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Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes

Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes
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Written by Cora Currier

You might have heard about the “kill list.” You’ve certainly heard about drones. But the details of the U.S. campaign against militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia — a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s national security approach – remain shrouded in secrecy. Here’s our guide to what we know—and what we don’t know.

Where is the drone war? Who carries it out?

Drones have been the Obama administration’s tool of choice for taking out militants outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Drones aren’t the exclusive weapon – traditional airstrikes and other attacks have also been reported. But by one estimate, 95 percent of targeted killings since 9/11 have been conducted by drones.  Among the benefits of drones: they don’t put American troops in harm’s way.

The first reported drone strike against Al Qaeda happened in Yemen in 2002. The CIA ramped up secret drone strikes in Pakistan under President George W. Bush in 2008. Under Obama, they have expanded drastically there and in Yemen in 2011.

The CIA isn’t alone in conducting drone strikes. The military has acknowledged “direct action” in Yemen and Somalia. Strikes in those countries are reportedly carried out by the secretive, elite Joint Special Operations Command. Since 9/11, JSOC has grown more than tenfold, taking on intelligence-gathering as well as combat roles. (For example, JSOC was responsible for the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.)

The drone war is carried out remotely, from the U.S. and a network of secret bases around the world. The Washington Post got a glimpse – through examining construction contracts and showing up uninvited – at the base in the tiny African nation of Djibouti from which many of the strikes on Yemen and Somalia are carried out. Earlier this year, Wired pieced together an account of the war against Somalia’s al-Shabaab militant group and the U.S.’s expanded military presence throughout Africa.

The number of strikes in Pakistan has ebbed in recent years, from a peak of more than 100 in 2010, to an estimated 46 last year. Meanwhile, the pace in Yemen picked up, with more than 40 last year. But there have been seven strikes in Pakistan in the first ten days of 2013.

How are targets chosen?

A series of articles based largely on anonymous comments from administration officials have given partial picture of how the U.S. picks targets and carries out strikes. Two recent reports – from researchers at Columbia Law School and from the Council on Foreign Relations– also give detailed overviews of what’s known about the process.

The CIA and the military have reportedly long maintained overlapping “kill lists.” According to news reports last spring, the military’s list was hashed out in Pentagon-run interagency meetings, with the White House approving proposed targets. Obama would authorize particularly sensitive missions himself.

This year, the process reportedly changed, to concentrate the review of individuals and targeting criteria in the White House. According to the Washington Post, the reviews now happen at regular interagency meetings at the National Counterterrorism Center. Recommendations are sent to a panel of National Security Council officials. Final revisions go through White House counterterror adviser John Brennan to the president. Several profiles have highlighted Brennan’s powerful and controversial role in shaping the trajectory of the targeted killing program. This week, Obama nominated Brennan to head the CIA.

At least some CIA strikes don’t have to get White House signoff. The director of the CIA can reportedly green-light strikes in Pakistan. In a 2011 interview, John Rizzo, previously the CIA’s top lawyer, said agency attorneys did an exhaustive review of each target.

According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration’s recent effort to impose more stringent requirements for kill lists and signature strikes exempts the CIA’s campaign in Pakistan. The CIA will have at least a year to continue strikes in Pakistan according to its own protocols.

Drone War Jargon

AUMF The Authorization for Use of Military Force, an act of Congress passed days after the 9/11 attacks, giving the president authority to take “all necessary and appropriate force” against anyone involved in the attack or harboring those who were. Both Bush and Obama have claimed broad authorities to detain and kill terror suspects based on the AUMF.

AQAP Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the Yemen-based al Qaeda affiliate tied to the attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing in 2009. Over the past year, the U.S. has ramped up strikes against AQAP, targeting leaders as well as unspecified militants.

Disposition Matrix A system for tracking terror targets and assessing when – and where – they could be killed or captured. The Washington Post reported this fall that the Disposition Matrix is an attempt to codify for the long haul the administration’s “kill lists.”

Glomar A response rejecting a request for information on a classified program asserting that the information’s mere existence can neither be confirmed nor denied. The name comes from 1968, when the CIA told journalists it could neither “confirm nor deny” the existence of a ship called the Glomar Explorer. The CIA has responded to information requests about its drone program with Glomar responses.

JSOC Joint Special Operations Command is a secretive, elite segment of the military. JSOC squads carried out the Bin Laden raid and run the military’s drone programs in Yemen and Somalia and also conduct intelligence gathering.

Personality Strike A targeted attack on a particular individual identified as a terrorist leader.

Signature Strike A strike against someone believed to be a militant whose identity isn’t necessarily known. Such strikes are reportedly based on a “pattern of life” analysis – intelligence on their behavior suggesting that an individual is a militant. The policy, reportedly begun by Bush in Pakistan in 2008, is now allowed in Yemen.

TADS Terror Attack Disruption Strikes, sometimes used to refer to some strikes when the identity of the target is not known. Administration officials have said that the criteria for TADS are different from signature strikes, but it is not clear how.

Next page: Doesn’t the US sometimes target people whose names they don’t know?

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U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Stanley Thompson

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9:50AM PDT on Apr 9, 2013

Thank you ProPublica, for Sharing this!

6:32PM PST on Jan 29, 2013

The blood dripping mass killers of children have not yet killed your children in New Zealand. Your opinion means nothing while defending our children. Convince your country to bow to Allah and you will only have to accept servitude in exchange for death.

5:55PM PST on Jan 29, 2013

You so miss the real power of the drone, it is the air raid siren that goes off too late.

Fear from above, singular cotained power hard flown with great precision.

I am a realist went thru the 50's I remember doing stupid crap like getting under your desk to stop an nuke attack from killing you.

Humans love war, we would never know what to do with peace as we have to prove this is better than that and its my way or....blah blah

They decide to shoot you with a drone, kiss your ass goodbye, don't worry about the right or wrong of it,. will not much matter.

2:03PM PST on Jan 29, 2013

Reading all this makes me think who are the real terrorists here? An eye for an eye approach, well look at the figures how many 100th of thousands of civilians were killed in the following wars and retaliation for the supposedly terrorist attack of 9/11.

America claims to be a democracy yet neglects everybody else basic human rights, just label someone terrorist and he can be detained or killed without any due process. And what are the results, did this bring any peace or prevent any further terrorist attacks or was it not about that in the first place.

Former President George W. Bush is now officially a war criminal against Iraq and crimes against humanity in Malaysia ( as a couple of others. And lucky for them that the High Court in Den Haag hand down death sentences and does not use drones to execute them.

But looking at the Patriot Act and NDAA ( you should not feel to comfortable either. It's a historic pattern to rule by terror and seems to be good business for America which was likely the reason in the first place for all this.

11:15AM PST on Jan 29, 2013

David? "Gene, easy to protest when your own family and children are not in harms way. Just like the water-boarding flap, liberals that had no personal risk were outraged."

I'm not sure what point you are trying to make, David. I have no children, both of my sons have preceded me and are certainly not in harms way. You toss waterboarding out as if it were a walk in the park, just another day at the office. I hold us as a species to a higher moral standard than that. My opposition to torture is because I believe interpersonal violence to be against my moral standards, always, except in the defense of self or another in imminent danger. What would the world be like if every nation had a "kill list" and drones to use to reduce it? The sky would be filled with weaponry is what would happen. We hold no moral high ground here by using torture or killing without due process. Very few nations do things we do in other countries. They might if they had the capability but that isn't the point either. Nor is liberal or conservative pertinent. It is what kind of PEOPLE are we that we do such things. Just because we can. I think torture and the use of drones lessens us morally. And I would regardless my political affiliation.

4:51AM PST on Jan 29, 2013

I leave it to others to justify the need to drone. But make no mistake - droning 'takes no prisoners'.
Say what you will about water-boarding and gitmo, at least Bush took prisoners.

4:46AM PST on Jan 29, 2013

Thanks for this article.

3:43AM PST on Jan 29, 2013

Kind of make me question the whole role of law thing. What's the difference between this and profiling? What's the difference between this and the police being able to hold you without the courts approving?

2:28AM PST on Jan 29, 2013

"This fall, the U.N. announced an investigation into the civilian impact – in particular, allegations of “double-tap” strikes, in which a second strike targets rescuers."

Now that is TERRORISM!

8:52PM PST on Jan 28, 2013

(con't )

... massively reduce civilian casualties and quickly end wars.

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