Obama Promises More Transparency In African Drone Strikes
Fifteen years after 9/11, the Obama administration is fighting unpredictable new enemies and some of the enemies are being trained in Africa, PBS reports.
The Obama administration says it will go public with how many combatants and civilians the U.S. believes have died in U.S. drone strikes and counterterrorism hits in Africa since 2009 when Obama took office.
The report, expected to be released in the coming weeks, will focus on strikes against extremist targets in Africa — not strikes in major fighting zones like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, PBS reported.
More than 150 al-Shabaab fighters were killed by unmanned drones and manned aircraft over the weekend in Somalia, the Pentagon said Monday. Missiles and bombs hit Raso Camp, which had been under U.S. surveillance as fighters from the al-Qaida-linked group prepared for an imminent, large-scale attack, said U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, PBS reported. There were no known civilian casualties, Davis said.
Obama’s drone program has been criticized by civil rights advocates but it’s an important part of his strategy targeting extremists without involving U.S. troops on the ground, PBS reported.
“The Obama administration instantly claimed that the (150) people killed (in this weekend’s Somalia drone attack) were ‘terrorists’ and militants — members of the Somali group al Shabaab — but provided no evidence to support that assertion,” said Glenn Greenwald, a U.S. lawyer who writes about U.S. surveillance, in a report in TheIntercept.
Releasing numbers of U.S. drone strike deaths is part of a U.S. commitment to transparency for U.S. actions overseas, said Lisa Monaco, Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser. In the future, the numbers will be released annually, Monaco said.
“We know that not only is greater transparency the right thing to do, it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counterterrorism actions and the broad support of our allies,” Monaco said at the Council on Foreign Relations, PBS reported.
The report won’t include the full scope of the U.S. drone program or details of specific countries where people died but is expected to offer an aggregate assessment of casualties outside areas of “active hostilities.”
Greenwald questions what the U.S. is doing bombing people in areas where there are no active hostilties against the U.S. “U.S. is not at war in Somalia,” he said in TheIntercept. “Congress has never declared war on Somalia, nor has it authorized the use of military force there … What legal authority does Obama even possess to bomb this country? I assume we can all agree that presidents shouldn’t be permitted to just go around killing people they suspect are ‘bad’: they need some type of legal authority to do the killing.”
In 2013, Obama tightened rules for drone attacks, saying a target had to pose a continuing and imminent threat and the U.S. had to be near-certain that no civilians would be killed, PBS reported.
Deaths have declined significantly since then, but the program’s secrecy adds to concerns about unintended consequences and lack of oversight. Civilian deaths from drone strikes have fueled anti-American sentiment in places like Pakistan.
The U.S. intelligence community has traditionally opposed calls by U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups for more transparency about civilians killed by U.S. drones. Unofficial tallies by human rights groups run into the hundreds, according to PBS.
Although many U.S. strikes in areas like North Africa are launched by drones, the report will also cover other deadly counterterrorism operations like bombing raids, officials said.
Human rights groups have attempted to independently chart the full extent of the number of militants and civilians killed by U.S. drone attacks, IrishTimes reported.
The Long War Journal, a project by the Washington think tank, the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, that tracks U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan found that 2,797 Taliban, al-Qaeda and other extremists and 158 civilians are estimated to have been killed in 388 attacks since 2006.
The group has monitored 135 U.S. air strikes in Yemen that are estimated to have killed 657 combatants and 105 civilians. An analysis by human rights group Reprieve in 2014 found the U.S. killed 1,147 people in Pakistan and Yemen in attempts to kill 41 men.