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.
Cynthia Tucker, a visiting professor at the University of Georgia and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary,writes on the lack of accountability in the drone war:
"Obama’s “targeting killing” campaign has a glaring flaw: It has remained shrouded in semi-secrecy, a classified program that flouts the full disclosure and public debate that democracy demands. The president has protected the United States from the murderous impulses of Islamists, but he has not defended the constitutional principles he is sworn to uphold. …
The public needs more information about the president’s drone war, not less. At the very least, the Obama administration ought to release the memos its lawyers have written to justify its “targeted killings.” That would be a step toward the accountability that the citizens of a democracy deserve. After all, the Obama administration is carrying out its drone war in our names."
It’s 2 feet long, weighs only 6 pounds, and can fit into a soldier’s backpack. It’s the “Switchblade,” the next generation of drones. They’re about the size of model planes, with tiny explosive warheads that the soldier firing it can accurately aim at a target. Its accuracy is being touted as a way to minimize civilian casualties.
According to the Los Angeles Times,
"The 2-foot-long Switchblade is so named because its wings fold into the fuselage for transport and spring out after launch. It is designed to fit into a soldier's rucksack and is fired from a mortar-like tube. Once airborne, it begins sending back live video and GPS coordinates to a hand-held control set clutched by the soldier who launched it. When soldiers identify and lock on a target, they send a command for the drone to nose-dive into it and detonate on impact. Because of the way it operates, the Switchblade has been dubbed the "kamikaze drone."… "This is a precision strike weapon that causes as minimal collateral damage as possible," said William I. Nichols, who led the Army's testing effort.”
Sound like a future fantasy? Think again, “About a dozen Switchblades were tested last year by special operations units in Afghanistan, according to Army officials, who said the drone proved effective.”
As relations between the U.S. and Pakistan continue to deteriorate, the Obama administration has decided the solution is … more drone attacks.
"Expressing both public and private frustration with Pakistan, the Obama administration has unleashed the CIA to resume an aggressive campaign of drone strikes in Pakistani territory over the last few weeks, approving strikes that might have been vetoed in the past for fear of angering Islamabad."
Seems to me that killing more people in Pakistan is probably not the best way to improve relations.
As the use of drones for surveillance and other activities in the U.S. increases, Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology, argues for greater transparency and accountability.
"With Congress enacting a law giving the go-ahead for the use of drones in U.S. airspace last February, the drone industry is now poised to deploy the technology to monitor everything from neighborhood safety, to political protests, to traffic conditions. The possibilities of using drones for airborne, real-time newsgathering haven't been lost on the media, either. Drones have many positive uses, such as aiding firefighters, dusting crops, or scouting hazardous areas for workers, but -- without privacy and transparency rules -- these powerful surveillance tools also have strong potential for misuse."
In addition to legal and moral concerns about targeted drone killings, a new question is being raised:
"But by killing off Al Qaeda leaders and operatives by means of the unmanned drones rather than capturing them, is the US losing out on valuable intelligence on an evolving organization – and thus on information that might also be crucial in defeating the terrorgroup?"
Following a four-day visit to Pakistan, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, has called for a UN investigation into U.S. drone attacks. Pillay told a news conference in Islamabad:
“Drone attacks do raise serious questions about compliance with international law. The principle of distinction and proportionality and ensuring accountability for any failure to comply with international law is also difficult when drone attacks are conducted outside the military chain of command and beyond effective and transparent mechanisms of civilian or military control.”
In the wake of the death of Al Qaeda’s #2 leader Monday, BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner wonders if the movement can survive the continued attrition of its leaders by targeted drone strikes. He concludes that:
"In the long term, perhaps the most serious threat to al-Qaeda lies not so much in the unseen death from the air through drone strikes but in an eventual evaporation of its cause.
Last year's mass democratic movement, dubbed by some the "Arab Spring" or "Arab Awakening", completely bypassed al-Qaeda, which had always insisted that violent jihad was the best and only path to just government.
With the recent departure of Western forces from Iraq and the imminent withdrawal of international combat forces from Afghanistan, the global jihadist movement will be deprived of a significant recruiting tool.
But it would be foolish to believe that the movement is finished."
One of the U.K.’s leading newspapers, The Guardian, takes on President Obama’s drone policy in an editorial this morning:
"Thomas Aquinas, Augustine and John Brennan – two saints and a counter-terrorism adviser – may give the counsel a president feels he needs before adding another al-Qaida suspect to his kill list. But whatever else these authorities do, they do not constitute due process – and Barack Obama's administration knows it. It is doing everything it can to avoid scrutiny. It is refusing to publish its standards for putting people on terrorist or assassination lists. What are the target limits? When is a last resort truly a last resort, particularly in areas well back from recognised battlefields? And who is providing independent oversight?"
Robert Grenier was CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, on 9/11. He then played a key role in coordinating covert operations in Afghanistan, and was head of the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center. In a recent interview, he spoke about the Obama administration’s drone program:
"It [the drone program] needs to be targeted much more finely. We have been seduced by them and the unintended consequences of our actions are going to outweigh the intended consequences. … We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield. We are already there with regards to Pakistan and Afghanistan."
Grenier went on to express particular concern about Yemen, saying that the popular anger being generated by drone attacks could lead to “the creation of a larger terrorist safe haven.”
Yesterday, the government of Pakistan once again expressed its opposition to U.S. drone attacks on its territory as being against international law. This morning, speaking in neighboring India, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta responded:
"Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is delivering a strong defense of the U.S. use of drones to kill insurgents in Pakistan, telling an audience next door in India on Wednesday that America has made it clear to Islamabad it will continue to target al-Qaida leaders in that country."
Following three U.S. drone strikes in the past three days, the government of Pakistan is not happy, and it has made it officially known.
"Pakistan's foreign ministry summoned Washington's deputy ambassador to Islamabad, Richard Hoagland, to "officially convey the government's serious concern regarding drone attacks in Pakistani territory". A statement repeated the stance that drone strikes were "unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty.""
Meanwhile, U.S. officials claim to have confirmed that Monday’s strike killed the #2 leader of Al Qaeda, known as Abu Yahya al-Libi, along with 15 other people. News reports say that
"Abu Yahya was among al Qaeda's most experienced and versatile leaders - operational trainer and Central Shura head - and played a critical role in the group's planning against the West, providing oversight of the external operations efforts," one official said."
USA Today has a weekly opinion column featuring Cal Thomas, a conservative columnist, and Bob Beckel, a liberal Democratic strategist. As longtime friends, they can often find common ground on issues that lawmakers in Washington cannot. This week’s dialogue was on the domestic use of drones.
"Cal: Do we want our government collecting a constant stream of information on our whereabouts? Drones equipped with Tasers and beanbag guns could fly over political demonstrations, sporting events and concert arenas. The ability of these machines to collect information is almost unlimited — and if we allow it to happen, we will have accepted the Orwellian vision of Big Brother. Trying to recover liberties after losing them is like trying to regain your lost virginity.
Bob: In fact, drones have already been deployed to assist local police departments, which on its face may seem like a good idea. But local police don't control the drones; that's done by trained drone pilots in the U.S. military. So police departments may request assistance on a local crime issue, but who knows what other information is being collected by the U.S. government while the drone is flying over a particular area? On the subject of using drones for domestic purposes, Cal, we have found complete common ground."
The escalating campaign of drone attacks in Yemen is having the opposite effect from what the U.S. intends:
"Across the vast, rugged terrain of southern Yemen, an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes is stirring increasing sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States. After recent U.S. missile strikes, mostly from unmanned aircraft, the Yemeni government and the United States have reported that the attacks killed only suspected al-Qaeda members. But civilians have also died in the attacks, said tribal leaders, victims’ relatives and human rights activists."
An interesting review of David Ignatius' new book in The Atlantic, which suggests that:
The question that President Obama, who has admitted direct, routenized involvement in creating the drone 'kill list', should ponder is what will happen as the barriers to entry on drone technology fall enough so that an adversary's drones can be deployed against U.S. and allied forces and interests.
Read more here
Who is targeted for killing in U.S. drone strikes? Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan claimed in his recent speech that:
"when considering lethal force we ask ourselves whether the individual poses a significant threat to U.S. interests. This is absolutely critical, and it goes to the very essence of why we take this kind of exceptional action. …We are not seeking vengeance, rather we conduct targeted strikes because they are necessary to mitigate an actual ongoing threat, to stop plots, prevent future attacks and save American lives."
But Greg Miller reported Sunday in The Washington Post
"The quickening pace of the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen this year has raised new questions about who is being targeted and why. A review of strikes there so far suggests that the Obama administration has embraced a broader definition of what constitutes a terrorism threat that warrants a lethal response.
In more than 20 U.S. airstrikes over a span of five months, three “high-value” terrorism targets have been killed, U.S. officials said. A growing number of attacks have been aimed at lower-level figures who are suspected of having links to terrorism operatives but are seen mainly as leaders of factions focused on gaining territory in Yemen’s internal struggle."
A former high-ranking counterterrorism official said that targets must still be a “direct threat” to U.S. interests. “But the elasticity of that has grown over time,” he added.
Fifteen dead in Pakistan on Monday:
The third US drone strike in as many days in Pakistan has raised the three-day death toll in the aerial attacks to at least 27, according to Pakistani intelligence officials. Monday's strike in the Hesokhel village of North Waziristan's tribal areas, was said to have targeted a hideout for fighters, officials said. The latest strike, which officials said had killed 15 people, was the seventh in a span of less than two weeks.
At least 10 die in Sunday Pakistan strike:
A US drone strike in Pakistan's frontier tribal areas has killed 10 suspected fighters, according to Pakistani officials. Sunday's strike was the sixth such attack in two weeks, despite ongoing demands by Islamabad for aerial strikes on its territory to stop.
Pakistani intelligence officials said four missiles were fired at the village of Mana Raghzai in South Waziristan near the border with neighbouring Afghanistan. The suspected fighters had gathered to offer condolences to the brother of a commander killed in another drone attack one day earlier.The brother was among those who died in the Sunday morning attack.
Last month, White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan acknowledged in a public speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center that the United States was using armed unmanned drones to kill alleged militants.
Brennan’s acknowledgement was the only “new” news.
Beginning in earnest under President George W. Bush and dramatically escalating under President Barack Obama, the United States 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.
There are three major reasons opponents of the unmanned death planes usually give. First, in fighting against terrorist and insurgent organizations, the United States has adopted a kill — not capture — strategy. With a “kill list” of targets, the attacks aim at known or suspected leaders.
Second, the attacks can be carried out with no danger to American troops. Remotely guided from distant locations, drones are a way of carrying out risk-free military operations. Third, with the attacks increasingly under the control of the CIA rather than the military, they can be conducted with a high degree of secrecy. Whom the drones targeted and killed, and how many civilians may have also been killed, is free of scrutiny.
From Mother Jones this morning:
White House Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan officially acknowledged the administration's targeted killing of Al Qaeda members abroad for the first time in a speech on Monday. But Brennan didn't tell the whole story: He largely rehashed the legal rationale for targeted killings of specific Al Qaeda suspects, instead of defending the use of more controversial "signature strikes," in which targets are selected based on a "pattern of behavior."
Read the full story here