It Looks like Obama is Still Using “Signature Strikes” Aimed at Unnamed People After All

Saturday, April 25, 2015
Drone Armed MQ-9 Reaper drone over Afghanistan (photo: Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force/AP)

President Barack Obama indicated two years ago that his administration would no longer employ “signature” drone strikes against U.S. threats overseas. A signature strike is one in which subjects are targeted based on patterns of behavior rather than intelligence about who they are. Because of the relative lack of knowledge about the targets, signature strikes tend to result in higher civilian death tolls.


But the January attack in which two hostages, including one American, were killed shows the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has continued to employ the tactic.


On January 15, the CIA launched a drone attack in western Pakistan that killed six individuals. The agency thought only four people were in the building that was targeted, but hostages Warren Weinstein of the United States and Giovanni Lo Porto of Italy were there as well. The mission was apparently a signature strike.


The January 15 strike was conducted despite Obama’s indication in a 2013 speech that the CIA wouldn’t use signature strikes after 2014, when American “combat operations” in Afghanistan were scheduled to end. Officials said Thursday that the deadline had not been enforced, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt of The New York Times reported.


A paper by Kristina Benson of UCLA, published last year by the Global Business and Development Law Journal, found that “in spite of President Obama’s insistence that such strikes do not cause a ‘huge number of civilian casualties,’ there is mounting evidence that signature strike protocol does a poor job of distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants, resulting in a disproportionate amount of civilian casualties and the infliction of grave psychological trauma on civilians in a given strike zone.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

First Evidence of a Blunder in Drone Strike: 2 Extra Bodies (by Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, New York Times)

Remarks by the President at the National Defense University (White House)

The Unblinking Stare (by Steve Coll, New Yorker)

“Kill ‘em and Sort it Out Later:” Signature Drone Strikes and International Humanitarian Law (by Kristina Benson, Global Business and Development Law Journal) (pdf)

Obama Administration Debates Whether to Kill another American Citizen with Drone Strike (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


Sam Kephart 9 years ago Emmy-winning journalist, Shad Olson, explores the controversy over U.S. drone policy, both at home and abroad. While technological sky supremacy gives America strategic superiority on the battlefield, the prospect of drone proliferation over U.S. cities is causing concern about loss of privacy, an end to Habeas Corpus and judicial due process and the destruction of Constitutional rights. South Dakota U.S. Senator John Thune and former U.S. Senate candidate, Sam Kephart share their views about the consequences of domestic drone deployment in the fight against terrorism. Originally aired on KNBN-TV, (NBC) NewsCenter1, Rapid City, South Dakota.

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