A review of classified U.S. intelligence documents has revealed that “the CIA did not always know” the identities of people it targeted and killed in assassination drone strikes in Pakistan.
According to an exclusive NBC News report, the Central Intelligence Agency, which operates the vast majority of drone strikes in Pakistan, could not confirm the identities of about a quarter of people it killed by unmanned aircraft over a 14-month period between 2010 and 2011.
The CIA would instead classify those targets as “other militants,” a term used to describe individuals whose affiliation the spy agency could not identify but would kill them anyway.
The findings, however significant, are not exactly new as a number of investigations have previously concluded that U.S. officials were vastly underestimating the civilian casualties of CIA drone strikes.
Citing copies of top-secret U.S. intelligence records, a McClatchy report in April also concluded that the CIA had killed hundreds of unidentified people in Pakistan and Afghanistan in drone strikes.
A study conducted by researchers at the Stanford and NYU schools of law, published in September, also showed the number of “high-level” militants killed in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan constituted “just 2%” of the “total casualties.”
The reports are in sharp contrast to the Obama administration’s assurances that it deploys armed drones only against known senior leaders of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
The White House’s codified policy signed by Obama in May, states that a drone strike can only be used in case of “continuing, imminent” threat to U.S. national security and when the capture of a suspect is not feasible.
The “other militants” label is now “prompting questions about how the agency [CIA] could conclude they were a threat to U.S. national security,” the NBC report said.
In his foreign policy speech at the National Defense University on May 23, President Barack Obama defended the use of drones as legal and effective.
The U.S. president, however, did not address what has become known as “signature strikes,” one of the most controversial aspects of the drone program. In these attacks, people with unknown identities are targeted based on suspicious behavior or other “signatures.”
According to some media reports, “signature strikes” on unidentified targets account for most of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
An unknown former White House official told the NBC that the U.S. sometimes executes people based on “circumstantial evidence.”
U.S. drone strikes have killed more than 4,700 people overseas since 2004, according to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. Local and international investigations suggest that most of those killed in drone attacks are civilians.