Obama’s use of drones for killings risks a war without end

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a “slippery slope” into perpetual war and sets a dangerous precedent for lethal operations that other countries might adopt in the future, according to a report by a bipartisan panel that includes several former senior intelligence and military officials.

The group found that more than a decade into the era of armed drones, the American government has yet to carry out a thorough analysis of whether the costs of routine secret killing operations outweigh the benefits. The report urges the administration to conduct such an analysis and to give a public accounting of both militants and civilians killed in drone strikes.

The findings amount to a sort of report card — one that delivers middling grades — a year after President Obama gave a speech promising new guidelines for drone strikes and greater transparency about the killing operations. The report is especially critical of the secrecy that continues to envelop drone operations and questions whether they might be creating terrorists even as they are killing them.

“There is no indication that a U.S. strategy to destroy Al Qaeda has curbed the rise of Sunni Islamic extremism, deterred the establishment of Shia Islamic extremist groups or advanced long-term U.S. security interests,” the report concludes. [Continue reading...]

The complete report, “Recommendations and Report of the Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy,” can be read here.

facebooktwittermail

Obama’s ‘Yemen model’ doesn’t work in Yemen — it’s unlikely to work in Iraq

PRI reports: President Barack Obama sees success against al-Qaeda in Yemen, and wants to use the same model to overcome ISIS in Iraq.

Middle East watcher Gregory Johnsen thinks that’s a bad idea; he’s not even sure what Obama is seeing in Yemen should be called success.

“It just seems that the US doesn’t have a very good grasp of what’s happening on the ground in Yemen or what’s happening on the ground in Iraq, or how to solve either of these problems,” he says.

Johnsen says the US military strategy used to hunt al-Qaeda members in Yemen has been ineffective, or even counterproductive.

“About four-and-a-half years ago, when the US started this program of drone strikes, special forces advisors on the ground, al-Qaeda in Yemen numbered about 200 to 300 people. Now today, there are several thousand people. So what the US is doing in Yemen isn’t working.” [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Obama’s ‘drone memo’ is finally public. Now show us the library of secret law

Jameel Jaffer writes: A federal appellate court’s publication on Monday of the so-called “drone memo” finally allows the American public to evaluate the legal theories that were the basis for one of the Obama administration’s most controversial acts – the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen.

Authored three years ago by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), the 41-page memo contends that the president has broad power to carry out the targeted killing of terrorism suspects, even in geographic areas far removed from conventional battlefields.

The publication of the memo is a victory for transparency – the result of hard-fought litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times. (I argued the ACLU’s case before the appellate court.) It is a very rare thing for a federal court in the United States to order the release of information that the government contends is properly classified. In transparency litigation in the national-security sphere, the courts almost invariably defer. That the court declined to defer here suggests that it found the arguments from the Obama administration to be not simply unpersuasive but wholly without foundation.

But despite the release of the drone memo, the American public still does not have the information it needs in order to evaluate the lawfulness and wisdom of its government’s policies. Indeed, to read through the memo is to be reminded of how successful the Obama administration has been at rationing even the most basic information. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Taliban warned U.S. that drones nearly killed Bergdahl

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Taliban warned the U.S. during prisoner-exchange negotiations that led to the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl that U.S. drone strikes had come close on several occasions to killing the soldier while he was in captivity, U.S. officials said.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe Sgt. Bergdahl was being held at the time in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where the Central Intelligence Agency carried out an estimated 27 drone strikes in 2013, according to the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank that tracks the drone program. The CIA hasn’t conducted any drone strikes in the tribal areas since Dec. 25, the foundation said. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Obama administration continues to obstruct release of drone strike memo

The New York Times reports: One week after the Obama administration said it would comply with a federal appeals court ruling ordering it to make public portions of a Justice Department memo that signed off on the targeted killing of a United States citizen, the administration is now asking the court for permission to censor additional passages of the document.

In the interim, the Senate voted narrowly last week to confirm David Barron, the former Justice Department official who was the memo’s principal author, to an appeals court judgeship. At least one Democratic senator who had opposed Mr. Barron over the secrecy surrounding his memo voted for him after the administration said it would release it.

The 41-page memo, dated July 16, 2010, cleared the way for a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011 that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen accused by intelligence officials of plotting terrorist attacks. The American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times are seeking the memo’s public disclosure in lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act.[Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Most U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan attack houses

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports: Domestic buildings have been hit by drone strikes more than any other type of target in the CIA’s 10-year campaign in the tribal regions of northern Pakistan, new research reveals.

By way of contrast, since 2008, in neighbouring Afghanistan drone strikes on buildings have been banned in all but the most urgent situations, as part of measures to protect civilian lives. But a new investigative project by the Bureau, Forensic Architecture, a research project based at London’s Goldsmiths University, and New York-based Situ Research, reveals that in Pakistan, domestic buildings continue to be the most frequent target of drone attacks.

The project examines, for the first time, the types of target attacked in each drone strike – be they houses, vehicles or madrassas (religious schools) – and the time of day the attack took place. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

The year of living more dangerously: Obama’s drone speech was a sham

Andrea J Prasow writes: A lot can happen in a year. And a lot can’t.

Twelve months ago today, Barack Obama gave a landmark national security speech in which he frankly acknowledged that the United States had at least in some cases compromised its values in the years since 9/11 – and offered his vision of a US national security policy more directly in line with “the freedoms and ideals that we defend.” It was widely praised as “a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America“.

Addressing an audience at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, the president pledged greater transparency about targeted killings, rededicated himself to closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and urged Congress to refine and ultimately repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which has been invoked to justify everything from military detention to drones strikes.

A year later, none of these promises have been met. Instead, drone strikes have continue (and likely killed and wounded civilians), 154 men remain detained at Guantanamo and the administration has taken no steps to roll back the AUMF. This is not the sort of change Obama promised. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Drones banned in Yosemite, still buzzing over Yemen

Vanity Fair: Drones are gaining popularity in the United States, as hobbyists and professionals turn to the unmanned aerial vehicles for everything from delivering packages to filming athletes during spring training. But as more and more plastic buzzards take to American skies, authorities continue to fight back against their use. The Federal Aviation Administration has long enraged drone entrepreneurs by dragging its feet when it comes to setting up efficient regulations for unmanned aerial vehicles, and now the National Park Service is piling on as well, reminding visitors of Yosemite that the use of U.A.V.s is prohibited.

The park code in question mandates that “delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means, except in emergencies involving public safety or serious property loss, or pursuant to the terms and conditions of a permit” is illegal. In a Friday press release, the park also noted that the humming of drones “can impact the natural soundscape” and create “an environment that is not conducive to wilderness travel,” “cause confusion and distraction for rescue personnel,” and “have negative impacts on wildlife nearby the area of use.”

It’s interesting that potential human inconveniences are noted before concerns about the environmental effect of a would-be army of toy helicopters outfitted with GoPro cameras, but, then again, at least there is any human concern at all. As we’ve noted before, the paranoia and fascination that underlines our domestic discourse about relatively harmless drones is wildly disproportionate to our national disinterest in the use of lethal drones abroad. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Iran’s drone war in Syria

The Daily Beast reports: Iran has been providing Syria’s regime with drones—some of them inspired by American technology—and they’re already playing a significant role in keeping Bashar Assad in power. On Sunday, Tehran announced it had replicated a top-of-the-line U.S. drone it claimed it captured in 2011, raising the possibility it will send still more sophisticated aerial robots into the skies over Damascus.

In some respects, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Iran’s robust drone program dates back to the early 1980s, and it first tried to weaponize the birds some 30 years ago, long before American Predators and Reapers first soared aloft.

The Middle East was the first great proving ground for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as they’re called. During the 1980s, Israel flew drones over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to spot Syrian artillery and anti-aircraft positions, allowing the Israeli Air Force to knock out the Syrian air defenses with minimal risks to its pilots. At about the same time, Iran began using drones to spy on Iraqi positions in its epic war against Saddam Hussein. It was during that bitter conflict that Iranian engineers crudely mounted Soviet rocket-propelled grenades on their drones and fired them at Iraqi troops. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Pratap Chatterjee: The true costs of remote control war

It’s rare to hear a government official speak in contrite tones; rarer still if that official represents the National Security Agency.  Recently, however, Anne Neuberger, a special assistant to former NSA Director Keith Alexander, did just that.

A year of revelations, courtesy of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, prepared the way.  Since last June, the world has learned that the agency collects information on almost all U.S. domestic phone calls, spies on Internet activity — courtesy of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and Facebook — taps fiber optic cables and other key Internet infrastructure, uses digital dirty tricks to undermine worldwide computer security, breaks its own internal privacy rules, and as Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept revealed earlier this year, is using “complex analysis of electronic surveillance… as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes — an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people.” And that’s only the beginning.

In the wake of all of this, Neuberger offered a reply, though you could be excused for not noticing.  After all, she took to DefenseNews TV with her mea culpa.

“Above all, NSA feels a sense of responsibility,” she told interviewer Vago Muradian.  She sounded earnest and everything about her look and gestures suggested penitence.  She talked of understanding and appreciating people’s “concerns” and skated to the very brink of apology more than once.  Was she there to ask for forgiveness?  To admit the NSA had violated the public trust?  To offer up the first evidence of soul-searching at an agency that has, for years, spied upon the most intimate communications of untold numbers of people?

In a word: no.

She was there, it turned out, not to express regret to the many millions of people around the world who have been touched by the agency’s digital tentacles, but as part of a charm offensive aimed at wooing tech companies, whose long-secret cooperation with the NSA has angered their global customers, back into the espionage fold.  “We hear the private sector concerns,” she said.  “We didn’t get out as quickly as we could have, following the media leaks… to explain the roles of the companies, the fact that they are compelled to participate by law, the fact that such programs are really common and almost uniform among Western democracies looking to gather data.”  This was as close as she came to apology for anything. 

The NSA had not done right by its industry partners and, claimed Neuberger, whose official title is director of the agency’s Commercial Solutions Center, was looking to make amends.  The idea was to pave the way for the spy agency and the tech industry to resume their long-running relationship in the digital shadows.  “The core concern we hear,” she told Muradian in a fog of vagueness, “is companies saying ‘we’re global businesses, so while we appreciate the protections for U.S. persons, you need to extend those protections.’” The NSA and the U.S. government, she insisted, hadreally begun taking big steps to address some of those concerns.”

While the National Security Agency may not be engaging in soul-searching, some of the men and women who have been involved in Washington’s drone assassination campaigns in distant parts of the world using the fruits of the NSA’s electronic surveillance and other technological wizardry are stepping forward to do so in an impressive way, as TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee reveals in his latest investigation.  While the NSA works to smooth things over with the tech industry, others are hoping to draw attention to the grave costs of some of the NSA’s activities that Neuberger neglected to mention. Nick Turse

The three faces of drone war
Speaking truth from the robotic heavens
By Pratap Chatterjee

Enemies, innocent victims, and soldiers have always made up the three faces of war. With war growing more distant, with drones capable of performing on the battlefield while their “pilots” remain thousands of miles away, two of those faces have, however, faded into the background in recent years. Today, we are left with just the reassuring “face” of the terrorist enemy, killed clinically by remote control while we go about our lives, apparently without any “collateral damage” or danger to our soldiers. Now, however, that may slowly be changing, bringing the true face of the drone campaigns Washington has pursued since 9/11 into far greater focus.

Imagine if those drone wars going on in Pakistan and Yemen (as well as the United States) had a human face all the time, so that we could understand what it was like to live constantly, in and out of those distant battle zones, with the specter of death. In addition to images of the “al-Qaeda” operatives who the White House wants us to believe are the sole targets of its drone campaigns, we would regularly see photos of innocent victims of drone attacks gathered by human rights groups from their relatives and neighbors. And what about the third group — the military personnel whose lives revolve around killing fields so far away — whose stories, in these years of Washington’s drone assassination campaigns, we’ve just about never heard?

[Read more...]

facebooktwittermail

How many have we killed with drones?

David Cole writes: On Monday, The New York Times reported that “the Senate has quietly stripped a provision from an intelligence bill that would have required President Obama to make public each year the number of people killed or injured in targeted killing operations in Pakistan and other countries where the United States uses lethal force.” National security officials in the Obama administration objected strongly to having to notify the public of the results and scope of their dirty work, and the Senate acceded. So much for what President Obama has called “the most transparent administration in history.”

The Senate’s decision is particularly troubling in view of how reticent the administration itself continues to be about the drone program. To date, Obama has publicly admitted to the deaths of only four people in targeted killing operations. That came in May 2013, when, in conjunction with a speech at the National Defense University, and, in his words, “to facilitate transparency and debate on the issue,” President Obama acknowledged for the first time that the United States had killed four Americans in drone strikes. But according to credible accounts, Obama has overseen the killing of several thousand people in drone strikes since taking office. Why only admit to the four Americans’ deaths? Is the issue of targeted killings only appropriate for debate when we kill our own citizens? Don’t all human beings have a right to life?

In the NDU speech, President Obama also announced new limits on the use of drones “beyond the Afghan theater.” He proclaimed that drone strikes would be authorized away from the battlefield only when necessary to respond to “continuing and imminent threats” posed by people who cannot be captured or otherwise countermanded. Most important, he said, “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Yet in December, a US drone strike in Yemen reportedly struck a wedding party. The New York Times reported that while some of the victims may have been linked to al-Qaeda, the strike killed “at least a half dozen innocent people, according to a number of tribal leaders and witnesses.” [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

U.S. senators remove requirement for disclosure over drone strike victims

The Guardian reports: At the behest of the director of national intelligence, US senators have removed a provision from a major intelligence bill that would require the president to publicly disclose information about drone strikes and their victims.

The bill authorizing intelligence operations in fiscal 2014 passed out of the Senate intelligence committee in November, and it originally required the president to issue an annual public report clarifying the total number of “combatants” and “noncombatant civilians” killed or injured by drone strikes in the previous year. It did not require the White House to disclose the total number of strikes worldwide.

But the Guardian has confirmed that Senate leaders have removed the language as they prepare to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, after the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, assured them in a recent letter that the Obama administration was looking for its own ways to disclose more about its highly controversial drone strikes. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

How American drone strikes are devastating Yemen

Whenever President Obama orders summary executions through drone strikes, the easiest way of knowing that the CIA doesn’t actually know who was killed is that the dead all carry the same name: militants.

In the latest wave of attacks, 55 “militants” are said to have been killed.

It would probably be much more accurate to report that approximately 55 people were killed, few if any of their names are known and they are suspected to have been members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Rather than calling these targeted killings, they should probably be seen as speculative murders — the act of terminating someone’s life when the U.S. government has the suspicion that person might pose an unspecified threat in the future.

McClatchy reports: A series of U.S. government drone strikes in Yemen over recent days has brought into sharp relief divisions among the country’s rulers over how to rein in a program that they’ve long supported.

Only last week, a top Yemeni military official told McClatchy the government had placed the drone program “under review” in hopes of persuading the United States to limit strikes.

The most recent strikes — one Saturday morning in the central province of al Bayda that hit a vehicle carrying more than a dozen suspected militants from al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, another roughly 24 hours later in the reputed AQAP stronghold of al Mahfad in the southern province of Abyan and a third Monday that killed three in Shabwah province — show that such a review has yet to limit the attacks.

Yemen’s government has long assented to the strikes — privately, in the case of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but openly under the country’s current leader, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took power in February 2012.

But a rising number of civilian casualties, particularly the December bombing of a wedding party that left 15 dead, has unnerved some Yemeni officials.

“We’ve told the Americans that they’ve been going about things the wrong way,” the high-ranking Yemeni military official said last week, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “When it comes to the current drone policy, there have been too many mistakes.” [Continue reading...]

Reuters reports: A U.S. national security source said on Monday that the U.S. government believed that AQAP is currently plotting attacks against American targets, including the U.S. embassy on Sanaa.

But analysts say drone strikes do only limited harm to AQAP.

They say the group will remain a serious menace unless the government can address challenges such as poverty and inadequate security forces, and curb the occasional civilian casualties inflicted by drone attacks that inflame anti-U.S. sentiment.

“The U.S. can’t simply kill its way out of the terrorism threat,” said Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on terrorism and counter-terrorism.

“The U.S. and other concerned nations should address all the drivers of terrorism including poverty, illiteracy, political marginalisation and lack of opportunity for young people.”

Vivian Salama writes: The people of Yemen can hear destruction before it arrives. In cities, towns and villages across this country, which hangs off the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, the air buzzes with the sound of American drones flying overhead. The sound is a constant and terrible reminder: a robot plane, acting on secret intelligence, may calculate that the man across from you at the coffee shop, or the acquaintance with whom you’ve shared a passing word on the street, is an Al Qaeda operative. This intelligence may be accurate or it may not, but it doesn’t matter. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, the chaotic buzzing above sharpens into the death-herald of an incoming missile.

Such quite literal existential uncertainty is coming at a deep psychological cost for the Yemeni people. For Americans, this military campaign is an abstraction. The drone strikes don’t require U.S. troops on the ground, and thus are easy to keep out of sight and out of mind. Over half of Yemen’s 24.8 million citizens – militants and civilians alike – are impacted every day. A war is happening, and one of the unforeseen casualties is the Yemeni mind.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma and anxiety are becoming rampant in the different corners of the country where drones are active. “Drones hover over an area for hours, sometimes days and weeks,” said Rooj Alwazir, a Yemeni-American anti-drone activist and cofounder of Support Yemen, a media collective raising awareness about issues afflicting the country. Yemenis widely describe suffering from constant sleeplessness, anxiety, short-tempers, an inability to concentrate and, unsurprisingly, paranoia.

Alwazir recalled a Yemeni villager telling her that the drones “are looking inside our homes and even at our women.’” She says that, “this feeling of infringement of privacy, combined with civilian casualties and constant fear and anxiety has a profound long time psychological effect on those living under drones.” [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Australians killed in U.S. drone strike in Yemen

The Australian reports: Two Australian citizens have been killed in a US airstrike in Yemen in what is the first known example of Australian extremists dying as a result of Washington’s highly controversial use of predator drones.

The Australian has been told the two men, believed to be in their 20s, were killed in a Predator drone strike on five al-Qa’ida militants travelling in a convoy of cars in Hadramout, in eastern Yemen, on November 19.

The men were Christopher Harvard of Townsville and a New Zealand dual citizen who went by the name “Muslim bin John” and fought under the alias “Abu ­Suhaib al-Australi.”

The Australian government, which insists it was given no ­advance warning of the strike, has positively identified the remains of the men using DNA analysis, with samples taken from families of the two men.

It is understood at least one of the men, Harvard, was buried in Yemen, possibly as recently as last week, following prolonged discussions with his family, which hoped to repatriate his remains.

A senior counter-terrorism source told The Australian the men were “foot soldiers” for al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qa’ida’s regional franchise based in Yemen.

It is understood US authorities notified Australian officials about the possibility Australian citizens might have been “collateral damage” in the strike, part of an ongoing campaign by the US and Yemeni governments to wipe out AQAP militants. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Britain increasingly invokes power to disown its citizens

The New York Times reports: The letter informing Mohamed Sakr that he had been stripped of his British citizenship arrived at his family’s house in London in September 2010. Mr. Sakr, born and raised here by British-Egyptian parents, was in Somalia at the time and was suspected by Western intelligence agencies of being a senior figure in the Shabab, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda.

Seventeen months later, an American drone streaked out of the sky in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia and killed Mr. Sakr. An intelligence official quoted in news reports called him a “very senior Egyptian,” though he never held an Egyptian passport. A childhood friend of Mr. Sakr, Bilal al-Berjawi, a Lebanese-Briton also stripped of his citizenship by the British government, was killed in a drone strike a month earlier, after having escaped an attack in June 2011.

Senior American and British officials said there was no link between the British government’s decision to strip the men of their citizenship and the subsequent drone strikes against them, though they said the same intelligence may have led to both actions.

But the sequence of events effectively allowed the British authorities to sidestep questions about due process under British law, mirroring the debate in the United States over the rights of American citizens who are deemed terrorist threats. The United States and Britain have a long history of intelligence sharing and cooperation in fighting terrorist threats. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Yemen drone strike may violate Obama policy

f13-iconHuman Rights Watch: A deadly US drone strike on a December 2013 wedding procession in Yemen raises serious concerns about US forces’ compliance with President Barack Obama’s targeted killing policy, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 28-page report, “A Wedding That Became a Funeral: US Drone Attack on Marriage Procession in Yemen,” calls on the US government to investigate the strike, publish its findings, and act in the event of wrongdoing. The December 12 attack killed 12 men and wounded at least 15 other people, including the bride. US and Yemeni officials said the dead were members of the armed group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but witnesses and relatives told Human Rights Watch the casualties were civilians. Obama said in a major address in May that US policy requires “near-certainty” that no civilians will be harmed in targeted attacks.

“The US refusal to explain a deadly attack on a marriage procession raises critical questions about the administration’s compliance with its own targeted killing policy,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “All Yemenis, especially the families of the dead and wounded, deserve to know why this wedding procession became a funeral.” [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail