Sarah Knuckey in Esquire: “The US Just Killed A Boy In Yemen: Will Obama Respond? (June 21)
June 21, 2013

Last night, McClatchy Newspapers published a detailed report alleging that a U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed not only suspected militants, but also a ten-year-old boy named Abdulaziz Huraydan. If true, the boy’s killing sets a grisly new milestone. This is the first reported civilian death from a drone strike since President Obama’sMay 23 speech on counter-terrorism, in which he told us that the U.S. would only strike if there was a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” A week after Obama’s speech, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly stated, “We do not fire when we know there are children or collateral … we just don’t.”

The strike occurred two weeks ago on June 9. Adam Baron, the McClatchy journalist who covered the story and who recently testified before members of Congress about his numerous drone strike investigations, told me that a number of sources confirmed to him that the child, Abdulaziz, was killed. It appears that the boy was the younger brother of a suspected al Qaida militant, and that the strike targeted the car they were traveling in.

Investigations of drone strikes are often exceptionally difficult, in part because the U.S. and other governments refuse to admit basic facts, and because of the difficulty in accessing areas where many strikes occur, security restrictions, witness fears, source reliability concerns, and the difficulty of carrying out forensic examinations. Baron, who spent the past two weeks piecing the story together, said that reporting on many of the strikes in Yemen was a “nearly Sisyphean task.” He also said that while news reports “often hit the wires within hours of strike, the dust often takes days to settle” and that initial “reported death counts are often inaccurate.”

Absent Baron’s report, there would be virtually no public record of ten-year-old Abdulaziz’s alleged killing by the United States. Numerous major outlets did not cover the strike at all. (They have also largely failed to report allegations of other strikes in Yemen since Obama’s speech.) Those that did cover the June 9 strike, including the Associated Press and Reuters, made no mention of the child, although Baron and journalist Iona Craig had reported — via twitter — early allegations of the child’s death on the very day of the strike.

The President and senior officials, after years of criticism by human rights groups and others about the targeted killing program’s secrecy, have repeatedly committed to and promised transparency. (Seehereherehereherehereherehere, and here). Notably, John Brennan, during his nomination to be CIA Director, stated that if there was a mistake and the wrong person was killed, we “need to acknowledge it publicly.”

As is typically the case, however, the U.S. government is yet to say a word about the latest reported strike. Without any meaningful government transparency, the public is left guessing how to best reconcile the allegations of Abdulaziz’s death with Obama’s new killing rules and Kerry’s public statements. Are reports of the child’s death mistaken or false? Did the U.S. consider the boy a militant? Was it the Yemenis or Saudis, and not the Americans, who carried out the strike? Or, perhaps the U.S. does conduct strikes if it knows civilians may be killed?

It is difficult to know what policies, rules, or laws may have been applied to this strike in light of the government’s refusal to release its targeted killing legal memos, or to explain key terms in sufficient detail. Maybe the new killings rules published last month have not come fully into effect yet; maybe they did not apply to this strike. (Despite the publication of the killing rules, the public does not know clearly when and where they apply, for the reasons explained by Ryan Goodman and myself here). Perhaps, then, those targeting knew that the child was there, but reasonably assessed his death as lawful collateral damage under the laws of armed conflict. Or, perhaps, despite claims that drones enable unprecedented surveillance and accuracy, those targeting on June 9 just did not see that a child was also in the car; his death may have been unintended, a mistake.

This is, of course, hardly the only case of its type. Local and international journalists and human rights researchers have reported detailed allegations of past cases which raise questions about civilian harm, as well as whether the U.S. could have captured rather than killed a suspect. A brief sample of particularly troubling cases: a January 2013 strike that allegedly targeted militants, but also killed a school-teacher and a studenta November 2012 strike that led many to ask why the suspect had not been arrested; a September 2012 strike that allegedly killed 12 civilians, including three children (a case put before the U.S. Senate); an August 2012 strike that allegedly killed a cleric who only days before had given a speech denouncing Al Qaeda; a May 2012 strike that allegedly killed at least 14 people including a pregnant woman; and the well-known strike in al-Majalah in December 2009 that allegedly killed 21 children (Jeremy Scahill’s new film Dirty Wars prominently features this strike, and contains powerful interviews with survivors and community members).

These strikes all raise the same basic questions, none of which the U.S. government has publicly and adequately answered. Who are we killing? On what factual and legal basis, and according to what policies? Family members of victims, NGOs, and the UN have been asking these questions for a decade. But all too often, broad defenses of U.S. drone use simply debate straw men, and mischaracterize or ignore the specific questions and concerns raised.

The U.S. government’s continuing refusal to publicly respond to allegations undermines its stated commitments to transparency and the rule of law, and threatens core democratic and constitutional norms. The secrecy also undercuts the basic system of checks and balances, denies the American public vital information necessary to assess a program carried out in its name, permits false information to proliferate, denies remedies to victims, and sets a damaging precedent for other countries.

The specific allegations surrounding this latest strike provide an opportunity for the U.S. government to change course, and to make good on its transparency promises. The government should immediately clarify whether it had any role in the June 9 strike and, if so, provide an accounting of who was killed and why. If ten-year-old Abdulaziz Huraydan was killed, the government should publicly acknowledge this, and explain how his killing conforms to the government’s legal obligations and policy commitments.


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