Archive for July 14, 2009

The Wall Street Journal‘s recent editorial [h/t Jeremy Scahill] supporting the CIA’s drone war over Pakistan is rank propaganda. In it, the editors denounce critics of drone strikes who rely on reporters instead of unnamed intelligence sources with unverifiable claims, and they assert that drones–which have killed roughly 800 civilians so far in Pakistan–are humane:

A U.S. intelligence summary we’ve seen corrects the record of various media reports claiming high casualties from the Predator strikes. For example, on April 1 the BBC reported that “a missile fired by a suspected U.S. drone has killed at least 10 people in Pakistan.” But the intelligence report says that half that number were killed, among them Abdullah Hamas al-Filistini, a top al Qaeda trainer, and that no women and children were present.

In each of the strikes in 2009 that are described by the intelligence summary, the report says no women or children were killed. Moreover, we know of planned drone attacks that were aborted when Predator cameras spied their presence.

Wait, wait…despite widespread reporting on the CIA drone war, the U.S. does not acknowledge that we’re even dropping bombs in Pakistan. If the editors saw hard evidence from U.S. intelligence reports that proves conclusively that the U.S. is bombing Pakistan–a country with which we are not officially at war–they should have given it to their reporters so they could write a front-page story about it. But that’s far from the only problem in this propaganda piece.

The overall argument presented by the WSJ–“drones have made war-fighting more humane”–is ludicrous on its face. (Scahill: “Ah, yes, that famous humane war we have all been waiting for. Finally!”) We know that the drones find their targets based on infrared beacons placed by paid informants who get high-dollar rewards for a “successful” strike, and reputable writers on the subject voiced concern that the financial incentives prompt the impoverished informants to sight false targets to get paid. Regardless of the reasons for the errant bombs, though, Predator/Reaper strikes have been absolutely lethal for non-combatants. According to a May 2009 column by Abdul Malik Mujahid, as of the date of his writing:

“There have been 65 to 85 US drone attacks on Pakistan, killing about 780 civilians and about 50 alleged terrorists.”

The assertion that “in 2009 … no women or children were killed” is a bald-faced lie. In just one strike, 35 local villagers, including 10 children ages five-to-10 and four local tribal elders were killed.

But what about the assertion that the drones can distinguish between men, women and children and abort the strikes when women and children are spotted? Let’s think about this for two seconds. Is the Wall Street Journal really ready to claim that, in a patriarchal society like that of the Pashtuns’, any gathering of men spotted by a drone is a legitimate target?

The worst transgression of this piece, however, is the assertion that we should suddenly start believing unverifiable (and therefore unchallengeable) kill reports. Uh, hello…remember this?

[U.S. Army General David] McKiernan, however, hinted that the American airstrikes might not have been responsible for the deaths in Farah. “We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of these civilian casualties,” McKiernan said. He declined to provide more detailed information until the U.S.-Afghan team was able to investigate further.

A U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that “the Taliban went to a concerted effort to make it look like the U.S. airstrikes caused this.” The official did not offer evidence to support the claim, and could not say what had caused the deaths.

The military had its own “intelligence” based on “hours of cockpit video.”

The footage shows insurgents streaming into homes that were later bombed, said Col. Greg Julian, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan. He said ground troops observed some 300 villagers flee in advance of the fighting, indicating that not many could have been inside the bombed compounds….Investigators later reviewed hours of cockpit video from the fighter jets as well as audio recordings of the air crew’s conversation with the ground commander. Julian said the military would release the footage and other evidence in the coming days.

That ‘vindicating evidence’ never materialized. It turned out that mistakes by U.S. forces caused the deaths of dozens of civilians. The U.S. stuck to that story until it was completely unable to do so because reputable third parties challenged the official story. We see here the same pattern: a propaganda piece defending government policy, with insiders insisting they have definitive proof of official claims and lamenting the fact that they just can’t show it to you.

And should such evidence turn out to be not so solid, according to WSJ, we should ignore contrary information provided by reporters, which is a fun argument for a newspaper to make [emphasis mine]:

In both cases, the argument against drones rests on the belief that the attacks cause wide-scale casualties among noncombatants, thereby embittering local populations and losing hearts and minds. If you glean your information from wire reports — which depend on stringers who are rarely eyewitnesses — the argument seems almost plausible.

You know, the funny thing about this age of the Interwebs is that news organizations often embed a search engine into their website. You know what else is funny? I used the Wall Street Journal’s search engine to search their site, and found this article that they published online:

Associated Press

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A car bomb destroyed an Internet cafe and tore through a bus carrying handicapped children in northwestern Pakistan on Saturday, killing at least 11 people and wounding many more, police said.

Elsewhere in the troubled region, an apparent U.S. missile strike hit a Taliban training camp, killing 29 militants, while Pakistani troops killed dozens of Taliban in their bid to re-conquer the Swat Valley, officials said.

Must be an isolated incident, right? I mean, the WSJ wouldn’t be caught dead relying on stringers for wire services like the Associated Press who “rarely witness events first-hand.” Right?

Associated Press

ISLAMABAD — Suspected U.S. missiles struck a Taliban compound in a northwestern Pakistan militant stronghold bordering Afghanistan on Sunday, killing three people, officials said.

Err, maybe not.

The facts are these:

  • Drone strikes are inhumane and indiscriminate, regardless of the Wall Street Journal’s propaganda. As of May 2009, they killed more than 15 civilians for every one suspected terrorist.
  • The strikes have caused such carnage that leading British legal experts “said the aircraft could follow other weapons considered ‘so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance’ in being consigned to the history books,” likening them to “cluster bombs and landmines.”

With the mothership’s creditibility already on the ropes due to staff lawlessness, you’d think the Journal would think twice about damaging it further by publishing rank propaganda. You’d be wrong.

Unmanned drones are indiscriminate and inhumane. Ground them, now.

UPDATE: Among the distortions in the WSJ piece is the assertion that one of the things that makes the Predator so “humane” is its compliment of “laser guided munitions with low-explosive yields.” Again, the WSJ’s propaganda piece omits essential information:

However, the Predator has now been joined by the much larger MQ-9 Reaper, which can carry a heavier payload, around three thousand pounds, including a large number of Hellfires and GBU-12 Paveway II and GBD-38 JDAM bombs. These are different types of 500-pound bomb, one with laser guidance and the other satellite guided. Both are based on the 1950’s-vintage Mk 82 bomb ; less than half the weight of the bomb bomb is explosive, and the rest is the steel casing. The reason for having such a thick casing is shrapnel: when the bomb detonates, the casing blows up like a balloon before bursting and spraying high-velocity steel fragments in all directions. It is these fragments, rather than blast, that do most of the damage.

Marc Herold, in looking at casualties in Afghanistan, quotes an ‘effective casualty radius’ for the Mk82 of 200 feet: this is radius inside which 50% of those exposed will die. Quite often the target is taking cover or lying down and the effect is reduced, but if you can catch people standing up or running then the full effective casualty radius will apply.

Obviously, this information disrupts the story WSJ’s editors want to tell, so they left it out. Again, classic propaganda.

UPDATE II: One final, but massive, point of disagreement. The editors are flat wrong that “the argument against drones rests on the belief that the attacks cause wide-scale casualties among noncombatants, thereby embittering local populations and losing hearts and minds.” That’s one argument made by the folks they cite in the article, yes. But a larger and more important argument is not that drones “undermine the war effort by turning people against us,” but that they consistently kill people who are not parties to the conflict, period. The worst effect of all this talk about counterinsurgency is that it has reduced the civilian populations of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan to mere means to the end of our strategy. They’re not. Drones may be awful in part because their use leads to more terrorism, but the worst effect of their use is the slaughter of people whose right to life exists independent from our goals for the region.