Time to bring drone strikes "out of the shadows"?

Pakistanis protest against U.S. drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas during a march in Multan, Sept. 30, 2013.
S.S MIRZA/AFP/Getty Images

SANAA, Yemen Ben Emerson, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, has called upon the U.S. to be more transparent about the number of civilians that drone-fired missiles have killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. On Oct. 18, Emerson said Pakistan had confirmed to him that drones have killed at least 400 civilians (and possibly 200 more) since the U.S. began to target militants there in 2002.

Yemen's government has not released any figures.

In reports published Tuesday in conjunction with one another, rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. to "reassess" its drone programs in Pakistan and Yemen, calling some of the strikes illegal -- even war crimes -- and offering case studies researched in both countries on the psychological and physical toll of the program.

"The tragedy is that drone aircraft deployed by the USA over Pakistan now instill the same kind of fear in the people of the tribal areas that was once associated only with al Qaeda and the Taliban," said the Amnesty report, while HRW said that in spite of U.S. government claims that every effort is made to avoid civilian deaths, "it has unlawfully killed civilians and struck questionable military targets in Yemen."

HRW senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher Letta Tayler, who authored the report, said Yemeni civilians had told the organization the "strikes make them fear the U.S. as much as they fear al Qaeda."

Even Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal (retired), former head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said in a January interview with Reuters that, "drones exacerbate a perception of American arrogance ... for every innocent you kill, you create 10 new enemies."

Dr. Michael Doyle, an American professor and researcher on the topic of drones, who published a paper this year for the London-based think-tank Chatham House entitled "The costs and consequences of drone warfare,", told CBS News he believes it's futile at this stage to call for a moratorium on the military use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but he added that there's an urgent need to see the shroud of secrecy around their use removed.

"The drone strike genie is out of the bottle. You're never going to be able to stop the use of drones," he told CBS News in London. "Let's take drones out of the shadows. Let's put them in the sunlight."

"We're never going to completely do that. We're never going to say, 'This is who we're targeting and this is why we're targeting them,'" he admitted, saying the goal should instead be to "create a program by which the standards in which you use to engage in strikes are public, with the statistics the government collects public, where the legal justifications have to be public."

Right now, Boyle said, the "political justification is hidden," and the results of the strikes are either kept secret, or "delayed for a long, long period of time and then released." The danger, he said, is that if the U.S. fails to make its use of drones more publicly accountable -- and to limit their use as much as possible -- it will lead to a new arms race, in a more violent world polarized between those who have drones and those who don't.

Current U.S. policy could "create the precedent that a state can go around the world and take out enemies in other countries, without the permission of their government ... it actually creates a more dangerous world. If we saw other states beginning to behave in the way the United States is beginning to behave with drone strikes, we'd be very concerned about it," said Boyle.

On May 8, 2002, the U.S. launched its first drone attack, in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, against the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He was a U.S. ally during the 1980s Afghan-Soviet war who once turned down an invitation to meet with President Reagan. The missile missed, and Hekmatyar remains today a leading anti-American militia commander at the top of the powerful Hizb-e-Islami group.

We don't know if any militants or civilians were killed in that first attack. Since then, according to the New America Foundation, which tracks drone strikes, the U.S. has launched 365 such attacks in Pakistan and 78 in Yemen. New America says between 2,065 and 3,404 people have been killed in Pakistan, including between 258 and 307 civilians. In Yemen, the toll calculated by the group is between 678 and 885, of whom 64 to 66 were believed to be civilians. There are no figures available for Afghanistan.

But those numbers are imperfect estimates, based on accounts from locals and officials who cannot be considered impartial observers. It's impossible for outsiders to know the truth. The CIA, which is responsible for the majority of the drone strikes, may have accurate numbers, but it remains quiet.

Ayman al-Zawahri
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri

In January 2006, during Eid al-Fitr, or "the festival to break the fast," a three-day period of celebration of feasting and visiting relatives which follows the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a U.S. drone hit Damadola village in Bajaur, in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Its target was Ayman al-Zawahri, who was, according to reports, either going to attend an Eid dinner in his honor or visit a local woman he had married. The U.S. missile struck an Islamic school, killing, according to Pakistani newspapers, 17 children. Their names and ages were published in the papers.

Foreigners weren't permitted to visit Damadola. Rahmullah Yousafzai, a prominent Pakistani journalist, drove from the large city of Peshawar to Bajaur to try and find out the truth.

Even he was turned away by Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency, the ISI, with which the CIA has worked closely since the early 1980s, when they were partners backing the Mujahideen, Afghan guerrillas fighting the Afghan Communist government and its Soviet backers in the Afghan-Soviet war.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military used Forward Observers -- young lieutenants in the Army and Marine Corps who were sent deep into enemy territory to pinpoint and call in artillery fire and close air support from miles away on suspected North Vietnamese and Viet Cong bases. The FOs were killed in high numbers because the enemy focused on eliminating them. There are no such ground-level target seekers for the U.S. military today on the ground in the tribal areas of Pakistan or in the mountains and high plains of Yemen, where al Qaeda and its affiliates operate.

In both countries, it appears the U.S. either depends upon its own network of locally recruited spies, or upon its partners in Pakistan's or Yemen's intelligence services -- or both -- to show where their targets are hiding and to try and confirm whether the targets were hit, who else died, and how many bodies are left behind.

The drones, which sound like a lawnmower engine, or even quieter, like a highly sophisticated machine humming in the air, with the ability, it is said, to see a milk carton from over a mile high, fly from Jalalabad Air Base in Afghanistan, or from a Pakistani military base in Baluchistan Province, over the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The drones flying over Yemen are based in Djibouti, the former French colony south of Yemen, on the Horn of Africa.

It is not just the number of civilian deaths caused by drones that causes controversy. On Sept. 30, 2011, a missile killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a 40-year-old American jihadist, born in Las Cruses, New Mexico. He was the first American targeted and killed in a drone strike. Although al-Awlaki, with his American accent, was well known for his propaganda videos urging jihad against the U.S. -- videos which reached thousands of young men around the world and served as a powerful recruiting tool for the terror network, no U.S. court had ever charged him with a crime.

On Oct. 14, a missile launched from a drone killed his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who hadn't seen his father in years, his teenage cousin and five other civilians as they ate dinner at an outdoor restaurant in southern Yemen. Attorney General Eric H. Holder would only say that the boy "was not targeted specifically."

Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar al-Awlaki's father and Abdulrahman's grandfather, a former Fulbright fellow and president of Sanaa University, and a minister in the Yemeni government, wrote a wrenching op-ed article on July 17 in the New York Times about his grandson's death, and the death of his son, describing his own early love of America, of studying there, of how good Americans were to him, and asking how America could kill a 16-year-old boy born in Denver, and his father, neither of whom had ever been charged with a crime, depriving them of their constitutional rights.

On April 23, Farea al-Muslimi, a prominent young Yemeni journalist and columnist for al-Monitor, a respected Middle East news website, who grew up in a small, poor Yemeni village without electricity, and who won a State Department scholarship to attend high school for a year in America, testified before a U.S. Senate Committee on how much he loves the U.S., and how grateful he is for what it has given him, and how counter-productive he believes drone strikes are.

He argued that the strikes have bolstered al Qaeda in Yemen, providing the group a powerful recruiting tool. He said Yemenis are almost ubiquitously unaware of all the aid money the U.S. gives the country. "Drone strikes are the face of America in Yemen," he told the lawmakers.

Al-Muslimi spoke of one strike that he said had killed 40 civilians. He spoke movingly of children being killed. He said a drone had even struck his home village, terrorizing everyone in it and killing innocent people.

Baraa Shiban, another young anti-drone activist in Sana'a, wrote in The Yemen Times on Oct. 10 that in 2013, the U.S., in what he called an alarming escalation, had struck nearly half of Yemen's 18 provinces. U.S. aircraft even hovered over Sana'a, the capital -- a city of 3 million people and possibly the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth -- for three days during Eid al-Fitr in August, frightening everyone underneath.

There are few foreigners in Yemen. The U.S. Embassy is like a bunker, hidden inside what is called "Tourist City"; a giant walled compound with soldiers out front, on a hillside. The State Department advises all Americans to leave. Yemenis and those foreigners still here advise American visitors to say, if asked, that that they are Canadian, Dutch, South African -- anything but American.

"Death to America" is common graffiti on the walls in some parts of the sprawling capital. Al-Muslimi, the journalist invited to testify in Washington, said he's afraid to even acknowledge that he has American friends.

CIA Director John Brennan said in his Senate confirmation hearings in February that he would never keep U.S. Senators "in the dark" about the CIA's drone program. He didn't say anything about the public, however -- either in his own country, or the countries where drones are used to quietly kill people.