Last night, NBC’s Michael Isikoff reported that (anonymous) US officials said:
“The Obama administration has launched an internal investigation into a Dec. 12 drone strike in Yemen that targeted an al Qaeda militant but which local villagers say ended up hitting a wedding party, killing 12 and injuring 14 others.”
The news in Isikoff’s report is not that the administration is investigating one of the most troubling and widely discussed drone strikes carried out during Obama’s presidency. Senior US officials have stated numerous times that each and “every” strike is assessed for civilian casualties, particularly when “there are indications that civilian deaths may have occurred.” Little information has ever been provided about the processes and outcomes of such investigations, but it is to be expected that this strike would be the subject of at least some form of government investigation.
What is news is the fact of US officials stating publicly that they would launch an investigation into a specifically identified strike. An announcement by the US of a specific investigation is extremely rare, even when made anonymously, and even for those limited subset of strikes about which a large amount of prima facie evidence of civilian harm is publicly and quickly put forward. Typically, officials simply refuse to comment on specific strikes, or, occasionally, they dispute civilian harm allegations.
In the context of the targeted killing program’s general state of extreme secrecy, the announcement of the investigation is a positive development. The announcement came amidst weeks of significant pressure and criticism about the December strike, and following two months of intensive victim, civil society, United Nations, and diplomatic pressure for more transparency generally. Hopefully, the announcement signals the recognition, at least among some in the administration, of the untenability of continued secrecy, and the start of a growing openness in how the US responds to reports of civilian deaths. That the announcement was sourced to anonymous officials is curious and unfortunate. If the administration wants to demonstrate that it takes accountability and allegations of civilian casualties seriously, why not formally announce the investigation?
What the government should do now is not especially complicated. The investigation that the administration is now carrying out should be effective, prompt, thorough, and impartial. In investigating the strike, the administration should gather information from all available sources, including from journalists, human rights advocates and others who have investigated the strike, as well as from the alleged victims themselves. The existence and general processes of the investigation should be formally acknowledged. This is especially so given that the strike was reportedly carried out by JSOC, rather than the CIA, and that it took place in Yemen, where the administration has acknowledged the fact of its targeted killing program.
Crucially, the investigation’s findings must be made public, at least in redacted form. An investigation would fail to fulfill one of its primary purposes – accountability to the public and to those directly impacted by US actions – if its processes and results remain entirely secret.