Q&A on ‘The Drone Papers’ with History Professor Brian Glyn Williams

Professor Williams offers his reaction to the release of the documents, the impact this could have on the U.S. drone program, and just how expansive the U.S. Predator/Reaper drone assassination program is.

Brian Williams
UMass Dartmouth History Professor Brian Glyn Williams is the author of "Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda"

Today the online publication The Intercept released a series of documents related to the inner workings of the United States drone program. The documents and files released also offer new details on U.S. operations in the countries of Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. UMass Dartmouth History Professor Brian Glyn Williams is the author of Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda and has published extensively on issues related to terrorism and war in the Middle East.

Professor Williams offers his reaction to the release of the documents, the impact this could have on the U.S. drone program, and just how expansive the U.S. Predator/Reaper drone assassination program is.

What do you think the reaction abroad from U.S. allies and enemies is to the release of these documents?

BGW: Drone critics have long bemoaned the lack of openness in regards to the vast drone assassination campaign carried out by the CIA and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) in undeclared war zones like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. For years they have been demanding to know what criterion are used to declare someone an HVT (High Value Target) and "nominate" them for the Kill List for the CIA or JSOC. Now we finally have some insight into this hidden process.

This leak will come as welcome news to groups who feel that the American people deserve to know who their government is killing with the state of the art Predator and Reaper drones and why. Unfortunately, it will certainly provide fodder to those in Pakistan (where more than 90 percent of the CIA and JSOC drone strikes take place) who exaggerate the drone deaths and claim that the vast majority of those who die in this targeted assassination campaign are innocent bystanders known as "collateral damage."

It will also provide good propaganda material for those who indisputably suffer the most from the drone strikes, the Taliban and Al Qaeda who are hiding out in the remote tribal zones of Pakistan where the drones ply their deadly trade and terrorize the terrorists.

Do you think this will have any impact on the U.S. drone program?

BGW: I believe the CIA and JSOC are so shrouded in secrecy that this leak will not drastically change the culture there. I can see President Obama, who approves the "nominations" on the kill list, being forced to defend his decisions, but it won't drastically alter the campaign which is seen as success by the Agency and Special Operations Command. It should also be stated that the vast majority of those who are killed by the drones are not on the watch list described in the leaked documents, rather they are killed due to their suspicious "pattern of life" activities. These so-called "signature strikes" take place against targets who are not placed on a list, but are tracked while engaging in activities that mark them as insurgents or terrorists (for example entering a known terrorist hujra-guest house with weapons).

According to the documents in one five-month period, 90 percent of those killed in drone strikes were not the intended targets. Does this surprise you?

DroneBGW: No this does not surprise me when one considers that most drone strikes are carried out in remote lands in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan where the U.S. is relying on "sigint" signals intelligence (i.e. phone intercepts) or techint (high resolution drone cameras) and humint (human intelligence via spies). Very often the drones will fire on targets whose "signature" or actions mark them as suspected Taliban or Al Qaeda targets without knowing their identities. Actions like sneaking across a border with weapons at night are enough to call forth a "signature strike."

In May of this year the White House admitted that it had accidentally killed two American hostages being held by the Taliban in a drone strike on a suspected Taliban hideout. This strike was I think emblematic of the findings in this document that in one period, 90 percent of those killed were not the intended target. Most of those killed in this period whose identities were not known were probably Taliban foot soldiers not HVTs (High Value Targets). 

It appears the group who released these documents is arguing that the public is not being made aware of how expansive the U.S. drone is. With your own research and background on this issue, what is something that you know that may surprise the general public in the U.S.?

BGW: Few Americans know just how expansive the Predator/Reaper drone assassination program is. According to the New America Foundation, more than 3,000 people have died in the drone campaign in Pakistan alone since it began in 2004. This is the largest American assassination campaign since the Vietnam War. The CIA and JSOC are constantly establishing new "orbits" (drone patrols) and buying new drones at a time of marked austerity and military cutbacks.

The CIA, which once focused primarily on spying, has become a killing machine since 9/11 and works hand and glove with the military in ways it never has before. There are now more pilots being trained to fly drones that manned aircraft. Clearly we are experiencing a revolution in warfare and no one really knows its real ramifications. Anything that helps us shed a light on this murky drone war, even leaks like this one, is welcome by those who favor transparency instead of secrecy.

About Brian Glyn Williams:

Professor Brian Glyn Williams is author of Predators: The CIA's Drone War on Al QaedaHis research is based on his time spent in the remote tribal zones of Pakistan and interviews with drone pilots and generals in charge of the campaign. He has also worked for the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center and Army's Information Operations Command in Afghanistan. He has spoken on the issue with national and international media on the drone campaign and has published dozens of articles on this subject.

 


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