Missing Transparency: Is the US Response to Reported Drone Attack on Wedding Party Self-Defeating?

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a fact-intensive report based on the group’s investigations into a US drone strike that allegedly hit a wedding party in Yemen last December. The report is careful not to draw the ultimate conclusion about wrongdoing, but it does build a prima facie case that many civilians were killed. Part of the evidence that the incident involved a tragic mistake costing many civilian lives: the Yemeni General with command authority for the province and the governor of the province apologized for the killings in a public meeting calling the actions a “mistake,” and provincial officials gave all the families of the dead and wounded financial compensation and Kalashnikov rifles, a tribal custom for expressing an apology (pp. 16-17).

There have been several unusual aspects of the Obama administration’s response to this incident along the way. As Sarah Knuckey posted last month, the administration took the unprecedented step of announcing that it was conducting an investigation into the attack.

And, now in an apparent attempt to lessen the impact of today’s HRW report, three anonymous US officials told the Associated Press that two internal US investigations concluded that no civilians were killed, that a video of the operation exists, and that some congressional members have been shown the video.  It is too bad that it took so much pressure from civil society to achieve that modicum of procedural transparency. But now that we know investigations were conducted: what was the substantive basis for the government’s conclusions, and how might the administration dispute the most compelling aspects of the HRW report?

The answer is that the administration refuses to discuss the operation openly. That is far more understandable when it comes to C.I.A. operations. But, in this case, the Defense Department’s Joint Special Operations Command—not the C.I.A.—reportedly carried out the December strike. So, why not be more open about the operation? Here’s the administration’s reasoning:

The officials say the Pentagon can’t release details, because both the U.S. military and the CIA fly drones over Yemen. By statute, the military strikes can be acknowledged, but the CIA operations cannot. The officials said if they explain one strike but not another, they are revealing by default which ones are being carried out by the CIA.

I understand that position in theory—in so far as it applies to a systematic or routine practice of discussing each and every DOD operation.  But why does it mean the US cannot release details about this specific – and most compelling — case? In Robert Gates’s book, he explains that every incident involving civilian deaths has been a “strategic defeat” for the United States in Afghanistan. The same holds true for alleged civilian deaths that have been well documented, and the “wedding convoy” incident in Yemen has now become a symbolic spectacle. It seems far better for the Pentagon to release more details on this particular occasion—especially if the administration holds the evidence that shows no wrongdoing.

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this post incorrectly quoted Robert Gates’s book using the term “strategic setback” rather than “strategic defeat.”] 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.