Ex-intel analyst says seeing a US drone kill a child pushed him to leak military documents that he faces 11 years behind bars over

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Men look at wall graffiti depicting a U.S. drone along a street in Sanaa, Yemen, November 9, 2013.

  • Daniel Hale, a former intel analyst, faces 11 years in prison for leaking docs on US drone strikes.
  • Hale wrote an 11-page letter to the court explaining why he leaked the docs, offering gruesome details.
  • “I came to believe that the policy of drone assassination was being used to mislead the public,” Hale wrote.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

“War is trauma.”

Those are the words of Daniel Hale, a former US Air Force intelligence analyst who is facing up to 11 years in prison for leaking a trove of documents about the US drone program to a journalist from the Intercept.

Ahead of his sentencing, which is set for Tuesday, Hale wrote an emotionally raw letter with gruesome details about US drone strikes to explain to Judge Liam O’Grady why he leaked the documents and violated the Espionage Act.

In the 11-page, handwritten letter that was filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Hale offered details on what he described as “the most harrowing day of my life” that took place months into his deployment in Afghanistan.

Hale said it was “a routine surveillance mission turned into disaster.”

It was back in 2012, and Hale found himself watching a car being driven by a suspected bomb-maker from Jalalabad head toward Pakistan. Hale’s superiors were “alarmed” and feared that the suspect was trying to escape across the border, prompting the car to be targeted with a drone strike.

“It was a windy and clouded afternoon when one of the suspects had been discovered heading east at a high rate of speed,” Hale wrote. “A drone strike was our only chance and already it began lining up to take the shot.”

But the payload missed the target, and the car “continued on ahead after narrowly avoiding destruction” before stopping. A man emerged and looked shocked he was still alive. To Hale’s surprise, a woman also stepped out and rushed to the trunk.

Hale would later learn the woman was the man’s wife and she was checking on their two young children who had been in the back. Afghan soldiers found the children – ages three and five – in a nearby dumpster the next day.

“The eldest was found dead due to unspecified wounds caused by shrapnel that pierced her body. Her younger sister was alive but severely dehydrated,” Hale said, going on to describe his distress over his commanding officer being more disgusted with the children being left in the dumpster than with the fact they had “errantly fired on a man and his family, having killed one of his daughters.”

“Whenever I encounter an individual who thinks that drone warfare is justified and reliably keeps America safe, I remember that time and ask myself how I could possibly continue to believe that I am a good person, deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness,” Hale went on to say.

The letter provides details on other drone strikes Hale witnessed, including one that occurred within days of his arrival to Afghanistan. In this instance, a group of men carrying weapons gathered to drink tea. Among them was a suspected member of the Taliban, which Hale said was “enough evidence to place them under suspicion as well.”

“Despite having peacefully assembled, posing no threat, the fate of the now tea drinking men had all but been fulfilled,” Hale wrote. “I could only look on as I sat by and watched through a computer monitor when a sudden, terrifying flurry of Hellfire missiles came crashing down, splattering purple-colored crystal guts on the side of the morning mountain.”

Hale went on to write about how his experiences were at odds with President Barack Obama’s public assurances that drone strikes helped protect the US and that all steps were being taken to prevent civilian casualties.

“I came to believe that the policy of drone assassination was being used to mislead the public that it keep[s] us safe, and when I finally left the military, still processing … I began to speak out, believing my participation in the drone program to have been deeply wrong,” Hale said.

Prosecutors have called for Hale to spend 11 years behind bars for leaking documents on the US drone program, contending that “vanity overrode the commitments he made to his country,” per the Washington Post. Hale pleaded guilty in March. But Hale and his lawyers have called for no more than 12 to 18 months, stating that he leaked the documents due to “irreconcilable moral conflict.”

Mugshot of Daniel Hale
Daniel Hale

The US drone war has been going on for almost 20 years

The use of drones and drone strikes by the US in counterterrorism operations began in 2002 under the Bush administration, but escalated dramatically under Obama.

By the time Obama came into office, the US public was war-weary and the prospect of sending troops into dangerous places had become increasingly unpopular. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, offered an ostensible solution. They allowed the US to surveil and target suspected terrorists without putting US troops in harm’s way.

Critics of the drone program have contended that it kills too many civilians, excoriating the US government’s dubious legal and ethical justifications for drone strikes. Similar to strikes described by Hale, the US has conducted what are known as “signature strikes” – strikes that target military-aged men on battlefields without full confirmation they were plotting against the US or posed a significant threat.

There are also critics and scholars who’ve made the case that US drone strikes serve as a recruiting poster for terrorism by increasing enmity toward America. In 2010, a man named Faisal Shahzad was arrested for attempting to bomb Times Square – and he cited US drone strikes as his motivation.

The US government has consistently faced criticism over a lack of transparency surrounding drone strikes – particularly in relation to civilian casualties. Many strikes have occurred in remote, dangerous areas, making it difficult for journalists or independent organizations to verify details. Official reports on civilian casualties from the US government tend to run far lower than those from independent observers.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a UK-based organization that has tracked US drone strikes for years, estimates that between 8,858 and 16,901 people have been killed by US drone strikes and other covert operations since 2004 in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan – including up to 2,200 civilians.

Obama responded to criticism of US drone strikes by pledging greater transparency and putting safeguards in place to protect civilians, signing an executive order in July 2016 along those lines. The Trump administration abandoned many of those changes, showing less concern for civilian casualties.

Under President Joe Biden, who pledged to end “forever wars,” the US has cut back on drone strikes in a massive way compared to past administrations. This has occurred as the administration reviews standards for military and covert operations.

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A rogue killer drone ‘hunted down’ a human target without being instructed to, UN report says

Stock photo of a dron
Stock photo of a drone flying.

  • A deadly drone “hunted down” a human target without being instructed to do so, according to a UN report.
  • The incident took place during clashes in Libya last year, the Daily Star reported.
  • Experts are sounding the alarm about the lack of regulation around using “killer robots.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A “lethal” weaponized drone “hunted down a human target” without being told to for the first time, according to a UN report seen by the New Scientist.

The March 2020 incident saw a KARGU-2 quadcopter autonomously attack a human during a conflict between Libyan government forces and a breakaway military faction, led by the Libyan National Army’s Khalifa Haftar, the Daily Star reported.

The Turkish-built KARGU-2, a deadly attack drone designed for asymmetric warfare and anti-terrorist operations, targeted one of Haftar’s soldiers while he tried to retreat, according to the paper.

The drone, which can be directed to detonate on impact, was operating in a “highly effective” autonomous mode that required no human controller, the New York Post said.

“The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true ‘fire, forget and find’ capability,” the report from the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Libya said.

Read more: Etsy is awash with illicit products it claims to ban, from ivory to dangerous weapons and mass-produced good

This is likely the first time drones have attacked humans without instructions to do so, Zak Kellenborn, a national security consultant who specializes in unmanned systems and drones, confirmed in the report.

Kallenborn, however, has concerns about the future of autonomous drones. “How brittle is the object recognition system?” he said. “How often does it misidentify targets?”

Jack Watling, a researcher on land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told the New Scientist that this incident demonstrates the “urgent and important” need to discuss the potential regulation of autonomous weapons.

Human Rights Watch has called for an end to so-called “killer robots” and is campaigning for a “preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons,” according to a report by the charity.

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The Israeli military says Iron Dome shot down one of its own drones during intense fighting

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Iron Dome interceptors, left, rise toward rockets fired from Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, May 14, 2021.

  • Israel’s Iron Dome repelled thousands of rockets and even drones during recent fighting.
  • The air-defense system also accidentally shot down an Israeli military drone.
  • The Israel Defense Forces told Israeli media the friendly-fire incident is under investigation.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Israel’s Iron Dome accidentally shot down an Israeli military drone during recent fighting with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces told local media.

“As part of the round of fighting in Gaza and as part of the defense of the country’s skies, an IDF Skylark drone was hit by Iron Dome,” an IDF spokesperson told Haaretz, adding that the incident is under investigation.

Skylark drones are small unmanned aerial vehicles built by Elbit Systems, an Israel-based international defense firm, and used by the IDF Artillery Corps’ “Sky Rider” unit for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

Haaretz reported that the IDF is “worried” about the friendly-fire incident because it calls into question whether the IDF is able “to conduct a long period of fighting without harming its own forces.” It is unclear to what extent this is a concern.

During a recent 11-day conflict involving an intense exchange of fire between the IDF and Palestinian militants in Gaza, Israel’s Iron Dome faced thousands of rockets, as well as enemy drones, the latter being a first for the system.

iron dome israel gaza palestine rockets
Iron Dome intercepts rockets launched from Gaza over Ashkelon, Israel, May 12, 2021.

Israel’s Iron Dome is a short-range air-defense system designed to intercept rockets, artillery, and mortars. The system has been in use since 2011 and is in place to reduce casualties from rocket attacks against Israeli cities.

The system was designed and developed by the Israeli defense companies Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries with US support. It is a part of a larger tiered defense system that includes other critical assets like the Arrow and Patriot batteries.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense announced in March the completion of upgrades to Iron Dome that would allow it to defend against a much more varied collection of aerial threats that Israel might battle in future conflicts.

During the upgrade process, the defense system was tested against a variety of threats that include rockets, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles, the Associated Press previously reported. Iron Dome had not yet engaged a drone in combat though.

A rocket launched from Gaza city controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, is intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome aerial defence system, on May 11, 2021
Iron Dome intercepts a rocket launched from Gaza, May 11, 2021.

The recent fighting began on May 10 as Hamas began launching Qassem rockets at Israeli cities after a period of heightened tensions and local clashes. During the conflict, the IDF repeatedly praised Iron Dome for its effectiveness.

The system is said to have intercepted 90% of incoming rockets, significantly reducing Israeli losses. Thirteen people, including two children, died in Israel from rockets that made it through. Palestinian deaths, as Israel retaliated with airstrikes, were much higher.

The Times of Israel, which also reported the accidental downing of an Israeli drone, said that the Israeli military conducted around 1,500 airstrikes in Gaza during the conflict. According to the Health Ministry in Gaza, at least 243 Palestinians were killed, including several dozen children, with roughly 2,000 wounded. The deceased included both combatants and civilians.

The horrific conflict, some of the worst fighting in years, concluded last Friday with a ceasefire agreement.

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Israel’s Iron Dome has been put to the test in more ways than one amid intense fighting with Palestinian militants

israel iron dome gaza rockets
Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors, left, rise in response to rockets fired from northern Gaza, May 14, 2021.

  • Israel’s primary defense against Hamas rockets is the Iron Dome system.
  • Around 4,000 rockets were fired at Israel over a period of just 10 days, according to the IDF.
  • In addition to rockets, Iron Dome has also intercepted drones in combat for the first time.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Israel’s skies are defended by Iron Dome, an air-defense system that has been put to the test in the current conflict with Palestinian militant groups by not only unusually heavy rocket fire but also other threats it has never faced in combat before.

The Israel Defense Force reports that over a period of just 10 days, Hamas and other Palestinian militant forces in Gaza have fired 4,000 Qassam rockets at Israel.

For comparison, over the course of the intense 50-day conflict in 2014, 4,881 rockets were fired, according to UN investigators.

The IDF says that Iron Dome has successfully intercepted roughly 90% of the incoming rockets considered potential threats.

In a first for the system, Iron Dome has also intercepted unmanned aerial vehicles in combat. Iron Dome has so far intercepted five Hamas drones since the fighting started earlier this month, the IDF told Insider.

Israel Palestine Iron Dome
Iron Dome intercepts rockets from Gaza over the city of Ashkelon, Israel, May 5, 2019.

Israel’s Iron Dome is a short-range air-defense system designed to intercept rockets, artillery, and mortars. The system has been in use since 2011 and has helped reduce casualties from rocket attacks against Israeli cities.

The air-defense system was developed by Israeli defense firms Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries and is part of a tiered defense system including other assets like Arrow and Patriot batteries.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense announced in March the completion of upgrades to Iron Dome that would allow it to defend against a more diverse collection of aerial threats.

During the upgrade process, the defense system was tested against a variety of threats including rockets, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Iron Dome is designed to eliminate aerial threats at ranges out to a little over 40 miles in any weather conditions. Each Iron Dome battery consists of three to four launchers, each carrying 20 highly maneuverable Tamir interceptors, and a battlefield radar.

Israel has at least 10 batteries deployed around the country. There may be more, as there were plans to deploy 15 batteries.

While the system is extremely effective, “there is no hermetic solution,” Avi Mayer, a former IDF spokesman, told Insider recently.

“There may indeed be a situation in which these systems are overwhelmed,” he said. “We certainly hope we don’t reach that point, but I think that if we reach that point, it would be extraordinarily dangerous, not only for Israel, but for Palestinians as well.”

iron dome israel gaza palestine rockets
Streaks of light are seen Iron Dome intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, May 12, 2021

“What people don’t understand is that the Iron Dome system not only spares Israeli lives, but many Palestinian lives as well,” he said, suggesting that Israel can show more restraint because most incoming rockets are not making it through.

The IDF declined to comment on how Iron Dome affects the military’s strategic thinking, but IDF spokeswoman Capt. Libby Weiss told Insider that she thought that “we would be in a very different conflict” if Israel didn’t have Iron Dome.

“We are, of course, extremely grateful that it exists,” Mayer said. “We can only shudder to think about how many lives would have been lost if it didn’t.”

Iron Dome Israel
An Iron Dome launcher fires to intercept a rocket from Gaza Strip, in the coastal city of Ashkelon, July 5, 2014.

Ian Williams, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Insider that “the hope” with Iron Dome is that it will have a stabilizing affect.

“If you can alleviate the pressure from the rocket attacks through missile defense, it allows more space for diplomacy. It allows Israel to not send in troops so early. It slows the need for Israel to retaliate,” he said.

“The flip side of the coin is you can say that Iron Dome allows Israel to be much more aggressive because they can withstand Hamas rocket attacks,” Williams added, telling Insider that “it is hard to prove” which is the case.

Some of the rockets launched at Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have made it through Israel’s impressive defenses, with some rockets scoring direct hits on civilian centers.

In response to one recent strike on a neighborhood, the IDF stated that it “will not let this terror go unanswered.”

Fire and smoke rise over in Gaza City after Israeli strikes, May 18, 2021.

Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes on targets in Gaza since the fighting began, resulting in both combatant and civilian casualties.

Scenes of destruction within Gaza coupled with the reports of civilian casualties recall the horrors of the 2014 Gaza War in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed. More than half were civilians.

An IDF spokeswoman previously told Insider that “when it comes to our practices in the strip, we are obviously very concerned about the impact on the civilian population within Gaza.”

The challenge, she explained, is that Hamas and other Palestinian militant forces operate in and around civilian infrastructure in a densely populated area, making it difficult for Israeli forces to target Hamas and ensure its own defense without occasionally negatively affecting civilians.

Al-Sharouk tower is surrounded by fire and smoke as it collapses during an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, May 12, 2021.

International pressure is mounting as the death toll grows, with calls for a ceasefire becoming more frequent.

In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, President Joe Biden said that he “expected a significant de-escalation” and a move forward “on the path to a ceasefire,” according to a White House readout of the call.

In a subsequent statement, Netanyahu said that while he appreciates “the support of the American president,” but he is “determined to continue this operation until its aim is met,” with the aim being the return of “calm and security” to Israel.

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The US Air Force says the Valkyrie drone launched another drone in a first for the aircraft

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates the separation of the ALTIUS-600 small UAS in a test at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground test range, Arizona on March 26, 2021
The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates separation of the ALTIUS-600 small UAS in a test at the US Army Yuma Proving Ground test range in Arizona, March 26, 2021

  • The Air Force Research Laboratory conducted its sixth test of the Valkyrie drone in late March.
  • During the test, the drone launched a smaller drone from its internal weapons bay.
  • The Air Force is looking at Valkyrie as an autonomous UAV that could support manned aircraft.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A Valkyrie drone launched another drone during a recent flight test, the Air Force Research Laboratory announced Monday.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie is a long-range unmanned aerial vehicle capable of high subsonic speeds. It was built by Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) program and first flew on March 5, 2019.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona
The XQ-58A demonstrator completed its inaugural flight at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona on March 5, 2019.

During its sixth flight test on March 26, 2021, the aircraft conducted its first payload release from its internal weapons bay, launching an Area-I ALTIUS-600 small unmanned aircraft system.

The Air Force is looking at relatively inexpensive, expendable drones like the Valkyrie as potential artificial-intelligence-driven autonomous platforms that could fly alongside and support manned fighter aircraft. This is the major focus of the Skyborg program.

The Air Force’s Skyborg project, for which Kratos, Boeing, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems are developing prototypes, is about fielding autonomous unmanned systems that will “enable the Air Force to operate and sustain low-cost, teamed aircraft that can thwart adversaries with quick, decisive actions in contested environments,” the service says.

The smaller, tube-launched autonomous ALTIUS-600 drones provide additional support in the form of intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, counter-drone, electronic-warfare, and strike capabilities.

An XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle launches at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., Dec. 9, 2020
An XQ-58A launches at the US Army Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, December 9, 2020.

The recent Valkyrie test was not only the first time the payload doors have been opened in flight, Alyson Turri, the demonstration program manager, said in a statement, but this time the XQ-58A drone also flew higher and faster than it has in previous tests.

The recent test followed the Valkyrie drone’s fifth flight test in December, which involved the aircraft flying alongside Air Force F-22 and F-35A fighters and a Marine Corps F-35B.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II fly in formation with the XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground testing range, Ariz., during a series of tests Dec. 9, 2020
An F-22 and F-35A with an XQ-58A over the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona during tests, December 9, 2020.

The rocket-launched Valkyrie drone conducted a semi-autonomous flight while carrying a gatewayONE payload built to allow the different fifth-generation aircraft to communicate, though the communication tool lost connectivity shortly after the aircraft took off.

Despite the connectivity problem during the testing in December, the Air Force was able to overcome the digital security barriers to allow the F-22’s Intra-Flight Data Link and F-35’s Multifunctional Advanced Data Link to communicate and transmit data, demonstrating some of the possibilities for this technology.

The Air Force Research Laboratory said that the most recent Valkyrie drone test, which like past tests was conducted at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona and supported by Kratos and Area-I, “further demonstrates the utility of affordable, high performance unmanned air vehicles.”

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Ghana is using drones to deliver coronavirus vaccines to rural communities

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One of Zipline’s drones.

  • Zipline has started delivering coronavirus vaccines with drone in Ghana.
  • This tackles one of the biggest problems with the rollout – distributing doses in poorer countries.
  • Zipline has delivered medical supplies by drone since 2016, and works with Walmart and Novant Health.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Ghana has become the first country to launch a nationwide program to deliver coronavirus vaccines with drones.

Zipline started delivering the shots on Tuesday as part of the WHO’s first shipment of vaccines through COVAX, its program that aims to provide poorer countries with enough doses to cover 20% of their population.

Zipline, a San Francisco startup, has been delivering medical supplies including blood, personal protective equipment, and vaccines since 2016 using patented, autonomous drones.

Doctors can use Zipline’s app to place orders and track shipments.

As well as national operations in Rwanda and Ghana, Zipline also has partnerships with Walmart and Novant Health in the US, and its PPE deliveries become the first long-range drone logistics flights to be approved by the FAA.

 Zipline started the drone deliveries in Ghana on Tuesday when it distributed 4,500 doses across the Ashanti Region in the country’s south in 36 separate journeys in a partnership with the Ghanaian government and UPS.

Around 2.5 million doses will be delivered in Ghana using the drones, GAVI said.

“Not only does this make Ghana the world’s first country to deploy drones on a national scale for the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, but is also a giant effort in ensuring equitable access and enabling Ghana to fully utilize its healthcare infrastructure to deliver vaccines,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said in a statement.

COVAX shipped 600,000 doses of the vaccine created by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca to the capital, Accra, in late February.

But distributing vaccine doses globally is proving to be a mammoth task.

Even when vaccines do make it to developing countries, they might lack the transport links and road networks to distribute the doses to everyone in need.

This is complicated further by storage requirements. Pfizer’s vaccine has to be transported at -94 degrees Fahrenheit through a system of deep-freeze airport warehouses and then refrigerated in vehicles using dry ice and GPS temperature-monitoring devices, while AstraZeneca’s and Moderna‘s can be transported at fridge temperatures.

Zipline told Bloomberg it has developed drones that can deliver “all leading COVID-19 vaccines.”

Zipline’s drones look like six-foot long airplanes

Insider’s Noah Lewis spoke to CEO Rinaudo back in May, when the company started delivering coronavirus tests in Ghana and Rwanda.

Each drone’s flight is fully automated and monitored from its distribution center. They can fly close to 100 miles round-trip on a single battery charge, travel up to 80 mph, and carry four pounds of cargo.

Orders can be scheduled in advance or placed on demand for just-in-time delivery, and drones can be launched within seven minutes of the company receiving the order.

Unlike conventional drones, Zipline’s drones resemble small planes. They are six feet long with an 11-foot wingspan, and, rather than landing themselves, drop boxes of supplies with a parachute attached to cushion their fall.

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Biden administration curtails drone strikes amid major policy review

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A US Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), carrying a Hellfire missile lands at a secret air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016.

There has been a steep drop in reported drone strikes since President Joe Biden took office, as Insider reported last month. Now The New York Times is reporting why: the new administration is conducting a major policy review that began the day it came into power.

The last administration unleashed the CIA and Pentagon, scrapping rules meant to protect innocent men, women, and children from being killed by unmanned aerial vehicles. It also spent its last few weeks in office escalating in Somalia, conducting a half-dozen attacks in the first half of January alone.

There have been no strikes there since January 20, however.

The Times reported that Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan imposed strict new controls on the use of drones outside of active war zones, requiring the White House to sign off on any such attack.

The new administration is using the pause to review how the military and its intelligence agencies conduct extrajudicial killings. Among considerations: whether or not restore Obama-era rules that limited drone strikes to targets considered an active threat – not just members of a designated terrorist organization – and only when there is “near certainty” that no women or children will be killed.

That is just the sort of review that critics of US foreign policy hoped for when Insider first reported on the apparent lull in drone strikes.

“If there is a pause in air strikes overall, we hope it’s due to a reassessment of the United States’ strategy and a recognition that past strikes have not succeeded in ending attacks by armed groups, but have instead killed and injured thousands of civilians,” Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International, said at the time.

It is extremely unlikely, however, that the Biden administration will stop using drones altogether. It is not even certain that it will return to limits on their use that former President Barack Obama imposed in his second term amid an outcry over civilian deaths in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

As The Times reported, the chief concern is rolling back the Trump-era expansion of the rules of engagement, with Biden officials discovering that ostensible safeguards for civilians “were sometimes stronger on paper than in reality.”

That resulted in a record-breaking pace of US airstrikes. For example, according to monitoring groups, the US may have bombed Yemen more often during Donald Trump’s four years in office than under all previous US presidents combined.

“I totally changed the rules of engagement,” the last president boasted.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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There have been zero reported US drone strikes since Joe Biden took office

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A Yemeni boy walks past a mural depicting a US drone on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa.

  • Since Joe Biden took office, there have no reports of US drone strikes or civilian casualties.
  • This comes after Trump carried out more strikes in Somalia and Yemen than all other presidents combined.
  • “If there is a pause in airstrikes overall, we hope it’s due to a reassessment of the United States’ strategy,” said Amnesty International’s Daphne Eviator.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

It’s a dark trend for new, post-9/11 US heads of state: Usually, within the first weekend, the new president, having inherited a global war on terror, orders the military or an intelligence agency to end someone’s life with an airstrike. To adversaries, it demonstrates resolve; to allies as well as critics, it demonstrates that there will be continuity, no matter which party controls the White House.

President Joe Biden, it appears, has been different. Under his watch, there has been just one declared US airstrike: a February 9 attack in Iraq that, the military claims, “resulted in the deaths of two Daesh terrorists.”

And in stark contrast to his immediate predecessors, there have been no immediate reports of civilian casualties – this, following months of escalated US attacks, from Central Asia to Africa, during his predecessor’s last couple months in office.

Clandestine operations, by their nature, cannot be ruled out. What we know for sure, though, is that “there have been zero local or official reports of US drone or other strikes in Somalia, Libya, Yemen, or Pakistan so far under Biden,” Chris Woods, director of the monitoring group Airwars.org, told Insider.

Biden’s forerunners, Republican and Democrat alike, both carried out US military operations that were both well-publicized and fraught, the demonstration of American power resulting in the death of innocents.

Former President Barack Obama ordered his first drone strike within 72 hours of taking office; that attack, aimed at the Taliban and carried out by the CIA, missed its mark, killing three Pakistani civilians and gravely wounding a child. The tactic would come to define Obama’s legacy, boots on the ground replaced by unmanned aerial vehicles, American lives protected at a cost borne by others.

Former President Donald Trump oversaw his first drone strike on January 20, 2017, the day he was inaugurated. A spree of attacks took place in Yemen, culminating a week later in a botched raid that killed an 8-year-old girl and other civilians. Over the next four years, Trump would go on to bomb the country more often than any of his predecessors combined – not counting ramped up US support, just rescinded, for the Saudi-led war against the nation’s Houthi militants.

Biden is no peacenik. In the US Senate, he backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And there is no reason to believe a lull amid a pandemic and other domestic crises will evolve into a policy of unilateral disarmament.

Nicholas Grossman, a professor of international relations at the University of Illinois and author of a book on drone warfare, wonders if the apparent pause in most US military operations is the aftermath of his predecessor’s outgoing escalations.

“Under Trump, the US ramped up drone strikes in Somalia, though that escalation was already happening in Obama’s final year,” Grossman told Insider. According to data from the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, there were 43 airstrikes in Somalia targeting the extremist group al-Shabaab, during Obama’s two terms in his office, including 16 in his last year. During Trump’s single four-year term, where a focus on rhetoric led many falsely to label him a principled isolationist, there were 208 such airstrikes, including 14 in his final six months.

There have been previous gaps in US strikes, Grossman noted; a lot or a little can happen in three weeks. It’s also possible, he said, that this is something more: “the Biden administration is pausing while reviewing the strategy.” Relatedly, “it’s possible the US military and intelligence agencies launched a few strikes at the end of Trump’s term in anticipation of that pause.”

Alternatively, “it’s also possible that those January strikes did real damage to al-Shabaab as intended, and for that reason there either isn’t a need or a good opportunity at the moment,” Grossman said.

Critics of the US-led war on terror hope the apparent moratorium signals something greater.

“If there is a pause in airstrikes overall, we hope it’s due to a reassessment of the United States’ strategy,” Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International, told Insider, “and a recognition that past strikes have not succeeded in ending attacks by armed groups, but have instead killed and injured thousands of civilians.”

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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