Boy’s death in Drone strike tests Obama’s transparency pledge

A recent strike in Yemen allegedly killed a 10-year-old boy. Despite months of promises of new transparency around drone strikes, the administration won't comment

On June 9, a U.S. drone fired on a vehicle in a remote province of Yemen and killed several militants, according to media reports.

It soon emerged that among those who died was a boy – 10-year-old Abdulaziz, whose elder brother, Saleh Hassan Huraydan, was believed to be the target of the strike. A McClatchy reporter recently confirmed the child’s death with locals. (Update: The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism today reported that there was "strong evidence" it was a U.S. drone strike, but it could not confirm the fact.)

It’s the first prominent allegation of a civilian death since President Obama pledged in a major speech in May “to facilitate transparency and debate” about the U.S. war on al Qaida-linked militants beyond Afghanistan. He also said “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” in a strike.

So what does the administration have to say in response to evidence that a child was killed?


National security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden would not comment on the June 9 strike or more generally on the White House position on acknowledging civilian deaths. She referred further questions to the CIA, which also declined to comment.

The president’s speech was the capstone on a shift in drone war policy that would reportedly bring the program largely under control of the military (as opposed to the CIA) and impose stricter criteria on who could be targeted. In theory, it could also bring some of the classified program into the open. As part of its transparency effort, the administration released the names of four U.S. citizens who had been killed in drone strikes.

An official White House fact sheet on targeted killing released along with the speech repeated the “near-certainty” standard for avoiding civilian casualties. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated it a few days later, when he told an audience in Ethiopia: “We do not fire when we know there are children or collateral — we just don't do it.”

But White House press secretary Jay Carney said in late May that “this commitment to transparency…does not mean that we would be able to discuss the details of every counterterrorism operation.”

The new White House statements don’t address what happens after a strike, even in general terms.

CIA Director John Brennan offered one of the few public explanations of how casualties are assessed during his nomination hearing in February. Before his confirmation, Brennan was the White House counterterrorism adviser, and is considered to be the architect of Obama’s drone war policy.

He told senators that, “analysts draw on a large body of information — human intelligence, signals intelligence, media reports, and surveillance footage — to help us make an informed determination about whether civilians were in fact killed or injured.”

Brennan also said the U.S. could work with local governments to offer condolence payments. As we’ve reported, there’s little visible evidence of that happening.

At the hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Brennan if the U.S. should acknowledge when it “makes a mistake and kills the wrong person.”

“We need to acknowledge it publicly,” Brennan responded. Brennan also proposed that the government make public “the overall numbers of civilian deaths resulting from U.S. strikes.”

Neither overall numbers nor a policy of acknowledging casualties made it into Obama’s speech, or into the fact sheet. Hayden, the White House spokeswoman, would not say why.

The government sharply disputes that there have been large numbers of civilian deaths but has never released its own figures. Independent counts, largely compiled from news reports, range from about 200 to around 1,000 for Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia combined over the past decade.

Researchers agree that the number of drone strikes and civilian deaths have dropped during the past year. (Before Obama’s speech, an administration official attributed this partly to the new heightened standards.) The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which generally has the highest tally of civilian dead, has found there were between three and 16 civilians reportedly killed in about 30 drone or other airstrikes in Yemen and Pakistan so far this year. No strikes have been reported in Somalia.

“Official” statistics might not be much help without knowing more about how they were compiled, said Sarah Holewinski, head of the advocacy group Center for Civilians in Conflict.

That’s because it’s still not clear how the U.S. distinguishes between civilians and “militants,” or “combatants.”

In so-called signature strikes, operators sometimes fire on groups of people who appear to be engaged in militant activity without necessarily knowing their identities. The newly instituted drone rules reportedly roll back the military’s ability to use signature strikes, but the CIA can keep firing in Pakistan under the old rules at least through the end of the year.

An administration official told ProPublica last year that when a strike is made, “if a group of fighting-age males are in a home where we know they are constructing explosives or plotting an attack, it's assumed that all of them are in on that effort.”

The new White House fact sheet contradicts that, stating: “It is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.”

From the outside, in a strike like the recent one in Yemen, it’s impossible to know how these things were determined. McClatchy reported that the target, Saleh Hassan Huraydan, had “largely unquestioned” ties to al Qaida. Yemeni officials said he arranged to bring money and fighters from Saudi Arabia to Yemen.

As for Huraydan’s young brother, “They may not have realized who was in the car. Or they may have realized it and decided collateral damage was okay,” Holewinski says.

The same questions dog the death of another boy that the administration has acknowledged: the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric tied to terror attacks. Awlaki and his son were killed in separate strikes in Yemen in the fall of 2011. The boy, Attorney General Eric Holder has said, was “not specifically targeted.”



Pulse Beat

Medical developments from around the world

Of Sodas and the Heart
A case was presented at the European Society of Cardiology where a lady, aged 31, had sudden collapse with cardiac arrhythmias and very low levels of potassium in the serum. After she recovered,  the woman told her doctors that she had not taken water in the previous five years and depended on cola drinks only for that time. Similar cardiac arrhythmias were reported in five other patients on sodas in the same meeting.

Liver and Heart Disease
In future, all fatty liver patients should be investigated for coronary artery disease. Obese people, who do not exercise and have fatty liver changes which might go on to cirrhosis of liver, had significantly higher incidence of coronary artery disease than control groups. This study was reported at the Annual Gastroenterology meet in the USA

Effect of Anti-depressants on Babies
Stephen Pilling, professor at the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), said that there is evidence that suggests that selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can double the risk of a child being born with heart defects. Furthermore, it was found that anti-depressants have been used by up to one in six women of child-bearing age.

These anti-depressants have been shown to increase the risk of suicides as well. Another important issue that keeps coming up, now and then, is that elderly women, who are either depressed or are on anti-depressants like SSRIs, have a higher chance of heart attacks.

Exercise Could Turn White Fat into Brown Fat!
Exercise in men, and also in mice, has shown that the body fat in those who regularly exercise slowly turns brown. Brown fat has a higher metabolic rate and burns more calories. Brown fat is also known to prevent diabetes in the long run, if the exercise is kept up.

Too Much Exercise Not Good
I have been writing about this for decades. Too much of anything is bad. A recent Bloomberg news release by Natasha Khan & Shannon Pettypiece stated, “As the average age of competitors in endurance sports rises, a spate of deaths during races or intense workouts highlights the risks of excessive strain on the heart through vigorous exercise in middle age.” Furthermore, it states, “benefits of exercise are well known; researchers now suspect that there may be a point at which exertion becomes dangerous, especially for middle aged men.” In this context, I feel that periodic marathon running might not be a good idea, although it might net quite a few patients for the sponsoring organisations.

Obesity Is a New Disease
Apparently, obesity is a disease now. And there will be newer drugs to address it. According to a piece which appeared on The New York Times (NYT), “The vote of the American Medical Association (AMA) House of Delegates went against the conclusions of the Association’s Council on Science and Public Health, which had studied the issue over the last year. The council said that obesity should not be considered a disease mainly because the measure usually used to define obesity, the body mass index, is simplistic and flawed.” Furthermore, the NYT report said, “Delegates rejected the conclusion of the Council and voted... in favour of a resolution pushed by the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, the American College of Cardiology and some other organizations.” This confirms what I had been saying for so long, that ‘disease mongering’ is here to stay and people are scared into believing that they have a disease.


Inking a Literary Passion

Moneylife discovers an organisation that nurtures budding writers without allowing commerce to interfere with creativity

Siyahi, in Urdu, means ink—the dye that traps space on paper, by way of contours of the written word, to unfetter our thoughts. It is also the name of a literary consultancy, set up as a trust in Jaipur, which embodies its founder’s passion for literature of all genres and languages.

Mita Kapur, the founder and chief executive of Siyahi, says that the trigger point for setting it up came at a chance meeting with a UK publisher after the Jaipur Lit Fest. He pointed out the urgent need for having Indian ‘literary agents’ and said: “With such an explosion of writing in India, not just in English, but also in regional languages, the time is right.” Says Mita: “He literally pushed me into taking a decision on an idea I had been toying with. And, within a month, in April 2007, Siyahi was up and running.”

Siyahi provides a platform for authors—budding and established—and hand-holds them all the way from manuscript review, to design, to contract with publishers, to marketing. As its website states: “At the heart of the organisation is an insatiable need to find meaningful stories and then help these voices reach out into the world. We enjoy working with authors from all backgrounds and genres. Our effort comes from a passion and commitment that Siyahi was founded to help fresh voices to get heard and read.”

Mita confesses, quite honestly, that she set up the organisation as a trust only because, as a business, it would have had a different set of requirements —rules to play by; commerce and passion are two entirely different approaches. As a trust, Siyahi provides limitless scope for experimenting with creative programmes to promote Indian literature, not only in India but internationally as well. Since 2010, Mita has been participating in the Frankfurt Book Fair and has also been able to sell titles from that very year!

Siyahi has been able to grow its portfolio of authors, albeit slowly; it has about 100 authors now. But Mita says the commitment has grown exponentially with the chord of support she has been able to strike not just within the country but internationally as well. The foreign authors Siyahi has been able to bring to its fold are from countries like Belgium, Pakistan, Canada, USA and Sri Lanka.

The first event organised by Siyahi was in 2007, in its very first year of operations. ‘The Zubaan Poster Women Exhibition’ documented the rich and multi-layered history of the contemporary women’s movement in India.

Siyahi’s USP is its special interest in regional languages. It facilitates translations of books to and from various languages. Mita says: “We have a special interest in regional works and mythology and we actively promote the oral traditions that are the living history of our ancient civilization.” She also believes that translations are a medium of literary preservation. They are becoming increasingly significant in a global world, for cross-cultural understanding. So, in January 2008, Namita Gokhale, the founder director of Siyahi’s ‘Translating Bharat’ conferences, organised ‘Translating Bharat: Language, Globalization and the Right To Be Read’ to provide an interactive space to writers, translators and publishers to understand core issues and work towards creating bonds and benefit from each other’s experiences and understanding. This series of conferences, along with the ‘Mountain Echoes Literary Festival’ in Bhutan (which has ‘mountain writing’ as its unstated, subtle core), have become annual events that authors look forward to. Siyahi has provided consultancy for literary festivals in Singapore and Manila as well.

Siyahi needs funding for organising literary festivals and events to further its commitment to nurture the reading habit, especially amongst the youth. They make a special effort to invite schools and colleges in their events. Donations to Siyahi are tax-exempt under Section 80G.

D-241, Amrapali Marg,
Hanuman Nagar,
Jaipur 302021, India
Phone: 91-141-2245908
Mobile: 91 9829013402
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: www.siyahi.i


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