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DRONE WATCH: A Secret Deal on Drones

How did the drone assassination program begin? In a front page feature Sunday, The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti offered an answer. In June 2004, a Pakistani Taliban leader, Nek Muhammad , was killed by a drone strike in the South Waziristan tribal area. The killing, writes Mazzetti, was the result of a secret deal between the CIA and Pakistani intelligence officials.

“Mr. Muhammad and his followers had been killed by the C.I.A., the first time it had deployed a Predator drone in Pakistan to carry out a “targeted killing.” The target was not a top operative of Al Qaeda, but a Pakistani ally of the Taliban who led a tribal rebellion and was marked by Pakistan as an enemy of the state. In a secret deal, the C.I.A. had agreed to kill him in exchange for access to airspace it had long sought so it could use drones to hunt down its own enemies.

“That back-room bargain, described in detail for the first time in interviews with more than a dozen officials in Pakistan and the United States, is critical to understanding the origins of a covert drone war that began under the Bush administration, was embraced and expanded by President Obama, and is now the subject of fierce debate. The deal, a month after a blistering internal report about abuses in the C.I.A.’s network of secret prisons, paved the way for the C.I.A. to change its focus from capturing terrorists to killing them, and helped transform an agency that began as a cold war espionage service into a paramilitary organization.

“The C.I.A. has since conducted hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan that have killed thousands of people, Pakistanis and Arabs, militants and civilians alike. While it was not the first country where the United States used drones, it became the laboratory for the targeted killing operations that have come to define a new American way of fighting, blurring the line between soldiers and spies and short-circuiting the normal mechanisms by which the United States as a nation goes to war.”

According to the Associated Press of Pakistan, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Office responded that “the story is baseless and a part of the propaganda to create confusion about the clear position of Pakistan on this matter.”  

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DRONE WATCH: Church to Oppose Drones

The Church of the Brethren will consider a “Resolution Against Drone Warfare” at its annual conference this summer. Passed by the church’s Mission and Ministry Board, the resolution states

“We are troubled by the quickly expanding use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. These drones are being used for surveillance and remote killing of people. In our opposition to all types of war, the Church of the Brethren has spoken out specifically against covert warfare.... Drone warfare embodies the fundamental problems that covert warfare entails.”

The resolution urges the church and its members to

“Call upon Congress to hold the President accountable for his administration’s past use of armed drones, and to control the future use of armed drones by instituting legitimate oversight of any deployment of drones by the military or the CIA. We will no longer tolerate secretive “kill lists,” and the decision-making process in the matter of armed drones must be made public so that the lethal actions of government may be properly understood and judged.”

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DRONE WATCH: Drone War Visualization

With data from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, a team of developers has created a visualization of every drone strike in Pakistan since 2004. The interactive timeline shows how the campaign built over time, and illustrates the number of people killed. According to the Bureau:

“The project, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, aims to capture the scale and human cost of the drone war in Pakistan through its visual representation of the CIA’s covert Pakistan drone war from the first event in 2004 to the latest strike.”

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DRONE WATCH: Drones in Niger

While the drone debate continues to grow, the administration is moving to expand their use. According to the Washington Post, the U.S. Air Force began flying surveillance drones from a base in Niger late last month.

“Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has relied heavily on drones for operations, both declared and covert, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia. U.S. drones also fly from allied bases in Turkey, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines.

“Now, they are becoming a fixture in Africa. The U.S. military has built a major drone hub in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, and flies unarmed Reaper drones from Ethiopia. Until recently, it conducted reconnaissance flights over East Africa from the island nation of the Seychelles.

“The Predator drones in Niger, a landlocked and dirt-poor country, give the Pentagon a strategic foothold in West Africa.”

At this point, the primary objective from the new base is the fight against an Islamic insurgency in Mali, intelligence information from the drones is shared with French and African troops involved.

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DRONE WATCH: Four Killed in Pakistan

Four people were killed in a drone attack on a vehicle in Pakistan yesterday. According to The New York Times,

"The officials said missiles fired late Thursday night from a drone operated by the Central Intelligence Agency hit a moving vehicle in Datta Khel Bazar in the North Waziristan tribal region, which is a redoubt of local and foreign militants. “Four men inside the vehicle were killed,” a tribal official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The nationality of those killed was not immediately clear. The vehicle exploded after it was hit by two missiles, leaving the bodies charred and beyond recognition.”

This is the first reported attack in nearly two weeks.

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DRONE WATCH: No More CIA Drones?

In an exclusive this morning, The Daily Beast’s Daniel Klaidman reports that the CIA is about to lose its drone program.

“At a time when controversy over the Obama administration’s drone program seems to be cresting, the CIA is close to taking a major step toward getting out of the targeted killing business. Three senior U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast that the White House is poised to sign off on a plan to shift the CIA’s lethal targeting program to the Defense Department.

“The move could potentially toughen the criteria for drone strikes, strengthen the program’s accountability, and increase transparency. Currently, the government maintains parallel drone programs, one housed in the CIA and the other run by the Department of Defense. The proposed plan would unify the command and control structure of targeted killings and create a uniform set of rules and procedures.”

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DRONE WATCH: Is Syria Next?

Current and former U.S. officials have told the Los Angeles Times that the CIA is gathering intelligence on Islamic extremists in Syria as part of contingency planning for possible drone strikes. Although drone strikes have not been considered or authorized, according to the Times:

“The Counterterrorism Center, which runs the CIA’s covert drone killing program in Pakistan and Yemen, recently shifted several targeting officers to improve intelligence collection on militants in Syria who could pose a terrorist threat, the officials said.

“The targeting officers have formed a unit with colleagues who were tracking Al Qaeda operatives and fighters in Iraq. U.S. officials believe that some of these operatives have moved to Syria and joined Islamic militias battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

“The CIA effort, which involves assembling detailed dossiers on key militants, gives the White House both lethal and nonlethal options if it concludes that Syria’s 2-year-old civil war — which has caused 70,000 deaths, according to United Nations estimates — is creating a haven for terrorists.”

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DRONE WATCH: A Violation of Sovereignty

Following a three-day visit to Pakistan, Ben Emmerson QC, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, warned that continuing U.S. drone strikes are a violation of  that country’s sovereignty. According to the Guardian, Emmerson said,

"The position of the government of Pakistan is quite clear. It does not consent to the use of drones by the United States on its territory and it considers this to be a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

"As a matter of international law the US drone campaign in Pakistan is therefore being conducted without the consent of the elected representatives of the people, or the legitimate government of the state. It involves the use of force on the territory of another state without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty.

"Pakistan has also been quite clear that it considers the drone campaign to be counter-productive and to be radicalizing a whole new generation, and thereby perpetuating the problem of terrorism in the region.”

 

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DRONE WATCH: Iran, U.S. Face Off Over Drone

As an Iranian fighter jet approached a Predator surveillance drone over the Persian Gulf earlier this week, it was warned away by a U.S. Air Force jet escort. The Los Angeles Times reports:

“The incident, which was not disclosed for two days, is at least the third time U.S. and Iranian military forces have faced off over American spy drones in the last 15 months, and it inevitably raised concerns of a more serious confrontation.

“The Obama administration has stepped up military and intelligence surveillance flights near Iranian airspace and moved warships and other military assets to the Middle East in connection with the increasing Western pressure on Iran to suspend its nuclear development program.”

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DRONE WATCH: Give Them Up, Mr. President

In an opinion piece this morning, former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta urges President Obama to make available to Congress and the American people the legal opinions governing the targeted drone killing program. Podesta writes:

“In refusing to release to Congress the rules and justifications governing a program that has conducted nearly 400 unmanned drone strikes and killed at least three Americans in the past four years, President Obama is ignoring the system of checks and balances that has governed our country from its earliest days. And in keeping this information from the American people, he is undermining the nation’s ability to be a leader on the world stage and is acting in opposition to the democratic principles we hold most important. This is why I say, respectfully: Give them up, Mr. President.”

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DRONE WATCH: The Legal Basis for Drone Killings

Eight Members of Congress sent a letter to the president yesterday, requesting a complete report on the legal basis for the targeted killings by the drone program. The letter noted a 2012 GAO study saying that 75 countries and “certain terrorist organizations” now have drones. With this growing reality, the letter said:

“We are growing increasingly concerned that there is a risk that our country’s ‘global war’ doctrine will further corrode the foundations of the international framework for protection of human rights.”

The letter was organized by Rep. Barbara Lee, Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Peace and Security Task Force, who said in a press release:

 “It is far past time that the White House openly discuss the drones program. The President has full rein to protect the United States as Commander in Chief, but Congress has a vital oversight role in this issue, and we cannot shy away from those responsibilities. We have to protect the checks and balances that are at the heart of our democracy.”

You can read the full text of the letter HERE

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DRONE WATCH: Drone Strike in Pakistan

The first reported drone strike in nearly a month is said to have happened Sunday morning in the North Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan. According to The New York Times:

“Two people suspected of being militants were killed Sunday morning in the volatile North Waziristan tribal region by what Pakistani and Taliban officials said was a drone strike. … Two Pakistani officials, one in Peshawar and another in the tribal belt, said that missiles fired from a drone operated by the C.I.A. hit the two people in the village of Degan, about 20 miles from Miram Shah, the main town in North Waziristan.”

The Long War Journal added:

 

“The CIA-operated, remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers fired two missiles at a pair of "militants" as they were riding horses in the village of Degan in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan. The two militants and their horses are reported to have been killed.”

 

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DRONE WATCH BREAKING: Filibustering Brennan

The Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday confirmed White House adviser John Brennan as CIA director on a 12-3 vote. The Democratic Senate leadership is attempting a quick vote, but ran into a problem as a filibuster began. The Associated Press reports:

“Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., stalled the chamber as he took to the Senate floor to complain over what he said was President Barack Obama's failure to adequately answer questions about the legality of conducting lethal drone strikes against targets inside the United States. The Obama administration has said it does not intend to conduct such strikes.

"'No American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found guilty of a crime by a court,' Paul said. 'How can you kill someone without going to a judge, or a jury?'"

Sen. Paul began speaking about two hours ago, you can watch HERE.

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Sandy Hook Dad Testifying Before Congress on Gun Violence

As a mom of two small children – one who is the same age as children killed in Newton – I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for this dad to speak about his loss at the Senate Judiciary Committee recently about a proposed assault weapons ban. Thank you for your courage.

Now it's time to ask Congress to show some courage and enact sensible measures to prevent gun violence. Too many parents have already lost their children.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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DRONE WATCH: Our Disappearing Privacy

The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to begin issuing commercial drone permits in 2015, allowing for a massive use of domestic drones. But according to Reuters, It’s already happening.

“They hover over Hollywood film sets and professional sports events. They track wildfires in Colorado, survey Kansas farm crops and vineyards in California. They inspect miles of industrial pipeline and monitor wildlife, river temperatures and volcanic activity.

“They also locate marijuana fields, reconstruct crime scenes and spot illegal immigrants breaching U.S. borders.

“Tens of thousands of domestic drones are zipping through U.S. skies, often flouting tight federal restrictions on drone use that require even the police and the military to get special permits.”

We live in a world where privacy barely exists. Almost everything about each of us in monitored – what we buy, which websites we visit, where we go. And the coming of the drone age will only accelerate that reality.

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