It is now alarmingly clear that President Barack Obama and U.S. officials are secretly conducting a drone war that goes far beyond what they have said are its aims. A primary weapon in the war on terror is being used to kill too many people, including civilians, who pose no real threat to Americans.
After the 9/11 attacks, it made sense to use the high-tech, unmanned drones to target al-Qaida leaders in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan without unnecessarily putting U.S. forces in harm's way.
But in a blockbuster report last week, Jonathan S. Landay of McClatchy Newspapers revealed that drone strikes have been used much more broadly than officially acknowledged, killing hundreds of lower-level militants who had nothing to do with al-Qaida, much less 9/11.
Landay looked at U.S. intelligence reports covering most drone strikes in Pakistan from 2006 to 2008 and 2010 to 2011. He found that 43 of 95 strikes during the 12 months ending in September 2011 hit groups other than al-Qaida, and that at least 265 of as many as 482 killed were lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and other extremists. Only six top al-Qaida leaders were killed during that time, according to news reports.
The McClatchy report, the first independent review of the top-secret intelligence reports on drone attacks, also found that drone operators weren't always sure who they were killing, despite government assurances that civilian casualties are "exceedingly rare."
Last Sunday, the New York Times reported that the first CIA drone strike in Pakistan, in June 2004, was aimed not at an al-Qaida commander, but at a tribal rebel leader targeted by Pakistan's government. It was a secret deal to give the CIA access to Pakistani airspace. Landay followed up with a story saying that the classified reports showed close cooperation between the CIA and Pakistan military intelligence on drone attacks. Pakistan's ISI helped the CIA target al-Qaida, while the CIA aided Pakistan's military against an insurgent group.
The revelations raise troubling questions about whether Obama administration officials have purposely misled the American people.
Regrettably, the White House and new CIA Director John Brennan refused Thursday to address the new reports. Instead, they fell back on previous statements that drone strikes are authorized only against "specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaida and associated forces" involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who are planning "imminent" attacks on Americans.
These disclosures also raise new doubts about whether Congress is providing enough oversight.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has asked many of the right questions and has pushed the administration for more information, particularly on drone strikes on suspected terrorists who are also U.S. citizens.
It's disappointing that she had nothing to say about the new reports. Asked for a response, her office reissued a Feb. 13 statement that says her panel has "robust oversight." It is notified "with key details" shortly after every drone strike, and regularly reviews their effectiveness, the precautions taken to avoid civilian deaths and the intelligence used to select targets, the statement says.
So far, the administration has refused to make public the legal opinions and detailed procedures governing drone operations, such as how much evidence is required to put someone on the kill list. The nation's leading human rights groups sent a joint letter to the president last week calling for more transparency and questioning whether the targeted killings violate international law. The administration could be more open without jeopardizing national security or any specific operations.
If drone strikes are going to continue as a vital counterterrorism tool, the president must be much more forthcoming. Americans deserve to know how the drone war is really being waged on their behalf.