Last night, NBC News ran an extremely rare story that aptly challenged the veracity of U.S. government claims about the precision of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. Part of the title used by NBC was misleading: “Exclusive: CIA Didn’t Always Know Who it Was Killing in Drone Strikes, Classified Documents Show.”
Two months earlier, McClatchy reporter Jonathan Landay wrote two pieces on drone-strikes in Pakistan based upon internal, top-secret U.S. intelligence reports. Landay’s unprecedented investigative reporting was essential because, as I wrote at the time, it “demonstrates that the claim repeatedly made by President Obama and his senior aides--that targeted killings are limited only to officials, members, and affiliates of al Qaeda who pose an imminent threat of attack on the U.S. homeland--is false.” Reversing his administration’s claims over the previous fifteen months, President Obama essentially acknowledged two weeks ago what Landay’s reporting had proven: CIA drone strikes in Pakistan are intended as “force protection” for U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan, not solely to protect the U.S. homeland.
NBC News’ reporting was apparently based on some, not all, of the same documents. What was new in last night’s story was that NBC showed the actual classified assessments of who was killed in 114 strikes—I skimmed these before I was interviewed. (See my two-minute interview here.) The documents bolster Landay’s findings that most of those killed are not members of “Al Qaeda,” with a quarter described generically as “other militants.”
Subsequently, the documents acknowledged just one civilian casualty, plausible only under the signature strikes categorization used by the Obama administration, which “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” As Richard Engel stated on last night’s broadcast: “Several former senior officials told us they had concerns about signature strikes. One told us, the U.S. sometimes executes people based on circumstantial evidence.” The U.S. government has never acknowledged that it conducts signature strikes, provided information upon which to judge how the CIA assesses such evidence, or what procedures are in place to prevent harm to civilians.
NBC News also interviewed twenty-seven year old Senior Airman Brandon Bryant (ret.), who was a drone operator from 2006 to 2011. He is described as having guided drones over Iraq and Afghanistan. Bryant told Engel that when he left, he was given a sheet of paper (they showed this actual piece of paper on this morning’s Today Show broadcast). According to Bryant, the paper said there were “1,626 total people killed on every mission that I had ever been on.” When asked how that made him feel, Bryan replied: “disgusted with myself, actually.”