The New York Times has an important front-page story today by Mark Mazzetti and Robert Worth on last week’s drone strike in Yemen, which reportedly targeted a convoy of trucks that turned out to be not an imminent terrorist plot, but a wedding party. At least twelve people were killed. As is frequently the case, determining the truth about what happened is difficult, but it seems to be the case that the drone strike did indeed hit a wedding party. Some of the victims may have been associated with al Qaeda, but the strike also killed “at least a half dozen innocent people, according to a number of tribal leaders and witnesses.” The Yemeni government has conceded that civilians were killed, and has provided rifles and cash to be paid in reparations to the survivors.
But of course the Yemeni government did not do the killing. Our government did. So what is its response? From the Times story: “A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to comment about the Dec. 12 strike, referring a reporter to a vague news release issued last week by the government of Yemen, written in Arabic.”
Is this the face of Obama’s vaunted new drone policy. At his May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, Obama promised more transparency and accountability on drones, and asserted that he would authorize strikes outside of battlefield situations unless individuals posed an “imminent and continuing” threat to U.S. persons, there were no feasible alternatives to capture or otherwise countermand the threat, and there was a “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed.
Those standards are commendable, in theory. But are they followed in practice? How in the world, for example, can you target a wedding party with a “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed? For some time, administration supporters suggested that greater transparency was not possible about drone strikes because Yemen and Pakistan had agreed to allow them only on the condition that the United States not admit that it was behind the strikes. But the fact of Yemen’s consent is now public record. So is the fact that we deploy drones for targeted killing there. What possible justification, then, can there be for the administration’s radio silence about the most recent killing? Standards for drone strikes are meaningless if the government will neither admit nor account for its lethal actions.