It turns out that the Obama administration has not been honest about who the CIA has been targeting with drones in Pakistan. Jonathan Landay, national security reporter at McClatchy Newspapers, has provided the first analysis of drone-strike victims that is based upon internal, top-secret US intelligence reports.

It is the most important reporting on US drone strikes to date because Landay, using US government assessments, plainly demonstrates that the claim repeatedly made by President Barack Obama and his senior aides — that targeted killings are limited only to officials, members and affiliates of Al Qaida who pose an imminent threat of attack on the US homeland — is false.

Senior officials and agencies have emphasised this point over and over because it is essential to the legal foundations on which the strikes are ultimately based: The 2001 Authorisation to Use Military Force and the UN Charter’s right to self-defence.

A Department of Justice white paper said that the US can target a “senior operational leader of Al Qaida or an associated force”, who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States”.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration targets “specific senior operational leaders of Al Qaida and associated forces”, and Harold Koh, the senior State Department legal adviser dubbed them “high-level Al Qaida leaders who are planning attacks”.

Obama said during a Google+ Hangout in January 2012: “These strikes have been in the Fata [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and going after Al Qaida suspects.”

Finally, Obama claimed in September: “Our goal has been to focus on Al Qaida and to focus narrowly on those who would pose an imminent threat to the United States of America.”

As the Obama administration unveils its promised and overdue targeted-killing reforms over the next few months, citizens, policymakers, and the media should keep in mind this disconnect between who the US claimed it was killing and who it was actually killing.

Landay’s reporting primarily covers the most intensive period of CIA drone strikes, from September 2010 to September 2011. “The documents reveal estimates of deaths and injuries; locations of militant bases and compounds; the identities of some of those targeted or killed; the movements of targets from village to village or compound to compound; and, to a limited degree, the rationale for unleashing missiles,” he writes.

While he provides few direct quotes from the documents, his most important finding is this: At least 265 of up to 482 people who the US intelligence reports estimated the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior Al Qaida leaders, but instead were “assessed” as Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists.

Drones killed only six top Al Qaida leaders in those months, according to news media accounts. Forty-three of 95 drone strikes reviewed for that period hit groups other than Al Qaida, including the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as “foreign fighters” and “other militants”. At other times, the CIA killed people who only were suspected, associated with, or who probably belonged to militant groups.

This scope of targeting complicates the Obama administration’s claim that only those Al Qaida members who are an imminent threat to the US homeland can be killed. In reality, starting in the summer of 2008, when president George W. Bush first authorised signature strikes in Pakistan, the vast majority of drone-strike victims were from groups focused on establishing some form of Sharia, attacking Pakistani security forces, and destabilising Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban and attacking US service personnel.

The US essentially replicated the Vietnam War strategy of bombing the Vietcong’s safe haven in Cambodia. In addition, the CIA was engaging in ‘side payment strikes’ against the Pakistani Taliban to eliminate threats on Islamabad’s behalf. This was not a secret to anyone following the CIA’s drone programme.

As I wrote as early as March 2009: The covert programme that began as an effort to kill high-value Al Qaida and Taliban officials responsible for previous international terror attacks (and who continue to provide strategic guidance to the global jihadist movement) has since led to the CIA’s serving, in effect, as a counterinsurgency arm of the Pakistani air force.

Landay also writes that “the reports estimated there was a single civilian casualty, an individual killed in an April 22, 2011, strike in North Waziristan”.

This should finally demolish John Brennan’s claim in June 2011 that “for the past year there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop”.

Either Brennan did not receive the information in these top-secret documents (an implausible notion given his central role in managing the targeted killings programme), or he was being dishonest.

It is important to note that the claim of a single civilian casualty is based on the CIA’s interpretation that any military-age males who are behaving suspiciously can be lawfully targeted. No US government official has ever openly acknowledged the practice of such ‘signature strikes’ because it is so clearly at odds with the bedrock principle of distinction required for using force within the laws of armed conflict.

According to the documents reviewed by Landay, even the US intelligence community does not necessarily know who it has killed; it is forced to use fuzzy categories like “other militants” and “foreign fighters”.

Some of the drone strikes that Landay describes, such as a May 22, 2007, attack requested by Pakistan’s intelligence service to support Pakistani troops in combat, do not appear in the databases maintained by the New America Foundation, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, or Long Wars Journal. This should strengthen the concerns of many analysts about the accuracy of reporting from Pakistan’s tribal areas. It also suggests that there may be a few additional targeted killing efforts of which we know nothing.

This lack of understanding further reinforces the need for a comprehensive official history of US targeted killings in non-battlefield settings, comparable in scope and transparency to the government reports about other controversial counterterrorism policies. Some policymakers will question why we should care about what the US was doing two years ago, which in Washington is considered ancient and irrelevant.

Yet, for all of the historical accounts and professed concerns over the CIA’s detention and extraordinary rendition programme, which involved ‘136 known victims’, it is time for an accounting of the CIA’s drone strikes, which have killed between 3,000 and 4,000 people in Pakistan and Yemen. Finally, based on the Obama administration’s patterns of behaviour, the Department of Justice will assuredly target Landay and his sources for leaking classified information. While the Justice Department has refrained from plugging the many selective leaks by anonymous administration officials that praise the precision and efficacy of drone strikes, it has sought more criminal prosecutions of leaks in Obama’s first term than during all previous presidential administrations combined.

Like almost everything else we know about targeted killings, these latest revelations come from an investigative journalist who served the public interest by reporting new information on a highly controversial policy — a policy that the government absurdly insists remain secret. Absolutely nothing in Landay’s reporting reveals the CIA’s sources and methods for determining who had been killed.

The hypocrisy behind US targeted killings has long been apparent to casual news readers, and it is now confirmed by internal intelligence documents. The Obama administration has a fundamental choice to make if it is serious about reforming its targeted-killing programme: Either target who officials claim they are targeting, or change their justifications to match the actual practice. If they are unable or unwilling to do this, then other White House efforts toward drone-strike reform or transparency will be met with scepticism.



Micah Zenko is the Douglas Dillon fellow with the Centre for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes the blog Politics, Power, and Preventive Action.