Countries that use drones for killing by remote control a fast growing club

WASHINGTON DC — The targeting crosshairs are focused on a dark building, tucked in the trees, when a missile dropped from the wings streaks down and the suspected terrorist base explodes in a fireball. The grainy video might appear to be another U.S. drone strike, but this was a Nigerian military crew operating a Chinese-built Rainbow drone against Boko Haram, an extremist militia allied with Islamic State, in northeastern Nigeria’s remote Sambisa Forest on February 2.

Nigeria thus joined the small but fast-growing club of countries — six so far, including three since September — using armed drones for targeted killing by remote control.

The United States and Britain fly U.S.-made armed MQ-1 Predators or MQ-9 Reapers, and Israel builds its own. But the three newcomers — Nigeria, Pakistan and Iraq — all took advantage of China’s growing exports of the unmanned aircraft systems that are reshaping modern warfare.

That worries some military analysts, who see China as undermining U.S. attempts to control a technology that gives poorer countries a relatively inexpensive bombing system that, critics say, lowers the threshold for using lethal force at a distance.

The “efforts to control the spread of drones will be relatively meaningless in the face of China’s relative promiscuity when it comes to selling drones,” said Sarah Kreps, a Cornell University professor who studies weapons proliferation. “China’s drones seem especially attractive to countries that have ... been rebuffed by the U.S.”

A total of 78 countries now deploy surveillance drones. More than 20, including the six named above, either have or are developing armed drones, according to the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute in Washington DC that tracks the industry.

Some nations, including Russia and Iran, designed and built their own missile-firing drone fleets. Others, including India and Jordan, reportedly bought theirs from Israel.

All the major forces in Syria’s civil war now use drones. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, Russia, Iran and Islamic State militants all have flown unmanned aircraft the size of large model planes to reconnoiter targets, while the U.S. and Britain have operated giant Reaper surveillance and killer drones.

The U.S. is by far the most prolific user of drones. Independent groups say more than 500 U.S. military and CIA drone strikes have killed about 3,800 militants, about 400 civilians, and at least eight Americans in seven countries over the last decade.

Most U.S. military drone exports are limited by the Missile Technology Control Regime, a 1987 international accord meant to limit the spread of ballistic missiles. The State Department agreed in February 2015 to relax those Cold War-era restrictions, though each sale requires congressional approval under the foreign military sales program.

Only two foreign sales have gone through in recent months. Approval was granted to sell four unarmed Reapers, each equipped with sophisticated sensors and radars, to Spain. The U.S. also approved Italy’s long-pending request to arm its two Reaper drones with Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., a state- owned entity, has found a ready market for its medium-altitude, long-distance drones since 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Sweden that documents the global arms trade. China has sold at least five armed CH-3 drones to Nigeria, four to Iraq and an unknown number of larger CH-4 drones to Pakistan.

The first sign of Nigeria's drone fleet emerged early last year when one crashed and photos of the debris appeared online. The next was the airstrike against the Boko Haram camp in February. The Pentagon expressed no qualms about that attack. “We are not concerned about (Nigerian government forces) having this technology,” said Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, “as long as it is applied in a responsible manner and solely in an effort to better secure their borders against violent or illegal activities that disrupt stability or present a danger.”

– edited from the Tribune Washington Bureau, February 27, 2016
PeaceMeal, May/June 2016

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, articles in this publication are distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Use of drones for killings risks a war without end

The Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a “slippery slope” into perpetual war and sets a dangerous precedent for lethal operations that other countries might adopt in the future, according to a report by a bipartisan panel that includes several former senior intelligence and military officials.

The group found that more than a decade into the era of armed drones, the American government has yet to carry out a thorough analysis of whether the costs of routine secret killing operations outweigh the benefits. The report, released June 26, urges the administration to conduct such an analysis and to give a public accounting of both militants and civilians killed in drone strikes.

The findings amount to a sort of report card — one that delivers middling grades — a year after President Obama gave a speech promising new guidelines for drone strikes and greater transparency about the killing operations. The report is especially critical of the secrecy that continues to envelop drone operations and questions whether they might be creating terrorists even as they are killing them.

“There is no indication that a U.S. strategy to destroy Al Qaeda has curbed the rise of Sunni Islamic extremism, deterred the establishment of Shia Islamic extremist groups, or advanced long-term U.S. security interests,” the report concludes.

The report challenges some widespread criticisms of armed drones. Arguing that they should neither be “glorified nor demonized,” it said there was strong evidence that civilian deaths from armed drone strikes are far fewer than from traditional combat aircraft. The panel also said there was little reason to conclude that drones create a “PlayStation mentality” — turning war into a video game that eliminates the psychological costs to drone pilots.

In fact, the report said, because drone pilots watch their targets sometimes for days and weeks before pulling the trigger — and then see them blown up on a high-resolution video screen — they are more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder than pilots of manned aircraft.

The panel instead reserves the bulk of its criticism for how two successive American presidents, Bush and Obama, have conducted a “long-term killing program based on secret rationales,” and how too little thought has been given to what consequences might be spawned by this new way of waging war.

The Obama administration has been reluctant to make public any of the purported legal underpinnings of the targeted killing program. As part of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits brought by the The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal appeals court in June released a redacted version of a 2010 Justice Department memo that blessed as legal the effort to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Muslim cleric and American citizen who died in a 2011 C.I.A. drone strike in Yemen. One section of the memo, a compilation of evidence to support administration claims that Mr. Awlaki had become an operational terrorist who posed a direct threat to Americans, remained redacted.

One of the panel’s recommendations — shifting responsibility from the C.I.A. to the Pentagon for the bulk of drone operations — was first discussed by White House officials last May, although the C.I.A. continues to carry out drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. It is unclear when, if ever, the C.I.A. will be taken off the mission of firing missiles from armed drones.

The panel’s recommendation that the government release information about drone victims follows a provision the Senate Intelligence Committee included in its authorization bill last year demanding that the Obama administration give an annual report about the number of militants and civilians killed and injured in drone strikes. But intelligence officials fought the provision and Senators quietly stripped it from the bill in April.

– edited from The New York Times, June 26, 2014
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2014

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, articles in this publication are distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Congress blocks plan to shift control of drone campaign from CIA to Pentagon

In a striking new example of secret lawmaking, a classified provision inserted in the massive government appropriations bill prohibits the use of any funds to transfer CIA drone operations to the Department of Defense, as planned by President Obama. The provision represents an unusually direct intervention by lawmakers into the way covert operations are run, thwarting an administration plan aimed at returning the CIA’s focus to traditional intelligence gathering and possibly bringing more transparency to drone strikes.

The move reflects some lawmakers’ lingering doubts about the U.S. military’s ability to conduct strikes against al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates without hitting the wrong targets and killing civilians. Those apprehensions were amplified after a U.S. military strike in Yemen in December killed a dozen people, including as many as six civilians, in an 11-vehicle convoy that tribal leaders said was part of a wedding procession. U.S. officials said that the strike was aimed at a senior al-Qaeda operative but that reviews of the operation have raised concern that it failed to comply with White House guidelines requiring “near certainty” that no civilians would be harmed.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said last year that she had seen the CIA “exercise patience and discretion specifically to prevent collateral damage” and that she “would really have to be convinced that the military would carry it out that well.”

The move by Congress carries implications for the course of U.S. efforts against al-Qaeda at a time when its affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Syria have become more worrisome to American counterterrorism officials than the terrorist organization’s traditional core.

Also at issue is the fundamental mission of the CIA, which during the past decade has morphed into a paramilitary force. Senior officials, including CIA Director John O. Brennan, have warned that the agency’s emphasis on killing operations deviates from its traditional mission and could impair its ability to focus on gathering intelligence.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) blasted the secret legislative move as “outrageous.” In a floor statement, he said, “While there may be differing opinions on who should control drone counter-terrorism operations, we should be able to debate these differences in the committees of jurisdiction and eventually on the Senate floor. The fact that a major national security policy decision is going to be authorized in this bill without debate or authorization is unacceptable and should not be the way we legislate on such important national security issues.”

Although he voted against the measure, the Senate approved it, 72-26, and President Obama signed it into law on January 17.

– edited from The Washington Post and Federation of American Scientists
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2014

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, articles in this publication are distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Human rights groups allege U.S. drone strikes unlawful

Two human-rights groups have questioned the legality of U.S. drone strikes they assert have killed or wounded scores of civilians in Yemen and Pakistan. Human Rights Watch alleged that 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians, were killed by the unmanned aircraft and other aerial strikes in Yemen between September 2012 and June 2013. Amnesty International called on the U.S. to investigate reports of civilian casualties in Pakistan, among them a 68-year-old grandmother hit while farming with her grandchildren.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said such strikes are unlawful or indiscriminate. Amnesty, based in London, said it is concerned that the attacks outlined in the reports and others may have resulted in unlawful killings that constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.

Amnesty said the U.S. is so secretive about its drone program that there is no way to tell what steps it takes to prevent civilian casualties. They say it has “failed to commit to conduct investigations” into alleged deaths that have already occurred, and it called on the U.S. to comply with its obligations under international law by investigating the killings documented in the report and providing victims with “full reparation.”

In its report about strikes in Yemen, Human Rights Watch charged that in each of six cases examined through interviews with Yemeni officials, witnesses and survivors, drone or other aerial strikes were carried out despite the presence of civilians, in contravention of the laws of war. Among the six strikes was an attack in Sarar, in central Yemen on Sept. 2, 2012, in which two warplanes or drones attacked a minibus, killing a pregnant woman, three children and eight other people. The report said the apparent target, tribal leader Abd al-Raouf al-Dahab, was not in the vehicle. The Yemeni families were only compensated for the deaths after Human Rights Watch brought the case to the Yemeni government’s attention, the report said.

The researchers also examined a U.S. cruise missile strike in al-Majalah in southern Abyan province on Dec. 17, 2009. The report said the Yemeni government described the attack as a Yemeni airstrike that killed 34 at a training camp, but a later Yemeni government inquiry found the strike actually killed 14 suspected AQAP fighters and also at least 41 local civilians living in a Bedouin camp, including nine women and 21 children.

Another deadly incident noted by the Amnesty report occurred in North Waziristan on July 6, 2012. Witnesses said a volley of missiles hit a tent where a group of men had gathered for an evening meal after work, and then a second struck those who came to help the wounded, one of a number of attacks that have hit rescuers, the rights group said. Witnesses and relatives said that 18 male laborers with no links to militant groups died, according to Amnesty.

“We cannot find any justification for these killings. There are genuine threats to the USA and its allies in the region, and drone strikes may be lawful in some circumstances,” said Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International’s Pakistan researcher. “But it is hard to believe that a group of laborers, or an elderly woman surrounded by her grandchildren, were endangering anyone at all, let alone posing an imminent threat to the United States."”

The United States defended drone strikes targeting al-Qaida operatives and others it deems enemies. Pres. Barack Obama’s chief spokesman, Jay Carney, said Oct. 22 that the U.S. “would strongly disagree” with any claims that it had acted improperly, arguing that American actions follow all applicable law.

– edited from The Associated Press, October 22, 2013
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, articles in this publication are distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Pakistan says at least 400 civilians killed by drone strikes

Pakistan has confirmed that of some 2,200 people killed by U.S. drone strikes in the past decade, at least 400 were civilians and an additional 200 victims were deemed “probable non-combatants,” according to a U.N. human rights investigator. At least 600 additional people were seriously wounded.

Ben Emmerson, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, said Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry told him it had recorded at least 330 drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Pakistan’s largely lawless region bordering Afghanistan, since 2004.

The tribal areas have never been fully integrated into Pakistan’s administrative, economic or judicial system. They are dominated by ethnic Pashtun tribes, some of which have sheltered and supported militants over decades of conflict in Afghanistan. Clearing out militant border sanctuaries is seen by Washington as crucial to bringing stability to Afghanistan, particularly as the U.S.-led combat mission ends in 2014.

“Officials indicated that, owing to underreporting and obstacles to effective investigation, those figures were likely to be an underestimate” of civilian deaths, Emmerson said. In an interim report to the U.N. General Assembly, he also urged the United States to release its own data on the number of civilian casualties caused by its drone strikes.

“The involvement of CIA in lethal counter-terrorism opera-tions in Pakistan and Yemen has created an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency,” Emmerson said. “One consequence is that the United States has to date failed to reveal its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft in classified operations conducted in Pakistan and elsewhere.”

During his Senate confirmation process in February, CIA director John Brennan said the closely guarded number of civilian casualties from drone strikes should be made public. The U.S. government, without releasing numbers, has sought to portray civilian deaths from these strikes as minimal.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at the time that she had been trying to speak publicly about the “very low number of civilian casualties” and to verify that number each year has “typically been in the single digits.” However, she said she was told she could not divulge the actual numbers because they were classified.

Emmerson reported that the U.N. mission in Afghanistan said while casualties were likely underestimated, it had assessed that in recent years drones strikes appeared to have inflicted lower levels of civilian casualties than other air strikes. “The most serious single incident to date was a remotely piloted aircraft attack on 2 September 2012 in which 12 civilians were reportedly killed in the vicinity of Rada’a,” he said.

– edited from Reuters, October 18, 2013
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, articles in this publication are distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Boy’s death highlights anger felt over U.S. drone strikes

If an apparent U.S. drone strike in June in the Yemen village of Mahashama had killed only its intended targets — an al Qaida chief and some of his men — locals might have grumbled about a violation of Yemen’s national sovereignty and gone on with their lives. But the strike also killed a 10-year-old boy named Abdulaziz, the younger brother of the targeted militant, Saleh Hassan Huraydan, according to local tribal leaders. And that set off a firestorm of complaints that underscores how American airstrikes can so outrage a community that even though al Qaida loses some foot soldiers, it gains dozens of sympathizers.

Residents said a U.S. drone fired up to five missiles at an SUV that was carrying suspected militants. At least six people were reported killed in the attack, residents said, noting that identification was difficult because the bodies were burned beyond recognition and were buried quickly in accordance with Muslim custom. But the accounts of local tribal leaders and others with direct knowledge of the attack converged in reporting that Huraydan and his little brother were killed along with four militants, including two Saudis.

“Killing al Qaida is one thing, but the death of an innocent person is a crime that we cannot accept,” said a sheikh from the area. “What did Abdulaziz do? Was this child a member of al Qaida?”

U.S. drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan have killed 115 children, aged 1 to 17 years, from 2004 through 2012. The death of a child not only inflames tensions over drone attacks against suspected al Qaida operatives, but also raises questions about the rules that govern the Obama administration’s drone strategy. Some analysts argue that this and other strikes run counter to the administration’s claims of improved targeting. Huraydan was wanted by the Yemeni government and his ties to al Qaida are largely unquestioned, but it’s unclear whether he constituted a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” Obama’s definition of a legitimate target.

“The number of U.S. drone strikes over the past two years suggests that the U.S. is going after many more targets than just the 10 to 15 individuals it says represent imminent threats to U.S. national security,” said Gregory Johnsen, the author of “The Last Refuge,” a recent book on al Qaida in Yemen. “It appears to be going after whomever it can hit whenever it can find them.”

The CIA does not always know whom it is targeting and killing. In drone strikes in Pakistan over a 14-month period, about one of every four of those killed were classified as “other militants” — a label used when the CIA could not determine the affiliation of those killed. The uncertainty arises from the use of so-called “signature” strikes, in which intelligence officers and drone operators kill suspected terrorists based on circumstantial evidence — their patterns of behavior — but without positive identification.

One former senior intelligence official said that at the height of the drone program in Pakistan in 2009 and 2010, as many as half of the strikes were classified as signature strikes, prompting questions about how the agency could conclude the targets were a threat to U.S. national security. Yet officials seem certain that however many people were killed and whoever they were, none of them were non-combatants. In fact, of approximately 600 people listed as killed in two sets of classified documents that describe 114 drone strikes, only one person is described as a civilian.

Micah Zenko, a former State Department policy advisor who is now a drone expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “incredible” to state that only one non-combatant was killed. “It’s just not believable,” he said. “Anyone who knows anything about how airpower is used and deployed, civilians die, and individuals who are engaged in the operations know this.”

A 2012 investigation reported that in 10 drone attacks from the preceding 18 months, Pakistani villagers said that about 30 percent of those killed were either civilians or tribal police. The report noted that Pakistani officials and villagers claimed that 38 non-combatants were killed in a single strike on March 17, 2011, at a gathering that was a community meeting.

In May, the White House released a fact sheet stating its standards for using force outside of the U.S. and war zones. It stated that “the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.”Some officials interviewed said the moral and legal aspects of the signature strikes were often discussed, but without any significant change in policy.

– edited from McClatchy Washington Bureau, NBC News and The Associated PressPeaceMeal, July/August 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, articles in this publication are distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

The Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank ranked as the most influential in the world, issued a report in July 2009 saying that, for every terrorist suspect killed by drones in Pakistan, 10 civilians were killed.

‘Judge, jury and executioner’
Legal experts fear implications of White House drone memo

Erin McClam

Staff Writer, NBC News

Legal experts have expressed grave reservations about an Obama administration memo concluding that the United States can order the killing of American citizens believed to be affiliated with al-Qaida. The experts said that the memo threatened constitutional rights and dangerously expanded the definition of national self-defense and of what constitutes an imminent attack.

“Anyone should be concerned when the president and his lawyers make up their own interpretation of the law or their own rules,” said Mary Ellen O’Connell, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and an authority on international law and the use of force. “This is a very, very dangerous thing that the president has done,” she added.

The memo, made public February 4, provides detail about the administration’s controversial expansion of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects abroad, including those aimed at American citizens. Among them were Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, who were killed by an American strike in September 2011 in Yemen. Both men were U.S. citizens who had not been charged with a crime.

Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed the constitutionality of targeted killings of Americans, provided that the government determines such an individual poses “an imminent threat of violent attack.” But the memo obtained by NBC News refers to a broader definition of imminence and specifically says the government is not required to have “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

The attorney general told reporters Tuesday that the administration’s primary concern is to keep Americans safe, and to do it in a way consistent with American values. “But,” he added, “you have to understand that we are talking about ... how we conduct our offensive operations against a clear and present danger.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and 10 other senators wrote to President Barack Obama asking him to release all Justice Department memos on the subject. The senators said that Congress and the public needed a full understanding of how the White House views its authority so they can decide “whether the president’s power to deliberately kill American citizens is subject to appropriate limitations and safeguards.”

The memo lays out a three-part test for making targeted killings of Americans lawful. According to the administration’s criteria, the suspect must be deemed an imminent threat, capturing the target must not be feasible, and the strike must be conducted according to “law of war principles.”

Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at the Human Rights Institute of Columbia University Law School, said she was deeply troubled by the contents of the memo. “We should be concerned when the White House is acting as judge, jury and executioner,” she said. “And there’s no one outside of the White House who has real oversight over that process. What’s put forward here is there’s no role for the courts, not even after the fact.”

– edited from NBC News, February 5,2013
Peacemeal, March/April 2013.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, articles in this publication are distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.S. targeted killings by drones hidden from pubic debate

The Obama administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force cockpits in the Southwest, and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents. Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts, but no other president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to pursue the government's national security goals.

President Obama can point to undeniable results: Osama bin Laden is dead and the core al-Qaeda network is near defeat. Those results, delivered with unprecedented precision from aircraft that put no American pilots at risk, may help explain why the drone campaign has never attracted as much scrutiny as the detention or enhanced interrogation programs of the George W. Bush era. Although human rights advocates and others are increasingly critical of the drone program, the level of debate by Congress and the public remains muted by a shroud of secrecy. The vast majority of lawmakers receive scant information about the drone program. The White House has refused to divulge details about its structure or, with rare exceptions, who has been killed.

For a president who campaigned against the alleged counter-terrorism excesses of his predecessor, Obama has emphatically embraced the post-September 11 era's signature counterterrorism tool. The number of drone aircraft has exploded in the Obama years. A 2011 study by the Congressional Budget Office counted 775 Predators, Reapers and other medium- and long-range drones in the U.S. inventory, with hundreds more in the pipeline.

Published reports provide insights into President Obama's personal and controversial role in the escalating covert U.S. drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Investigations explored how the administration runs its secret "kill list" — the names of those chosen for execution by CIA and Pentagon drones outside the conventional battlefield. It was revealed that more than 100 U.S. officials take part in a weekly video conference run by the Pentagon, at which it is decided who will be added to the military's kill-or-capture list. A parallel, more secretive selection process at the CIA focuses largely on Pakistan, the target of its strikes.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on February 1 seeking Justice Department memos justifying the targeted killings. Named defendants were the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, CIA, U.S. Special Operations Command and Office of Legal Counsel. The ACLU's complaint stated: "The request relates to a topic of vital importance: the power of the U.S. government to kill U.S. citizens without presentation of evidence and without disclosing legal standards that guide decision makers."

President Obama's counterterrorism adviser John Brennan insisted on April 30 that the U.S. campaign of drone strikes to kill militants in other countries is legal. "As a matter of international law," he said, "the United States is in an armed conflict with al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense."

Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, responded, "We continue to believe, based on the information available, that the program itself is not just unlawful but dangerous. It is dangerous to characterize the entire planet as a battlefield."

The ACLU lawsuit was sparked by a collaborative drone strike in Yemen between the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command on September 30, 2011. Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and suspected al-Qaida member, was executed without a trial. In a separate strike weeks later, al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed.

In June, Justice Department lawyers sought a delay in the trial, saying that secrecy rules about targeted killings were under discussion "at the highest level" of government.

Data on Pakistan have made clear that the very first covert drone strikes of the Obama presidency, just three days after he took office, resulted in civilian deaths in Pakistan. As many as 19 civilians, including four children, died in two error-filled attacks.

On another notorious occasion, U.S. officials were aware early-on that civilians — including "dozens of women and children" — had died in Obama's first ordered strike in Yemen in December 2009. All 44 civilians killed in that attack by cruise missiles have been named by independent news media.

Jeh Johnson, one of the State Department's senior lawyers, reportedly watched that strike take place on a video screen. He later confided to others, "If I were Catholic, I'd have to go to confession."

It has often been reported that President Obama has urged CIA and Pentagon officials to avoid, wherever possible, the deaths of civilians in covert U.S. attacks. But Obama has embraced a disputed broadening of the term "civilian" devised by the Bush administration. In effect it counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

In the forthcoming book Kill Or Capture, author Daniel Klaidman describes a world in which the CIA and Pentagon constantly push for significant attacks on the U.S.'s enemies. In March 2009, for example, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen reportedly called for the bombing of an entire training camp in southern Somalia in order to kill one militant leader. One dissenter at the meeting is said to have described the tactic as "carpet-bombing a country." The attack did not go ahead.

According to retired admiral Dennis Blair, the former U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Obama's obsession with targeted killings is "dangerously seductive" because it is "the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term."

Mr. Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 by denouncing his predecessor's secret prisons and brutal interrogations, which were public knowledge only because of leaks of classified information to the news media. He began his term by pledging the most transparent administration in history. In office, however, he has outdone all previous presidents in mounting criminal prosecutions over such leaks, overseeing six such cases to date, compared with three under all previous administrations combined.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, Mr. Obama's opponent in 2008, stated to reporters on June 5 that administration officials were "intentionally leaking information to enhance President Obama's image as a tough guy for the elections" — while at the same time prosecuting low-level officials for disclosures. The White House called that charge "grossly irresponsible."

– edited from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Reuters, Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Courthouse News
Peacemeal, July/August 2012.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, articles in this publication are distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.S. expansion of drone use in targeted killings
raises serious moral and legal questions

Unmanned drone aircraft armed with missiles are playing a greater role than ever in U.S. counter-terrorism operations. Under President Obama, the number of drones and their use have escalated dramatically. In the administration’s new counter-terrorism strategy, large-scale combat brigades are being replaced by Special Forces strike teams, capture- and-interrogate operations, and targeted killings with drones.

Establishment of new bases for drone aircraft by the U.S. in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula pose serious questions about overreach and accountability. Bases are being established or have been established in Ethiopia, the Seychelles and Djibouti. The “constellation” of bases is intended to allow targeting of Al Qaeda affiliates and other terrorists in Somalia and Yemen, new battlegrounds in the conflict with Islamic militants.

One worrisome aspect is the geographical reach of the new strategy. We’re at war in Afghanistan (a conflict that has spilled over into Pakistan), but do we also have the right to kill people we think may pose a threat in Somalia or Yemen? And if we can do it in Somalia and Yemen, can we also do it in London or Los Angeles? Would we think it was acceptable if Russia gunned down a Chechen terrorist on the streets of New York?

Granted, the battlefield in the war against terrorism transcends national borders, but surely there must be some limit? Instead, Congress is moving to expand the theater of operations. A defense bill approved in May by the House of Representatives authorizes force directed against “Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces,” but doesn’t include any geographical limitations whatsoever.

It is not only the military who are now using drones. The Central Intelligence Agency, in a program it does not publicly acknowledge, now operates Predator and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles over at least five countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya.

Analysts and former U.S. intelligence officials generally approve of the increasing reliance on drones, but warn they are not without drawbacks. Those include civilian casualties, resentment of the U.S. warfare-from-a-distance in Pakistan and elsewhere, and the likelihood the technology will spread and be turned against the United States in the future. Innocent bystanders have frequently been killed in drone strikes, but such deaths appear to have decreased in recent years.

Paul Pillar, a Georgetown University professor and former top CIA analyst, said drones are a “more effective and better focused way” of using military force against militants. “But,” he said, “we must bear in mind as we make each individual decision about a drone strike that the immediate positive results always have to be weighed against the potentially longer-term consequences, given how it’s perceived and possible resentment.”

The process by which the military and the CIA determine who belongs on a target list is also of concern. The United States should not be aiming its missiles at everyone who associates with Al Qaeda and similar groups, or at mere propagandists. Decisions about targeted killings should be reviewed at the highest levels of the administration and monitored closely by Congress.

But no one in the government is talking about the questions of the morality and legality of targeted assassinations. In a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council last year, the U.N. special representative on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, called on the United States to exercise greater restraint in its use of drones in places outside the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, places like Pakistan and Yemen. His report also said that a targeted killing outside of an armed conflict “is almost never likely to be legal.”

The CIA’s use of drones for covert black operations, which are conducted without any public accountability, are especially disturbing. CIA operatives have no legal right to participate in armed hostilities and are unlawful combatants. They do not wear uniforms, are not subject to the military chain of command, and may be charged with a crime for killing with drones.

In a statement accompanying his report, Mr. Alston said, “I’m particularly concerned that the United States ... asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe. But this strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions.”

The report also proposed a summit meeting of “key military powers” to clarify legal limits on such killings.

The Obama administration’s legal rationale was partly outlined in March by State Department legal adviser, Harold Koh. He claimed that the United States obeyed legal limits on the use of force when selecting targets, and he defended drone killings as lawful because of the armed conflict with Al Qaeda and because of the nation’s right to self-defense. But the self-serving statement seemed troublingly reminiscent of the Bush administration’s “legal” opinion justifying the use of torture.

– edited from Reuters, Los Angeles Times and The New York Times
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2011

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, articles in this publication are distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.N. investigator warns U.S. on use of drones

A U.N. human rights investigator warned the United States October 27 that its use of unmanned warplanes to carry out targeted executions may violate international law. Philip Alston said that unless the Obama administration explains the legal basis for targeting particular individuals and the measures it is taking to comply with international humanitarian law which prohibits arbitrary executions, “it will increasingly be perceived as carrying out indiscriminate killings in violation of international law.”

Alston, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s investigator on extra-judicial, summary and arbitrary executions, raised the issue of U.S. Predator drones in a report to the General Assembly’s human rights committee, saying he has become increasingly concerned at the dramatic increase in their use since June, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Alston said the U.S. response — that the Geneva-based council and the General Assembly have no role in regard to killings during an armed conflict — “is simply untenable.”

“That would remove the great majority of issues that come before these bodies right now,” Alston said. “The onus is really on the government of the United States to reveal more about the ways in which it makes sure that arbitrary executions, extrajudicial executions are not, in fact, being carried out through the use of these weapons.”

Alston, a law professor at New York University, said that while there may be circumstances where the use of drones “to carry out targeted executions” is consistent with international law, this can only be determined in light of information on the legal basis for selecting certain individuals.

Alston said the U.S. should provide details on its use of drones, what precautions it takes to ensure the unmanned aircraft are used strictly for purposes consistent with international humanitarian law, and what measures exist to evaluate the outcome when their weapons have been used. “Otherwise, you have the really problematic bottom line — which is that the Central Intelligence Agency is running a program which is killing significant numbers of people, and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international laws,” he said.

– edited from The Associated Press, 27 October 2009
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2009

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, articles in this publication are distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)