Return to Transcripts main page


Attacking the Drones; Street Revolution; Imagine a World

Aired October 22, 2013 - 14:00:00   ET


HALA GORANI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour this evening.

"I have a question for America," says a young Yemeni man in a new report released today. The question is, "Can't America differentiate between a terrorist and an innocent civilian?"

The report claims the man lost 28 relatives in a U.S. cruise missile attack on his village. It's one of two investigative reports from influential rights watchdog groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, documenting dozens of civilian deaths from American attacks in Pakistan and in Yemen.

The groups accuse the United States of what they call extrajudicial killings, in some cases what they call war crimes. Polls show that most Americans approve of drone attacks against non-U.S. citizens overseas, believing them to be precise, even, quote, "surgical," targeting only the most dangerous terrorists.

But the investigation by the rights groups tells a very different story. Here's Ahmad al-Sabooli from Yemen, who lost his father, mother and sister in an attack last year. Listen.


AHMAD AL-SABOOLI, LOST FAMILY IN DRONE ATTACK (from captions): When I arrived, I saw the car upside down and burning. My father and mother were totally burned. Nothing was left but their skeletons. I put my head in my hands and cried.


GORANI: After refusing to acknowledge even the existence of the drone program, U.S. President Barack Obama finally spoke publicly about it in May. And he admitted that not all of those killed by this drone program are militants.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Much of the criticism about drone strikes -- both here at home and abroad -- understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There's a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports.

Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war.


GORANI: But is the U.S.' targeted killing campaign really like every other war? We're going to examine both sides of the debate. In a moment I'll speak with a former high-ranking official with the CIA Counterterrorism Center.

But first, Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch, the group behind the detailed report of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen. He joins me now from New York.

Thanks for being with us, Kenneth Roth.

First off, what is the sort of headline finding of this report as far as targeted killings and the drone campaign in Yemen?

KENNETH ROTH, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Well, Hala, as you pointed out, many people believe that drones are surgical weapons. And indeed they are extremely precise. They will tend to hit what you point them at.

The problem is that they're only as good as the intelligence and the policies behind their use. And so what Human Rights Watch found in this report, we look in-depth at six different cases of targeted killings in Yemen.

And we found that over and over these targeted killings misapply the standards that President Obama himself has articulated as recently as May in the speech that you just featured.

For example, in one case, one of the ones that you just highlighted in the video presentation before, there was a taxi, an SUV, driving along with a dozen civilians in it. It was hit; all the civilians were killed, including a pregnant woman and three children. There had been a militant driving along the road previously, but he wasn't hit. It was these group of civilians who were hit.

Another case, there were cluster munitions used against a Bedouin camp. There were 14 militants who were killed, but 41 civilians were killed.

So these are anything but precise targeted strikes. And what we're pressing the Obama administration to do is to -- he gave a very nice speech. He articulated great standards. Let's apply those standards. Let's live up to them, because so far the United States is not doing that.

GORANI: Well, let's look at some of the statistics and as difficult as it is to get precise numbers because of the secrecy surrounding this program, the New America Foundation, for instance, compiled these figures.

But this is for Pakistan. It gives us an idea, though, of an active drone program by the U.S. in that country as has been reported over the years.

And you can see there -- I'm not sure you can actually see that graph -- but that the number of strikes has diminished and at least according to this graphic that the number of civilians killed is also going down.

So if the U.S. makes every effort to target only suspected militants, would then that make a difference for rights groups?

ROTH: Well, obviously that would make a difference. But in the Human Rights Watch report, we focused principally on strikes that took place in the last two years. And it's true that there has been a diminution in the number of attacks since the president's speech. There was a blip upwards with nine attacks suddenly in July following the threat to American embassies.

But aside from that, there does seem to be a bit of a diminishment at the moment. But we're looking at cases that are really quite recent. And so even within the last two years, the U.S. is misapplying its targeted killing program.

And time after time -- it says it's only going after militants; it says there's zero tolerance for civilian casualties. It says it's extraordinarily careful. That's just not the way it's working out (inaudible).


GORANI: Well, let me ask you this, then, as far as rights groups are concerned, what should be done? If the U.S. identifies a clear and present danger that it considers is a danger to its national security, what then should it do? I mean, is the drone program, for instance, preferable to raids or to a ground operation?

ROTH: Well, President Obama said that there's a preference to capture, and that's the right standard because if there is an imminent threat to the United States, still the preference should be to capture the person.

Killing should be the last resort. And so I suppose it was positive that just recently we saw in Somalia and Libya efforts to capture militants rather than simply to kill them.

But if killing is going to take place, it's important that the standards articulated by the president in May be applied; that is to say, only for an imminent threat to the United States, only if capture is not possible and only if there's real certainty that there won't be civilian casualties.

Those rules are flouted over and over again in the cases that Human Rights Watch has documented, and many more than our colleagues organizations have looked at.

GORANI: Right. And we know critics have said the definition of the word "imminent" has been quite elastic over the years.

Thanks very much, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, joining us from New York.

My next guest takes a very different view. A former deputy director at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, Philip Mudd was there in the early days of the drone campaign. He argues that drones are devastatingly effective, adding that the U.S. can never prevent the death of civilians in any way. And so therefore, not in a drone program. He joins me now from Miami.

You heard from Ken Roth there, Philip Mudd. What do you make of this criticism, that, A, this is not a surgical strike? In other words, civilians die routinely.

B, this is counterproductive. This actually makes people angry with the U.S. and therefore fuels terrorism rather than eradicates it?

PHILIP MUDD, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR, CIA COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER: First on your question about fueling terrorism, I don't buy it.

I understand people are angry with these attacks. But if you look at both the capabilities of Al Qaeda today, compared to 10 years ago, dramatically reduced capabilities and the incidence of terrorism in the United States dropped dramatically. I think that's partly as effect of the drone program. I think they've been devastating against leadership.

The final point on your question about how precise these attacks are, Americans want war to be antiseptic. Precision to me means you identify a target and you strike a target. If that definition extends to meaning we will never kill a civilian, I'm going to tell you, that's not war.

GORANI: Right. It's not war, but there are ways to minimize civilian casualties, no? According to this Human Rights Watch report, I've got to ask you this, 57 of 82 killed in those six strikes are civilians. That's more than half. How is that acceptable?

MUDD: Well, first, I'd have to look at the statistics and figure out how they come up in there. I don't dispute them. I guess I would say you've got a couple questions here as we go into the future.

The first is when you do get an isolated point target, a terror leader in a camp in a place like Somalia or Yemen, can you strike him outside war? I would say the answer is yes.

The second, and what we're facing today, is a broad policy question for the future, and that is when you face a terror threat that is metastasizing among something like Pakistani Taliban and the border areas of Pakistan, can you go into a camp and strike a target based on what we call a signature with the risk of killing civilians if you're going to take terrorists off the battlefield?

I think that's a fair debate.

GORANI: But if the U.S. considers the drone program legitimate, and not in violation of international law, as some people say, what if, for instance, a foreign country started droning or drone bombing U.S. territory? That would not be considered acceptable.

MUDD: I think that's right. This is why were in chapter 1 of a debate that's going to go many years. We're going to face -- we're already facing the explosion of drone technology around the world. This is going to get in the hands of adversaries like North Korea and Iran.

And I think discussions about when countries can intervene, for example, do you need Security Council authorization to intervene in a country with U.S. drones? They're going to be critical because as you say, our standard for striking is we think these are terrorists.

When someone says their standard for striking in New York City or Sacramento or Chicago is different, what are we going to say? Again, a fair debate in chapter 1 of this story.

GORANI: Now you say that you're not sure that this fuels terrorism. But I can tell you with certainty, having been in the region many times, and just as recently as a few weeks ago, that this fuels ill will against the United States. This is a terribly unpopular program, whether it's effective or not really is secondary in a sense.

And it's beyond Yemen and Pakistan. It's in all parts of the world where people think that the U.S. is just doing whatever it wants in contravention of international law.

What do you make of that?

MUDD: I think there's two pieces of this.

The first is this is not a long-term solution to a problem. Twelve years into this, I suspect the drone war in Pakistan is going to die down, especially after U.S. forces are leaving in 2014. It's going to be harder and harder to argue why we're killing people in villages in western Pakistan.

So I think that's -- there's a legitimate point about does this become the center to a policy or is this our transition to a different stage? I think it's transitional. But if you're arguing as a practitioner, whether this kills terrorists and eliminates terrorism, I think that -- I think that the track record on the elimination of Al Qaeda operational leaders is indisputable.

GORANI: Well, for instance, Osama bin Laden wasn't taken down by a drone. You've had two raids in Africa over the last several weeks, one in Somalia, one capture or kidnapping, depending on who you ask, in Libya.

Why not go down that route instead of sort of this, you know, unmanned drone attack that people view as being indiscriminate and not as surgical as the U.S. claims it is?

MUDD: There's one big question you need to face, and that is risk. I think the operation in Somalia looked good. If you'd had three SEALs killed there, I'm sure people in your shoes and other shoes would have said, why didn't we use a drone? Why did we put special forces at risk?

I agree that capture is not only a viable alternative; it's the best alternative. We didn't have that option when I was helping to run counterterrorism stuff at the CIA. I thought our only option, along with other people, was to take people off the battlefield via other means.

If you can capture them, fine; but if the risk is killing a bunch of American kids who are special operators, I'd say stand back. The drone is a better option.

GORANI: But you yourself say, look, war essentially is war. Deal with it. This is kind of an operation that carries risk with it and you have to deal with it if you're going to go in, if you're going to go in and try to kill or capture suspected terrorists.

MUDD: I -- this is a 21st century question. We don't ask questions about the tragedy of the loss of life when artillery is used against (inaudible) village. That is a tragedy, but people have come to understand that war equates to tragedy.

I think there is a bigger question for the future and that is this drone capability gives the President of the United States and others the option to intervene in places we could not intervene before.

So in 2015 or 2020, when there's a threat in Nigeria, a threat in Mali, a threat in Mauritania, how do you develop, as you were discussing earlier, the international law and the international basis for operations that says you can go kill somebody?

GORANI: All right, Philip Mudd, former deputy director at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, joining us live from Miami, thanks so much for your time and an interesting discussion.

And opposition to U.S. drone strikes also comes from the world's most revered and honored teenager, Malala Yousafzai. On a recent visit to the White House, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee sat down with President Obama, a Peace Prize winner, and voiced her concern that drone strikes only breed resentment and fuel terrorism.

And after a break, we'll have a lot more. We will turn to Egypt and the now legendary City Center where a chorus of opposition drowned out a dictator. The legacy of Tahrir Square, when we come back. Stay with us.




GORANI: Welcome back to the program. You've seen the headlines, you've read the stories. But how about experiencing the Egyptian revolution from the ground up with ordinary Egyptians?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): I met Magdy Ashour in the Square. Magdy is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): To think that one day I would be standing in Tahrir Square in solidarity with all these people. It seemed impossible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): The Army will sacrifice their own blood before firing a single bullet on the people. Now please collect your things and go home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (from captions): So this is what the Army is like!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): The Army betrayed the revolution.

(From captions): The people demand the fall of the regime.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): So tell me, Magdy, what are we going to do now? I don't want you to get hurt or killed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): Only we can tell our stories.



GORANI: That's the trailer from a new documentary called "The Square," a reference of course to Cairo's Tahrir Square where the uprising in Egypt began more than 2.5 years ago now. It follows a small group of activists who've been part of the demonstration there from the beginning.

Much has changed in Egypt since the early days of the revolution. Former President Hosni Mubarak is no longer in jail but under house arrest. He's standing trial on charges stemming from that deaths of hundreds of protesters back in 2011. His successor, Mohammed Morsy, is being held in an undisclosed location after being ousted barely a year into his presidency.

And Egypt today has only an interim government and military rulers once again.

Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim has been capturing the highs and lows of this revolution since it started in 2011. And she joins me now from New York.

We saw a clip from your documentary there, Jehane. Thanks for joining us. It's been 2.5 years in the making. This is essentially the story of the revolution and where we've ended up today.

JEHANE NOUJAIM, FILMMAKER, "THE SQUARE": Yes, we've been filming in the square, myself and a team of talented filmmakers, for the past three years, about five cameras consistently in the square for 2.5 years. And I met you there, I guess, two years ago.

GORANI: Right. We've been coverage Egypt for that long since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. And some people look at what happened after the ousting of Mohammed Morsy and think we're back where we started.

Do you agree?

NOUJAIM: I don't think that anybody can take away what happened in January of 2011. I think that a fear was removed and people decided that they were going to reclaim their futures. And I don't think that that memory and that understanding of people's obligations to fight for their rights is ever going to disappear.

However, the kinds of crackdowns and the human rights abuses that have continued recently have obviously been horrible and do hearken back to the times of 2.5 years ago.

GORANI: And those people you've spoken with and featured in your film, Halid Abdullah (ph), for instance, a very famous Egyptian anchor; he's featured very prominently in your documentary.

Do they think it was all worth it to get to the point where we are today, all the effort, the sleepless nights, the blood, the conflict with their country men and women in some cases?

NOUJAIM: I think if you speak to all of the characters, each one of them would say that the revolution will continue, that it was worth it, what they fought for and that they will never be able to go back again.

I think it's a very dark time right now. But we've all seen dark times before, you know, six months after Mubarak stepped down, protesters were being run over by tanks. So you know, and people rose up from that again.

So seeing these kinds of personalities, nobody ever sees the Martin Luther King or the Gandhi when they've lost everything and when they feel like they've lost. And this is what this film does, is it shows you the - - what you have to do to try to achieve change. It's a process rather than something that you can determine -- you can't determine success or failure based on an event or events.

So through this film, you see these characters as they go through the ups and downs and the roller coaster ride and you see when they feel like they've lost everything and that everybody is against them. But the most important time is when they decide to go back the next day.

GORANI: And they remain hopeful. And we see that at the end as well.

Let me show one more clip from your film.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): Morsy!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): Magdy, I love you. But I hate the Muslim Brotherhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): Your Muslim Brotherhood has the right to ally with the military? The same military that killed its own people? You can have the square. The revolution is coming back no matter what.


GORANI: And I -- one girl in your documentary says something that I found extremely interesting and very important when it comes to what's going on in the Arab world.

She said, "Fighting the regime is never as vicious as when people start fighting each other."

And that's really what we're seeing in Egypt.

NOUJAIM: I think that what we hope to do with the release of the film now though is to show that -- and remind people that what people stood together for in the square 2.5 years was a common dream and a common vision. And what's happened, yes, you're right; over the past 2.5 years, there has been a separation and a division.

But I think we do have to remember that we have to avoid getting stuck in these binaries, this conversation of it's either the Muslim Brotherhood or the military. I think what's happening is it is this fight between organized fascism and disorganized social movements.

And I think what our characters stand for, even our Muslim Brotherhood character, is the fight for a social movement, a change. And it's a founding period in Egypt and we need to look at it that way.

GORANI: You think that the media are oversimplifying what's going on Egypt?

NOUJAIM: I do. I think that happens a lot, though, when you have to give a story in a 5-minute sound bite. And I think that is where the power of a film like this can come in, because you can actually understand the complexities of what these characters have dealt with over the past 2.5 years.

GORANI: You know, when I heard the chants, shah beauty discuss on izam (ph), it just brought back so many memories of those days when everything seemed so possible and so hopeful. And now, as you said, perhaps a darker period. But hopefully the country and the region will get through it.

NOUJAIM: I hope so, too; we're hoping to bring the film to Egypt in November. So we're hoping to pass through censorship and to bring some really interesting discussions about what is going on in Egypt. The film opens actually this Friday at the Film Forum in New York City and then opens in Los Angeles.

So please check out our website at to find out when it's opening in Egypt and the rest of the world.

GORANI: All right., Jehane Noujaim, thanks so much for joining us from New York.

NOUJAIM: Thanks so much for having me.

GORANI: And after a break, the Arab Spring brought a brief season of hope, as we discussed there. But now the civil war in Syria is bringing back an enemy that was thought to be dead and buried. A silent killer stalking the land and its children, when we come back.




GORANI: A final thought tonight, as the debate on the deadly use of drones continues, imagine a world where another silent killer is making quite a comeback. The World Health Organization is awaiting confirmation of a possible outbreak of polio in eastern Syria. They would be the country's first such cases in 14 years.

In 2010, Syria's vaccination rate was 95 percent, among the highest in the region. But after 2.5 years of war, the vaccination rate has plummeted to 45 percent and Syria isn't the only breeding ground.

In Pakistan, the Taliban has banned vaccinations and targeted health workers, in part as retaliation for the CIA plot to find Osama bin Laden. You'll remember a Pakistani doctor was convicted of treason for using another kind of vaccination as a ruse to discover bin Laden's whereabouts.

So far this year, nearly 300 cases of polio have been reported from places that know it all too well, like Afghanistan and Nigeria, to countries like Somalia and Sudan, which had been considered polio-free at one time.

A silent, symptom-less virus, polio has no cure. But like war itself, it can be prevented. The Friends of Syria are meeting today in London in hopes of jumpstarting peace talks in Geneva next month. The specter of polio's return should be a reminder of what's at stake.

That's going to do it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always contact us at our website, and tweet me @halagorani. Thanks for watching today with CNN.