Islamabad, Pakistan - Sometimes, when some people insist that it's impossible to put some urgent problem on the table for discussion and redress, you have no choice but to undertake flamboyant action. Call it "propaganda by nonviolent deed."
On Wednesday, as a member of a US peace delegation to Pakistan organized by Code Pink, I delivered a petition from more than 3,000 Americans to Acting US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Hoagland calling for an end to the CIA drone strike policy in Pakistan.
I also delivered a letter from Alice Walker, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Wolf, Oliver Stone, Danny Glover, Jody Williams, Tom Hayden, Patch Adams, Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole and other prominent Americans, including former US government officials, calling for an end to the drone strikes. The letter concludes:
We demand an immediate moratorium on the drone strikes. We demand that US policy in Pakistan be brought into compliance with US and international law, that the US government come clean about civilian casualties, that civilian victims and their families be compensated, and that "signature" drone strikes and attacks on civilian rescuers be permanently abandoned, in Pakistan and everywhere else.
In our meeting, I particularly pressed Ambassador Hoagland on reports of US drone attacks on civilian rescuers.
Ambassador Hoagland responded in more specific detail to some of the concerns that I and others raised than has been typical for US officials in the past, who have usually either 1) refused to talk publicly and on the record about the US drone strike program because it is "classified," or 2) have defended the policy in vague and misleading terms without answering specific allegations.
For an example of the latter: In April, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan claimed that civilian deaths as a result of the drone strikes have been "exceedingly rare." Can such a vague assertion truly be reassuring? What exactly does "exceedingly rare" mean? How "rare" is "exceedingly rare?"
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has reported 474 to 884 civilians killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 out of 2,572 to 3,341 killed overall. That suggests that somewhere between a sixth and a third of the deaths have been civilian deaths. Is that "exceedingly rare?" Meanwhile, a recent Stanford/NYU report says that only 2 percent of drone strike deaths have been "high-level" targets. This suggests that somewhere between seven and 15 times as many civilians have been killed as "high level" targets, and that while killing civilians has been common, it is the killing of "high level" targets that has been "exceedingly rare."
On the question of killing rescuers, the Stanford/NYU report notes the "US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers." A recent report from Columbia Law School and the Center for Civilians in Conflict notes:
There are numerous reports of follow-up attacks and some accounts suggest they have the result of killing rescuers who come to the scene to aid wounded individuals. In February 2012, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that at least 50 individuals were killed in follow-up drone strikes in Pakistan when they had gone to help victims killed in initial strikes.
Some accounts have reported that killings of rescuers have been deliberate. In the Small Wars Journal in February, Peter Matulich wrote:
Initial strikes on targets are based on sizeable amount of intelligence from both reconnaissance and HUMINT sources. However in the kill-boxes, follow-up attacks often occur after the initial strike targeting those coming to the potential aid of wounded militants. It is in these follow-up attacks [that] rescuers are targeted in an attempt to score a windfall of extra militants killed. Unfortunately in these attacks on rescuers, the task of differentiating civilian from militant is up to the [discretion] of a drone operator. In these circumstances it appears little has been done to discern combatant from non-combatant, the consequence being an increased amount [of] civilian casualties.
In our meeting with Ambassador Hoagland, I said:
I particularly would like you to address ... the issue of attacks on civilian rescuers.... I'm sure you're aware that many experts in international law are absolutely convinced that whatever one may think otherwise about the lawfulness of the drone strikes, even if it were a lawful conflict, attacks on civilian rescuers are a war crime....
Ambassador Hoagland responded:
On this one, for at least the last several years that I have been here in Pakistan and more intimately associated with the knowledge of this, there is never any deliberate strikes against civilian rescuers. Now, what I have seen is that after a strike, there will be colleagues from one of the isolated places, never urban, it's not ambulances or anything like that, who are also part of the larger group. But I can tell you honestly I have never, ever in recent times seen any deliberate strike on rescuers coming to a site.
I later responded:
Shahzad [lawyer Shahzad Akbar of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights] mentioned the report from Stanford and NYU that just came out last week; there was extensive attention on this issue of the "secondary," follow-up, "double tap" strikes, and the question of attacking civilian rescuers, and the [Center for Civilians in Conflict] and Columbia Law also just put out a report, also addresses this; there was also an article in The New York Times; there was an investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Independent, so I would strongly urge you to look at those sources, check that against what you know; there's the specific allegation of targeting rescuers, but then more broadly, whether or not rescuers are specifically targeted, the tactic of secondary strikes intrinsically threatens rescuers, people that would come to a site after there's a strike.
So I urge you to look at this, and please put out a public statement, from the embassy, after you've looked at this question, and say: We've looked at this, and we believe this not to be true, or we believe this not to be true over this period, and here's why. I think it would tremendously add to the transparency of the debate, if there would be an official, government response to these allegations.
To which Ambassador Hoagland responded:
I think it would, and I agree with that - I can't promise you that that will ever happen, but I agree that it would add to the transparency of the debate. Who are these sources? Can we talk to them, [that] kind of thing. And really get down to the ground truth.
It is my hope that Ambassador Hoagland's acknowledgement that it would be a good thing if the US government would respond publicly and on the record to these allegations will encourage members of Congress and others in Washington to press for such a public and official response.
Medea Benjamin asked Ambassador Hoagland: "Can you give us any estimate of how many civilian casualties there have been from the drone strikes?"
To which Ambassador Hoagland responded:
Well, first of all, for the numbers, to be very honest, I looked at the numbers before I came here today, and I saw a number for civilian casualties that officially - US government classified information - since July 2008, it is in the two figures; I can't vouch for you that that's accurate, in any way, so I can't talk about numbers. I wanted to see what we have on the internal record; it's quite low.
I found it striking that Ambassador Hoagland acknowledged that the US government has a count of how many civilian deaths it thinks have resulted from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and that this number is classified. Why is this number classified? Should not members of Congress and others in Washington press for its release?
Sushila Cherian asked Ambassador Hoagland: "Has there been, or is there going to be, any discussion about compensation for the killing of innocent civilians here?"
Ambassador Hoagland responded:
That's a good question. And the reason I say it's a good question is there has to be some kind of an apparatus set up for that. I'd say that in principle, the US government is not against that kind of compensation, because as you point out, I understand we do it in Afghanistan. Also ... what is referred to here as the Salala Incident of November 26  when there was a border - a serious misunderstanding that led to the deaths of 24 Pakistani military by NATO/ISAF forces, and I assure you immediately after that we made an informal offer of compensation, through the government of Pakistan, to the Pakistani military, so you see that is not in the realm of the impossible. But there's nothing in place for that right now.
I hope that Ambassador Hoagland's acknowledgement that the demand for compensation of civilian victims and their families is a just demand will encourage members of Congress and others in Washington to press for the set up of an apparatus that will bring such compensation about.
I hope that Ambassador Hoagland's willingness to meet with us and engage substantively on our concerns will establish a new standard for the policy of the Administration in engaging public concerns about the drone strikes.
On Saturday we travel to Waziristan, where the US drone strikes have been carried out, for a massive peace rally on Sunday. Ambassador Hoagland told us: "I can assure you with 100 percent certainty that you will not be targeted." I hope that if we can make a small corner of Waziristan safe from US drone strikes for one day, it will set a precedent for addressing the conflicts between the US government and people in Waziristan through politics rather than violence.
Here is video from our meeting with Ambassador Hoagland: