Deeply flawed drone war takes more innocent victims

Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, center, works in Multan, Pakistan, in 2011 before he was abducted by al-Qaida. He was accidentally killed in a U.S. drone strike.
Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, center, works in Multan, Pakistan, in 2011 before he was abducted by al-Qaida. He was accidentally killed in a U.S. drone strike. Courtesy of Margherita Romanelli

Regrets and apologies are all well and good, but what President Barack Obama really needs to do is completely rethink his drone war.

In a truly chilling announcement, Obama acknowledged Thursday that a drone strike in January had accidentally killed two brave and selfless aid workers, an American and an Italian, who were being held hostage by al-Qaida.

The White House also said that two other Americans who were al-Qaida members had been killed – one in the same operation near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the second (Adam Gadahn, a 36-year-old Orange County man facing treason charges) in another strike five days later in the same region.

They weren’t being targeted, either. Think about that: It seems we had very little idea who we might be killing when these unmanned planes fired their missiles.

That is a clear sign that there are serious flaws in how the drone war is being conducted. If Obama won’t do a full review, Congress should force him to do so.

The president didn’t give specific approval for these operations because the CIA didn’t know that U.S. citizens were at either location. Officials blame intelligence failures, but information is rarely going to be foolproof.

The top-secret “targeted killing” program is falling far short of its name. Of the nine Americans known to have died in drone strikes since 2002, only one, Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born cleric, was actually the intended target.

Warren Weinstein of Maryland and Giovanni Lo Porto of Italy are apparently the first hostages killed in a drone strike, but the problem of unintended victims is far, far more destructive.

While we don’t have anything close to a complete count, it’s apparent that dozens if not hundreds of innocent civilians have been mistakenly killed by drones in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Even if hundreds of militants are killed, the deaths of civilians can only turn people against the United States.

In May 2013, the president announced stricter standards for drone strikes against large groups of unidentified fighters, requiring officials to determine with “near certainty” that civilians will not be injured or killed. But the administration has exempted U.S. military operations against Islamic State and al-Qaida forces in Iraq and Syria.

A high-tech war by remote control isn’t any less bloody than house-to-house combat. It certainly doesn’t absolve the commander-in-chief from the duty to do everything possible to limit civilian deaths.

At the very least, Obama must be more honest with the American people about the drone war so we can judge whether it is really justified.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, vice chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is calling for an annual public report on the number of deaths from drone strikes, both combatants and civilians. That would be a good start. Senators had demanded such a tally last year but backed down when the U.S. intelligence chief objected that it could reveal classified methods and sources.

In his somber apology Thursday and again Friday in a speech to intelligence officials, Obama said that what sets America apart is our willingness to confront our mistakes and learn from them. When it comes to drone strikes, there’s scant evidence that has happened so far.

He also asserted that America is fighting the war on terror while still upholding its fundamental values. As the death toll of unintended victims grows, it’s hard to see how that’s true of drone strikes.

The president is intently focused on his legacy these days. If he doesn’t change course, the drone war will be an ugly blot in the history books.