[News] Merry Christmas, America! Let’s Remember the Children Who Live in Fear of Our Killer Drones

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Dec 25 14:03:20 EST 2019


https://theintercept.com/2019/12/25/merry-christmas-us-drone-strikes/ Merry
Christmas, America! Let’s Remember the Children Who Live in Fear of Our
Killer Drones.
Elise Swain - December 25, 2019
------------------------------

*The movie “Love Actually”* has some good advice: At Christmas, you tell
the truth <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yd_fcyg1Fdk>. It’s the perfect
day to be honest about what you’ve done in the past year, what that says
about who you are, and what it means about where you’re heading.

So, let’s tell the truth about America. The truth is that, through a
worldwide drone war <https://theintercept.com/collections/drone-wars/> we
commenced two decades ago, we’ve invented a new form of terror for millions
of people across the world
<https://theintercept.com/2018/06/20/libya-us-drone-strikes/>. The truth is
that we continued to escalate
<https://theintercept.com/2019/10/02/trump-impeachment-civilian-casualties-war/>
this war in 2019, yet there’s no way to say exactly how much, because the
U.S. government refuses to tell its citizens the basic facts about it. The
truth is that the best sources of information on this war are two
underfunded outfits — the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
<https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/projects/drone-war> and Airwars
<https://airwars.org/>— that aren’t even based in the United States.

The truth is that these journalists can’t be sure which airstrikes are
being carried out by drones and which by conventional manned aircraft. The
truth is that our drone war is like some underseas leviathan, the nature
and size of which we can only guess at when parts of it briefly surface.

The truth that is our fleet of killer drones is likely aloft on Christmas
Day, right now, circling endlessly as intelligence analysts decide
<https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/29/drones-us-military>
whether to pronounce a death sentence on people thousands of miles away.
The truth is that, as we open presents, these death machines might as well
— for all the space they occupy in our consciousness — not exist at all.
The truth is that there have been six Democratic presidential debates this
year, and during these six debates, the number of times our worldwide drone
war was debated is zero.

[image: GettyImages-1186008884-1577213613]

An internally displaced Afghan man sits against the wall of a mud house in
Khost province on Dec. 2, 2019.

Photo: Farid Zahir/AFP via Getty Images

*It’s possible that* you heard about a U.S. drone strike a few weeks ago in
the Khost District in eastern Afghanistan. A 25-year-old Afghan woman there
named Malana had recently given birth to her second child. When Malana
developed postpartum complications at home, her father-in-law,
mother-in-law, and sister-in-law took her in a car to a clinic. On their
way back home, all four family members, plus the car’s driver, were killed
by an American missile launched from a weaponized drone. All were burned to
ashes
<https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/12/afghans-demand-justice-attempt-probe-war-crimes-icc-191204064625131.html>.
Al Jazeera reported that Malana’s father, Gulu, is now looking after her
two young children.

This was horrific enough to merit a brief article
<https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/01/world/asia/drone-civilians-afghanistan.html>
in the New York Times. It was so bad, in fact, that the article included
Malana’s name. It was not bad enough for it to include the names of
America’s four other victims.

Eighteen years after September 11, 2001, this is the pattern with our drone
war: The worst of the atrocities briefly make an appearance in the media.
“We are aware of the allegations of civilian casualties and working with
local authorities to determine the veracity of these claims,” Col. Sonny
Leggett, a military spokesperson, said about Malana’s death. The news flits
across the screen
<https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-attack-drones/u-s-drone-strike-kills-30-pine-nut-farm-workers-in-afghanistan-idUSKBN1W40NW>
that 30 Afghan pine-nut farmers were killed by a U.S. drone strike. “We are
aware of allegations of the death of noncombatants and are working with
local officials to determine the facts,” Leggett said about them.

Then for Americans, the murders subside into the electronic maelstrom,
never to be heard of again. (The Pentagon did not respond to a request for
comment on whether any progress has been made in the investigation of the
death of Malana.)

For the most part, our drone war grinds on with no notice taken here at
all. Meanwhile, people in an uncertain number of countries live under the
unblinking gaze of drones. We can say that the military’s overt program has
conducted drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia,
Syria, and Libya. In addition, the CIA has a classified program that it
does not acknowledge. Through news coverage, we know of alleged CIA strikes
in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and beyond
<https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-launches-secret-drone-campaign-to-hunt-islamic-state-leaders-in-syria/2015/09/01/723b3e04-5033-11e5-933e-7d06c647a395_story.html>.
(Oddly, the New York Times reported in 2017
<https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/15/us/politics/cia-drone-strike-authority-afghanistan.html>
that the CIA, sensing opportunity as the Trump administration began, sought
to expand its operations into Afghanistan for “the first time.”) CIA
strikes may be spreading
<https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/09/world/africa/cia-drones-africa-military.html>
further into
West Africa, as the CIA runs counterterrorism missions out of Niger and
Somalia <https://www.thenation.com/article/cias-secret-sites-somalia/>.

Once upon a time, humans killed each other with rocks, close up. Then
swords, then guns, then planes. But even with bombing campaigns of the
past, there were humans up there, and eventually they had to fly away.
Today, swaths of countries live under drones monitoring them around the
clock. Their constant, distant humming quietly informs the people beneath
them that they and everyone around them might be killed at any time by
invisible strangers across an ocean.

“From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are
tracking as they circle overhead,” according
<https://www.reuters.com/article/us-david-rohde-drone-wars-idUSTRE80P11I20120126>
to David Rohde, who was kidnapped and held captive for months by the
Taliban. “The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of
imminent death. Drones fire missiles that travel faster than the speed of
sound. A drone’s victim never hears the missile that kills him.”

“When [children] hear the drones, they get really scared, and they can hear
them all the time so they’re always fearful that the drone is going to
attack them,” explained
<https://chrgj.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Living-Under-Drones.pdf> a
man in Pakistan who collected his cousin’s body after a drone strike.
“Because of the noise, we’re psychologically disturbed — women, men, and
children. … Twenty-four hours, [a] person is in stress and there is pain in
his head.”

[image: AP_250482419431-1577213901]

Nine-year-old Nabila Rehman holds a drawing she made depicting a drone
strike that killed her grandmother in Pakistan, during a news conference on
Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 29, 2013.

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

*One of the* first attacks by an armed U.S. drone took place in Afghanistan
in February 2002 — near Khost, as it happens. Three men were walking in the
mountains. One of them looked tall, and someone at the CIA thought he might
be Osama bin Laden. So we killed all three of them. It turned out they were
extremely poor local civilians looking for scrap metal
<https://www.thenation.com/article/brief-history-drones/> from previous
American airstrikes.

The use of drones strikes grew slowly for the rest of President George W.
Bush’s administration. Then Barack Obama took office and dramatically
escalated the program. Just three days after taking office, Obama approved
two strikes in Pakistan. One of them, according to the book “Kill or Capture
<https://books.google.com/books?id=ANgHxaQa8ekC&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&lpg=PP1&dq=%E2%80%9CKill%20or%20Capture%E2%80%9D&pg=PA40#v=onepage&q=%22malik%20gulistan%20khan%22&f=false>,”
hit the wrong target: the home of a village elder who belonged to a
“pro-government peace committee.” He was killed, along with four other
members of his family, two of them his children.

This did not dissuade Obama. He authorized
<https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/10/26/the-predator-war?verso=true>
as many CIA drone attacks during his initial nine and a half months in
office as Bush did in his final three years.

Four years ago, in 2015, The Intercept published “The Drone Papers
<https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/the-assassination-complex/>,” based
on a large cache of leaked classified documents. That reporting provided,
for the first time, a glimpse into Obama’s secretive kill list and
assassination program. It was shocking, for anyone with the capacity to be
shocked.

The Obama administration eventually released official numbers for its drone
program. Between the time Obama took office until the end of 2015, it said,
the U.S. killed 2,436 people in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.
Between 64 and 116 were civilians. That official civilian death toll
appears low, and that was the point. From the “Drone Papers” reporting, we
learned that the U.S. policy was to declare anyone killed in those strikes
as an “enemy killed in action,” or EKIA. They remained on the books as
such, unless posthumously proven otherwise. One of the leaked documents
revealed that according to the Pentagon’s own numbers, nine out of 10
people killed in “Operation Haymaker” in Afghanistan during a five-month
period were not the “intended targets.”

The president, according to Obama, could even kill American citizens by
drone with no judicial review.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
<https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2016/07/01/obama-drone-casualty-numbers-fraction-recorded-bureau/>
estimated a somewhat higher total toll: 2,753 people. But the number of
civilians killed, it determined, was six times higher than what the Obama
administration claimed.

Most significantly, Obama did not create a legal framework
<https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/15/obama-administration-drone-strikes-donald-trump>
that placed any outside restrictions on the executive branch’s use of
drones. The president, according to Obama, could even kill American
citizens by drone with no judicial review. The theory, to the degree there
was one, held that U.S. presidents would always be trustworthy enough to
use this power wisely. Then Donald Trump was elected — and inherited
<https://theintercept.com/2016/11/16/donald-trump-is-about-to-inherit-obamas-unchecked-drone-program/>
all that power.

On November 11, 2016, the week after Trump became president-elect, a
documentary <http://nationalbirdfilm.com/> on U.S. drone warfare, “National
Bird,” was released. A young man, only called Daniel, is prominently
featured in the film. As a former signals intelligence analyst, he
describes on camera his deep frustration with the inability to really tell
who was killed in these drone strikes.

“When it comes to high-value targeting, every mission is to go after one
person at a time. But anybody else that’s killed in that strike is just
blatantly assumed to be an associate of the targeted individual,” Daniel
explains. Under the rules of engagement, he says, anyone who appears to be
male and over the age of 16 is a legitimate target: “If that strike occurs
and kills all of them, they just say that they got ’em all.”

This past May, Daniel Everett Hale was charged in an Alexandria, Virginia
court under the Espionage Act with sharing classified material regarding
the drone program with a reporter. While the indictment does not name a
news organization, Trump administration officials, in leaks to reporters,
linked Hale to The Intercept’s reporting. Hale sought to have the case
dismissed by arguing that the Espionage Act suppressed the freedom of the
press. This month, the Associated Press reported
<https://apnews.com/f6e37503e6f5f3c7b1e57402beab5159> that a judge has
allowed prosecutors to move forward with their case against him.

Under his current charges, Hale faces up to 50 years in prison.

[image: US And Coalition Partners Conduct Air War Against ISIL]

A U.S. Air Force munitions team transports Hellfire missiles to be loaded
onto Predator drones at an unspecified base in the Persian Gulf Region on
Jan. 8, 2016.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

*To the degree* that we can say what Trump has done with his power, it is
exactly what you would expect. He has formally lowered the necessary
threshold
<https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/21/us/politics/trump-drone-strikes-commando-raids-rules.html?mcubz=0&_r=0>
of evidence needed to justify drone strikes. The Air Force received a 63
percent increase
<https://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-ramped-up-drone-strikes-in-americas-shadow-wars>
in Hellfire missiles, the main weapon used by drones, in Trump’s 2017
budget.

Through executive order, Trump has made drone strikes less transparent by
eliminating an Obama-era mandate that compelled the Defense Department to
report its civilian death toll estimate every year. The New York Times
described
<https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/06/us/politics/trump-civilian-casualties-rule-revoked.html>
this as a move that increases “the secrecy that cloaks one of the most
contentious aspects of the fight against terrorists.”

What we do know is that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates
that the U.S. carried out about 1,000 airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Somalia, and Yemen in 2016 — that is, strikes by both drones and manned
aircraft. So far in 2019, they believe that the U.S. has conducted 5,425
airstrikes, five times as many. In the month of September, the U.S. upped
the pace to almost 40 airstrikes per day
<https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2019-10-29/us-strike-figures-further-intensification-of-air-war-afghanistan>
.

That brings us to where we are today.

Even the left wing of the leading presidential hopefuls would keep at least
some parts of the status quo alive. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has not
ruled out drone strikes. In 2015, he endorsed their use
<https://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/video/bernie-sanders-would-use-drones-to-fight-terror-542522435844>
to assassinate “important terrorists.” This year, in response to an
American Civil Liberties Union survey
<https://www.rightsforall.org/questionnaire/>, Sanders answered
<https://www.rightsforall.org/questionnaire/bernie-sanders/> that he would
issue an executive order prohibiting the CIA from conducting drone strikes,
giving the responsibility exclusively to the military.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., went further, explaining
<https://www.rightsforall.org/questionnaire/elizabeth-warren/> that “we
must also dramatically curtail their use, institute protections to prevent
civilian casualties; and provide maximum transparency when they do occur.”
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg responded
<https://www.rightsforall.org/questionnaire/pete-buttigieg/> that he would
not forbid the CIA from conducting drone strikes because “it is imprudent
to be unflinchingly categorical when it comes to dynamic national security
challenges.” Former Vice President Joe Biden did not answer the survey at
all.

During last week’s Democratic presidential debate, the candidates were
asked specifically about U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan. Not a single
question or response mentioned increased drone strikes and conventional
airstrikes, the loss of civilian life, or recent reporting on abuses seen
at the hands of CIA-backed
<https://theintercept.com/2019/10/30/afghanistan-health-clinics-airstrikes-taliban/>
Afghan militia units.

*Enjoy the twinkling* lights today — the gingerbread houses, carols, gifts,
and being around those you love. That’s part of the truth of America.

Please, though, do what you can to consider other truths about ourselves.
Try to face the reality that there are people on the other side of the
world today that, because of us, are experiencing a type of dread that has
never existed in America. Try to imagine being surrounded by your family,
all of you filled with acid anxiety about the buzzing far overhead, the
persistent staring eye above your home, that may at any moment obliterate
you and everything you love.

That likely won’t make it a merry Christmas. But it will make it something
far more meaningful: an honest one.

-- 

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