Why was Christopher Harvard of Townsville killed in Yemen in November by a American drone strike, along with a dual New Zealand-Australian citizen known as “Muslim Bin John”, and three other “militants”? Why was he the victim of an attack that left so little of him that only DNA from his family could help identify his remains?

And why do New Zealanders know more about the killing of Muslim Bin John than we do about Harvard’s death? Last week, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key spoke openly about Bin John, his terrorist links and how he had been placed under surveillance by NZ intelligence agencies before leaving the country.

The only official comment about Harvard in Australia has come from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (its response is here), which provided scant detail about his killing. Instead, we have been given anonymous backgrounding on Harvard from a “senior counter-terrorism official”, provided to The Australian’s Paul Maley and Mark Schliebs — The Australian, commendably, has tried to follow up the story and Harvard’s background.

According to the anonymous source quoted in The Australian, Harvard and Bin John were al-Qaeda “foot soldiers” who were “collateral damage” in a strike against more senior al-Qaeda figures. “There was a suggestion they were involved in kidnapping Westerners for ransom.” Who suggested that, we’re not told.

This sort of official “response” is familiar to anyone who has followed the drone issue; it is the standard practice of the Obama administration, which has killed thousands of “combatants” with drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. Until recently, there was virtually no official confirmation that drone programs even existed — and there are two: a military one and a CIA one, both controlled by the White House — let alone that individual strikes were carried out. The only information provided to the media about United States drone strikes was from anonymous officials (the kind of official leakers who never get pursued or punished for revealing national security information) explaining how valuable they were at crippling terrorism networks and killing al-Qaeda and Taliban “combatants”.

The problem is, it later emerged that the Obama administration defined “combatants” as any male 18 to 65 years old killed in a drone strike, regardless of who they were or what they were doing. Drone strikes could thus be “successful” even if they only killed civilians. Even Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was initially described as one of several “militants” after the drone strike that killed him in Yemen in 2009. Al-Awlaki was a 16-year-old boy from Denver, Colorado, who was in Yemen looking for his American father, the al-Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki, who had been killed in a drone strike two weeks earlier. No “militants” of any kind were present when Abdulrahman and several young friends were blown up in an outdoor cafe. The man who ordered the drone strike that killed the boy, former White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan, has never been investigated or prosecuted for his role in the killing. Instead, President Barack Obama promoted him to CIA director.

“The Australian government is strangely uninterested in the killing of one of its citizens …”

So experience suggests it pays to be highly sceptical of what anonymous officials say about drone strike victims. And Harvard’s family disputes the account from the unnamed official — as Schliebs related, they say Harvard went to Yemen to teach English and that conversion to Islam had helped him get his life together. Separately, the Townsville Bulletin speculated Harvard might have been radicalised at a mosque in Christchurch, NZ, although there is no known connection with Bin John.

Criticism of the Obama administration’s indiscriminate use of drones and the civilian death toll they inflicted eventually became too much, especially when respected figures like former Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal warned they could prove counter-productive because of the radicalising effect they had on civilian target communities. In May last year, Obama revealed he has established a new set of guidelines for using drones. The actual guidelines remain classified, but the White House released some details, including requirements of “near-certainty” that the target is present, the “near-certainty” that civilians will not be harmed, and that:

“… the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat, the United States will not use lethal force.”

Were the three al-Qaeda militants targeted in the attack that killed Harvard and Bin John posing a “continuing, imminent threat to US persons” in the remote province of Hadhramaut, where the strike took place? If not, it was in breach of the rules Obama himself laid down. We know of at least one other strike that was in breach of these new rules — a strike in Yemen in December that killed 12 people and injured 15 others when drones targeted a wedding procession. The Yemeni government later paid compensation to the families of the killed and injured. Several civilians have also been killed in a wave of drone strikes in Yemen over the last few days.

What we do know, via Key, is that Bin John had been known to NZ intelligence services before he’d left New Zealand, that he was the subject of a warrant by NZ agencies and, Key says, had links to terrorist organisations. Unlike his Australian counterpart, or the Obama administration, Key was prepared to speak officially about individual drone strikes that killed one of his citizens.

Perhaps Harvard was indeed a “combatant”; perhaps he indeed was involved in kidnapping westerners. Certainly he was profoundly foolish to be where he was when he was. But maybe he was in Yemen teaching English. We don’t know, and we’ll never know. He’ll get no trial, no opportunity to defend himself, not even the half-baked “opportunity” terrorism suspects get under Australia’s draconian anti-terror laws and a Federal Police force with a history of fabricating evidence. The Australian government is strangely uninterested in the killing of one of its citizens, having apparently asked no questions of the Americans about what happened or whether the strike that killed him complied with the US’ own rules.

And rather than discuss it publicly, it prefers to hide behind anonymous security bureaucrats.