Will the U.S. begin acknowledging unintended drone casualties?

February 7, 2013

At John Brennan's confirmation hearing for CIA director, Sen. Ron Wyden had a pointed question on civilian casualties of drone strikes. Wyden asked Brennan how – not if – the U.S. should publicly acknowledge when a drone strike had inadvertently killed civilians. Brennan answered that he believed the U.S. should "acknowledge publicly" when it kills the wrong person.

Neither Wyden nor Brennan mentioned any instances where this had previously happened, but the U.S. has not always had the easiest time apologizing for mistaken deaths. In November 2011, a NATO air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, apparently by mistake. It was not until July 2012, by which time U.S.-Pakistani relations had hit an all-time low and Pakistan had closed NATO supply lines into Afghanistan, that the U.S. publicly apologized.

In  October, The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung got about as close as anyone ever has in securing a U.S. public acknowledgment for the apparently unintended killing of 16-year-old U.S. citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, whose father Anwar was being targeted. That acknowledgement, though, was unofficial – and came from an unnamed Obama administration official.

Two administration officials said that CIA drones were responsible for two of the most controversial attacks in Yemen in 2011 — one that killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and a second a few days later that killed his 16-year-old son, also an American citizen. One of the officials called the second attack “an outrageous mistake. . . . They were going after the guy sitting next to him.”

Both operations remain secret and unacknowledged, because of what officials said were covert-action rules that tied their hands when it came to providing information.

Wyden seems to hope that U.S. government practice on acknowledging – or, rather, not acknowledging – unintended casualties from CIA drone strikes might change under Brennan. For his part, Brennan seemed to suggest that he agreed in principle. We'll see what that means in practice if Brennan is confirmed.

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Max Fisher · February 7, 2013