90% of People Killed in Drone Strikes during Operation Haymaker Were Not Intended Targets

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“Rockford, IL- June 2: MQ-1 Predator Drone being rolled into position as a static display on June 2, 2012 for the Rockford AirFest in Rockford, IL.”
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More than 200 people were killed by drones strikes between Jan. 2012 and Feb. 2013 during Operation Haymaker in northeastern Afghanistan, according to “The Drone Papers,” a report written by The Intercept based on leaked classified documents about the US drone program. Only 35 of those people were intended targets (called “objectives” by drone operators) and the remaining 90% of the people killed in airstrikes were classified as “Enemies Killed in Action,” or EKIA, whether those people were actual enemies or just innocent civilians.

The inaccuracy of the drone strikes, according to the The Intercept report, is partially due to the culture of the drone program that values “find, fix, finish” and otherwise on the use of “signal intelligence,” metadata streamed from cell phones. As the source of the leaked papers stated, “It’s stunning the number of instances when selectors [cell phones] are misattributed to certain people… And it isn’t until several months or even years later that you all of a sudden realize that the entire time you thought you were going after this hot target, you wind up realizing it was his mother’s phone the whole time.”

The report also reveals the details of the “Kill Chain,” the chain of command for drone strikes. The first step, choosing a target, goes through (1) the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) Task Force, (2) the Centcom Commander, (3) the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, (4) the Secretary of Defense, and (5) the “Principals Committee” (which includes the National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, and Counter-Terrorism Advisor among 10 other officials) before landing on the President’s desk for approval. The President approves the “objective,” which allows 90 days to carry out the strike (or multiple strikes) against that particular target. Each strike is then approved by the JSOC Task Force, the Centcom Commander, and the CIA Station Chief and the Ambassador of the country in which the strike will take place.

Amnesty International stated, “These documents raise serious concerns about whether the USA has systematically violated international law, including by classifying unidentified people as ‘combatants’ to justify their killings.”

The US government has not yet commented on “The Drone Papers” but has previously defended the drone program. On May 23, 2013 at the National Defense University, President Obama stated, “The terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.”

Hillary Clinton, in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, called the drone program “one of the most effective and controversial elements of the Obama Administration’s strategy against al Qaeda and like-minded terrorists in hard to reach areas.”

Republican Senator John McCain, in an Apr. 27, 2015 article, stated, “We are now facing a new form of warfare with these non-state organizations that are spread all over Hell’s half-acre, and really the only way you can get at them that we know of now that’s viable is these drone operations… We’re not going to send boots on the ground and that’s certainly understandable.”


Amnesty International, “USA Must Be Held to Account for Drone Killings in Pakistan,” www.amnesty.org, Oct. 22, 2013

Amnesty International, “US Congress Must Launch Urgent Inquiry into Obama’s Drone Use,” www.amnesty.org, Oct. 15, 2015

Hillary Clinton, Hard Times, 2014

Marina Fang, “Nearly 90 Percent of People Killed in Recent Drone Strikes Were Not the Target,” www.huffingtonpost.com, Oct. 15, 2015

Rob Garver, “Hostage Deaths Aside, Support for Drone Strikes Still Strong in DC,” thefiscaltimes.com, Apr. 27, 2015

Andy Greenberg, “A Second Snowden Has Leaked a Motherlode of Drone Docs,” www.wired.com, Oct. 15, 2015

Jeremy Scahill, Josh Begley, Cora Currier, Ryan Devereaux, Peter Maass, Ryan Gallagher, and Nick Turse, “The Drone Papers,” theintercept.com, Oct. 15, 2015

AJ Vicens and Max J. Rosenthal, “A Massive National Security Leak Just Blew the Lid Off Obama’s Drone War,” www.motherjones.com, Oct. 15, 2015

Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “The Drama of the Drone Papers,” nymag.com, Oct. 19, 2015

White House, “Remarks of President Obama,” www.whitehouse.gov, May 23, 2013

Micah Zenko, “The Intercept’s ‘Drone Papers’ Revelations Mandate a Congressional Investigation,” foreignpolicy.com, Oct. 15, 2015