Leaked Paper Reveals Wide Reach of America's Drone Killings

A leaked top-secret Justice Department white paper reveals the true extent of US drone killings—and lays bare the fact that unmanned aircraft are targeting far more than just Al-Qaeda terrorists.

The document, acquired by McClatchy, reveals that "at least 265 of up to 482 people who the U.S. intelligence reports estimated the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior al Qaida leaders but instead were "assessed" as Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists."

That seems at least slightly at odds with the official line issued last year by counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. In a 2012 speech, which was incidentally the first time the use of armed drones by the US was formally acknowledged, he claimed attacks were "in full accordance with the law - and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives." Which is good! He did, however, allude to the fact that there was a focus on Al Qaeda targets. mentioning the organization 73 times in the single speech.

Still, a sole focus on Al Qaeda wasn't explicit in his words, which leaves enough room to explain away the fact over half of targets referred to in the report were "unknown extremists". Perhaps more worrying than the numbers, though, is what McClatchy refers to as a "lack of precision when it comes to identifying targets". Anecodtal evidence from the report:

Information, according to one U.S. intelligence account, indicated that Badruddin Haqqani, the then-No. 2 leader of the Haqqani network, would be at a relative's funeral that day in North Waziristan. Watching the video feed from a drone high above the mourners, CIA operators in the United States identified a man they believed could be Badruddin Haqqani from the deference and numerous greetings he received. The man also supervised a private family viewing of the body.

Yet despite a targeting process that the administration says meets "the highest possible standards," it wasn't Badruddin Haqqani who died when one of the drone's missiles ripped apart the target's car after he'd left the funeral. It was his younger brother, Mohammad.

Friends later told reporters that Mohammad Haqqani was a religious student in his 20s uninvolved in terrorism; the U.S. intelligence report called him an active member – but not a leader – of the Haqqani network. At least one other unidentified occupant of his vehicle perished, according to the report. It took the CIA another 18 months to find and kill Badruddin Haqqani.

That makes for uncomfortable reading on many levels, demonstrating both imprecision and inability all at once. Of course, protecting the US from terrorist threat is hugely important, but there appears to be a large disconnect between the way the administration claims to be acting and what it's actually doing—and it's that gulf which is cause for concern. [McClatchy via Atlantic via Verge]