Six Facts from “Sudden Justice,” A New History of the Drone War

No one in the military or CIA is exactly sure who ordered the very first drone killing, in October 2001 in Afghanistan, says a new book by investigative journalist Chris Woods.

Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, a new book by London-based investigative journalist Chris Woods, traces the intertwined technological, legal and political history of drones as they evolved on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the covert U.S. targeted killing campaign.

Woods is especially thorough on the issue of civilian casualties, arguing that in pursuit of the short-term goal of eliminating suspected terrorists or militants on the battlefield, both the military and CIA were slow to grasp the strategic damage done by civilian deaths. Woods also argues that the controversy over the number of civilians killed by drones stemmed from the United States’ elastic definition of who could be targeted, an issue not just in the CIA’s secret strikes, but also across the military.

U.S. drones have now fired on Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Syria, and are a feature of war that is here to stay. Their global use by the United States has set precedents “pushing hard at the boundaries of international law,” and the challenge, Woods writes, will be in “convincing others not to follow Washington’s own recent rulebook.”

The book is densely informative and includes interviews with drone operators and intelligence officials, a notable number of them on the record. Here are six new details that Woods unearthed in his reporting:

  1. No one is exactly sure who ordered the very first drone strike in Afghanistan, in October 2001. The failed attempt to kill Taliban leader Mullah Omar was a collision of orders between the CIA, Air Force, Central Command and the White House. Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula says that when he saw the drone’s missile hit, he exclaimed, “Who the fuck did that?” (The story of the Mullah Omar strike is also in Richard Whittle’s book, Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution, which was published last fall. You can read Whittle’s account in Politico, and Woods’ was recently excerpted in The Atlantic.)
  1. There was a secret presidential order in 2002 signed by President George W. Bush that explicitly related to targeted killings by drone, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Woods. “It was loosening the [Executive Order] 12333 against assassinations,” Armitage said. It has long been understood that a September 2001 memo signed by George Bush had paved the way for the CIA’s terrorist assassination campaign, with authorities bolstered by the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress that same month. But Armitage recalls a subsequent “draft executive order or a finding.”
  1. “Could have been us,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said of a reported drone strike that killed up to 80 civilians in 2006. The Pakistani military originally claimed responsibility for the bombing, but then later insisted it was Washington. The United States never confirmed or denied a role in the attack, in keeping with how it would handle almost all future drone strikes.
  1. The CIA generally runs the drone war in Pakistan, but there have been longstanding questions about the role played by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Woods’ sources tell him that in fact, “much of the mundane surveillance for CIA targets in Pakistan” was carried out by JSOC, because the CIA’s regular Air Force pilots were overwhelmed. Those missions were so sensitive that one of Woods’ sources told him that he had “no intention of wearing an orange jumpsuit for the next 20 years by talking about this.” The missions provided essential intelligence for the CIA’s “signature strikes,” which killed people based on their behaviors without necessarily knowing their identities.
  1. As the CIA began its most intense bombing campaigns between 2008 and 2010 in Pakistan, it ignored lessons about minimizing civilian casualties that were becoming critical parts of counterinsurgency doctrine during the same period in Afghanistan. A WikiLeaks cable unearthed by Woods notes that U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke waved off concerns about drone strikes in Pakistan, as “drones were more targeted than bombs.” It took until 2012 for the number of civilian deaths documented by outside groups to dip significantly.
  1. Bored drone pilots sometimes smuggled simple computer games onto the drone operating systems — chess, solitaire, Battleship. That stopped in 2011, after a computer virus got into the drones’ operating systems, likely from the games, former pilots told Woods.

Sudden Justice is the latest in a slew of books about the drone war published in the past year. To round out your drone war bookshelf we’d also recommend Predator, by Richard Whittle — a detailed look at the military contracting and technology behind the most iconic drone — and Kill Chain, by Andrew Cockburn, which focuses on how high-tech killing evolved from Vietnam to the drug war to drones. Earlier books on the drone war include The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzetti, Kill or Capture by Daniel Klaidman and Dirty Wars by The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill.

Photo: Sebastiano Tomada/Sipa/AP

(This post is from our blog: Unofficial Sources.)

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