In 2010, Shahzad Akbar, an attorney and founder of the Pakistani Foundation for Fundamental Rights, began filing lawsuits in Pakistan on behalf of drone strike victims. His work, according to MSNBC:
“has raised awareness of the strikes among the general Pakistani population – at the same time anti-American sentiment from a failing alliance with the U.S. is on the rise. He said his mission is to seek justice on behalf of innocent civilians killed in the drone attacks.”
When he began, little was known in Pakistan about the strikes, most of which take place in the remote, western tribal area. But now:
“Today, drones have become a political touchstone, regularly decried as part of politician's campaign speeches, prominently featured in fiery protest rallies, and sitting squarely at the center of a diplomatic war of words between the U.S. and Pakistan. … Though public perception may help him to gain traction, Akbar said his cases are based on the evidence he's gathering from strike locations in coordination with communities in North Waziristan, the tribal agency in which the overwhelming majority of strikes have occurred.”
What drives him to do this work?
"I believe in very simple principles that were taught to us by the West," said Akbar. "That everyone is presumed innocent unless proven guilty. So anyone who is killed in drone strikes, unless and until his guilt is established in some independent forum – that person is innocent."
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."
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?
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."
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.
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."
A series of recent news stories, largely based on anonymous sources, reveals an emerging new U.S. military strategy. After more than 10 years of long, bloody ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is turning to what one report called “shadow wars.”
Rather than large numbers of troops on the ground, these wars involve covert intelligence and action, special forces units, cyberwar against computers, and a greatly expanded use of unmanned drones. They are undeclared, still largely secret and unaccountable.
Beginning under President George W. Bush and dramatically escalating under President Barack Obama, the U. S. is now using drones in four countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia), and has used them in two others (Iraq and Libya). Going by the names Reaper and Predator, firing missiles named Hellfire, the drones are responsible for thousands of deaths, including hundreds of women and children.
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.”
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."
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,"
U.S. military strategy is changing. From Associated Press:
"After a decade of costly conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American way of war is evolving toward less brawn, more guile.
Drone aircraft spy on and attack terrorists with no pilot in harm's way. Small teams of special operations troops quietly train and advise foreign forces. Viruses sent from computers to foreign networks strike silently, with no American fingerprint. It's war in the shadows, with the U.S. public largely in the dark."
In Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Iran:
"The high-tech warfare allows Obama to target what the administration sees as the greatest threats to U.S. security, without the cost and liabilities of sending a swarm of ground troops to capture territory; some of them almost certainly would come home maimed or dead.But it also raises questions about accountability and the implications for international norms regarding the use of force outside of traditional armed conflict."
Vietnam vet and author Terry McDermott sees parallels between the B-52 bombings of Cambodia and the drone strikes in Pakistan.
"Simply put: American technology — B-52s then, drones now — makes it far too easy to unleash holy hell on our enemies. We live in an age when American might can overwhelm the defenses of entire countries with barely a drop of American blood spent. It is, in a way, too easy. Because there is so little risk, there is no political cost to be paid for the drone wars."
But he asks:
"We've been trying to attack Al Qaeda with missiles, bombs and drones for 25 years now. Shouldn't we at some time stop and ask ourselves: What's the point? As good as we've become at killing people, the larger problem persists. … That larger problem is that we cannot kill our way to victory in the war on terror."
The Associated Press reports:
"The White House’s semiannual report to Congress on the state of U.S. combat operations abroad, delivered Friday, mentions what has been widely reported for years but never formally acknowledged by the administration: The U.S. military has been taking “direct action” against members of al-Qaida and affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.
The report does not elaborate, but “direct action” is a military term of art that refers to a range of lethal attacks, which in the case of Yemen and Somalia include attacks by armed drones. … The report applies only to U.S. military operations, including those by special operations forces — not those conducted by the CIA."
Another step toward greater transparency, which can hopefully lead to greater accountability.
In the second attack in two days, AFP reports that a U.S. drone strike killed at least three people early today in a building in the central market of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan near the Afghan border.
"A US drone fired two missiles on the first floor of a shop in the main market and at least three militants were killed," a senior official told AFP. … "When the first missile hit the building, I heard cries for help and ran towards it, but militants stopped me at a distance. When they started rescue work, another missile hit," a local tribesman said about Thursday's strike. "I eventually saw them removing three burnt bodies in a really bad shape. They were put in wooden boxes and taken away."
Ibrahim Mothana, an activist, writer and community worker from Yemen, writes that the anger and despair resulting from civilian casualties of drone strikes are causing Yemenis to join radical militants:
"Anti-Americanism is far less prevalent in Yemen than in Pakistan. But rather than winning the hearts and minds of Yemeni civilians, America is alienating them by killing their relatives and friends. Indeed, the drone program is leading to the Talibanization of vast tribal areas and the radicalization of people who could otherwise be America’s allies in the fight against terrorism in Yemen. … Yemeni tribes are generally quite pragmatic and are by no means a default option for radical religious groups seeking a safe haven. However, the increasing civilian toll of drone strikes is turning the apathy of tribal factions into anger. The strikes have created an opportunity for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Ansar al-Sharia to recruit fighters from tribes who have suffered casualties."
According to a new Pew Research Center global survey:
"The Obama administration's increasing use of unmanned drone strikes to kill terror suspects is widely opposed around the world. … In 17 out of 21 countries surveyed, more than half of the people disapproved of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia."
The major exception? “… in the United States, a majority, or 62 percent, approved the drone campaign.”
You can read the Pew Survey HERE.
Twenty-six Members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama yesterday demanding the White House’s legal justification for “signature” drone strikes. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), with 23 other Democrats and two Republicans wrote:
“We are concerned that the use of such ‘signature’ strikes could raise the risk of killing innocent civilians or individuals who may have no relationship to attacks on the United States. Our drone campaigns already have virtually no transparency, accountability or oversight. We are further concerned about the legal grounds for such strikes under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. The implications of the use of drones for our national security are profound. They are faceless ambassadors that cause civilian deaths, and are frequently the only direct contact with Americans that the targeted communities have. They can generate powerful and enduring anti-American sentiment.”
In the Senate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced the “Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act,” which would require the government to get a warrant before using aerial drones to surveil U.S. citizens. According to Sen. Paul:
"Like other tools used to collect information in law enforcement, in order to use drones a warrant needs to be issued. Americans going about their everyday lives should not be treated like criminals or terrorists and have their rights infringed upon by military tactics."
After running an editorial, USA Today often follows it with an opposing view on the topic. It’s a good feature, giving readers both sides of issues. Today’s editorial was on drones. After considering the major objections to drones, the editorial concludes:
"These are all valid concerns. For the time being, though, the U.S. continues to confront a non-state enemy bent on plotting terror attacks inside America. Unless someone comes up with a better way to protect the nation, the drone strikes should continue, at least until Osama bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, is eliminated and al-Qaeda is out of business."
The opposing view, written by Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, argues that:
"White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan admits that the U.S. targeted killing program sets a precedent. Russia, China or Iran may claim tomorrow, as our government does today, the power to declare individuals enemies of the state and kill them far from any battlefield, based on secret legal criteria, secret evidence and a secret process. That is the world we are unleashing unless the program is stopped."
After more than a week with no reported drone strikes, there are news reports this morning of strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.
Over the past several days, the Yemeni army has recaptured two towns from Ansar al-Sharia — an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Militants have fled and heavy fighting continues. Apparently as part of that offensive, an attack by a US drone killed nine people:
“A US drone struck a house where al-Qaeda militants were meeting, and a car nearby," in the town of Azzan in Shabwa province early in the morning, a tribal source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
In Pakistan, the Associated Press reports:
"Pakistani intelligence officials say a U.S. drone strike has killed four suspected militants after firing two missiles at a vehicle in which they were riding near the Afghan border.
Bill Quigley, a human rights lawyer and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, asks:
"US civilian and military employees regularly target and fire lethal unmanned drone guided missiles at people across the world. Thousands of people have been assassinated. Hundreds of those killed were civilians. Some of those killed were rescuers and mourners. These killings would be criminal acts if they occurred inside the US. Does it make legal sense that these killings would be legal outside the US?"
He says no, and offers five reasons why these drone assassinations are illegal.