Drones: The Silent Killers

By Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, June 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Drones: The Silent Killers


Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Klaidman

The Obama campaign touts a commander in chief who never flinches, but the truth is more complex. How the president came to embrace a new way of war.

Barack Obama came to the White House with no military background and negligible national-security experience. But he inherited an American killing machine that was very much on the offensive, hunting suspected terrorists from the lawless regions of Pakistan to the militant strongholds of Somalia. Within days of his inauguration he faced life-and-death decisions. One of them went terribly wrong.

Obama had just signed a series of executive orders aimed at rolling back the worst excesses of the Bush administration's war on terror, and he was flush with the possibilities of what could be accomplished in the years ahead. Learning his way around the labyrinthine West Wing, he poked his head into an aide's office. "We just ended torture," he said. "That's a pretty big deal." Now, on the morning of Jan. 23, CIA director Michael Hayden informed the president of a drone missile strike scheduled to take place in the tribal areas of Pakistan, near the Afghan border.

The targets were high-level al Qaeda and Taliban commanders. Hayden, accustomed to briefing the tactically minded George W. Bush, went into granular levels of detail, describing the "geometry" of the operation to the new president. Obama, who preferred his briefings concise, grew impatient and irritated with Hayden. But he held his tongue, and raised no objections.

Tribesmen a world away, in the tiny village of Karez Kot, later heard a low, dull buzzing sound from the sky. At about 8:30 in the evening local time, a Hellfire missile from a remotely operated drone slammed into a compound "of interest," in CIA parlance, obliterating a roomful of people.

It turned out they were the wrong people. As the CIA's pilotless aircraft lingered high above Karez Kot, relaying live images of the fallout to its operators, it soon became clear that something had gone terribly awry. Instead of hitting the CIA's intended target, a Taliban hideout, the missile had struck the compound of a prominent tribal elder and members of a pro-government peace committee. The strike killed the elder and four members of his family, including two of his children.

Obama was understandably disturbed. How could this have happened? The president had vowed to change America's message to the Muslim world, and to forge a "new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest." Yet here he was, during his first week in the White House, presiding over the accidental killing of innocent Muslims. As Obama briskly walked into the Situation Room the following day, his advisers could feel the tension rise. "You could tell from his body language that he was not a happy man," recalled one participant.

Obama settled into his high-backed, black-leather chair. Hayden was seated at the other end of the table. The conversation quickly devolved into a tense back-and-forth over the CIA's vetting procedures for drone attacks. The president was learning for the first time about a controversial practice known as "signature strikes," the targeting of groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren't known. They differed from "personality" or "high-value individual" strikes, in which a terrorist leader is positively identified before the missile is launched.

Sometimes called "crowd killing," signature strikes are deeply unpopular in Pakistan. Obama struggled to understand the concept. Steve Kappes, the CIA's deputy director, offered a blunt explanation. "Mr. President, we can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don't always know who they are." Obama reacted sharply. "That's not good enough for me," he said. But he was still listening. …

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