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DRONE WATCH: Congress Keeps Closer Watch on CIA Drone Strikes

In what appears to be a step in the right direction, Congress is paying more attention to drone strikes. From the LA Times:

"Once a month, a group of staff members from the House and Senate intelligence committees drives across the Potomac River to CIA headquarters in Virginia, assembles in a secure room and begins the grim task of watching videos of the latest drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. …

The regular review of some of the most closely held video in the CIA's possession is part of a marked increase in congressional attention paid to the agency's targeted killing program over the last three years. The oversight, which has not previously been detailed, began largely at the instigation of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, ...

In addition to watching video, the legislative aides review intelligence that was used to justify each drone strike. They also sometimes examine telephone intercepts and after-the-fact evidence, such as the CIA's assessment of who was hit."

One of the major criticisms of drone attacks is the lack of transparency and accountability. So, on the one hand, more Congressional oversight is good. On the other hand:

"Members of the oversight committees are limited in their ability to challenge the CIA's conclusions, a senior staff member cautioned. "I can watch video all day long — I'm not an imagery analyst," he said. "I can only look to see if the description reasonably concurs with what my untrained eyes are seeing."

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Archbishop on British PM: Big Society Policy is "Aspirational Waffle"

The Observer newspaper in the UK published extracts from Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams' new book:

The archbishop of Canterbury has denounced David Cameron's "big society", saying that it comes across as aspirational waffle that was "designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable".
 
The outspoken attack on the prime minister's flagship policy by Rowan Williams – his strongest to date – is contained in a new book, Faith in the Public Square, that is being prepared for publication ahead of his retirement.
 
Passages from the book, obtained by the Observer, reflect the archbishop's deep frustration not just with the policies of Cameron's government and those of its Labour predecessors, but also with what he sees as the west's rampant materialism and unquestioning pursuit of economic growth. Williams also laments spiralling military expenditure, writing that "the adventure in Iraq and its cost in any number of ways seems to beggar the imagination".
 
Read more here
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DRONE WATCH: Drone Flights Over Caribbean

The Los Angeles Times reports:

"After quietly testing Predator drones over the Bahamas for more than 18 months, the Department of Homeland Security plans to expand the unmanned surveillance flights into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to fight drug smuggling, according to U.S. officials.

The move would dramatically increase U.S. drone flights in the Western Hemisphere, more than doubling the number of square miles now covered by the department's fleet of nine surveillance drones, which are used primarily on the northern and southwestern U.S. borders."

Is the next step armed drones that will sink ships suspected of carrying drugs?

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DRONE WATCH: Abandoning Human Rights

Former President Jimmy Carter writes in the New York Times this morning of how far the U.S. has gone in abandoning human rights:

"Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable. After more than 30 airstrikes on civilian homes this year in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has demanded that such attacks end, but the practice continues in areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that are not in any war zone. We don’t know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington. This would have been unthinkable in previous times."

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DRONE WATCH: Administration Refuses Drone Documents

The Obama administration filed its response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the New York Times seeking documents on the legal justification for the drone program. To no one’s great surprise, the administration refused, claiming a release of the documents would damage national security. In its refusal:

"The administration said the information requested is "highly classified," even though details of such operations have been leaked to the media.

"For example, whether or not the United States government conducted the particular operations that led to the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and the other individuals named in the FOIA requests remains classified," the government wrote. The U.S.-born al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September.

"Likewise, whether or not the CIA has the authority to be, or is in fact, directly involved in targeted lethal operations remains classified."

President Obama has publicly spoken about the use of drones. Secretary of Defense Panetta has publicly spoken about the use of drones.  Counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan delivered an entire speech about the use of drones. But whether or not the CIA is involved in “targeted lethal operations” is a secret?  It’s not, the only secret is how the administration justifies it.

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DRONE WATCH: Are Drone Strikes War Crimes?

Several days after urging the U.S. to clarify its policies to ensure that targeted drone killings comply with international law, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, went further at a conference in Geneva. Suggesting that some strikes may constitute war crimes:

"[Christof] Heyns, a South African law professor, told the meeting: "Are we to accept major changes to the international legal system which has been in existence since world war two and survived nuclear threats?"

Some states, he added, "find targeted killings immensely attractive. Others may do so in future … Current targeting practices weaken the rule of law. Killings may be lawful in an armed conflict [such as Afghanistan] but many targeted killings take place far from areas where it's recognised as being an armed conflict.

If it is true, he said, that "there have been secondary drone strikes on rescuers who are helping (the injured) after an initial drone attack, those further attacks are a war crime."

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BREAKING: Attorney General Voted in Contempt of Congress

Breaking news this afternoon –

"A House panel voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt for failing to cooperate with a congressional inquiry into Operation “Fast and Furious,” hours after President Obama asserted executive privilege over related documents. On a party-line decision, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 23 to 17 to hold Holder in contempt for failing to share documents related to the operation run out of the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2009 and 2011, with the backing of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix. The move makes Holder the first member of Obama’s Cabinet held in contempt by a congressional committee."

Columnist Al Kamen wonders why Holder should be concerned about the vote

"While he would be the first Obama administration official to undergo such a vote, he would be joining a long list of well-known officials from prior administrations who lost committee — or even full House or Senate — contempt votes, including two former attorneys general, according to a list compiled by the Congressional Research Service last month."

It’s also not the first time a President has invoked executive privilege to prevent Congress from getting internal administration information, just another round in the perpetual White House vs. Congress struggle.

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DRONE WATCH: Drones in Court

Several years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents from the administration related to the drone program. The request seeks any memos that explain the legal justification, the basis for strikes against American citizens, and an explanation of the process for targeting individuals.

The deadline for the administration to respond – either by turning over the documents or an explanation as to why they are not being turned over – is today. Now that several high-level officials, including President Obama, have spoken publicly about the program, it is hardly plausible for the administration to deny its existence.

Jameel Jaffer, the director of ACLU's Centre for Democracy said:

"They may not release anything at all, they might continue to say it's a secret. It's possible but it's absurd. On the one hand there's extraordinary public interest in the drone program. On the other hand they recently filed a legal brief claiming it's too secret even to acknowledge. It surprised me that they were willing to say that to the appeals court in DC.”

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DRONE WATCH: It’s Not Just The U.S.

More than four years ago, the U.K. Ministry of Defence bought 6 Reaper drones from the U.S.  The Guardian  reports.

"The British military is increasingly relying on unmanned drones to wage war against the Taliban, and has fired more than 280 laser-guided Hellfire missiles and bombs at suspected insurgents, new figures reveal. … The Ministry of Defence says only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its drone strikes since 2008. However, it also says it has no idea how many insurgents have died, because of the "immense difficulty and risks" of verifying who has been hit."

Chris Cole, founder of the website Drone Wars UK, responds that it is:

“Kafkaesque of the MoD to repeatedly claim that only four civilians have been killed in UK drone strikes while at the very same time insisting they do not know how many people have been killed."

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DRONE WATCH: U.N. Investigator Asks U.S. to Justify Drone Policy

Christof Heyns, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, urged Washington to clarify the basis under international law of its policy:

"The (U.S.) government should clarify the procedures in place to ensure that any targeted killing complies with international humanitarian law and human rights and indicate the measures or strategies applied to prevent casualties, as well as the measures in place to provide prompt, thorough, effective and independent public investigation of alleged violations."

The Special Rapporteur again requests the Government to clarify the rules that it considers to cover targeted killings ... (and) reiterates his predecessor's recommendation that the government specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture 'human targets' and whether the State in which the killing takes places has given consent,"

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