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Are ‘signature strikes’ on al-Qaida still necessary?

Just how effective and precise can drone warfare be in fighting terrorists? Judy Woodruff talks to Greg Miller of the Washington Post about how the U.S. government deploys so-called “signature strikes” and the risk they pose to civilians.

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    For more on signature drone strikes and the controversy surrounding them, we turn to Greg Miller. He's national security and intelligence reporter at The Washington Post.

    Greg Miller, welcome.

    So, we have said these drone strikes overall have decreased, but signature strikes still happening. Are they only in Pakistan, and under what circumstances are they used?

  • GREG MILLER, The Washington Post:

    Well, they're mainly used in circumstances, as you outlined a few minutes ago, that — in which the agency believes that it has identified activity associated with al-Qaida, but doesn't necessarily know the identities of those alleged militants.

    And this revelation this week was the clearest indication we have gotten that these signature strikes continue. There's been an expectation that they would diminish substantially as the U.S. troop presence got lower and lower in Afghanistan. They were often used as sort of a measure of troop protection to attack gathering militants who looked like they were heading for the border.

    But the agency still regards this approach or this tactic as an important one.


    Is it known how strict the rules are for when and where these are to be used?


    Well, I mean, this whole — the disclosures of this week have renewed questions about the administration's own policies and that it has implemented over the past several years and whether the government and the agency in particular are adhering to them, because one of the fundamental requirements has been a — quote — "near certainty" that no civilians would be harmed in any strike.

    And here's a case where the agency didn't even know that there were two additional people inside this compound it targeted, let alone that one of them was an American.


    Well, it's been reported these strikes overall have been pretty successful at taking out al-Qaida. But what's not clear is — are the civilian casualties. What is known about how many civilian casualties there have been over time?


    Well, right. And this has renewed a lot of pressure on the administration for answers to these kinds of questions.

    The U.S. government has never — has never issued or disclosed publicly any numbers, whether of the total number of people that are believed to have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, let alone how many of those are civilians.

    But, privately, U.S. officials will insist that number is really minuscule, maybe 1 or 2 percent. So we're often relying on the estimates of independent organizations that use various methods of research to try to assemble this sort of data. It's imperfect, but their numbers tend to be much, much larger, and typically — and typically end up counting hundreds of civilian deaths, along with perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 total deaths attributable to drones.


    Greg Miller, just quickly, what would the administration say if they were — when they were asked, why use drones? Why not use conventional warfare?


    Well, I have asked people this question as recently as today. And the answer remains, it's just — as flawed as they are, as imperfect as they are, they're still vastly superior to other options, which include sending troops into a place like Pakistan or using conventional aircraft that are a lot less precise generally and can't study a target, track a target for near as long.


    So when the president talks about making changes, making improvements, is there any understanding of what direction that might go in, what that means?


    No, there's no obvious direction. And some of the people I have talked to think that we have reached a point with this program where to tighten it any further would be equivalent to shutting it down, that they have reached the sort of limits of the level of risk that you can reduce.

    I think there's probably going to be some consideration over whether signature strikes need to continue. The al-Qaida threat has been so diminished, eradicated, suppressed in Pakistan, that I do believe there's probably going to be a real argument over whether signature strikes are necessary any longer.


    And then I guess there would be a question about whether drones would be used for other targets, like ISIS, Islamic State.

    Greg Miller with The Washington Post, we thank you.


    Thank you.