But even though the drones apparently found their targets this
time, they were still blamed for a number of civilian deaths.
It was a stark reminder that a year after Obama laid out new
conditions for drone attacks around the world, U.S. forces are
failing to comply fully with the rules he set for them: to strike
only when there is an imminent threat to Americans and when there is
virtually no danger of taking innocent lives.
Although Obama promised greater transparency in his speech at the
National Defense University, U.S. lawmakers are increasingly
critical of the secrecy surrounding the operations.
Despite some spectacular drone hits that took out militant leaders
in places such as Yemen and Pakistan, there are growing concerns in
Washington that the net effect of the targeted-killing program may
be counterproductive. "Collateral damage" is seen as an al Qaeda
recruiting tool that undercuts the main rationale for the drone
campaign - to make Americans safer.
"It's never a good idea to make more enemies than you get rid of," a
former U.S. national security official said.
In his speech on May 23 last year, Obama defended the drone program
as effective while promising to narrow its scope, but he is showing
no sign of relinquishing what has become his counterterrorism weapon
of choice since he took office in 2009.
Drones are spreading to new areas as U.S. operations hone in on al
Qaeda affiliates in far-flung places like Somalia and in Nigeria,
where American forces are helping search for more than 200 girls
kidnapped by the Islamist group Boko Haram.
"Here we are, a year later, asking 'what has really changed?'" said
University of Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O'Connell, a
leading expert on extrajudicial killings who has testified before
U.S. congressional committees. "The drones are still flying and the
president still sees the attractiveness of this cold and antiseptic
means of killing."
Obama's restrictions for drone attacks are having some impact. Even
with the recent surge of strikes in Yemen, the overall pace of
attacks and the rate of civilian casualties have fallen appreciably.
There has even been an unofficial pause in attacks in Pakistan since
the beginning of the year, after a Pakistani request for restraint
while it negotiated with the Taliban and a dwindling number of
"high-value" targets in border areas.
Obama's vision of shifting control of the drone program from the
shadowy paramilitary arm of the Central Intelligence Agency to the
more publicly accountable Pentagon is moving at what one national
security source described as a "glacial pace."
Apart from bureaucratic impediments, the main obstacle may be
concern about civilian casualties among top lawmakers such as Dianne
Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who see the
CIA as better at killing with accuracy.
The Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command is widely believed
to have been behind the December 12 drone strike in a remote part of
Yemen that hit a convoy later identified as a wedding procession,
killing 15 people. An official U.S. inquiry was launched but no
findings have been released.
[to top of second column]
The number of allegedly bungled military strikes in Yemen led to a
suspension of the Pentagon's drone operations there earlier this
year, while the CIA, which has its own fleet, continued drone
operations, a national security source said.
OBAMA'S "NEAR CERTAINTY" RULE
Obama, in last year's speech, said drone strikes would be barred
unless there was "near certainty" that no civilians would be hit and
the administration says every precaution is taken to avoid killing
The New America Foundation, which compiles drone casualties, put the
number of militants killed in U.S. strikes in Yemen this year at 79
in addition to four civilians.
"Our forces go to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian
casualties," said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House
National Security Council. "But when we believe that civilians may
have been killed despite these efforts, we investigate thoroughly."
Washington has long argued that reports of hundreds of civilian
deaths in the U.S. drone war are exaggerated, though in the absence
of the government's own casualty counts it is all but impossible to
verify the assertion.
There are clear signs that "collateral damage" feeds anti-American
sentiment in the Muslim world and fuels sympathy for groups such as
Yemen's al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which Washington sees as
a threat to the U.S. homeland.
"We oppose drone attacks because more people are dying," said
Mohamed al-Qawli, head of Yemen's National Organization for Drone
Victims. "It is killing outside the law."
Qawli's brother Ali, a science teacher, was killed in 2013 when a
taxi he and a nephew were riding in picked up some strangers. A
missile obliterated the car. At least six suspected militants died,
local sources said. The Yemeni government said Ali and his nephew
were innocent civilians.
"My brother was completely charred. We identified him by his teeth,"
Qawli told Reuters. Afterwards, people in the area started listening
to al Qaeda tapes and exchanged militant videos on mobile phones,
Former CIA director Michael Hayden said Washington's new calculus
should be to look at the value of each strike in terms of whether it
is worth "alienating friends and feeding the al Qaeda narrative."
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Mehreen
Zahra-Malik and Katherine Houreld in Islamabad and Mohammed Ghobari
in Sanaa; Editing by David Storey and Ken Wills)
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