drone wars

Obama Adminstration Limits Civilian Deaths From Drone Strikes by Labeling Everyone a Terrorist

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron in the Oval Office, Feb. 13, 2012
Obama always turns off the lights for his toughest decisions. Photo: Pete Souza/The White House

Drone strikes have proven to be one of the Obama administration’s most successful tools in the war on terrorism, or the “overseas contingency operation,” or whatever it’s supposed to be called now. But they can also be a legal and logistical mess. Today the Times takes the deepest look yet at President Obama’s process for determining which suspected terrorists are candidates for targeted assassinations and whether to give the go-ahead for a particular strike.

It’s a tricky business, balancing national security with respect for due process and the likelihood of collateral damage. For example, what if a high-value target is surrounded by other, possibly innocent people? Do you pull the trigger anyway? The story portrays this as a particular concern of Obama’s:

If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.

Not too much of a concern, though. Because when it’s unclear whether people in the vicinity of a terrorist target are fellow combatants or innocent civilians — terrorists don’t usually wear “I ♥ Al-Qaeda” t-shirts, after all — Obama errs on the side of guilt.

… Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.

Probably” being the key word here. Obama has decided that, in the war on terror — or the “hostilities with violence-prone individuals,” or whatnot — “probably” is good enough.

Obama’s Self-Serving Drone Policy