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DRONE WATCH: Brennan Vote Delayed

As the drone debate continues, the Senate Intelligence Committee is delaying a confirmation vote on John Brennan as CIA Director. Brennan most recently was President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, and in that capacity the administration’s point person on drones. The Washington Post reports:

“A Senate confirmation vote on John O. Brennan as CIA director has been postponed for at least two weeks as lawmakers step up pressure on the Obama administration to provide more information about its drone campaign against terrorism suspects.

“In particular, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that she is seeking seven Justice Department memos related to the administration’s targeted killing program, in addition to four the committee has been allowed to view.”

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Out of Control Partisanship

Like former Sen. Chuck Hagel, Richard Lugar is a moderate-to-conservative Midwest Republican. Lugar was defeated in a primary election last year by a tea party candidate, and this week gave his first public speech since leaving office in January. According to the Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette, he spoke of the out of control partisanship that now controls Washington politics, specifically noting  the “politicization of national security policy” in the debate over Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense. 

“Hagel’s “main transgression is that he is a Republican who has questioned policies that are sacred among most conservative senators,” Lugar said. “These include whether the surge in Iraq was worth the lives lost, whether the current high levels of defense expenditures make strategic sense, whether nuclear forces can be reduced further and whether there are non-military options in dealing with Iran.”

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DRONE WATCH: Drone Strike in Pakistan

The day after the hearing on John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA, U.S. drones were back in action over Pakistan. An attack on Friday in the border tribal region killed seven suspected militants. NBC News reports:

“Seven people were killed and six others injured in a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region on Friday evening, Pakistani security officials said. The officials and tribal sources said the drone fired six missiles and pounded two separate mud-built houses in the Babar area of the Ladha subdivision in the South Waziristan tribal region.”

Other reports with different details include DAWN, Al Jazeera, and the Associated Press.

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DRONE WATCH: Drones Hit Front Page

The publication on Monday of a previously secret Justice Department memo attempting to legally justify the killing of American citizens has opened the door for front-page questions about the entire drone program.    

- The Washington Post revealed the existence of a previously secret drone base in Saudi Arabia, established two years ago when the campaign against al Qaeda in Yemen was Intensified. The story notes that John Brennan, a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, played a key role in negotiations for the base.

- In London, the Guardian headlines the secret base, and notes that “Iranian state media highlighted the story, which is also likely to be seized upon by jihadi groups. Saudi Arabia has previously publicly denied co-operating with the US to target al-Qaida in Yemen.”

- The Associated Press notes a growing number of a growing number of Members of Congress seeking to limit the claimed authority for drone killings and predicts it will be a hot topic in the confirmation hearing tomorrow of John Brennan for CIA Director.

- Bloomberg reports remarks by Pakistan Ambassador to the U.S. Sherry Rehman at a Christian Science Monitor news breakfast in Washington. Rehman called the continuing drone strikes in Pakistan a “direct violation of our sovereignty” and international law as well as a red line that Pakistani authorities are constantly urging the U.S. not to cross.

- The New York Times, noting that Brennan “has taken a particular interest in Yemen,” devotes a long lead story to the drone strikes in that country. It raises the questions about the program: Why are both the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA carrying out drone campaigns in Yemen? Are the strikes creating more militants than they are killing?

- At the White House press briefing Tuesday afternoon, the first question to Press Secretary Jay Carney was about the drone memo. The money quote of his answer, from the official transcript, was “We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats, to stop plots, prevent future attacks, and, again, save American lives.  These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise.”

- And, for the last word, NBC News has Mary Ellen O’Connell, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and an authority on international law and the use of force, saying about the leaked memo: “Anyone should be concerned when the president and his lawyers make up their own interpretation of the law or their own rules. This is a very, very dangerous thing that the president has done.” 

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Giffords at Gun Hearing: 'Be Bold'

The Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on gun control in the new Congress this morning. The first witness was former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who survived being shot in the head two years ago.  

Here, via CBS News, is her statement.

"Thank you for inviting me here today. This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities, for Democrats, and Republicans.

"Speaking is difficult but I need to say something important.

"Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying — too many children. We must do something.

"It will be hard. But the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be Courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you."

Other witnesses included Gifford’s husband Mark Kelly,  James Johnson, chief of police for Baltimore County, Md., and chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, and Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President of the NRA.

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Senate Confirms Kerry

The Associated Press reports that the Senate has confirmed John Kerry as Secretary of State with a 94-3 vote. Earlier today, the Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved the nomination.  Kerry, a Vietnam veteran and five-term Senator, replaces Hillary Clinton as Secretary.

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DRONE WATCH: Drones in Africa

The New York Times reports that the U.S. is preparing to establish a base in northwest Africa so that it can fly drone surveillance missions against the local affiliate of Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups. 

“For now, officials say they envision flying only unarmed surveillance drones from the base, though they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens. …

“A handful of unarmed Predator drones would carry out surveillance missions in the region and fill a desperate need for more detailed information on a range of regional threats, including militants in Mali and the unabated flow of fighters and weapons from Libya. American military commanders and intelligence analysts complain that such information has been sorely lacking.”

This morning, Reuters reports that Niger has given permission for the drones to be based in that country. According to a “senior government source,” the U.S. Ambassador to Niger made to the request to the country’s president, who accepted it.

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DRONE WATCH: UN to Examine Drone Strikes

Ben Emmerson, a U.N. special rapporteur, is beginning an investigation into drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, according to the Guardian.

“About 20 or 30 strikes – selected as representative of different types of attacks – will be studied to assess the extent of any civilian casualties, the identity of militants targeted and the legality of strikes in countries where the UN has not formally recognised there is a conflict.

“The inquiry will report to the UN general assembly in New York this autumn. Depending on its findings, it may recommend further action. Emmerson has previously suggested some drone attacks – particularly those known as "double tap" strikes where rescuers going to the aid of a first blast have become victims of a follow-up strike – could possibly constitute a 'war crime.'"

Several nations, including Pakistan, have requested the investigation.

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DRONE WATCH: The CIA Exemption

Several months ago, the Washington Post reported that presidential counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was developing a “playbook” of rules for drone attacks:

“The “playbook,” as Brennan calls it, will lay out the administration’s evolving procedures for the targeted killings that have come to define its fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It will cover the selection and approval of targets from the “disposition matrix,” the designation of who should pull the trigger when a killing is warranted, and the legal authorities the administration thinks sanction its actions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond.”

On Sunday, the Post followed with a report that the playbook was nearing completion, and would provide clear rules. 

“In Yemen, officials said, strikes have been permitted only in cases in which intelligence indicates a specific threat to Americans. That could include “individuals who are personally involved in trying to kill Americans,” a senior administration official said, or “intelligence that ... [for example] a truck has been configured in order to go after our embassy in Sanaa.

“The playbook has adopted that tighter standard and imposes other more stringent rules. Among them are requirements for White House approval of drone strikes and the involvement of multiple agencies — including the State Department — in nominating new names for kill lists.”

But there is one exception to the new rules. The CIA drone program in Pakistan gets an exemption for at least a year.  That exemption is described as “a compromise that allowed officials to move forward with other parts of the playbook.” The disputed point that apparently led to it was the CIA’s use of so-called “signature strikes,” attacks based on behavior seen as suspicious rather than in specific identified targets.

It also appears that the coming withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will lead to more and more drone attacks. The Post quotes a former official involved in the playbook, “There’s a sense that you put the pedal to the metal now…”

 

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DRONE WATCH: Yemen — 4 Attacks, 4 Days

While Washington, D.C., reveled in the ceremonies and parties surrounding Inauguration Day, U.S. drones were busy in Yemen. According to Reuters, four attacks in four days, from Saturday to Tuesday, killed at least 14 people. The attacks led to a protest blockade by angry tribesmen:

“On Sunday armed tribesman, angry at what they said was a drone attack on an area inhabited by civilians, blocked the main road linking Maarib with Sanaa. Earlier this month, dozens of armed tribesmen also took to the streets in southern Yemen to protest against drone strikes that they said had killed innocent civilians and fuelled anger against the United States.”

In another protest, Reuters reported a rare criticism of drone strikes by a member of the Yemeni cabinet. Human rights minister Hooria Mashhou, who was formerly a top activist in the movement that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh a year ago, said during a U.N. Yemen humanitarian appeal meeting in Dubai:

"I am in favour of changing the anti-terrorism strategy. I think there are more effective strategies. We're committed to fighting terrorism but we're calling for changing the means and strategies. These means and strategies can be applied on the ground without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations."

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Vatican Welcomes Obama Gun Control Proposal

The Vatican applauded President Obama’s gun control proposals. The Vatican continues to appeal for disarmament and morally supports firearm limits. The Huffington Post reports:

“The initiatives announced by the American administration for limiting and controlling the spread and use of weapons are certainly a step in the right direction,” the Vatican spokesman said.

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DRONE WATCH: Law and Secrecy

John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor and nominee for CIA Director, is one of the architects of the administration’s drone policy. The New York Times and the ACLU recently lost a case in court that attempted to make public the secret legal memos that are claimed to justify the policy. The confirmation hearings coming up will offer another chance.

Salon reports that Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote a letter to Brennan in light of his nomination asking to see the legal opinions that justify killing American citizens.  He wrote:

“Senior intelligence officials have said publicly that they have to authority to knowingly use lethal force against Americans in the course of counterterrorism operations, and have indicated that there are secret legal opinions issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and explain the basis of this authority. I have asked repeatedly to see these opinions, and I have been provided some relevant information on the topic, but I have yet to see the opinions themselves.”

From a broader viewpoint, Mary Ellen O'Connell, law professor at the University of Notre Dame and a specialist on the international law of armed conflict, expresses surprise that anyone would need to see the memos.  Comparing it to the legal memos that claimed to justify waterboarding and secret detention by the Bush administration, she writes:

“It is surprising to me that anyone feels the need to actually see these secret memos. International law clearly makes waterboarding, secret detention and targeted killing away from battlefields unlawful. The fact these practices have continued after the writing of the memos demonstrates the analysis is window dressing.”

But, she adds:

“The greater importance of the secret memos does not concern what they contain, but the fact our democratic government believes legal analysis can be secret -- that how the government understands the law that regulates its conduct need not be made public.” 

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DRONE WATCH: A Better Drone Policy

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) writes in a Washington Post op-ed of the many unanswered questions about drone strikes. He points out that:

“The heart of the problem is that our technological capability has far surpassed our policy. As things stand, the executive branch exercises unilateral authority over drone strikes against terrorists abroad.”

And as a way of changing that unilateral authority, he proposes three major points that should be considered by Congress to create a “legal framework to guide executive action.”

“First, we must do more to avoid innocent civilian casualties.

“Second, Congress must require an independent judicial review of any executive-branch 'kill list.'

“Third, the United States must collaborate with the international community to develop a widely accepted set of legal standards.”

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DRONE WATCH: What We Know … And What We Don’t Know

For a number of months, I’ve reported and commented on news of drone strikes, the drone program, and legal and political challenges to it. But with the administration’s refusal to officially acknowledge the program, there’s a a lot we don’t know. Cora Currier at Pro Publica has an informative summary of what we know and what we don’t know about drone strikes. 

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The Obama Synthesis

Ross Douthat posits that President Obama’s nominations of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense and John Brennan as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency represent the synthesis of two strains in former President George Bush’s foreign policy. Hagel as one of those who turned against the war in Iraq, and Brennan as one of those who defended controversial counterterrorism policies.

“To the extent that it’s possible to define an “Obama Doctrine,” then, it’s basically the Hagel-Brennan two-step. Fewer boots on the ground, but lots of drones in the air. Assassination, yes; nation-building, no. An imperial presidency with a less-imperial global footprint.

“This is a popular combination in a country that’s tired of war but still remembers 9/11 vividly. Indeed, Obama’s foreign policy has been an immense political success: he’s co-opted foreign policy realists, neutralized antiwar Democrats and isolated Republican hawks.”

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