Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Is al Qaeda outdoing the U.S. on truth telling?

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
December 23, 2013 -- Updated 1955 GMT (0355 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An al Qaeda leader apologized for hospital attack; U.S. mum on drone that hit wedding party
  • Peter Bergen says al Qaeda arguably is doing a better job of truth telling
  • He says U.S. needs to make greater accountability a priority for drone program
  • Bergen: Pace of drone strikes has slowed since Obama's speech in May

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- It has long been said that in war, "truth is the first casualty."

It is generally accepted, however, that the United States, the world's leading democracy, should try to make truth-telling a common practice when it goes to war.

When Gen. David Petraeus was U.S. commander in Afghanistan in 2010 he issued guidance to his troops, one of the key points of which was to "be first with the truth." The guidance explained, "Avoid spinning, and don't try to 'dress up' an ugly situation. Acknowledge setbacks and failures, including civilian casualties, and then state how we'll respond and what we've learned."

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Yet, in Yemen where the U.S. has been fighting a small, undeclared war for the past four years, we have now arrived at the ironic point where America's main enemy there, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is doing a better job of truth telling than the U.S.

In a video message released on Sunday, a leader of al Qaeda in Yemen apologized for an attack on a hospital in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa earlier this month in which civilians were killed.

According to the al Qaeda leader, the attackers were targeting the Yemeni Ministry of Defense, but one fighter made a mistake and attacked a hospital inside the defense ministry: "We confess to this mistake and fault. We offer our apologies and condolences to the families of the victims," said the al Qaeda leader.

While al Qaeda has publicly -- and, no doubt, self-servingly -- apologized for killing civilians at the Yemeni hospital during the attack in Sanaa on December 5, at the same time American officials have said nothing publicly about a U.S. drone strike that took place a week later on a suspected convoy of militants in western Yemen on December 12.

The target of this strike turned out to be a wedding party and at least a half dozen civilians are reliably reported to have died.

This gets to a key problem of the secretive American drone program. Its clandestine and unaccountable nature means that when the U.S. does make a mistake, as it inevitably will, instead of apologizing and making some kind of compensation to the civilian victims of a botched strike -- a common practice when the U.S. military inadvertently kills civilians in wartime -- American officials instead say ... nothing.

Or worse, they make claims that the program is somehow perfect and never kills civilians as Obama's then top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, improbably claimed of the drone program in June 2011 when he said that for almost a year, "there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we've been able to develop." Brennan is now the CIA director.

Seeking to redress some of the problems in the drone program, on May 23 President Barack Obama gave a major speech about his counterterrorism policies in Washington in which he said, "Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set."

Did Obama's speech and the new policy it sought to inaugurate make any difference to the drone program? Short answer: Yes.

Since that speech the Obama administration has dramatically cut the number of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and has slightly slowed the number of strikes in Yemen.

There were 14 drone strikes in Pakistan during the past seven months; an average of one strike every 15 days. In the year before Obama's speech, drone strikes happened every eight days. And there have been no reliably reported civilian casualties in Pakistan from drone strikes since Obama's May speech, according to an analysis of the drone program by the New America Foundation.

The pace of drone strikes fell in Yemen after Obama's speech, too, but not as much as it did in Pakistan. Since May 23, there have been 16, an average of about one strike every 13 days. During the previous year, a strike occurred about once every 10 days.

It's worth noting that the civilian death rate has fallen steadily overall in both Pakistan and Yemen over the past several years, but the strike on December 12 in Yemen and the civilian casualties it caused is a reminder that there is definitely room for improvement.

What can be done?

One idea to make the drone program as accountable as possible is to set up an internal U.S. government body that is independent of the CIA and Pentagon that would conduct reviews of the drone strikes after they have occurred.

One could imagine, for instance, that a small, nonpartisan group of experts on security and law, similar to the group that Obama appointed to analyze the activities of the NSA, could review the aftermath of drone strikes to examine whether the victims of the strikes were in fact militants who posed some kind of threat to the United States. Such additional oversight would make CIA targeters and drone operators all the more diligent to avoid mistakes.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT