The human cost of the US government’s clandestine drone strikes strategy, including the deaths of young children in Pakistan and Yemen, will be highlighted this weekend as campaigners attempt to challenge domestic support for the Obama administration‘s controversial policy.
A conference in Washington, at which new video testimony will be shown from the relatives of victims, is the first step in a collaborative campaign to challenge Barack Obama’s claim in February that the strikes, aimed at terror suspects, were kept on a “tight leash” and had not inflicted huge civilian casualties.
The summit’s organisers – the Center for Constitutional Rights, Reprieve and the peace group Code Pink – hope it will increase awareness of how the CIA-controlled programme is operating in secret, without a clear legal framework and without any accountability to Congress.
Earlier this month, the US government announced it was expanding its controversial use of drone aircraft to kill suspected terrorists in Yemen.
Chris Woods, a journalist at the British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who exposed CIA drone attacks on rescuers and funeralgoers in Pakistan, described the summit as an “extraordinary heavyweight gathering”. He said: “Washington has not seen anything like this before.”
Woods criticised the US media for not widely reporting civilian casualties of US drone strikes abroad, which he said give a “warped understanding of what is taking place.”
“Unfortunately, although journalists in Pakistan are doing a good job of reporting what’s going on, it’s not getting through. The American media is doing a bad job of reporting the civilian side of things.”
He cites the case of the killing of militant Pakistani leader Badar Mansoor, in North Waziristan this year. On 9 February, reports of his death were widely reported, but reports of the others killed were mixed. The New York Times reported Mansoor’s death and said that five others died in the strike; the Huffington Post quoted intelligence officials as saying five suspected militants died in the attack; while Reuters reported that Mansoor was one of five people killed in the strike. It quoted a Pakistani Taliban commander saying the dead included Mansoor’s wife and two other relatives.
“Our current understanding is that Mansoor’s wife and one of his young sons died in the strike,” said Woods, who said that the BIJ was still investigating the story.
The British-based BIJ’s most recent investigation found that since Obama took office three years ago, 535 civilians have been killed, including more than 60 children.
On Wednesday, Reprieve and Islamabad-based lawyer Shahzad Akbar of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, which focuses on civilian victims of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, launched a challenge at the High Court in London to British involvement in a CIA-drone strike that killed 53 people, most of them civilians in a Pakistan village in 2011.
Woods said: “The CIA have been saying there have been no civilian deaths in Pakistan since May 2010.The evidence is overwhelming that that is simply not the case.”
Medea Benjamin, author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, and the summit organiser, said: “We never see drone victims on our TV screens and we never hear about them. At the conference, we will see first hand footage of drone victims and pictures of them in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.”
A recent poll by ABC News/Washington Post found that 83% of Americans approve of Obama’s use of drones to kill terrorist suspects abroad. Public opinion is one of the key areas Benjamin wants to see change.
“We want to expose the secretive nature of drones here and overseas and to force transparency and for Congress to take responsibility for that oversight” she said. “I would like to see drones out of the the hands of the CIA.”
Benjamin is concerned about the covert nature of drone use, even in the US.
“When the Federal Aviation Agency opens up airspace completely in 2015 we will see greater use by police and border patrol and other agencies. They will try to use them in secretive ways unless we force them to open up.”
“Here at home we have to sue the FAA just to find out who has permits to use them.”
Pardiss Kebriaei, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, has just filed a Freedom of Information request to eight separate US government agencies to find out the legal basis for a drone attack in Al Majalah in Yemen in 2009, which killed 41 civilians, including women and 21 children.
Kebriaei said: “This was a community. There were two families living in the area. It is not clear why it was carried out, whey they were targeted, but whatever the target was, there were a large number of women and children, some as young as two.”
CCR and the American Civil Liberties Union also requested information on the US state department’s diplomatic cover-up of the Al Majalah killings, which WikiLeaks exposed in its release of embassy cables.
Kebriaei, who was lead counsel in the CCR’s case against Obama over the controversial killing of American-born al-Qaida suspect Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike in Yemen, said: “Drone strikes are escalating in Yemen and Pakistan. Given we know that the practice is escalating it’s critical that there’s more of a discussion about it.”