The CIA didn't know who it was killing about 25 percent of the time it targeted suspects with drones, NBC News reports. Still, the government insists, all of those unknown people definitely deserved to die. According to classified CIA documents, only one of about 600 people the CIA killed in Pakistan in a 14-month period beginning in September 2010 was a civilian, and therefore was not a proper target.
How can the government assert that some 150 people killed were "militants" legitimately killed when it doesn't know who they actually were? As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations told NBC, that's "just not believable." Drones may be a more precise weapon than many others, but they're still dropping bombs from the air, and bombs just don't kill people that carefully. As Zenko put it: "Anyone who knows anything about how airpower is used and deployed, civilians die, and individuals who are engaged in the operations know this."
The government is apparently hoping that the public doesn't find that out. Even its classified documents attempt to cover it up by listing the unknown dead as "other militants" or "foreign fighters" without providing any evidence to back that up.
The CIA declined to respond to NBC's questions, as did the White House.
The source of the confusion here, of course, is the CIA's now-infamous use of so-called "signature strikes," which target unknown individuals based on a pattern of activity that a drone operator on a U.S. military base observes. Whether that "pattern of activity" is something as ominous as planting an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), as ambiguous as carrying a weapon (which is pretty common in the tribal areas of Pakistan), or as innocent as doing jumping-jacks at a suspected training camp, is not known. The government has consistently refused to identify what the "signatures" are that can turn a shadowy figure identified on a drone operator's video screen into a "legitimate" target for firepower.
In his speech at the National Defense University in May, President Obama said that his administration "has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists -- insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance" that he had just signed.
Conveniently for the government, that policy guidance remains classified -- which pretty much negates the claim about oversight and accountability.
So far, as NBC's analysis underscores, the CIA's actions don't inspire confidence. An earlier analysis of classified documents from the CIA's drone program by McClatchy News Service found similar inconsistencies between who the government says it's killing and who actually ends up dead. According to McClatchy's review, fewer than two percent of those killed were actually al Qaeda leaders, which is who the U.S. government says it targets. The rest were lower level "insurgents," "fighters" or "militants," according to the government, not necessarily linked to al Qaeda at all, which is who the United States says its fighting.
The laws of war allow the United States to kill only members of declared enemy armed forces or civilians directly participating in hostilities. It's hard to believe the U.S. government is actually following that law if it doesn't even know who a quarter of the people it's killing even are.
President Obama's speech sounded pretty good when he made it, but the more facts trickle out about the drone program the more reason we all have to be skeptical.
What can be done? Human Rights First has set out exactly what steps the United States can take to make sure its drone program complies with international law and doesn't undermine human rights.
The president should start by making public that Presidential Policy Guidance he announced with such pride. Otherwise, neither the American public nor foreign allies or enemies have any reason to believe the U.S. government has reined in its clandestine killing operations at all.