U.S. officials tell us that a drone strike has killed al Qaeda's #2 operative - Abu Yahya al-Libi:
One American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described Mr. Libi as one of Al Qaeda’s “most experienced and versatile leaders,” and said he had “played a critical role in the group’s planning against the West, providing oversight of the external operations efforts.”
U.S. officials also told us the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was a dangerous terrorist, when it turned out he was a propagandist, and not all that influential in the mid-east.
Meanwhile, despite that administration officials claim that civilian deaths are rare and minimal (one official recently said "in the single digits") the think tank New America Foundation estimated that since Obama took office, the number of drone deaths in Pakistan alone totaled between 1,456 and 2,372. Certainly these were not all high-level al-Qaeda operatives.
I can't help but notice the numbers' similarity to some of the casualty numbers from the Pentagon or World Trade Center. Obviously, Americans would no doubt agree with me that -though Obama claims the legal authority to do so - it would morally reprehensible to take down one of the WTC towers with a drone just because an al-Qaeda operative happened to be hiding out in the broom cupboard.
The question then is: how many innocents is it acceptable to kill to take down one suspected terrorist?
The question is made more stark considering that fuzzy math the Obama administration is using to determine who is a "militant."
. . . Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.
Glenn Greenwald already eloquently articulated the propaganda benefits for the administration in using the obviously erroneous "civilian death" calculations:
For now, consider what this means for American media outlets. Any of them which use the term “militants” to describe those killed by U.S. strikes are knowingly disseminating a false and misleading term of propaganda.
Reports indicate that Obama is comfortable with at least some innocent loss of life:
“He realizes this isn’t science, this is judgments made off of, most of the time, human intelligence,” said Mr. Daley, the former chief of staff. “The president accepts as a fact that a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen, and to him, that calls for a more judicious process.” . . . .
Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official.
Obama flippantly called the decision to kill al-Awlaki with a drone strike "an easy one," but that strike also killed another American - Samir Khan. Was the decision to kill him as easy? Then, a drone also killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old American son.
The fuzzy math formula for calculating civilian deaths implies that the Obama administration wants to skew the numbers to look as though drones are killing more "militants" and fewer innocents, implying there is a limit somewhere for how many innocent people Obama is willing to deliberately kill in order to take down a suspected terrorist.
But, without any meaningful oversight, Americans have no way of knowing Obama's "limit" for acceptable innocent deaths. The Obama administration's steadfast attempts to keep the courts from weighing in by insisting that it cannot "confirm or deny" the existence of the drone program reinforce the secrecy and solidify Obama as the sole arbiter of how many innocents are worth the life of a suspected terrorist. If nothing changes, the next President will have the same authority.
Whatever our partisan leanings, Americans should ask ourselves if we would have been willing to trust all past presidents with deciding how many innocent people - including Americans - it is alright to target and kill to get one supposed "bad guy." Would we have been as comfortable with G.W. Bush or Richard Nixon making these decisions? The presidency is bigger than Mr. Obama and his personal judgment calls about who to kill, and whatever powers President Obama seizes for himself, the next President will no doubt embrace.
In the meantime, we will continue to hear that Obama-authorized drone strikes have killed "militants," with no meaningful oversight check on whether the "militants" are actually terrorists or whether the number of civilians killed has reached an unacceptable level, whatever that is.
And this from the self-proclaimed "most transparent administration in history."
Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.