In May 2013, President Barack Obama’s aides indicated that they were prepared to phase out the most controversial element of the administration’s drone war: so-called “signature strikes” against military-age men on battlefields around the world that took place even if American officials didn’t know who the targets were — or if they were actively plotting against the United States.
The tactic had sparked fierce criticism from human rights groups and some lawmakers, who said it effectively gave the CIA carte blanche to bomb groups of men in countries ranging from Yemen to Pakistan simply because of where they lived and whether they showed any behavior commonly associated with militants. Opponents argued that the strikes were certain to kill innocents given that U.S. officials knew so little about who they were targeting and had no concrete way of identifying the dead afterward.
Nearly three years later, the administration has abandoned any pretense of reining in its use of signature strikes. With the Islamic State expanding its reach, Washington is doubling down on the tactic and dispatching drones to strike at targets in Yemen and Somalia.
In March, U.S. drones and other warplanes bombed an al-Shabab training camp in Somalia north of Mogadishu, killing what the Pentagon later estimated were about 150 militants who had gathered for a graduation ceremony. And an air raid a few weeks later on an Islamic State training camp in the mountains of Yemen killed dozens of suspected militants, the Pentagon said. U.S. officials privately acknowledged that they didn’t know the precise identities of who they killed.
Signature strikes like the ones in Somalia and Yemen form a key element in Obama’s aggressive drone bombing campaign, one that will be handed over to the next president 10 months from now. The signature raids have been carried out in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia — countries where the United States is not engaged in a publicly declared war — and, unlike targeted killings against specific extremist leaders, do not require presidential approval.
Signature strikes were first used during George W. Bush’s administration, and the name refers to the fact that the targets — by virtue of their ages, actions, and locations inside countries known to house terrorist operatives — bear the “signature” of militant activity. U.S. intelligence and defense officials believe the strikes have inflicted heavy damage on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. But critics say the rules for the drone strikes against large numbers of military-age men are too vague and carry an unacceptably high risk of killing innocent civilians who have no connection to any terrorist plot.
“Signature strikes have resulted in large numbers of bystander casualties in Pakistan and Yemen,” Jameel Jaffer, a deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Foreign Policy.
There’s little doubt that the attacks have taken out hundreds — possibly thousands — of militants, but there’s also little doubt that civilians have been caught in the crossfire. The numbers are impossible to pin down, given the lack of clear reporting on the ground in places like Pakistan and Yemen. But a few cases stand out and highlight the dangers of conducting war almost exclusively from the air.
One tragic blunder came on Dec. 12, 2013, when a U.S. drone flown by Joint Special Operations Command killed 12 Yemeni civilians in a single signature strike, leading the U.S. government to reportedly make about $1 million in condolence payments. Amnesty International, which examined 45 drone strikes in Pakistan between January 2012 and August 2013, reported that one signature strike killed 18 laborers and injured 22 others in July 2012.
Last year, U.S. forces bombed an al Qaeda compound in Pakistan and inadvertently killed two Western hostages, Warren Weinstein, an American development expert, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker. A grim-faced Obama stood before television cameras in the White House briefing room in April to apologize for the strike. Not only did the CIA not know that the hostages were there, but it also was unaware that two American members of al Qaeda were present at the strike targets.
But last week Obama and a senior legal advisor at the U.S. State Department effectively defended the tactic, pushing back against accusations that strikes have been carried out indiscriminately and without knowing who was being killed on the ground.
Asked about the recent U.S. bombing raids in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, Obama told reporters on April 1 that the United States employs a “vigorous set of criteria” for its counterterrorism operations and that intelligence is “checked, double-checked, triple-checked before kinetic actions are taken.”
If the U.S. identifies a training camp that is clearly linked to al Qaeda or the Islamic State, then “a strike will be taken.”
“But what we have been very cautious about is making sure that we are not taking strikes in situations where, for example, we think there is the presence of women or children, or if it is in a normally populated area,” Obama said.
The same day, Brian Egan, the State Department’s legal advisor, offered a broad defense of the administration’s drone war and the signature strikes in particular.
“To emphasize a point that we have made previously, it is not the case that all adult males in the vicinity of a target are deemed combatants,” Egan said at an event organized by the American Society of International Law in Washington, D.C.
The targeting for strikes is backed up by intelligence and takes into account “certain operational activities, characteristics, and identifiers when determining whether an individual is taking a direct part in hostilities or whether the individual may formally or functionally be considered a member of an organized armed group with which we are engaged in an armed conflict,” he said.
Egan’s comments came as the White House prepares to release a report in coming weeks on the estimated civilian casualties from its drone campaign, a partial concession to demands for more transparency over its air raids.
After Obama delivered a May 2013 speech vowing to put the fight against extremists on more solid legal footing, the administration released a three-page document outlining in broad terms who U.S. drones and warplanes can strike and how. The playbook said that U.S. commanders could only hit targets when there is “near certainty” that the terrorist target is present and that civilians would not be endangered.
But officials have never explained the criteria that allow the CIA or the military group carrying out the strikes to waive the guidelines. The paper stated that the rules didn’t apply in “areas of active hostilities,” but it remained silent on which countries were included in that list.
During Egan’s little-noticed speech, he revealed more about the targeted killing program in a few minutes than U.S. officials had in three years. He said Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan all fall within “areas of active hostilities,” as do some parts of Pakistan.
Even with these new details, “we’ve seen a lot of inconsistencies” in the Obama administration’s approach to the drone and counterterrorism program, said Andrea Prasow, the deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. Administration officials have long promised more transparency while providing little information, she said.
Obama’s homeland security advisor, Lisa Monaco, has said that the administration is preparing to release civilian casualty numbers for drone strikes soon, “but this tells us absolutely nothing about why the strikes were taken or what the intelligence was” behind them, Prasow said.
National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the administration is committed to promoting transparency and taking every step possible to avoid killing civilians. “The United States goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid noncombatant casualties in lethal operations, providing protections as a matter of policy that go beyond those required by the law of armed conflict,” Price told FP.
While Obama has faced criticism from some members of his own party over his drone campaign, he also has come under fire from hawks on the political right who accuse him of hand-wringing over the raids and micromanaging the operations from the White House.
In his new book Playing to the Edge, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, a staunch proponent of the signature strikes, compared Obama to an indecisive “Hamlet” for delivering the 2013 policy speech promising legal reforms for the conduct of the drone war. Obama was clearly “uncomfortable with his own actions,” Hayden wrote.
Hayden, who worked under both Bush and Obama, argues that the signature strikes were based on “robust” intelligence and helped decimate al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan.
“The signature strikes had the effect of shrinking the enemy’s bench and [al Qaeda] leadership’s sense of safe haven,” Hayden wrote.
The recent bombing raids in Somalia and Yemen have come just as the White House has promised to reduce the secrecy about its drone war by releasing a report — possibly within weeks — estimating how many civilians have been killed by the operations.
The signature strikes have fed accusations that the U.S. government often downplays the number of possible civilian casualties after an operation by counting most military-age males as combatants.
Since the start of the U.S. bombing campaign in Yemen in 2002, as many as 1,242 people have been killed in 131 drone strikes and 16 airstrikes, according to a New America tally. Eight U.S. drone attacks and one airstrike have taken place in Yemen in 2016 alone, numbers dwarfed by the daily bombing runs conducted by Saudi-led coalition fighting to dislodge Houthi rebels from power. Civilian casualties have been difficult to measure, though they likely number well over 100, according to New America’s analysis.
In Pakistan, the numbers are much higher. The 402 recorded strikes have killed as many as 3,623 people, including more than 300 civilians.
Despite criticism from some legal experts and rights advocates, and protracted court battles over the secrecy surrounding the campaign, the Obama administration has faced no serious popular pressure to curtail signature strikes or the drone war more generally.
Public opinion polls have shown consistent support for drone strikes among a majority of Americans in recent years. But outside the United States, the drone war carried out in Pakistan and elsewhere is widely opposed. In a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, a majority or plurality of those polled in 39 of 44 countries said they were against the U.S. drone campaign.
In Congress, lawmakers from both parties have mostly supported the drone operations or, at least, have never taken concerted action to restrict it.
As a result, the next president will inherit Obama’s drone war policies, including the signature strikes. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders, the avowed democratic socialist and presidential candidate, has given his blessing to the “targeted killings.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told FP a number of senators have concerns with signature strikes and that he was “not comfortable with what we have in place.”
Cardin said he was not opposed to the tactic but wanted to see Congress play a more prominent role in ensuring the program worked as intended. “As a legislator, regardless of whether the next president is a Democrat or a Republican, I want to see transparent, strong oversight of the drone program by Congress.”
Jaffer of the ACLU said the Obama administration has “normalized the practice of targeted killing, and it has built an administrative and bureaucratic infrastructure to support it — an infrastructure that will be available to every future president.”
FP reporter Molly O’Toole contributed to this article.
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