This morning, the White House disclosed that a January 2015 drone strike, conducted in Pakistan by the CIA with the intention of taking out an al Qaeda compound, resulted in the deaths of two al Qaeda hostages who were not known to have been in the line of fire at the time of the attack. "The killing of American development expert Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto is the first known instance in which the U.S. has accidentally killed a hostage in a drone strike," Wall Street Journal's Adam Entous reported Thursday.
President Barack Obama held a brief press conference Thursday morning following a statement released by the White House, which described the incident as a "uniquely tragic situation." Obama told reporters that he was taking "full responsibility" for what happened, and offered his "profound regrets" and "deepest apologies" to the families of Weinstein and Lo Porto. "The White House has launched a review of the strike to see if changes are needed to the drone program to avoid similar mistakes," Entous noted.
This particular mission, greenlit by the CIA without the president "directly sign[ing] off on the strike beforehand," according to reports, will be declassified. During the press conference, Obama signaled his commitment to "identify[ing] the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy."
Watching the coverage of these tragic deaths, a viewer would be left with the impression of a drone program that has had a stellar record of accuracy up until it unfortunately killed two innocent people. But, in fact, killing innocent people has been a central part of the drone program from the very beginning, and is in many ways an inescapable consequence. It's not that a perfect program finally slipped up. Rather, a program that has killed somewhere between 400 and 1000 civilians in Pakistan alone finally killed an American civilian, to whom no wrongdoing can be even tangentially attributed.
Weinstein and Lo Porta won't be the last innocent people to meet their untimely end in this fashion, but the next innocent people to die probably won't end up meriting a special press conference and investigation into what went wrong.
The basic argument for the use of drones in these circumstances is that fewer American soldiers end up getting killed, because American soldiers need not put themselves in danger in a high-risk ground mission in order to rub out the next unlucky name on the White House kill list. This is obviously a very good argument for the use of drones.
Another argument for death-by-remote-controlled-aircraft is that it feels very clinical and efficient, both in terms of targeting enemies half a world away and in terms of putting a greater distance between those doing the targeted killings and the personal, moral dimension that one finds oneself in when one takes another human life.
This is a less good argument for the use of drones, ably demonstrated Thursday. Of course, all methods of warmaking result in innocent deaths. But few are celebrated with the same marketing campaign as drone warfare, advertised as "targeted strikes" and "signature strikes" -- terms that connote a certain amount of exactitude and which sell drones as a life hack for warfare, as precise as a smartphone app.
In fact, these are not as precise tools as you might imagine. Despite having a descriptor that most Americans associate with exclusive, high-end service, "signature strikes" are actually much less exacting than "targeted strikes." "Signature strikes" are probably better known as "firing into a crowd of people and hoping for the best."
What they mean by "signature" is quite revealing. According to the U.S. theory, insurgents can be identified from above merely by the nature of their movements. A convoy of Toyotas with guys in the beds carrying guns presents a certain signature on the ground, tipping off a drone operator that bad guys are coalescing. We strike them without knowing their names, their affiliations, their motives, or sometimes anything more than where they were walking or driving.
That helps explain why we see so many wedding convoys and parties accidentally bombed. Pro-tip for the CIA: Insurgents operating in areas known to be under the eye of U.S. drones tend not to travel in long convoys, because being a fundamentalist militant does not always mean you're an idiot, too.
And as the Bureau for Investigative Journalism noted back in January 2014, the very first CIA drone strike carried out during the Obama administration, which originally boasted that "up to ten militants were killed, including foreign fighters and possibly a 'high-value target,'" also killed nine innocent civilians, "most of them from one family."
And this "signature" strike, carried out on January 23, 2009, was actually the successful one of two that occurred on the same day. As Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman reported, here's what happened a little later:
Tribesmen a world away, in the tiny village of Karez Kot, later heard a low, dull buzzing sound from the sky. At about 8:30 in the evening local time, a Hellfire missile from a remotely operated drone slammed into a compound “of interest,” in CIA parlance, obliterating a roomful of people.
It turned out they were the wrong people. As the CIA’s pilotless aircraft lingered high above Karez Kot, relaying live images of the fallout to its operators, it soon became clear that something had gone terribly awry. Instead of hitting the CIA’s intended target, a Taliban hideout, the missile had struck the compound of a prominent tribal elder and members of a pro-government peace committee. The strike killed the elder and four members of his family, including two of his children.
According to Klaidman, what followed was a "tense back-and-forth" between the president, CIA director Michael Hayden, and Hayden's deputy director Steve Kappes. During the conversation, the two CIA officials defended the use of these strikes on the grounds that one "could take out a lot more bad guys when you targeted groups instead of individuals," and Obama asked for reassurance that these strikes would not kill "women and children."
Obama eventually won a modicum of procedural oversight over the drone program, but it nevertheless expanded considerably. And as it grew, those queasy feelings of uncertainty either diminished or became easier to tolerate.
Until today, when all the euphemisms that might otherwise have served to paper over the deaths of innocents suddenly proved to be insufficient to the task.
Naturally, even though everyone is deeply regretful about the deaths of these two men, there's no reason to believe that the drone program won't continue be conducted with the same robustness as it was before this tragedy was disclosed to the American people. As Obama told the New Yorker's David Remnick last year, he's "wrestled" for a long time with the fact that "American drones have killed between some four hundred and a thousand civilians--a civilian-to-combatant ratio that could be as high as one to three."
Today, circumstances finally pinned him to the mat.