Buried deep in a lengthy New York Times article about President Barack Obama‘s secret terrorist “kill list” lies disturbing allegations by several administration officials that the president has embraced a controversial method for counting civilians killed by U.S. unmanned aerial drone strikes in which the definition of “militant” has been deceptively stretched in order to artificially lower civilian death tolls.
The article, which appeared in Tuesday’s Times, paints the president as a commander-in-chief keen on avoiding the deaths of innocent civilians but resolutely determined to use deadly force against America’s al-Qaeda enemies. It chronicles Obama’s remarkable transformation from anti-war Senator to drone-warrior-in-chief, a journey on which the president, ever the consummate jurist, never shied away from using subtle loopholes and nebulous definitions in order to keep his options open or to defuse potentially damaging situations.
Among the linguistic gymnastics embraced by Obama as the Pentagon struggled to deal with the inevitable rise in civilian casualties resulting from a massive increase in unmanned aerial drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen was a deceptive redefinition of the term “militant.” In an effort to minimize official civilian death tolls from these strikes, in which hundreds of innocent people have been killed in Pakistan alone, several administration officials told the Times that the administration is effectively counting “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,” barring “explicit” posthumous intelligence proving their innocence.
The logic behind Obama’s novel approach, say counterterrorism officials, is that young men in an area of known terrorist activity are likely “up to no good,” justifying the use of deadly force against them even when there is no evidence that they’re actually engaged in or even supporting terrorism. But by counting all military-age males as militants, the Pentagon is able to claim low collateral death figures.
The problem with this method is that it is, at the very least, deceptive and at most, an outright whitewashing of the killing of innocent men and boys. It wouldn’t be the first time the administration has lied about such things; last year, John Brennan, the president’s top counterterrorism advisor, declared that there hadn’t been “a single collateral death” from U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan. But the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism counted at least ten drone strikes in which at least 45 innocent men, women and children were killed during the period in question. And as Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald has reported, the Pentagon and many mainstream media outlets used the term “militant” to describe Abdulrahman Awlaki, an innocent 16-year-old boy from Denver killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen two weeks after a similar attack killed his terrorist father.
The revelations in Tuesday’s Times article come at a particularly sensitive time for the Obama administration. On Saturday night, a NATO air strike killed a father, his wife and their six children in Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan. Earlier this month, as many as 20 more innocent civilians, including a mother and her five children, were killed in a pair of NATO strikes in Helmand and Badghis provinces. And while there haven’t been any recently reported civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, citizens of that nation are seething over what they perceive as a continued violation of their sovereignty and a disregard for the lives of the Pakistani people.