U.S. Said to Target Rescuers at Drone Strike Sites
WASHINGTON — British and Pakistani journalists said Sunday that the C.I.A.’s drone strikes on suspected militants inPakistan have repeatedly targeted rescuers who responded to the scene of a strike, as well as mourners at subsequent funerals.
The report, by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, found that at least 50 civilians had been killed in follow-up strikes after they rushed to help those hit by a drone-fired missile. The bureau counted more than 20 other civilians killed in strikes on funerals. The findings were published on the bureau’s Web site and in The Sunday Times of London.
The bureau’s findings are based on interviews with witnesses to strikes in Pakistan’s rugged tribal area, where reporting is often dangerous and difficult. American officials have questioned the accuracy of such claims, asserting that accounts might be concocted by militants or falsely confirmed by residents who fear retaliation.
But most other studies of drone strikes have relied on sketchy and often contradictory news reports from Pakistan. The bureau’s investigation, which began last year with a detailed study of civilian casualties, involved interviews with villagers who said they saw strikes, wounded people and family members of those killed.
The bureau counted 260 strikes by Predator and Reaper drones since President Obama took office, and it said that 282 to 535 civilians had been “credibly reported” killed in those attacks, including more than 60 children. American officials said that the number was much too high, though they acknowledged that at least several dozen civilians had been killed inadvertently in strikes aimed at militant suspects.
A senior American counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, questioned the report’s findings, saying “targeting decisions are the product of intensive intelligence collection and observation.” The official added: “One must wonder why an effort that has so carefully gone after terrorists who plot to kill civilians has been subjected to so much misinformation. Let’s be under no illusions — there are a number of elements who would like nothing more than to malign these efforts and help Al Qaeda succeed.”
Getting a full picture of the drone campaign is difficult. It is classified as top secret, and Obama administration officials have refused to make public even the much-disputed legal opinions underpinning it.
But Mr. Obama spoke about the program in an online appearance last week.
“I want to make sure that people understand: actually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” he said in the forum on YouTube. “For the most part they have been very precise precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates.” He called the strikes “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists.”
However, American officials familiar with the rules governing the strikes and who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that many missiles had been fired at groups of suspected militants who are not on any list. These so-called signature strikes are based on assessments that men carrying weapons or in a militant compound are legitimate targets.