In early February, news trickled out of Pakistan’s remote tribal belt of two lethal drone strikes that killed up to nine people, including two senior leaders of al-Qaida.
Nothing terribly unusual about that. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which maintains a tally of drone strikes, says there have been 364 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, 312 of them carried out on President Barack Obama’s watch.
The drones have become a weapon of choice of the Obama administration, which has greatly broadened the areas where they are deployed and loosened the rules of engagement, including their use against U.S. citizens abroad.
The widespread use of drones has become an issue on Capitol Hill and threatened to delay the confirmation of National Security Adviser John Brennan to be CIA director.
That obstacle seemed to have been overcome this week when the White House granted the Senate Intelligence Committee access to all of the top-secret legal opinions governing the use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists overseas.
Following the February strikes, there was the usual outrage in the Pakistani media and the almost-automatic formal protest to the U.S. Embassy by the Pakistani foreign ministry.
However, according to The New York Times, there was something significantly different about these strikes: The U.S. wasn’t involved.
Three American officials with knowledge of the drone program told The Times that the U.S. did not carry out those attacks. “They were not ours,” said one, who insisted the U.S. had not engaged in “kinetic activity” — actual attacks as opposed to surveillance by the drones — since January.
If not the U.S., who? Suspicion immediately fell on the Pakistani military, which has a drone capacity of its own, and, given the unpopularity of drone strikes with the Pakistani people, had every reason to blame the attacks on Americans.
The Times noted a certain irony in this, because in the early years of the drone attacks the Pakistani military would falsely claim responsibility to conceal CIA involvement and perhaps to enhance its own image for technical prowess.
When the fog of possible disinformation dissipates, it may become clear that Pakistan and likely other nations are developing a sophisticated drone capacity — and that because the U.S. is the nation most closely associated with the pilotless aircraft, we will continue, rightly or wrongly, to take the blame.