How Does the U.S. Mark Unidentified Men in Pakistan and Yemen as Drone Targets?

Droneby Cora Currier ProPublica, March 1, 2013, 7 a.m.

Earlier this week, we wrote about a significant but often overlooked aspect of the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen: so-called signature strikes, in which the U.S. kills people whose identities aren’t confirmed. While President Obama and administration officials have framed the drone program as targeting particular members of Al Qaeda, attacks against unknown militants reportedly may account for the majority of strikes.

The government apparently calls such attacks signature strikes because the targets are identified based on intelligence “signatures” that suggest involvement in terror plots or militant activity.

So what signatures does the U.S. look for and how much evidence is needed to justify a strike?

The Obama administration has never spoken publicly about signature strikes. Instead, generally anonymous officials have offered often vague examples of signatures. The resulting fragmentary picture leaves many questions unanswered.

In Pakistan, a signature might include:

Training camps2026

  • Convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run. 2013 Senior American and Pakistani officials,New York Times, February 2008.
  • “Terrorist training camps.” 2013 U.S.Diplomatic Cable released by Wikileaks, October 2009.
  • Gatherings of militant groups or training complexes. 2013 Current and former officials, Los Angeles Times, January 2010.
  • Bomb-making or fighters training for possible operations in Afghanistan2026. a compound where unknown individuals were seen assembling a car bomb. 2013 Officials, Los Angeles Times, May 2010.
  • Travel in or out of a known al-Qaeda compoundor possession of explosives. 2013 U.S. officials, Washington Post, February 2011.
  • Operating a training camp2026 consorting with known militants. 2013 High-level American official, The New Yorker, September 2011.

A group of guys2026

  • Large groups of armed men. 2013 Senior U.S. intelligence official, Associated Press, March 2012.
  • Groups of armed militants traveling by truck toward the war in Afghanistan.2013Administration officials, Washington Post, April 2012.
  • The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp. 2013 Senior official, May 2012.
  • “The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40” 2013 Former Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, Daily Beast, November 2012.
  • “Armed men who we see getting into pickup trucks and heading towards the Afghanistan border or who are in a training exercise.” 2013 Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Council on Foreign Relations, January 2013.

Officials have characterized the intelligence that goes into these strikes as thorough, based on “days” of drone surveillance and other sources2014and said that apparently low-level people may still be key to an organization’s functioning. In 2010, an official told the Los Angeles Times that the CIA makes sure “these are people whose actions over time have made it obvious that they are a threat.”

In Yemen, signature strikes are reportedly bound by stricter rules. Officials have often cited the necessity of a plot against Americans:

  • Clear indication of the presence of an al-Qaeda leader or of plotting against targets in the United States or Americans overseas.2013 Administration officials, Washington Post, April 2012.
  • “Individuals who are personally involved in trying to kill Americans2026 or intelligence that2026[for example] a truck has been configured in order to go after our embassy in Sanaa.”2014 Senior administration official, Washington Post, January 2013

These strikes are not supposed to target “lower-level foot soldiers battling the Yemeni government,” U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal.  A White House spokesman said last summer that the U.S. “[has] not and will not get involved in a broader counterinsurgency effort” in Yemen.

But experts say some strikes in Yemen do appear to have been aimed at local militants. In Pakistan, in addition to low-level militants who might be involved in the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has sometimes hit those who posed a threat to the Pakistani government.

As we detailed, signature strikes have also been criticized by human rights groups and some legal observers because of the lack of transparency surrounding them, including on the number of civilians killed.

Photo: MQ-1C Sky Warrior unmanned aircraft system from sits dormant in a hangar. The Sky Warrior aircraft has the ability to remain airborne for up to 24 hours straight to conduct continuous missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Photo Credit: Sgt. Travis Zielinski, 1st ACB, 1st Cav. Div., USD-C.)

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The Drone War Doctrine We Still Know Nothing About

John Brennanby Cora Currier and Justin Elliott ProPublica, Feb. 26, 2013, 7 a.m.by Cora Currier, ProPublica

The nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director has prompted intense debate on Capitol Hill and in the media about U.S. drone killings abroad. But the focus has been on the targeting of American citizens 2013 a narrow issue that accounts for a miniscule proportion of the hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in recent years.

Consider: while four American citizens are known to have been killed by drones in the past decade, the strikes have killed an estimated total of 2,600 to 4,700 people over the same period.

The focus on American citizens overshadows a far more common, and less understood, type of strike: those that do not target American citizens, Al Qaeda leaders, or, in fact, any other specific individual.

In these attacks, known as “signature strikes,” drone operators fire on people whose identities they do not know based on evidence of suspicious behavior or other “signatures.” According to anonymously sourced media reports, such attacks on unidentified targets account for many, or even most, drone strikes.

Despite that, the administration has never publicly spoken about signature strikes. Basic questions remain unanswered.

What is the legal justification for signature strikes? What qualifies as a “signature” that would prompt a deadly strike? Do those being targeted have to pose a threat to the United States? And how many civilians have been killed in such strikes?

The administration has rebuffed repeated requests from Congress to provide answers 2013 even in secret.

“How, for example, does the Administration ensure that the targets are legitimate terrorist targets and not insurgents who have no dispute with the United States?” asked three senior Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee in a letter to Attorney General Holder last May.

The legislators sent a second letter in December. Republicans on the committee joined in sending another letter this month. All have gone unanswered, according to committee staff.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently sent his own letter to Brennan asking several pointed questions on signature strikes.

“How do 2018signature strikes’ square with your statement that targeted killing operations are only approved when a targeted individual poses a 2018significant threat to U.S. interests?'” McCain asked, quoting a speech Brennan gave on drone strikes last April.

“How can the Administration be certain it is not killing civilians in areas, like many parts of Yemen and Pakistan, where virtually all men, including civilians, carry weapons?” the letter continued.

A McCain spokesman said the senator had not received a response. The White House declined to comment for this story.

When Obama administration officials publicly address drone strikes, they focus on thwarting imminent threats and targeting Al Qaeda leaders, including U.S. citizens.

Brennan, for example, said at his confirmation hearing that a lethal strike only occurs when “the intelligence base is so strong and the nature of the threat is so grave and serious, as well as imminent, that we have no recourse.” He was talking only about strikes targeting U.S. citizens, not signature strikes.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is now threatening to filibuster Brennan’s nomination until he answers questions on the U.S. citizen issue. And the Justice Department “white paper” leaked to NBC this month outlines the legal rationale for drone strikes, but only in cases when they target U.S. citizens who are also Al Qaeda leaders.

“What about the people who aren’t U.S. citizens and who aren’t on a list?” asks Naureen Shah, a human rights and counterterrorism expert at Columbia Law School. Of the few thousand people killed, Shah notes, “it’s hard to believe all of these people are senior operational leaders of Al Qaeda.”

The hazy history of 2018signature strikes’

The first public reference to a signature strike appears to have been in February 2008, when the New York Times reported a change in drone strike policy, negotiated between the U.S. and Pakistan.

“Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance, so long as the risk of civilian casualties is judged to be low,” the Times reported.

Over the next few years, they became the majority of strikes conducted in Pakistan, according to media reports citing unnamed officials.

The new policy contributed to an increase in strikes in Pakistan 2013 up to a high of about 120 in 2010 2013 and also to an increase in the number of low-level militants or foot soldiers killed, according to a New America Foundation analysis.

It’s not clear how much evidence is needed to justify a strike. In media reports, U.S. officials have offered scenarios of signature strikes hitting training camps or fighters who might cross the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan. The CIA reportedly uses drone surveillance and other intelligence to try to ensure those targeted are in fact militants.

Other officials, however, have described the policy more loosely 2013 one calling it a “2018reasonable man’ standard.”

Asked what the standard is for who could be hit, former Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter recently told an interviewer: “The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40. My feeling is one man’s combatant is another man’s 2013 well, a chump who went to a meeting.”

It is also next to impossible to say which attacks are signature strikes.

The names of militant leaders killed in strikes are often confirmed by officials in news reports. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. knew who was there ahead of the strike. One unnamed former military official claimed last year that the CIA “killed most of their 2018list people’ when they didn’t know they were there.”

Conversely, strikes in which little information emerges on who was killed could be failed attempts to hit specific individuals. (According to the New Yorker, it took as many as 16 strikes to kill Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in 2009.)

The outcomes of strikes are often disputed. In one apparent signature strike two years ago, unnamed U.S. officials told the Associated Press that they had targeted a group that “was heavily armed, some of its members were connected to Al Qaeda, and all 2018acted in a manner consistent with AQ (Al Qaeda)-linked militants.'” The U.S. said about 20 militants were killed. But Pakistani officials said it had been a meeting of tribesmen and villagers provided evidence to the AP that 38 civilians were killed.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the attack prompted a debate in the White House about whether signature strikes and strikes on low-level fighters were worth the diplomatic risks.

The pace of strikes in Pakistan has tapered off since 2010, in large part because of deteriorating diplomatic relations with Pakistan, according to Bill Roggio, who tracks strikes for the Long War Journal.

Last spring the U.S. reportedly expanded signature strikes to Yemen, though administration officials said there were stricter standards than in Pakistan and evidence of a threat to the U.S. or U.S. interests was required. Officials referred to the attacks with a new phrase, “Terror Attack Disruption Strikes.”

That tighter standard is reportedly also part of the Obama administration’s new guidelines for the targeted killing program. (The CIA’s strikes in Pakistan will be exempt from any new rules for at least another year, according to the Washington Post.)

The legal debate

Brennan was asked about signature strikes last April but sidestepped the question. He replied: “You make reference to signature strikes that are frequently reported in the press. I was speaking here specifically about targeted strikes against individuals who are involved.”

He continued that “everything we do, though, that is carried out against Al Qaeda is carried out consistent with the rule of law, the authorization on the use of military force, and domestic law2026 that’s the whole purpose of whatever action we use, the tool we use, it’s to prevent attack [sic] and to save lives.”

The idea of killing members of an enemy force without knowing their identities isn’t itself controversial.

“In a traditional conflict, there is no requirement that you know every single person’s identity before you strike, so long as there are reasonable grounds for determining that the target is part of the enemy force,” said Jennifer Daskal, a professor at Georgetown Law School and a former attorney in the Justice Department during the first Obama administration.

But legal observers hotly debate the bounds of the drone war, and who qualifies as a member of the enemy force. “In the conflict with a clandestine enemy like Al Qaeda, that determination is much harder,” said Daskal.

While President Obama pledged in his State of the Union address to be more transparent about drone policy, the administration appears to maneuvering to avoid sharing additional information with Congress.

According to the New York Times, the administration may opt to share information on last year’s Benghazi attack with Republican senators to avoid revealing any more legal memos on the drone war to Democratic senators.

Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., has said that her committee reviews videos of strikes.But she also recently said that the committee has long sought all of the legal opinions on drone strikes 2013 and that the administration has withheld most of the opinions.

Guerrilla Blog Dispatches – February 18, 2013

1st Global Hawk lands in Guam

CIA’s Covert Drone Program Might Shift Further to Pentagon

Planned Iowa Guard Drone Program Draws Ire

Defense Industry Shifts Focus to Minimizing Damage From Sequester

Choppy Water for Ship Repair Workers Over Budget Crisis

MIT Wants Tomorrow’s Soldiers to Talk Through Their Shirts

Photo: An RQ-4 Global Hawk sits on the runway before beginning a nighttime mission. The aircraft is unmanned, and is used to capture imagery from high altitudes. (Co U.S. Air Force photo/John Schwab)

At Least 20 CIA Prisoners Still Missing

Prison Hallwayby Cora Currier ProPublica, Feb. 13, 2013, 7 a.m.

In one of President Barack Obama first acts in the White House, he ordered the closure of the CIA’s so-called “black-site” prisons, where terror suspects had been held and, sometimes, tortured.  The CIA says it is “out of the detention business,” as John Brennan, Obama’s pick to head the agency, recently put it.

But the CIA’s prisons left some unfinished business.  In 2009, ProPublica’s Dafna Linzer listed more than thirty people who had been held in CIA prisons and were still missing.

Some of those prisoners have since resurfaced, but at least twenty are still unaccounted for.

Last week the Open Society Foundations’ Justice Initiative released a report pulling together the most current information available on the fates of the prisoners. A few emerged from foreign prisons after the turmoil of the Arab Spring. One has died. (The report relied exclusively on media accounts and information previously gathered by human rights groups. The Open Society Foundations also donate to ProPublica.)

The report counts 136 prisoners who were either held in a CIA black site or subject to so-called extraordinary rendition, in which detainees were secretly shipped to other countries for interrogation.

Many of the prisoners were tortured, either under the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” program or by other countries after their transfer. The report also lists 54 countries that assisted in some way with detention and rendition. The U.S. has not disclosed the countries it worked with, and few have acknowledged their participation.

The CIA declined our request to comment.

Here are the fates of a few of the prisoners we listed as missing back in 2009:

Ayoub al-Libi, also known as Mustafa Jawda al-Mahdi, is a Libyan who was allegedly interrogated and detained by US personnel in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2004. The next year he was returned to Libya, where he was sentenced to death as member of LIFG, an Islamist anti-Gaddafi group (designated a terrorist organization by the U.S.) He was released when uprisings began against Gaddafi in February 2011. Human Rights Watch interviewed him in 2012.

Hassan Rabai, also known as Mohamed Ahmad Mohamed Al Shoroieya, is a Libyan who was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and later transferred to Afghanistan – where he alleges that he was waterboarded by U.S. personnel. Bush administration officials have repeatedly said that only three terror suspects were ever subjected to waterboarding; Rabai would be the fourth. He was eventually transferred to prison in Libya, where he remained until February 2011. Human Rights Watch interviewed him last year.

Khaled al-Sharif, also known as Abu Hazam, was picked up with fellow Libyan and LIFG member Hassan Rabai and also held in Afghanistan. He remained in Libyan prison until March 2010, according to interviews he gave to Human Rights Watch.

Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman is an Egyptian who was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and considered a “senior Al-Qaeda operative.” He was transferred to prison in Egypt and was released in late 2010. He gave an interview in 2011 in which he admitted to running training camps in Afghanistan prior to 2001 but saying he had renounced violence.

Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, also known as Abu Musab al-Suri, was tied to the bombings in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005. Picked up by the CIA in 2005, he was transferred to prison in his native Syria. According to Syrian media, he was released by Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad in February 2012.

Ali Abdul-Hamid al-Fakhiri, also known as Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, was a Libyan detained shortly after the 9/11 attacks. He was reportedly held in CIA as well as Egyptian custody over the next several years. According to a Senate Intelligence Committee report, he provided information about links between Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda – information he later said he had fabricated. He was transferred to Libyan prison in 2005 or 2006, and was found dead in his cell in May 2009.
The whereabouts (and in some cases identities) of many more remain unknown or uncertain.

In 2007, then-CIA director Michael Hayden said that “fewer than 100 people had beenC detained at CIA’s facilities.” But only 16 have been officially identified by the U.S. government. President George W. Bush acknowledged the CIA’s detention program in September 2006 and announced the transfer of 14 “high-value” detainees to Guantanamo Bay prison. Two other high-value detainees were subsequently acknowledged.

Much else about the CIA program is still unknown. President Barack Obama closed the black-site prisons on entering office, but preserved the ability to render and to hold people for the “short-term.”

Obama banned torture, but announced that no one would be prosecuted for previously sanctioned harsh interrogations. A Justice Department investigation into deaths of detainees in CIA custody ended without charges.

The Senate Intelligence Committee recently completed a 6,000-page report on the CIA’s detention program. At Brenan’s confirmation hearings, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), said the report shows the interrogation program was run by people “ignorant of the topic, executed by personnel without relevant experience, managed incompetently by senior officials who did not pay attention to detail, and corrupted by personnel with pecuniary conflicts of interest.” Rockefeller is one of the few to have read the report, which remains classified.

Jeremy Scahill: Assassinations of U.S. Citizens Largely Ignored at Brennan CIA Hearing

President Obama’s nominee to run the CIA, John Brennan, forcefully defended Obama’s counterterrorism policies, including the increase use of armed drones and the targeted killings of American citizens during his confirmation hearing Thursday. “None of the central questions that should have been asked of John Brennan were asked in an effective way,” says Jeremy Scahill, author of the forthcoming book “Dirty Wars.” “In the cases where people like Sen. Angus King or Sen. Ron Wyden would ask a real question, for instance, about whether or not the CIA has the right to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. The questions were very good — Brennan would then offer up a non-answer. Then there would be almost a no follow-up.” Scahill went on to say, “[Brennan has] served for more than four years as the assassination czar, and it basically looked like they’re discussing purchasing a used car on Capitol hill. And it was total kabuki oversight. And that’s a devastating commentary on where things stand.