As President Obama stood in front of the cameras at the White House yesterday and apologized for a January drone strike in Pakistan near the Afghan border that inadvertently killed an American and an Italian who had been held hostage for years, he was feeling the blowback from the many years of operating a drone program that has made the US the poster child around the world for imperial hypocrisy.
In many ways, the more than a thousand civilian deaths in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia through US drone strikes has been the greatest humanitarian failure of the Obama administration. When critics at home and around the world attack him, their first thrust is often to cite the fact that the US drastically increased the use of drone strikes during his presidency—with an inevitable increase in the number of innocent people who perished, including hundreds of children.
This was a man who started his presidency by winning the Nobel Peace Prize. As he closes in on the end of his presidency, these are the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s latest figures for the US drone strikes in Pakistan, where he has done the overwhelming majority of his damage:
Total strikes: 415
Obama strikes: 364
Total killed: 2,449-3,949
Civilians killed: 423-962
Children killed: 172-207
In the African-American community, the drone killings have been a particular obsession on the left, with commentators ranging from Cornel West to rapper Lupe Fiasco leveling savage attacks on the president. West said he didn’t vote in the last election because “I couldn’t vote for a war criminal,” he said, calling Obama’s administration a “drone presidency.”
Fiasco called Obama a baby killer for the drone program that has wiped out more than 200 children.
During his speech, Obama yesterday apologized and said he took “full responsibility” for all counterterrorism operations, including this one.
“I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families,” Obama told reporters at the White House.
To borrow a line from Malcolm X, for Obama this is a case of the chickens coming home to roost. When you align yourself with this program of clinical killing by video game monitor, sometimes you’re going to kill some of your own.
The hostages killed in the January drone strike were aid workers Warren Weinstein, an American held by al Qaeda since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian who went missing in Pakistan in 2012. In addition, Ahmed Farouq, an American who was an al Qaeda leader, was killed, according to U.S. officials.
Five days later, Adam Gadahn, an American al Qaeda operative who had been charged with treason in the United States, was also killed in a separate strike on another al Qaeda camp, officials said.
Obama said he had ordered a full review of the incident to make sure such mistakes are not repeated.
But there was muted criticism of the president from Republican quarters. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who is one of the president’s loudest enemies, said Gadahn and Farouq “got what they deserved.”
U.S. officials told reporters that the strikes occurred inside Pakistan in the conflict-torn border region near Afghanistan at compounds that the CIA had been observing for a while but had no idea hostages were present.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the administration should do a better job of following its own standards before launching drone strikes.
“In each of the operations acknowledged today, the U.S. quite literally didn’t know who it was killing,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.
While Lo Porto’s mother told reporters in Palermo, Sicily to ” leave me alone in my grief,” the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, actually praised Obama.
“I have much appreciated the transparency of the United States in taking their responsibilities for what happened and the way Obama communicated what happened,” Renzi said.
Weinstein, 73, was abducted in Lahore, Pakistan, while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development as a contractor. Al Qaeda had been trying unsuccessfully to trade him for Al Qaeda members held by the United States.
In Rockville, Maryland, where he lived, yellow ribbons were tied on trees and there were vases and bouquets of flowers and cherry blossoms outside his home.
His wife Elaine said the family was devastated by his death and criticized the U.S. government for “inconsistent and disappointing” assistance during her husband’s years in captivity.
Obama said he spoke with her on Wednesday.