Stanford Law report claims drone strikes bolster militant groups, kill innocents

A joint Stanford Law School-NYU School of Law report released on Monday claims that drone strikes conducted by the CIA in northern Pakistan have not made the United States notably safer, arguing that evidence to that effect is “ambiguous at best,” and that drone strikes may in fact help militant groups recruit members.

The 146-page report, titled “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan,” is focused on the Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), most specifically on a region within FATA known as North Waziristan.

“We’re trying to…change the terms of the debate so that people recognize that…even if we haven’t declared war on Pakistan – and we haven’t – for the people living under drones, they feel as though they’re living in a war zone,” Stanford Law School Professor James Cavallero said.

Cavallero is one of the study’s lead authors along with Stanford Clinical Lecturer Stephan Sonnenberg and NYU School of Law professor Sarah Knuckey. The report was a collaboration between Stanford’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and NYU School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic.

Researchers went on two fact-finding investigations to the Afghani-Pakistani border region, speaking with more than 130 Pakistanis, many of whom are victims or are related to victims of drone strikes. Because FATA is cordoned off by the Pakistani military, the team had to arrange for the 69 interview subjects who live in FATA to go to Islamabad or other cities outside FATA region, a task Cavallero said was exceptionally difficult.

“It was horrifying, talking to somebody and having them tell you that they’ve lost their leg and they don’t know why. All they know is that a missile hit them,” Stanford Law student and clinic member Mohammad Ali said. “One father had lost his son and we asked him how he felt. For him, no matter what we did, we could listen to what he said, we could apologize for our government’s action, but it wasn’t going to bring [his son] back.”

Interviewees reported that they are wary of attending weddings or funerals for fear that the drone operator at the CIA will decide that the people at the gathering are exhibiting a “pattern of life” that identifies them as terrorists. The Obama administration implemented the “pattern of life” standard for drone strikes, which analyzes the activities of unidentified groups to determine plausible terrorist affiliation.

“All of the interviews were really moving to me because all of the interviewees had come such a long way and taken such a risk, braving curfews and sometimes violence to come and…spend one hour with our team telling their story,” said Omar Shakir ’07 J.D. ’13, another a member of the Stanford Law clinic behind the report.

“We hope that this report will add to the chorus of voices among society that are calling for a reevaluation of our target-killing program,” Shakir said.

Since the report was released, numerous international news organizations have picked up the story including the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, MSNBC and The New York Times At War blog, which said the report was “among the most thorough on the subject to date.”

The Stanford clinic began with a three-week seminar last spring to prepare students for the fieldwork. After the clinic was complete, four of the students in the clinic stayed through the summer to assist in writing the report.

“Much of the work and a lot of the thinking and strategizing and working through the report is student work,” Cavallero said.

“One thing you learn from the human rights clinic is that law is one avenue to bring about change,” Ali said. “Advocacy is also very important. Along with that goes critical thinking. There are certain types of advocacy that might end up harming your cause sometimes, so you want to create a human rights report that is comprehensive and accurate and respectful of all cultures.”

The first sentences of the report strongly takes to task how drone use is perceived in the United States:

“In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the U.S. safer by enabling ‘targeted killings’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false.”

The report goes on to highlight concerns with drone use including that the U.S. government defines “militants” as all males of military age – absent of exonerating evidence, the drone strikes’ effects on boosting anti-Americanism and undermining Pakistani democracy, the commonplace “double-tap” strike protocol (when a second strike hits just as first-responders arrive at the scene), and non-military CIA personnel having control over the drone strike program.

“We’re a human rights clinic, so we work on human rights issues all over the world,” Cavallero said. “Since we’re based in the United States, we feel some obligation to assess the policies and practices of the United States to see if they are or if they are not in compliance with international law and international human rights legal norms.”

Cavallero held that the challenge now is figuring out how to follow up on this report and further engage the issue of drone strikes, depending on the reception of Living Under Drones.

“There is some push-back from people who are not happy with what we’re saying, there are some blogs out there that are attacking us, but I think what they’re going to find is that the report is extremely well researched and documented,” he said.

About Alice Phillips

Alice Phillips '15 is Managing Editor of News at The Stanford Daily. Previously, she worked as the paper's Deputy Editor, Chief Copy Editor, a News Desk Editor and a News Staff Writer. Alice is a biology major from Los Angeles, California.
  • james

    Quote: “…we could apologize for our government’s action…”

    While I am very sympathetic to the plight of those harmed, I do strongly get the feeling that the conclusion of this “investigation” was decided long before any interviews took place. None of the quotes unfortunately indicate any semblance of objectivity about the topic which decreases the credibility of the investigation.

    You don’t need a 146 page report to know the killing and maiming of innocent people is a horrific tragedy and will lead to resentment by those harmed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joftius Joshua Loftus

    @5b44f2f32b23f7f1b1fd778e0dbb1652:disqus : Objectivity is a mirage that can never be reached, and people become delusional when they pursue it (believing they have attained the unattainable). Read the actual report and see what its conclusions are, and judge for yourself if the evidence presented supports those conclusions. To do otherwise would be the same as what you are accusing the authors of- reaching a conclusion before your investigation.

    Considering that these drone strikes are done in secrecy, have questionable (to put it lightly) legal status, cause human deaths, and are paid for and (ostensibly) done on our behalf, if this report sheds any light on the subject and/or draws attention to it then it is very important.

  • chrisrushlau

    Not having read the study, I congratulate you for bringing out this concept of “pattern of life” as a targeting strategy, or targeting non-strategy, or non-targeting strategy. I’m surprised you didn’t lead the story with this angle.

  • Gnurkel

    From the paper:

    Under Obama, the program expanded to include far more “profile” or so-called “signature” strikes based on a “pattern of life” analysis. According to US authorities, these strikes target “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.”

    Just what those “defining characteristics” are has never been made public. In 2012, the New York Times paraphrased a view shared by several officials that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” The Times also reported that some in the Obama administration joke that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” they think it is a terrorist training camp.

    Chilling reading, no? Wonder if you asked an american the question “Do you believe that another nation has the right to send drones into the US and kill anyone they feel like, without a declaration of war or due process of law?” – then following up with the question “Do you believe the US has the right to do this to citizens of another country?”