Donald Trump to inherit drone assassination programme which has 'no effective rules'

Exclusive: Fears that President-elect could ramp up use of CIA and Pentagon drones as new figures show hundreds of civilians killed under Obama

Ted Jeory
Saturday 19 November 2016 01:26 GMT
Donald Trump arrives in his plane to speak to supporters at a rally at Atlantic Aviation on June 11, 2016 in Moon Township, Pennsylvania.
Donald Trump arrives in his plane to speak to supporters at a rally at Atlantic Aviation on June 11, 2016 in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Donald Trump will inherit a military drone targeted assassination programme for which Barack Obama failed to put any effective rules in place and which has killed up to 4,666 people, including 745 civilians, under his presidency, new figures show.

Experts on America’s covert use of drones in its war on terror believe Mr Trump could use the sophisticated military hardware, which are mostly piloted remotely from the US, to fulfil previous pledges to “bomb the s**t out of Isis” and “wipe Somali pirates off the face of the Earth”.

There are worries this could result in an increased death toll of innocent civilians, or "collateral damage" as some military strategists label them.

New figures collated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London show that President Obama has authorised 541 CIA drone strikes on alleged Islamist extremists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in the past eight years – 10 times more than his predecessor George W Bush.

The Bureau believes these strikes have killed between 2,906 and 4,666 people, of whom at least 325 were civilians although the figure could be as high as 745. Many of the rest were regarded by the US as terrorist operatives working for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabaab and other Islamist extremist groups, though a large number are unidentified and their status as a civilian or terrorist is just not known.

All these strikes were carried out in areas where there is no officially declared US theatre of war.

In addition, Airwars, another UK-based journalism and reporting project, estimates a further 900 drone strikes have been authorised by the Pentagon since 2014 in the official war zones of Iraq and Syria.

Year US drone strikes in Pakistan Minimum  killed Maximum killed Minimum civillians killed Maximum civilians killed
2009 54 471 753 100 210
2010 128 755 1,108 89 197
2011 75 362 666 52 152
2012 50 212 410 13 63
2013 27 109 195 0 4
2014 25 115 186 0 2
2015 13 60 85 2 5
2016 3 11 12 1 1
Total 375 2095 3415 257 634

(Data from Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

Airwars director Chris Woods – a former BBC journalist who helped establish the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s drone-reporting project and is considered a world leading authority on the use of drones – believes there is a “real worry” about how Mr Trump might embrace the technology.

He said Mr Obama’s failure to set in stone effective concrete rules on how drones should be used could be exploited by his successor.

He added that recent history shows the campaign rhetoric used by presidential candidates was a guide to their future record in office.

He told The Independent: “Obama warned us during his own campaign trail back in 2008 that he would escalate drone warfare. He mentioned approximately 30 times that he would take the war against al-Qaeda to Pakistan.

“That’s why we have to worry about Donald Trump. You have to listen to have he has already said. He’s already said he might deliberately target the families of senior Isis militants – which would be a war crime.

“For years now the CIA and Pentagon have suggested the West can conduct air wars without killing civilians – this is untrue.

“Trump has no insider experience and I think he has been taking that at face value. Maybe in Trump’s mind when he hears that bombs don’t kill civilians he thinks he can just blitz cities without any collateral damage.

“But the biggest error of the Obama administration is not putting a decent rule book in place for the targeted assassination programme. Trump will now inherit a programme with no effective rules in place.”

However, Mr Woods said there could be one limitation to Mr Trump’s ambitions: money.

He said: “Relatively speaking the drones themselves are fairly cheap compared with the alternatives. What's expensive is the huge number of personnel needed to run the fleet. Thousands of analysts are looking at the data from the drones and assessing intelligence on the ground.”

Mr Trump would have to raise new funds from Congress, which is controlled by his own Republican party.

Pakistani local residents gathering around a destroyed vehicle hit by a drone strike in which Afghan Taliban Chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was believed to be travelling (Getty)
Pakistani local residents gathering around a destroyed vehicle hit by a drone strike in which Afghan Taliban Chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was believed to be travelling (Getty) (Getty Images)

How the future President Trump will conduct the covert war on terror in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan – for example, more like fellow Republican Mr Bush, or Mr Obama – is unclear.

Jack Serle, a reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism who has spent five years examining CIA drone strikes, said there was an escalation in numbers from Mr Bush to Mr Obama.

He said this was partly because Mr Obama preferred drones to Mr Bush’s “boots on the ground” approach, but more because the nature of combat in the regions had changed.

There have been 375 drone attacks in Pakistan in the last seven years
There have been 375 drone attacks in Pakistan in the last seven years (AP)

Mr Serle said: “In Yemen there was only one strike with Bush and but with Obama there has been more than 130. This was partly to do with the growth of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, which came into existence in 2009.

“The order of magnitude of difference can also be attributed to Obama's renewed focus on Afghanistan.

“Insurgents used Pakistan’s tribal areas as a base of operation – where they could rearm and recuperate.

“Under Bush the CIA was targeting Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and its allies. But under Obama the strikes were targeting Afghan insurgents who were crossing the border, under Obama they were both counter-terrorism strikes and counter-insurgency strikes.

“In Pakistan the drone strikes are under control of the CIA, a fundamentally secret organisation. This lack of transparency has made it difficult to challenge assertions that drone strikes are fundamentally safe for civilians.

“I think there is a danger that if policy makers and decision-makers start believe the overinflated sense of precision and discrimination they are more likely to employ this method.

“There is no such thing as absolute precision and discrimination.

“The US drone programme is very much part of a larger system developed by the pentagon, a huge network of intelligence gathering and dissemination. Drones are just a part of that and that has been developed over a long period.”

Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch US, said: “There are procedures in place but there are a lot of issues with those rules. We don’t feel like they are strong enough.

“They should not be applying war time rules in those places and the concern is those rules will go by the wayside.

“The concern is that once Trump takes office he will throw the presidential policy directive out of the window. He will use these powers more aggressively, given what he said on the campaign trail.”

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