from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Who Is Ultimately Responsible for U.S. Drone Strikes?

Tribesmen gather at a site of a suspected drone strike on the outskirts of Miranshah, Pakistan, near the Afghan border in October 2008 (Haji Mujtaba/Courtesy Reuters).

March 5, 2013

Tribesmen gather at a site of a suspected drone strike on the outskirts of Miranshah, Pakistan, near the Afghan border in October 2008 (Haji Mujtaba/Courtesy Reuters).
Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Defense and Security

Military Operations

An article today in the New York Times offered a new piece of evidence in the CIA’s nine-year drone strikes campaign in Pakistan. Declan Walsh reported that anonymous officials—“two senior U.S. officials” and a “third official”—claimed that airstrikes on February 6 and 8, reported by Pakistani and international media as drone strikes, were not actually conducted by the United States. According to one of the sources: “They were not ours. We haven’t had any kinetic activity since January.” An official is also quoted as assigning responsibility to the “Pakistani military…the Taliban fighting among themselves. Or it could have been simply bad reporting.”

There were a number of plausible and implausible denials and claims during the early years of the drone strikes in Pakistan. After the very first CIA drone strike killed Nek Mohammed on June 17, 2004, a Pakistani military spokesperson claimed: “Our security forces acted swiftly on the information and that is how he was killed.” Likewise, after the May 8, 2005, attack that killed Haitham al-Yemeni, a Pakistani official simultaneously denied the event took place and claimed that it might have happened in Afghanistan.

Finally, on December 1, 2005, missiles killed Abu Hamza Rabia, a senior al-Qaeda official, in the village of Haisori (an attack three weeks prior missed him, but reportedly killed his wife and daughter). However, the Pakistani government claimed Rabia blew himself up experimenting with explosives. After freelance journalist Hayatullah Khan published a story that included photographs of shrapnel bearing the Hellfire missile’s designation “AGM-114” and the words “guided missile,” it became clear that Pakistani intelligence officials likely authorized his abduction and murder. The State Department’s 2006 Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Pakistan described the Khan murder delicately, indirectly implicating Pakistani officials while denying the existence of the CIA’s Predator drones:

“Colleagues suspected that authorities detained Khan after he contradicted a government report that the senior leader died when munitions exploded inside a house. Khan quoted local tribesmen as saying the house was hit by a missile fired from an aircraft.”

Of course, that aircraft was American (although the State Department pointedly omitted the photographs), and Hayatullah Khan was murdered by the government of Pakistan for his reporting.

The practice of shifting blame and responsibility has also been a defining feature of the targeted killing program in Yemen. A leaked State Department cable that summarized a January 2010 meeting between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, described President Saleh lamenting U.S. cruise missile attacks, while declaring: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” In December, journalist Sudarsan Raghavan further revealed "the Yemeni government’s efforts to conceal Washington’s mistakes and the unintended consequences of civilian deaths in American air assaults" by hiding civilian casualties and insisting that U.S. drone strikes were conducted by its own military combat jets.

The Yemeni government’s efforts complement nicely with how the State Department 2011 Country Reports for Human Rights Practices described “killings” by Yemen:

"The government also employed air strikes against AQAP and affiliated insurgents in Abyan, with some strikes hitting civilian areas. Although some accused the government of intentionally striking civilians in Abyan, most if not all noncombatant casualties from these bombardments were attributed to a lack of air force training and technical capability."

It is possible that some of these air strikes were carried out by CIA or Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) drones, or even offshore U.S. Navy assets. Given that the State Department would not acknowledge the U.S. role or responsibility for targeted killings in Pakistan, why would they do so in Yemen? Moreover, it is hard to imagine that civilians on the ground are able to distinguish clearly between Yemeni, Saudi Arabian, CIA, and JSOC missiles.

Finally, journalist Mark Mazzetti also reported in June: “According to three current and former intelligence officials I spoke to, in 2006, a barrage of Hellfire missiles from a Predator hit a suspected militant camp in the jungles of the Philippines, in an attempt to kill the Indonesian terrorist Umar Patek.” Soon after, a spokesperson for the Philippines Armed Forces denied that drone strike had ever occurred, stating: “That’s against the law. The United States does not participate in [actual] military operations here in the Philippines.” A U.S. special operations officer deployed  to the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines revealed that he had no knowledge of any U.S. drone strikes, although he also admitted that he never had direct access into whatever “other government agencies” [i.e., the CIA] were doing.

What is most remarkable about today’s story is that the United States still maintains the myth that there is no targeted killing program in Pakistan, as CIA drone strikes are covert actions—“where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” Since President Obama acknowledged in January 2012 that the United States is conducting drone strikes in Pakistan, maintaining this demonstrable falsehood is absurd. As is selectively speaking to reporters off the record to disavow American responsibility for two out of an estimated 364 drone strikes.

UPDATE: As of 12:30 p.m. this afternoon, the Pakistani military media arm released a statement denying involvement in the two strikes as well.)

More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Defense and Security

Military Operations

Close