(MintPress) – The use of drones by the U.S. to gather intelligence, strike and kill those deemed terrorists has blanketed the news media recently, after the Obama administration handed the Senate Intelligence Committee the White Papers — secret documents upon which the drone policies are based on.
Though drones have been used since 2002, most unaware Americans were outraged from learning that innocent civilians have been the target of much of Obama’s drone war overseas.
There are many unanswered questions regarding drone usage as the New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan pointed out in a column last October: “Accurate information [about drones] is hard to come by … The Obama Administration and the CIA are secretive about the fast-growing drone program.”
And since a majority of the strikes take place “in areas where reporters can’t go, or would be in extreme danger if they did,” information about drone strikes has been difficult to obtain.
Josh Begley: the man working to bring awareness to drone strikes
One citizen activist, Josh Begley, a graduate student at New York University is trying to change that.
This past summer, Begley created an app for iPhones that would track drone strikes, called Drone+.
Begley says he became “genuinely” interested in wanting to know more about the U.S. drone policy and added that “it’s been quite arresting to read all the stories.”
“When I started reading all the reports of drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, one thing stood out: the flatness of language,” he said. “There are words like ‘militant’ and ‘compound’ and ‘hideout,’ which come to mean very little when you read them in such volume. I sincerely didn’t know what the contours of our drone war looked like. So I wanted to dig into the data set about every reported U.S. drone attack and try to surface that information in a new way.”
Apple rejected the app three times.
According to Begley, the first two rejections of the app were based on “technical grounds.” The last time the app was rejected, Apple said the app was “crude or had excessively objectionable content,” which Begley called “interesting” since the app just published text that already existed.
“It’s a simple application that sends a push notification every time there’s a reported U.S. drone strike … which is just like The New York Times news alert.” The app also congregated other media reports about the strike and would provide users with a Google map of other strikes in the area marked by red pushpins.
Apple has remained mum on the topic, but as online publication Wired recently reported, “Apple does not comment on the app reviews process, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly why an app got rejected. But Apple’s team of reviewers is small, sifts through up to 10,000 apps a week and necessarily errs on the side of caution when it comes to potentially questionable apps.”
Referring to the numbers of drone strikes and casualties, Begley said the information is important because “it’s more than just a data set. It’s a human set. There’s a lot of stories.”
Though the iPhone app never come to fruition, Begley created a Twitter account, @dronestream, that publishes information about drone strikes, as well as any casualties. He gets his information from what he deems “reputable sources,” such as the New York Times and the BBC.
“I’m reading anywhere from three to 15 news reports for each strike, trying to pull out the one that is either the most detailed or has proven to be the most accurate, and distilling it into a tweet,” Begley said. “The heavy lifting, of course, has already been done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. They’ve aggregated just about every report that exists for every U.S. drone strike since the first one in 2002 and put it all in one place. I’m simply repackaging their data.”
Surprising to Begley, his Twitter account at last check had more than 21,000 followers, which he says he didn’t expect. “I started this Twitter account because I expected no one to follow it,” he says.
“I wanted to play with this idea of what we choose to get notified about in real time and really probe that question. If we do have access to this data, do we really want to be interrupted by it? Do we want to know every time the CIA launches a drone strike in Yemen, Somalia or Pakistan.”
As the conversation of drones takes over public dialogue, Begley says he is concerned that Americans may develop a drone “fetish” and lose focus on the real issue: the use of drones as a targeted killing program.
Though exact numbers of drone strike casualties are not exact, as the administration claims drone strikes have killed very few civilians, a study from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute found the number of Pakistani civilians killed in drone strikes are “significantly and consistently underestimated by tracking organizations which are trying to take the place of government estimates on casualties.”
Some estimates of drone strike casualties found that up to 98 percent of casualties are civilians, which amounts to the deaths of 50 civilians for every one “suspected terrorist.”
Targeted killing differs from assassination in that the killings during a war time are permitted — at least that’s what Israel and the U.S. have decided. The U.S. maintains that drones are only used to kill those who pose an “imminent, dangerous and violent threat, and that killing them is the only available means of averting that threat.”
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama didn’t use the word “drones,” but did tiptoe around the subject:
“We don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”