The MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)
Several friends of mine are among the 35 American activists assembling in Pakistan in recent days in an effort to seek ground truth on the impact of U.S. drone strikes on civilians there. I will be holding them and their Pakistani hosts and co-travelers in the Light, as my Quaker friends like to say, and will now try to do my part in what follows to put this dangerous journey in perspective.
The American group, organized by Code Pink Women for Peace, is meeting this week with a wide swath of Pakistanis, including representatives of the various political parties. Today, former U.S. diplomat and Army Col. Ann Wright was scheduled to address the Institute of Strategic Studies, Pakistan's largest think tank, which advises the Foreign Office.
As I said good-bye to two of my friends late last week, their backpacks seemed extraordinarily heavy. It occurred to me later that I was visualizing the extra weight of the twin burden of shame they bear for our country's drone attacks: (1) the toll the drone strikes have taken on Pakistani citizens; and (2) the embarrassment generated by the disingenuous denials by U.S. officials -- from President Barack Obama, to his counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, to U.S. diplomats, right down to media cheerleaders and lower-ranking computer functionaries.
Hunched under one of those backpacks was Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy. Before departing he wrote "Why I'm Going to Pakistan: Under Scrutiny, the Drone Strike Policy Will Fail."
Here is how he described what the travelers hoped to accomplish:
"If people have to confront the actual reality of the Pakistan drone strike policy -- the reality in which its impact is mostly about killing and terrorizing civilians and alienating Pakistani public opinion from the United States as opposed to the fairy tale in which it is all about wasting top-level "bad guys' -- the political story will fall apart."
The Political Story
Reluctant as I am to quote my one-time debate partner Donald Rumsfeld, one of his (autobiographical) aphorisms seems altogether apt here: "Some people lie and get away with it!" President Obama is either advised by liars on civilian casualties from drone strikes, or he thinks he can "lie and get away with it." It has to be one or the other.
Answering a question during a live video "hangout" on Jan. 30, Obama's words were reminiscent of the infamous "modified limited hangout" characteristic of the Nixon White House. Obama insisted that the drone targets were "on a list of active terrorists," as if that made the killing, ipso facto, okay.
Asked about the increase in the number of drone strikes under his presidency and whether the loss of civilian life was worth it for U.S. interests, the President said:
"I want to make sure the people understand, actually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties. For the most part they have been very precise precision-strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates. ... It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash."
Just four months later, a May 29 New York Times article on Obama's secret "Kill List" revealed how the President rationalized his claim that the number of civilians killed was "not huge." Far from "a very tight leash," it was a numbering gimmick.
The Times report quoted several Obama administration officials admitting that all military-age males in a strike zone are counted as combatants, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. (Yes, you read that right -- posthumously.)
Small wonder that counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan could claim in June 2011 that there had been zero civilians killed in Pakistan for almost a year. And small wonder that another senior administration official could tell the Times several months later that the number of civilians killed by drone strikes in Pakistan was in the "single digits."
In April 2012, Brennan was still at it, describing civilian casualties from drone strikes as "exceedingly rare" -- as if saying something often enough can make it true.
One former senior intelligence officer did express serious misgivings . "It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants," the former officer told the Times. "They count the corpses and they're not really sure who they are."
So much for posthumous exoneration.