A secret history of drone strikes

Pakistani women take part in a 2011 rally against U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas near Afghanistan.
Pakistani women take part in a 2011 rally against U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas near Afghanistan. Associated Press file

America’s drone war is flawed.

That has become increasingly clear with every mistaken strike and civilian death. But a chilling exposé – based on secret documents provided by a U.S. intelligence whistleblower – reveals how big a bloody mess the 14-year campaign truly is.

The investigation says the number of civilian casualties is hidden because unidentified people killed in strikes are routinely categorized as enemy combatants. In one operation in northeastern Afghanistan from January 2012 to February 2013, only 35 of more than 200 people killed were the intended targets, the documents indicate.

The investigation – which focuses on operations carried out by the CIA and the military from 2011 to 2013 in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen – also says the campaign relies too heavily on unreliable electronic intelligence to find “high value” targets.

And the investigation says drone strikes put a premium on killing rather than capturing terrorism suspects, potentially depriving the U.S. of valuable information, though we know from “enhanced interrogations” that it comes with its own problems.

You probably haven’t heard about “The Drone Papers” since the eight-part series was published Thursday. One reason it’s getting less attention is because, unlike Edward Snowden’s blockbuster revelations about domestic spying, this investigation was not published in The New York Times and The Guardian. Instead, the outlet was The Intercept, a little-known digital magazine co-founded by Glenn Greenwald, one of the reporters on the Snowden leaks.

The drone war rarely makes the headlines at all. It takes something extraordinary, as in April when President Barack Obama acknowledged that a drone strike had accidentally killed two aid workers who were al-Qaida hostages.

So far, the administration isn’t commenting on the leak. Amnesty International called for Congress to investigate. The American Civil Liberties Union said the report again shows the need for more transparency. But unless public outrage gets loud enough, the official silence won’t change – and the drone war will continue.

The attitude is understandable. Firing missiles from drones is far safer for U.S. service members than fighting on the ground. Most of us would rather go on with our daily lives than think about a remote-control war in far-off places.

“We’re allowing this to happen,” the whistleblower says. “And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it.”

That may be as telling an indictment as anything in “The Drone Papers.”