were a mistake. Legal experts say their quest is likely to fail, and if the past is any indication, their best chance to get anything from Washington was if a special operator had given them a farm animal.

Instances where the United States has acknowledged mistakes made during special operations — a tag drone strikes fall under — are exceedingly rare. One example took place in 2010, after a Special Forces team gunned down an Afghan prosecutor, a police chief, and three unarmed women in Khataba, Afghanistan.

The incident, first denied by DoD, infuriated locals and politicians in Kabul. The Pentagon eventually admitted mistakes, and Vice Adm. William McRaven, then-head of Joint Special Operations Command, traveled to the village to apologize. As a gesture, he brought along a sheep, which was slaughtered as part of a traditional Afghan gesture for forgiveness.

Other governments allied with the United States have paid off victims of special operations gone wrong. The Yemeni government shelled out a total of $1 million to the families of those killed and injured in 2012 when a U.S. drone struck a wedding party in Radda. The errant strike left at least 13 dead.

In the new case, the families of the Yemeni men — Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, the cleric, and Waleed bin Ali Jaber, his cousin and a cop — cite Obama’s April acknowledgement that American Warren Weinstein and an Italian aid worker, Giovanni Lo Porto, were mistakenly killed by a U.S. drone earlier this year. The lawsuit, which does not ask for money, wants a court to compel Obama to do the same for their loved ones.

William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University, told FP that it’s legally impossible to pry drone strike information from the administration.

“The lawsuit itself doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell,” he said.

According to Ashley Deeks, a national security law expert at the University of Virginia, the legal justification currently used by the White House — that drone strikes are a necessary part of the fight against al Qaeda and associated forces, including the Islamic State — makes information regarding the government’s use of drones untouchable.

There is precedence that illustrates how U.S. military mistakes fall outside the purview of American law. In 2010, a D.C. Circuit Court considered a case brought by the owner of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan bombed by the United States in 1998. The U.S. government thought the facility was associated with Osama bin Laden, who had just bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The owner sued the government for defamation.

“The D.C. Circuit concluded that the case raised a political question — that is, the decision to bomb the factory fell squarely within executive discretion, and there were no standards by which courts could assess whether the decision to bomb was lawful,” Deeks said.

That could spell bad news for the Yemeni families, who simply want the president to say he’s sorry. If past is precedent, he won’t be doing so anytime soon.

Photo credit: Mohammed Huwai/Getty Images

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