U.S. drones targeting rescuers and mourners
On December 30 of last year, ABC News reported on a 16-year-old Pakistani boy, Tariq Khan, who was killed with his 12-year-old cousin when a car in which he was riding was hit with a missile fired by a U.S. drone. As I noted at the time, the report contained this extraordinary passage buried in the middle:
Asked for documentation of Tariq and Waheed’s deaths, Akbar did not provide pictures of the missile strike scene. Virtually none exist, since drones often target people who show up at the scene of an attack.
What made that sentence so amazing was that it basically amounts to a report that the U.S. first kills people with drones, then fires on the rescuers and others who arrive at the scene where the new corpses and injured victims lie.
In a just-released, richly documented report, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, on behalf of the Sunday Times, documents that this is exactly what the U.S. is doing — and worse:
The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals, an investigation by the Bureau for the Sunday Times has revealed.
The findings are published just days after President Obama claimed that the drone campaign in Pakistan was a “targeted, focused effort” that “has not caused a huge number of civilian casualties”. . . .
A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. The tactics have been condemned by leading legal experts.
Although the drone attacks were started under the Bush administration in 2004, they have been stepped up enormously under Obama.
There have been 260 attacks by unmanned Predators or Reapers in Pakistan by Obama’s administration – averaging one every four days.
As I indicated, there have been scattered, mostly buried indications in the American media that drones have been targeting and killing rescuers. As the Bureau put it: “Between May 2009 and June 2011, at least fifteen attacks on rescuers were reported by credible news media, including the New York Times, CNN,Associated Press, ABC News and Al Jazeera.” Killing civilians attending the funerals of drone victims is also well-documented by the Bureau’s new report:
Other tactics are also raising concerns. On June 23 2009 the CIA killed Khwaz Wali Mehsud, a mid-ranking Pakistan Taliban commander. They planned to use his body as bait to hook a larger fish – Baitullah Mehsud, then the notorious leader of the Pakistan Taliban.
“A plan was quickly hatched to strike Baitullah Mehsud when he attended the man’s funeral,” according to Washington Post national security correspondent Joby Warrick, in his recent book The Triple Agent. “True, the commander… happened to be very much alive as the plan took shape. But he would not be for long.”
The CIA duly killed Khwaz Wali Mehsud in a drone strike that killed at least five others. . . .
Up to 5,000 people attended Khwaz Wali Mehsud’s funeral that afternoon, including not only Taliban fighters but many civilians. US drones struck again, killing up to 83 people. As many as 45 were civilians, among them reportedly ten children and four tribal leaders.
Clive Stafford-Smith, the lawyer who heads the Anglo-US legal charity Reprieve, believes that such strikes “are like attacking the Red Cross on the battlefield. It’s not legitimate to attack anyone who is not a combatant.”
Christof Heyns, a South African law professor who is United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra- judicial Executions, agrees. “Allegations of repeat strikes coming back after half an hour when medical personnel are on the ground are very worrying”, he said. ‘To target civilians would be crimes of war.” Heyns is calling for an investigation into the Bureau’s findings.
What makes this even more striking is how conservative — almost to the point of inaccuracy — is the Bureau’s methodology and reporting. Its last news-making report, issued last July, was designed to prove (and unquestionably did prove) that top Obama counter-Terrorism adviser John Brennan lied when he said this about drone strikes in Pakistan: “in the last year, ‘there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.” The Bureau’s July, 2011 report concluded that Brennan’s claim was patently false: “a detailed examination by the Bureau of 116 CIA ‘secret’ drone strikes in Pakistan since August 2010 has uncovered at least 10 individual attacks in which 45 or more civilians appear to have died.” As I noted at the time — and again when I interviewed Chris Woods of the Bureau — their methodology virtually guarantees significant under-counting of civilian deaths (and, indeed, their July, 2011, count was much lower than other credible reports) because they only count someone as a “civilian” when they can absolutely prove beyond any doubt that the person who died by a drone strike was one. The difficulty of reporting and obtaining verifiable information in Waziristan ensures that some civilian deaths will not be susceptible to that high level of documentary proof, and thus will go un-counted by the Bureau’s methodolgy.
The point is that the Bureau is extremely scrupulous, perhaps to a fault, in the claims it makes about civilian drone fatalities. Its findings here about deliberate targeting of rescuers and funeral attendees are supported by ample verified witness testimony, field research and public reports, all of which the Bureau has documented in full. As Woods said by email: “We have been working for months with field researchers in Waziristan to independently verify the original reports. In 12 cases we are able to confirm that rescuers and mourners were indeed attacked.”
As the report notes, it’s particularly remarkable that these findings come on the heels of President Obama’s recent boasting about the efficacy of drones and his specific claim that the policy has “not caused a huge number of civilian casualties”, adding that it was “important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.” Compare that claim to the Bureau’s almost certainly under-stated conclusion that it has “found that since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children.” And targeting rescuers and funeral attendees of your victims is quite the opposite of keeping the drone program on a “very tight leash.” As Samiullah Khan, one of the Bureau’s field researchers put it:
In a war situation no one is allowed to attack the Red Cross. Rescuers are like that. You are not allowed to attack rescuers. You know, the number of Taliban is increasing in Waziristan day by day, because innocents and rescuers are being killed day by day.
Strictly speaking, the legality of attacking rescuers may be ambiguous because, as the Bureau put it: “It is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions to attack rescuers wearing emblems of the Red Cross or Red Crescent. But what if rescuers wear no emblems, or if civilians are mixed in with militants, as the Bureau’s investigation into drone attacks in Waziristan has repeatedly found?” But there’s nothing ambiguous about the morality of that, or of attacking funerals (recall the worst part of the Baghdad attack video released by WikiLeaks: that the Apache helicopter first fired on the group containing Reuters journalists, then fired again on the people who arrived to help wounded). Whatever else is true, it seems highly likely that Barack Obama is the first Nobel Peace laureate who, after receiving his award, presided over the deliberate targeting of rescuers and funeral mourners of his victims.