Why the U.S. Doesn’t Always Know Who It’s Killing in Drone Strikes

Muslim students stand in the rubble of an Islamic seminary that was hit by a suspected U.S. drone strike in Hangu district in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013.

Muslim students stand in the rubble of an Islamic seminary that was hit by a suspected U.S. drone strike in Hangu district in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Abdul Basit)

April 23, 2015

President Barack Obama’s rare admission on Thursday that the U.S. had accidentally killed two civilians being held hostage by Al Qaeda underscores an important reality of the administration’s covert drone program: When U.S. officials approve attacks, they often don’t know exactly who they’re going to hit.

Although the U.S. doesn’t publicly release figures on who it kills and when, according to the independent Bureau of Investigative Journalism, government drone strikes have killed between 2,952 and 5,217 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen combined. At least 488 — and as many as 1,124 — are believed to have been civilians, according to the bureau’s estimates.

That count includes at least eight Americans. In addition to killing four U.S. citizens in a 2013 strike, the U.S. said today that it had killed Warren Weinstein, a development expert from Maryland being held hostage by Al Qaeda, as well as two American Al Qaeda operatives, Adam Gadhan and Ahmed Farouq, in strikes in January. An Italian aid worker, Giovanni Lo Porto, also died in the same strike as Weinstein. In 2002, Kamal Derwish, an American citizen and alleged Al Qaeda recruiter was killed in a drone strike in Yemen.

“These and other recent strikes in which civilians were killed make clear that there is a significant gap between the relatively stringent standards the government says it’s using and the standards that are actually being used,” Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

He added: “Unfortunately, the president’s stated commitment to transparency can’t be squared with the secrecy that still shrouds virtually every aspect of the government’s drone program.”

The U.S. has been slow to publicly clarify its rules for drone strikes, which are carried out by both the CIA and the Defense Department.

As recently as 2012, President Barack Obama told The Daily Show’s  Jon Stewart that the administration was still working to establish a legal framework for the strikes. (The exchange starts about one minute in to the video.)

“One of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in, but any president’s reined in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making,” he said.

The administration has, however, broken its strikes in two categories: targeted strikes, when officials identify a specific person to kill, and signature strikes, when they don’t.

Signature strikes started in Pakistan under President George W. Bush in 2008; Obama expanded their use in Yemen in 2012. These strikes generally involve hits on what the U.S. considers suspected militant targets or suspicious activity in areas controlled by militants. In 2012, however, The New York Times reported that some officials in the State Department were concerned that the standards in place for such strikes gave far too much leeway for the CIA. As one senior official told The Times, the “joke” went that “three guys doing jumping jacks” could be interpreted as a terrorist training camp.

In April 2012, John Brennan, who was at the time the Homeland Security advisor, offered the first major public defense of the government’s drone program, saying that “targeted strikes” against “specific Al Qaeda terrorists were legal, ethical and done with “precision.” Drone strikes also allowed the U.S. to combat Al Qaeda without sending in more ground troops, he said. He didn’t specifically address the use of signature strikes.

In 2013, after the U.S. acknowledged killing four Americans in a strike, including Anwar al-Awalaki, a senior leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a May letter that the administration would establish “exacting standards and processes for reviewing and approving” operations to kill or capture targets.

In May 2013, the White House released a summary memo of the administration’s guidelines, narrowing slightly the target zone for signature strikes and requiring “near certainty” that non-combatants will not be injured or killed. “Men of military age may be non-combatants; it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants,” the memo said.

But the memo didn’t clarify how combatants — or non-combatants — are defined, leaving that open to interpretation by officials authorizing the strikes. The U.S. also said the counterterrorism operations were designed to take out Al Qaeda and it’s “associated forces,” although it didn’t define who that is. The government has also used strikes to target militants fighting against the Pakistani and Yemeni governments.

On Thursday, the administration confirmed that the strike that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto, the two civilians, was a signature strike. Obama said that the CIA believed that the compound it targeted belonged to Al Qaeda, but it didn’t know exactly who was inside.

In his remarks about the civilian deaths, Obama said he had ordered a full review of what happened. “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur,” he said.

But, he added, the operation that killed them was “fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region, which has been our focus for years because it is the home of Al Qaeda’s leadership.” 

In the meantime, human rights groups have continued to document regular civilian deaths. In 2012, for example, a drone killed a 67-year-old grandmother in Pakistan. A 2013 strike the U.S. said targeted “dangerous Al Qaeda militants” in Yemen actually hit a wedding procession, killing 12 and wounding at least 15 others.

And in January, the U.S. said it had killed “three Al Qaeda fighters” in a strike in Yemen, but The Wall Street Journal cited Yemeni defense officials saying that one was a 12-year-old boy.

A Yemeni human rights group revealed the boy’s identity the day after the strike. It said that the boy’s father and older brother had also been killed by a drone strike four years earlier.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE


Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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