Buried in a Los Angeles Times article yesterday was this remarkable government admission:
In June, a drone-launched missile hit an SUV carrying an Al Qaeda commander in Yemen. CIA officers didn’t realize that his younger brother also was in [the] vehicle according to U.S. officials who would not be named because the operation is classified. The CIA later put the victim’s age at between 6 and 13.
The CIA has given a classified briefing to Congress on the death, but has refused to acknowledge it publicly.
Four quick comments on this admission:
1. It supports previously reported allegations about the killing of a child. Admissions, even anonymous ones, that individuals were inadvertently or accidentally killed in U.S. strikes are exceedingly rare. The strike referred to in this admission is presumably the June 9 strike that reportedly killed a ten-year-old boy, Abdulaziz Huraydan. This particular strike is well known to those who follow U.S. drone strikes closely – it was the first strike to allegedly result in a civilian death after President Obama’s May 2013 counter-terrorism speech. The day of the strike, Yemen-based journalists Iona Craig and Adam Baron tweeted that they had received unconfirmed reports that a child had been killed. Ten days later, Baron published a detailed investigative report stating that the child was killed in a strike on a vehicle that appeared targeted at his older brother, a suspected al Qaeda-affiliate. Baron wrote that the strike, because it killed a child, “set off a firestorm of complaints” among tribal leaders from the area.
2. It adds to concerns about the reliability of much initial mainstream news reporting. Despite Craig and Baron’s tweets the day of the strike, (the few) major news outlets covering the strike at the time failed to mention the child’s death. The admission in the LA Times adds weight to the warnings of many that initial mainstream news reports describing strikes – especially those relying solely on anonymous Pakistani or Yemeni officials for information on who was killed – should be treated with caution. Both CNN and Reuters, for example, citing anonymous Yemeni officials, reported only that the strike resulted in the deaths of three militants. The Associated Press reported six militants killed. The Washington Post’s drone strike tracking database (citing to a report by The Long War Journal issued the day of the strike) refers to five militants killed, specifically listing the brother as one of those fighters. The New America Foundation, which, like the Long War Journal, tracks each strike and is often cited in the U.S. press, records that one “unknown,” and between seven and eight “militants” were killed in the June 9 strike. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (which I consider to be generally the most reliable and regularly updated of the strike trackers) did prominently note that a child was reported killed, together with a number of suspected military targets.
3. It indicates that the CIA gathers information on, and briefs Congress about, at least some unintended deaths. The admission notes that the CIA provided a classified briefing to Congress about this unintended death. For those of us concerned about the extent to which the CIA investigates and keeps track of unintended and civilian deaths, and the extent to which Congress is kept informed, this aspect of the admission is a positive. The next important step is for the government to provide such information to the American public, redacted as necessary.
4. It raises questions about pre-strike surveillance. The admission is a partial answer to the questions I posed after the strike about why the U.S. killed a child. The admission suggests that the child was not judged as lawful collateral damage in a strike on a military target. Nor was he assessed pre-strike to himself be a lawful military target. Rather, according to the LA Times, those carrying out the strike did not know the child was in the targeted vehicle. Government officials frequently tout the persistent surveillance capacities of drones, and the resulting ability of the CIA to launch surgically precise strikes and to minimize civilian harm. Drone surveillance clearly offers advantages in targeting, and may enhance a state’s ability to comply with its international law obligations. But the unnoticed child should raise serious questions about: (a) whether the surveillance capacities have been overstated; (b) what kinds of precautions are taken to meet the government’s standard of “near certainty” of no harm to civilians before launching an attack; and (c) whether proper precautions were taken before this particular strike.