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Terror Tuesday: Dread of Drones

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This tweet from a lawyer in Yemen expresses a view that is finally beginning to penetrate the media and public discourse: guess what, Americans – your actions have consequences!

Four months ago The New York Times revealed that the Obama Administration convened “Terror Tuesday” meetings where the president would sign off on drone strike “kill lists.” Obama’s drone strike policy has been unchallenged in the presidential campaign and generally regarded as enhancing his commander-in-chief image.

But that is beginning to change. The New York Times recently hosted a debate in its pages on whether the drone strikes do more harm than good. And we are finally being introduced to the voices and in some cases faces of those who are terrorized by the continuous buzz of drones in the skies above them and traumatized by drone strikes that kill family members and friends.

We have to thank the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Global Justice Clinic at the New York University School of Law for describing how the constant presence of drones “terrorizes men, women, and children” by “striking homes, vehicles and public spaces without warning.”

Their report, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan, maintains that of the more than 3,000 people killed in nearly 344 drone strikes since 2004 – 292 of the strikes taking place between January 23, 2009 and September 2, 2012 — only about 2 percent could be classified as “high level” targets.

Much of the carnage in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of northwest Pakistan seems to be a result of “signature strikes” based on a “pattern of life” analysis. President Obama has given a green light to the targeting of “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.”

Neither are those “defining characteristics” known to the public.

Living Under Drones tells stories of ordinary people who got in the way of a drone-fired missile for some reason or other. Was Dawood Ishaq, the father of four young children who works as a vegetable merchant in North Waziristan, among a group bearing the wrong “signature”?

“I was going to [a] chromite mine for work. On the way, as the car was going there, a drone targeted the car….All I remember is a blast, and that I saw a bit of fire in the car before I lost consciousness. The people in the back completely burned up, and the car caught fire.” Dawood was taken to several locations for treatment, before he awoke in Peshawar. “[The] driver and I lost our legs…” 

Najeeb Saaqib, a malik or hereditary leader,described the impact of the strikes on his community:

I belong to the Wazir nation. . . . I have a[n extended] family of 60 to 70 people. My sons and daughters were going to schools, [but] the schools were affected by the drones. I mean these attacks have been on schools, on maliks, on elders, and on different buildings. . . . [S]ometimes when people are moving in cars, they are hit. Sometimes when they are gathering with friends, they are hit. Sometimes when people are gathering to offer prayers to those killed, there are drone attacks on those people. . . . [M]y own relatives, close family relatives, have been killed. Elders of the villages, the maliks, the children of the schools, other children, all have been victims of strikes.

[In one case,] [t]here was a drone attack on a religious teacher while he was coming in a car with some other people, after which he was brought to the village. A lot of people were gathering, the small children and families were gathered, and another drone attack happened, killing the small children. Two drone attacks in a single day.

Khalid Raheem, a community elder, had this message for Americans:

We did not know that America existed. We did not know what its geographical location was, how its government operated, what its government was like, until America invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. We do know that Americans supported the Taliban in our area, North Waziristan, to fight off the Soviets. But [now with] the Soviets divided and broken . . . we have become victims of Americans. We don’t know how they treat their citizens or anything about them. All we know is that they used to support us, and now they don’t. . . . [W]e didn’t know how they treated a common man. Now we know how they treat a common man, what they’re doing to us.

“We know that the consequences of drone strikes are extremely harsh. Our children, our wives know that our breadwinners, when they go out to earn a livelihood, they might not come back, and life may become very miserable for them in the years to come.” Khalid further explained, “Now we are always awaiting a drone attack and we know it’s certain and it’s eventual and it will strike us, and we’re just waiting to hear whose house it will strike, our relatives’, our neighbors’, or us. We do not know. We’re just always in fear.”

No wonder that, according to a recent Pew Center poll, 74 percent of Pakistanis now regard the US as an enemy.

Why does the Obama Administration think it has a green light to send its killer drones to wreak havoc on a sovereign nation with which it is not at war?

We recently learned that the CIA would every month or so send a general in Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, a fax informing him about what regions it intended to target. Pakistani officials would respond with a terse “fax received” message, which the CIA interpreted as “go ahead.” After US Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden without the permission or knowledge of Pakistan, they no longer respond at all – which the US still interprets as “permission granted.”

Just Foreign Policy’s Robert Naiman is convinced that the drone strike policy in Pakistan is so counterproductive and unjust that American public opinion will soon turn against it and it will be discarded. Tomorrow, Wednesday, he will be traveling to Pakistan with signatures of Americans opposing the drone strikes which will be delivered to the US Embassy and Pakistani officials.

Please sign the petition today!

It is not just Pakistan where drone strikes are turning the public against the United States. The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions, a report by Columbia Law School and the Center for Civilians in Conflict, describes the huge psychological toll which the US drone policy is having on the people of Yemen.

The authors quote Robert Grenier, former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, who maintains that the Yemen strikes risk turning “Yemeni militants with strictly local agendas…into dedicated enemies of the West, in response to US military actions against them.”

As Ibrahim Mothana wrote in The New York Times debate on whether drones did more harm than good, “In Yemen, every time a drone kills civilians, young Yemenis like me who have always admired America start to see it as part of the problem, not the solution.”

Not only that: according to the Columbia Law School report, killer drones are turning al Qaeda leaders “into heroes.”

The report documents what is known (which isn’t much) about the activities of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which has its own rules of engagement apart from the US Army and can be even more secretive and free from oversight than the CIA. And more brutal – according to the report, the CIA and FBI got squeamish and refused to let their personnel participate in JSOC “gloves off” interrogations in its secret detention facilities.

How does JSOC make its targeting decisions? “If we decide he’s a bad person,” a Special Forces officer explains, “the person with him is also bad.” What a way to hand out death sentences!

There are meanwhile signs that Americans are beginning to see the downside of drones at home. According to a recent survey by the Associated Press and National Constitution Center, a third of all Americans are very fearful about the use police will make of drones.

The dangers that drones represent not just to privacy, but to physical security, is documented in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in September 2012.

The report details the potential for GPS jamming of ‘Unmanned Aircraft Systems,’ meaning the pilotless planes could no longer determine their location, altitude and the direction in which they are traveling. Or GPS spoofing could counterfeit GPS signals, putting the drones under the control of the “spoofer,” with potentially deadly consequences.

Americans may never experience the collective psychological dread of drones which missile strikes have inflicted on peoples elsewhere. But how much anxiety will be engendered by the ease with which drones can be commandeered in the skies, and the fact that they may be armed with cameras that can ‘see’ through walls, with facial recognition software and with listening devices that can pick up conversations on the ground?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.