Imperial Terrorism and the US Drone “Double Tap” Policy

A recent article in Business Insider with the provocative title “It is Now Common Knowledge that US Drones Bomb Civilian Rescuers” is making the rounds on the internet. Based on a report from Reuters, it makes the claim that U.S. drones typically “double tap” targets. This would mean that it is the normal protocol for drones to strike a target, wait for a period of time, then hit the same target a second time (hence the term “double tap”). The second hit would be likely to hurt civilian first responders, emergency vehicles, humanitarians, etc.

The “double tap” strategy has been a perennial favorite among terrorists. Attacking emergency workers is one of the quickest, most effective ways to demoralize one’s opponent.  Terrorists and guerrilla fighters have ben using the tactic for years—from the Vietcong, who regularly targeted unarmed Medevac helicopters, to the Boston bombers, who set off a second bomb just especially for first responders.

But the U.S., and most of the civilized world, have vehemently condemned this terrorist tactic. According to the military doctrine of medical neutrality (which is protected in the Geneva Conventions), first responders are neutral and cannot be treated as combatants. Targeting them is considered a war crime. A recently proposed piece of legislation on medical neutrality, if it is enacted, would make the U.S. an international watch dog on violations of medical neutrality. The bill has received wide bipartisan support in Congress.

But if the report on drone strikes is to be believed, the U.S. has been violating medical neutrality with its “double tap” policy. We have become terrorists in our war on terror. In fact we are not just utilizing terrorist tactics, we are institutionalizing them.

A recent study by New York and Stanford Universities indicates that a fairly large proportion of drone strike deaths in Pakistan have been civilians—much higher estimates than the Obama administration has been willing to release. Even if the lowest estimates are accepted, for every 6 or so people killed in Pakistan by drone strikes, one of them has been a completely innocent civilian. And most of those innocent deaths are the result of the double tap policy.1

But the drone strike situation has been worsened by sensationalist journalism, which is why I am wary of overselling this story. Many highly exaggerated, and therefore easily debunked, reports have lent credibility to the Obama administration’s claim that critics don’t know the facts—that the outcry against drone strikes is generated by gullible reporters who are becoming the unwitting tools of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers who, obviously, want to end the drone strikes precisely because the drone strikes have been effective.

As an example of this exaggerated journalism, some sources (like this one and this one and this one), claiming to be based on the Living Under Drones report, estimate that only 1 terrorist is killed for every 50 drone strike deaths in Pakistan. The very thorough drone study does not say this, and the truth is already bad enough. I tracked down the source of this misleading figure: a New York Times op-ed piece written in 2009 (three years before the Living Under Drones report was released). Though it does make for a compelling headline (ONLY 1 IN 50 KILLED BY DRONES IS A TERRORIST!!!!!!), the 1 in 50 statistic is based on very unreliable information badly calculated. Here’s the quote from the New York Times:

Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent—hardly “precision.” American officials vehemently dispute these figures, and it is likely that more militants and fewer civilians have been killed than is reported by the press in Pakistan.

There are so many problems with this figure. For one, terrorist leaders does not mean the same thing as terrorist militants, though the author uses them interchangeably to skew his ratio. The number of militants could have been, and obviously would have to be, much higher than the number of leaders leading them. Further, basing the number of civilians killed on Pakistani government estimates is hardly unbiased reporting. That this 1 in 50 figure has been repeated over and over by other “news” sources without any caveat, and in connection with the very well-documented Stanford and NYU study, is extraordinarily sloppy reporting bordering on willful misinformation. Like I said, the truth is already bad enough. Exaggerating it destroys the credibility of our criticisms.

I recommend you download and read the Living Under Drones report. The section on the Obama administration’s definition of “combatant” is especially significant, as it has implications for the domestic use of lethal force as well.2 How far are we willing to go with this? What rules aren’t we willing to break and what rights aren’t we willing to violate in our desperate attempt to regain a feeling of security?

  1. International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan (2012), p. 10. []
  2. Ibid., p. 47. []