There has been a vast expansion of the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) around the world by the U.S. military as part of the so-called “war on terror,” a war which is great for the military-industrial corporations, the big banks and oil companies. The expansion began during the Bush administration but has increased exponentially under the Obama administration.
As of March 2011, the U.S. Air Force was training more pilots for advanced unmanned aerial vehicles than for any other single weapons system.
Then Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley proudly said: “We've moved from using [drones] primarily in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter-killer role with the Reaper.”
President Obama and his top advisers, including new CIA director John Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder, have outrageously asserted the administration’s “right” to target and kill anyone they decide to, including U.S. citizens both inside and outside the United States. Meetings are reportedly convened by the White House on Tuesdays to review “kill lists” of potential victims with the targeted assassinations approved by the president and other top officials.
The Obama administration claims that they only target “operational leaders” of al-Qaeda. Even if this were true, launching a military attack on another country with which the United States is not at war is a war crime.
Furthermore, it is clearly not true that this is the extent of their drone attacks. The Pentagon and CIA have two categories of drone attacks, “personality strikes” and “signature strikes.” “Personality strikes” are aimed at assassinating a particular individual. In the case of “signature strikes,” the drone operators simply target anyone who looks like they might fit a “signature” or pattern of a “terrorist.” According to the Washington Post, “most attacks are now ‘signature strikes.’”
A “senior U.S. intelligence official” told the Associated Press that “large groups of armed men” could constitute a “signature” in Pakistan. Other unnamed officials said it could be “groups of armed militants traveling by truck toward the war in Afghanistan.”
According to an ongoing Pro Publica report titled "What We Know About Drones So Far," former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair echoed this, saying that “armed men who we see getting into pickup trucks.”
In the frontier provinces in Pakistan, where most of the drone strikes take place, a large part of the adult male population carry weapons and pick-up trucks are a common means of transportation. USA Today reported that “most men” in those areas consider their rifle a necessity.
In a November 2012 Daily Beast interview, former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter revealed the actual targeting criteria: “A male between the ages of 20 and 40.”
One official told the New York Times of a “joke” making the rounds at the CIA that “three guys doing jumping jacks” constituted a terrorist training camp. According to a May 2012 article in the same newspaper, the White House has found a way to downsize civilian casualties by simply classifying all males of “fighting age” killed in drone attacks as “militants.”
While the government works hard to cover it up, the vast majority of those killed by drone strikes are non-combatant civilians. A 2012 joint study by New York University and Stanford titled “Living Under Drones” begins:
In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the United States safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorist, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.
This narrative is false.
Later the study reports:
The number of “high-level” targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2 percent.
That drones are instruments not just to kill but also to terrorize the population is made clear by another section of NYU/Stanford report:
Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims.
Drones are lethal weapons of war, but what makes them particularly important to the Pentagon and the government as a whole is their political value: All the casualties are all on one side. The drone operators are far from the “battlefield.” They direct the attacks sitting in front of computer screens in darkened rooms at bases in the United States and secret locations around the world.