Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 21, 2021
The U.S. drone strike of Aug. 29 was as horrific a mistake as tactical blunders can produce. Its aftermath did nothing but deepen the pain. The 10 people killed in Kabul were an extended family that included seven children, among them a child of 2. For two weeks afterward the U.S. insisted the family’s slain leader was a militant linked to ISIS. That assertion exposed his survivors to reprisals by ISIS’ foe, the Taliban, and it was false. Then the Pentagon corrected its error and said the man actually worked for a U.S. aid agency. That was true, but it was a connection his survivors would have liked to conceal from the new Taliban regime.
Such punishment of innocents has special poignancy when it is so completely avoidable, and it’s understandable that this bloodbath sparked outrage. What’s harder to understand is why it was a surprise. For that we need to look at how fiercely the government has sought to keep secret the facts of its murderous, error-prone, decades-long drone wars.
That secrecy was challenged, briefly, during the summer at the little-noticed sentencing of Daniel Hale, a former Air Force intelligence analyst. Hale had confessed to violating the Espionage Act by making public documents that exploded the more comforting myths we’ve been fed about the drone wars, in which thousands of people identified as enemies have been obliterated over the past two decades by advanced U.S. weaponry.
Hale is 33, reputedly a descendant of Nathan Hale, the American patriot the British hanged as a spy in 1776. His disclosures led to a blistering eight-part series in the Intercept, the online investigative journalism site, published in 2015, which “lay bare the normalization of assassination as a central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy.”
Hale’s prosecution drew little mainstream media attention. That was alarming since his disclosures exposed the realities of a program that remains one of the most enduring and least covered legacies of the post-9/11 war on terror.
Among the findings that the Intercept reported were that the government “masks the true number of civilians killed in drone strikes by categorizing unidentified people killed in a strike as enemies, even if they were not the intended targets.”
The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated deaths from drone strikes and other covert operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia at between 8,858 and 16,901 since 2004, a number that includes as many as 2,200 civilians and 454 children. That doesn’t include the latest deaths.
The Intercept’s data, presumably from Hale, was even more alarming. During one 13-month campaign in eastern Afghanistan ending in February 2013, airstrikes killed more than 200 people, only 35 of whom were the intended targets. During one five-month period, 90% of the dead were not the intended targets.
Operations in Yemen and Somalia relied heavily on intelligence gathered by airborne relays of piloted and robotic aircraft that flew great distances to reach the targeted areas, and couldn’t stay long. On-the-ground intelligence was scant, and the U.S. often relied on denunciations from local worthies whose reliability was unsure and who might have been settling scores of their own.
That’s not the story we were getting. Since the 2003 Iraq invasion, when the U.S. public was introduced to “smart bombs,” we’ve been told that our munitions, like our policies, are decent and discerning. The drone wars have largely escaped scrutiny because they’re conducted in deep shadows. We know them mainly as a movie cliché: heroes in flight suits in dark rooms frowning at their screens waiting for last-second confirmation, then with a keystroke annihilating the target in a soundless and, near as we can see, bloodless burst of pixels.
Although the drones deliver payloads of immense explosive force, we understand that with the regrettable exception of the occasional wedding party (“Bride and Boom!” as an especially tasteless New York Post headline put it), the strikes are targeted with arthroscopic precision and do no more damage than a sniper round.
We have no idea how the people selected for death are chosen, how their deservingness to die is determined, whether there exists an actual case against them that is made somewhere — with someone arguing their side — whether the most elemental demands of justice are met, whether the incriminating evidence is true, and whether anyone has to show that the targeted people pose a threat to us, since, in the final analysis, keeping us safe is the only thing that might justify killing them.
Hale was moved to make drone data public by the account he heard in 2013 from a Yemeni man at a peace conference. He told of relatives who had been encouraging young men to leave al Qaeda and who were killed in a drone strike. Hale said he realized he had actually watched that hit while he was stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and it was celebrated by his comrades as a win.
In July, Hale pleaded guilty to one count of espionage, and in a graphically detailed, handwritten letter, told the judge: “Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification for my actions. By the rules of engagement, it may have been permissible for me to have helped to kill those men — whose language I did not speak, customs I did not understand, and crimes I could not identify — in the gruesome manner that I did.”
With incendiary rhetoric likening Hale to a heroin trafficker who “chose to place his ego above his oaths,” Biden’s prosecutors pushed for a harsh, nine-year sentence. On July 13, Hale got 45 months, just under four years.
Six weeks later, 10 more Afghan civilians were dead. Nobody’s going to prison for that.