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Is U.S. being transparent enough about civilian deaths from drone strikes?

October 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Two human rights groups claim that U.S. drone attacks targeting terrorists have killed dozens of innocent civilians abroad, despite promises from the president to limit strikes that cause unintended casualties. Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty International, the author of one report, and retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap join Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: Now we return to what two human rights groups are reporting about U.S. strikes abroad.

Even the names attached to the unmanned planes known as drones are fearsome, Predators, Reapers. Operated remotely in skies high above their targets, drones have become a critical tool in the U.S. war on al-Qaida. This is especially true in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, which lies along its border with Afghanistan.

There, in the village of Ghundi Kala, Amnesty International says 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was killed a year ago as she harvested vegetables. Her family said she was targeted by two Hellfire missiles fired by an invisible drone.

According to Amnesty, it’s one of many such incidents.

MUSTAFA QADRI, Amnesty International: We have researched as much as we can nine cases out of the 45 that we identified between January 2012 and August 2013. We tried our very hardest to stick to the facts. We tried to corroborate the information we gathered and analyze it against satellite imagery, photographs, video, and other sources.

The most challenging situation we had to face was the complete and utter secrecy of the U.S. authorities.

GWEN IFILL: Amnesty International says the Pakistani government and nongovernmental organizations on the ground estimate there have been nearly 350 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004.

Critics argue President Obama has failed to make good on his promise to limit strikes that result in unintentional casualties. He said this in May.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And before any strike is taken, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, the highest standard we can set.

GWEN IFILL: The drone strikes have sparked protests in Pakistan and in Yemen, where Human Rights Watch carried out its own investigation, reporting that dozens of civilians were killed by U.S. strikes.

LETTA TAYLER, Human Rights Watch: Many Yemenis told us they now fear the United States more than they fear al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. These strikes are also stoking anger. In the villages where people are hit, every man, woman and child has seen images of charred bodies, of body parts, of vehicles that are turned into twisted masses.

GWEN IFILL: The groups contend the killings may amount to war crimes. But, at the White House today, spokesman Jay Carney rejected any such conclusion.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: To the extent these reports claim the U.S. has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree. The administration has repeatedly emphasized the extraordinary care that we take to make sure counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable law.

GWEN IFILL: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now visiting Washington, is expected to pursue the drone issue when he meets with President Obama tomorrow.

Joining me now to discuss those drone attacks overseas are Mustafa Qadri, the author of the Amnesty International report, and Retired Major General Charles Dunlap, director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.

I want to start with you, Mustafa Qadri, by asking you about, how do you quantify strikes that the U.S. won’t confirm?

MUSTAFA QADRI: Yes, that’s a really good question.

The problem is, this is a region which is so remote, so lawless, and a program that’s so secretive that even finding the detail of nine strikes out of 47 in the last 18 months is very difficult. So even just getting information about a couple of strikes is a great achievement.

GWEN IFILL: So, how did you it?

MUSTAFA QADRI: Well, basically, we have a very developed team. We have independent researchers, people that are very trusted by us who have worked on human right issues in this region for years with us.

We get them go to these regions, talk to local people in environments where they’re trusted, they feel safe, basically check those facts. Any gaps in it, we go back. We treat this information initially very skeptically. After we have got this information, and we’re quite confident with what we have got, we compare it with audio material, photographs, satellite imagery.

You have seen the product today. The report we have got is based on very thoroughly researched testimony.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Dunlap, do you trust those numbers, the way that they have gathered their information?

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES DUNLAP, retired, Duke University Law School: Well, I think if you take the — thank you very much for having me on the program.

And let me just say at the outset, any death of an innocent human being is a tragedy. But if you take a look at page 10 of the report, I think it reveals the basic problems with the report.

They hired local nationals. To begin with, they admit that it’s not a comprehensive survey of drone strikes in Pakistan. They hired local nationals, and they specifically say that the people that they talked to were those who are anxious to make known the human cost of drones, people self-selected into it.

In addition, if you look at footnote four to the report, they say that, well, they tried to interview women and children, but, you know, too hard to do , so there’s very few participants who are women and children.

It indicates how difficult it is to get this kind of information and so…

GWEN IFILL: So, you’re saying that — you’re saying that these numbers don’t stand up and, therefore, there’s not a problem, or just that the problem is not provable?

CHARLES DUNLAP: What I’m saying is that I don’t find the statistics in the report to be definitive to the number of casualties.

I mean, I think that they did what they can, but the fact of the matter is, it’s extremely difficult in that area to gather any information. So they presume to know more than what the U.S. government knows, with all its other access to information and technological capabilities about who was on the ground.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask…


CHARLES DUNLAP: I want to emphasize let’s not forget that international law doesn’t require no civilian casualties. It only requires that they not be excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s a question I actually — a version of the question I want to ask of Mr. Qadri here, which is, well, how do you know when you cross the line from what is a justified strike, a justified attack on suspected terrorists…


GWEN IFILL: … and crossing the line into war crimes or extrajudicial executions?

MUSTAFA QADRI: Yes, it’s a really important point.

I mean, look, let’s be quite clear here. We’re talking about a grandmother who was killed in front of her grandchildren. We don’t see how that is justified. International law is very clear on this sort of a situation. People may be targeted — we have said very clearly some drone strikes might be lawful.

Sometimes, unfortunately, under the law of war, under international law, you can kill civilians, if it’s incidental to a military objective and so forth. But in that strike, for example, how can that be justified? In our opinion, it is clearly an unlawful killing.

Just to also respond to some of the things that our guest mentioned, you know, look, we don’t pretend to have all the information, but on this point about us claiming to know more than the U.S., it’s quite different than that. We are actually being far more open about what we have and being very honest about it than the U.S. government.

In fact, the U.S. government has not shown us anything. And in terms of self-selecting the people we have spoken to, if our guest had looked at our work on the region in any detail, he’d know that our same team, our same people did a massive report last year on abuses by the Taliban, abuses by the military there.

We’re not self-selecting anything. In fact, we quite deliberately made sure that we talked about the local abuses last year and then talked about drones this year. You know, we can’t pretend to have all the answers, but we found one key problem, which is people have been killed unlawfully.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Dunlap, is the U.S. being transparent enough about what it is and is not doing?

CHARLES DUNLAP: I think it’s being as transparent as Amnesty International was in their report.

If you — again, I’m just quoting from report of the people that they said that they interviewed were people who wanted to bring the light of the human costs of the drone program. Evidently, they didn’t want to speak with anybody who want to bring to light the human cost of the absence of the drone program, because we know from the U.N. statistics out of Afghanistan 75 percent to 80 percent of the civilians who are killed are killed by anti-government forces, like that Taliban and al-Qaida.

And, as to the particular incident that my fellow guest references, on the same page that they accuse the U.S. government of a possible war crime, they admit that they don’t know what the rationale was. I suspect — or one might surmise that it was either an error — and errors do happen — or the individual wasn’t the target, but someone else was the target.

And as international law does provide that as long as the civilian casualties — meaning innocent civilian casualties — are not excessive, it’s not in violation of international law.


GWEN IFILL: What is the alternative for…


GWEN IFILL: Pardon me just a moment. I just want to get one more question in here.



GWEN IFILL: What is the alternative to trying to get the bad — if we know there are bad guys afoot and drones are imprecise, in your world view, then what is the alternative?

MUSTAFA QADRI: Well, let’s be very clear. We’re not saying stop drones. We’re saying use them in a lawful way.

The U.S. is not using them in a lawful way. We’re talking also about a very major ally of the U.S., Pakistan. We say very clearly in our report that Pakistan is failing in its duty firstly to get the perpetrators of abuses in that region, real serious security threats, and then also enforcing the rights of its own people there.

There is a middle way. We don’t have to worry — have a discussion about drones good or bad. In fact, there’s something in the middle, which is use drones, fine, lawful, but it has to be part of a wider strategy.

GWEN IFILL: And should part of that wider strategy, briefly, Mr. Dunlap, be that there should be some effort on the part of the U.S. to reduce the possibility of civilian casualties?


And an enormous amount of effort has gone into that. And if you look at the New America Foundation’s statistics, you will see that the number of civilian deaths has gone down dramatically. In fact, they’re reporting zero for this year, contrary to what Amnesty International has reported.



CHARLES DUNLAP: But let me make something — in fairness to Amnesty International, when you actually read the report, they do put a lot of caveats and limitations and mays and maybes and so forth in it. It doesn’t match the headlines that we see coming out.

GWEN IFILL: OK. We are going to have to leave it there.

Major General Charles Dunlap Jr. and Mustafa Qadri, thank you both very much.