On March 17, 2011, four Hellfire missiles, fired from a U.S. drone, slammed into a bus depot in the town of Datta Khel in Pakistan's Waziristan border region. An estimated 42 people were killed. It was just another day in America's so-called war on terror. To most Americans the strike was likely only a one-line blip on the evening news, if they even heard about it at all.
Who were those 42 people who were killed and what were they doing? And what effect did the strike have? These are the questions raised, and answered, in a must-watch new video just released by Robert Greenwald's Brave New Foundation.
CIA or the military makes the decision to fire based not on who the targets are but on whether they are exhibiting suspicious patterns of behavior thought to be "signatures" of terrorists (as seen on video from the drone).
So what's a signature behavior? "The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40," former ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter told the Daily Beast's Tara McKelvey. "My feeling is one man's combatant is another man's -- well, a chump who went to a meeting." The New York Times quoted a senior State Department official as saying that when the CIA sees "three guys doing jumping jacks," the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.
That day in Datta Khel, the signature behavior was a meeting, or "jirga," which is an assembly of tribal elders who convene to settle a local dispute. In this case, a conflict over a chromite mine was being resolved. And, in fact, the elders had informed the Pakistani army about the meeting 10 days in advance. "So this was an open, public event that pretty much everyone in the community and surrounding area knew about," says Stanford law professor James Cavallaro in the video.
Pretty much everyone in the community and surrounding area. But not U.S. intelligence.
And so almost all the tribal elders of the area were killed by the drone missiles. "It's feeding into the sense that no one is safe, nowhere is safe, nothing is safe," says Akbar Ahmed, a retired Pakistani ambassador to the UK, and now a professor at American University, in the video.
"At the end of almost every interview I did," Greenwald told me, "the person would say, 'Please tell President Obama I am not a terrorist and he should stop killing my family.' "
There was a time when President Obama might have been more receptive to that message. In the book "Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency," Daniel Klaidman recounts another drone strike just days after President Obama had been inaugurated. Obama "was not a happy man," an official told Klaidman.
It would appear that he has since warmed to the concept. As Klaidman points out, by the time Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize eleven months into his presidency, he'd already ordered more drone strikes than George W. Bush had in his entire presidency.
In a speech in May at the National Defense University, President Obama gave what was billed as a major national security address meant to clarify his policy on drones, surveillance, and Guantanamo. It seemed to signal a transition in his approach.
The president said that he was going to explore "other options for increased oversight," and that he'd signed "clear guidelines" for "oversight and accountability" just the day before. "Before any strike is taken," he declared, "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set."
Though signature strikes were not mentioned, some assumed language like "near certainty" and "highest standard" meant they were no longer going to be used. That assumption was proven wrong as just days later an administration official told the New York Times that signature strikes will continue in Pakistan, a statement the Times' Andrew Rosenthal wrote "seemed to contradict the entire tenor of Mr. Obama's speech."
Two weeks later, on June 9, a drone struck a vehicle in Yemen, killing not only several supposed militants, but also a boy named Abdulaziz. He was 10 years old. The administration refused to comment on the boy's death, or the strike itself. So much for accountability and transparency.
In addition to asking some of the hard questions about the war on terror, it's time to start admitting some clearly obvious hard truths. And one of those is that the assumption that drone strikes make us safer -- even when they're on target and used with a threshold of absolute certainty -- just isn't true. Given that terrorists target civilians, how about policies that don't create more terrorists in the first place? After that strike in Datta Khel, what do you suppose happened to the support of any moderate or pro-American or pro-democracy leaders in the community?
It seems clear that the White House doesn't want debate on this issue, any more than it welcomed debate, as the president claimed, on the NSA's surveillance program after the Snowden revelations. That's why Greenwald's new video is so valuable: It gives us a glimpse, even if the White House won't, of what's being done in our name.
(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is email@example.com.)