Accidents will happen

The death of Dr Warren Weinstein has reignited the drone debate in the US

Accidents will happen
Dr Warren Weinstein was an American citizen working on behalf of the US administration. He was taken hostage by militants in Pakistan and got killed by the US government – accidentally.

The drone strike that killed Weinstein was carried out after analysts scoured hours of video feed, yet intelligence officials had no idea that Weinstein or his fellow hostage, Italian national Giovanni Lo Porto, were in the building which was targeted in January this year. Weinstein was kidnapped from Lahore in 2011 and kept in the compound where US intelligence believed high profile Al Qaeda leaders were hiding.

The incident could not have been more tragic for president Obama himself and downright embarrassing for his team members. The president had to take responsibility for the inadvertent incident last week. “I profoundly regret what happened,” he said. This, however, has happened before. Only last time, the president was less than apologetic.

In 2013, the Obama administration acknowledged for the very first time that at least four American citizens had been killed in drone strikes since 2009 in Pakistan and Yemen. The government had killed Anwer al Awlaki and three others.

That official admission triggered an intense debate in the US over whether the usage of unmanned aerial vehicles against American citizens was legitimate or not, and if the American government had the right to kill citizens without due process. Various anti-war and anti-drone organizations protested, and family members of civilian victims were brought in front of American lawmakers to voice their concerns.

The administration, however, had the upper hand, arguing that drones were precise, most victims were Al Qaeda associates and that the possibility of losing the chance to eliminate them was too risky.

Then-Attorney General Eric Holder wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee saying: “Based on generations-old legal principles and Supreme Court decisions handed down from WWII, as well as during the current conflict, it is clear and logical that United States citizenship alone does not make such citizens immune from being targeted.”

Over the years, the administration claimed that the intelligence-oriented precise strikes, otherwise known as Signature strikes, have been prioritized. The strike rate was reduced once Osama bin Laden was killed and Al Qaeda supposedly scattered. Yet, there were individuals and associates that the US wanted to take out. The administration declared that it would only allow strikes that have “near certainty” of zero civilian casualties.

The confession by the administration reignited the debate, which emphasizes on the administration’s nonuniform policy. The president, after his grief-stricken speech, met with intelligence officials. He told the officials that every war has its ups and downs and when mistakes occur, they will be investigated thoroughly and fixed quickly in order to prevent a similar incidents from happening again. “We’re not cavalier about what we do, and we understand the solemn responsibilities that are given to us,” he said adding that, “our first job is to make sure that we protect the American people.”

This was the clear indication that the administration wants to continue with its drone warfare, but is ready to mold the usage policy. David Rhode, a US journalist who was held captive for seven months by the Taliban militants five years ago, reported that Dr Weinstein’s wife has urged Washington to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families. He suggested that the US should stop conducting “signature” drone strikes, which run a higher risk of hitting innocents, and instead conduct “personality” strikes – which are triggered by specific information about individuals and are far more accurate.

The debate has been revealed that the president had issued a waiver that exempted strikes in Pakistan from the stricter requirement. On the other hand, senior members of the administration has also shared with a section of press that authority over some strikes would be shifted from the CIA to the Pentagon, “where longstanding US law requires greater transparency and scrutiny of American air strikes.”

These steps have become necessary since the US media believes that for President Obama, most members of Congress and a majority of American people, the use of armed UAV’s is a far better alternative than sending American soldiers into war zones to kill terrorists.