Tag Archives: CIA drone program

CIA’s Presence in Afghanistan-Pakistan 2013

Jalalabad airport. Image from wikipedia

The CIA has begun closing clandestine bases in Afghanistan, marking the start of a drawdown from a region that transformed the agency from an intelligence service struggling to emerge from the Cold War to a counter­terrorism force with its own prisons, paramilitary teams and armed Predator drones.  The pullback represents a turning point for the CIA as it shifts resources to other trouble spots. The closures were described by U.S officials as preliminary steps in a plan to reduce the number of CIA installations in Afghanistan from a dozen to as few as six over the next two years — a consolidation to coincide with the withdrawal of most U.S. military forces from the country by the end of 2014.

Senior U.S. intelligence and administration officials said the reductions are overdue in a region where U.S. espionage efforts are now seen as out of proportion to the threat posed by al-Qaeda’s diminished core leadership in Pakistan. The CIA faces an array of new challenges beyond al-Qaeda, such as monitoring developments in the Middle East and delivering weapons to rebels in Syria…U.S. officials stressed that the CIA is expected to maintain a significant footprint even after the pullback, with a station in Kabul that will remain among the agency’s largest in the world, as well as a fleet of armed drones that will continue to patrol Pakistan’s tribal belt…  The CIA may be in a unique position to negotiate with Karzai, who has publicly acknowledged accepting bags of money from the agency for years. The CIA also has provided much of the budget and training for the Afghan intelligence service….The CIA’s armed drones are flown from a heavily fortified airstrip near the Pakistan border in Jalalabad….Current and former U.S. officials familiar with the agency’s plans said they call for pulling most agency personnel back to the CIA’s main station in Kabul, plus a group of large regional bases — known as the “big five” — in Bagram, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, Jalalabad and Herat.  “The footprint being designed involves six bases and some satellite [locations] out of those,” said a former senior CIA officer who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. The agency may also rely on “mobile stations” in which a small number of operatives move temporarily into remote locations “where they trust the tribal network,” the former officer said. “

The base closures involve compounds along the Pakistan border, part of a constellation used by CIA operatives and analysts to identify drone targets in Pakistan. The bases, including locations in the provinces of Zabul, Paktika and Khost, have relied heavily on U.S. military and medical evacuation capabilities and were often near larger military outposts.  Among them is Forward Operating Base Chapman, in Khost, where seven CIA employees were killed by a suicide bomber posing as a potential informant in 2009. It is unclear whether the CIA will pull its personnel out of Chapman, which remained active even after that attack….

Administration deliberations over troop levels could also determine where the agency operates its drones. During the early years of the campaign, the aircraft were flown from Shamsi Air Base in Pakistan, but the agency moved most of its fleet to Jalalabad as public opposition to strikes mounted in Pakistan and relations with the government broke down…..

Despite the pullout of U.S. troops and CIA operatives, officials said the drone campaign in Pakistan and elsewhere is expected to continue for years. Mike Sheehan, the assistant defense secretary for Special Operations, testified recently that such counterterrorism operations will probably last an additional 10 years or more.

Excerpt, By Greg Miller, CIA closing bases in Afghanistan as it shifts focus amid military drawdown, Washington Post, July 25, 2013

Secret Document: 94 children killed by US drones in Pakistan

Armed Predator Drone, Image from wikipedia

A secret document obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism  reveals for the first time the Pakistan government’s internal assessment of dozens of drone strikes, and shows scores of civilian casualties.  The United States has consistently claimed only a tiny number of non-combatants have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan – despite research by the Bureau and others suggesting that over 400 civilians may have died in the nine-year campaign.

The internal document shows Pakistani officials too found that CIA drone strikes were killing a significant number of civilians – and have been aware of those deaths for many years.  Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes outlined in the document, at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated to be civilian victims, 94 of those are said to be children.

The confidential 12-page summary paper, titled Details of Attacks by Nato Forces/Predators in FATA was prepared by government officials in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  Based on confidential reports from a network of government agents in the field, it outlines 75 separate CIA drone strikes between 2006 and late 2009 and provides details of casualties in many of the attacks. Five attacks alleged to be carried out by Nato or other unspecified forces are also listed.

The numbers recorded are much higher than those provided by the US administration, which continues to insist that no more than 50 to 60 ‘non-combatants’ have been killed by the CIA across the entire nine years of Pakistan bombings. New CIA director John Brennan has described claims to the contrary as ‘intentional misrepresentations‘.  The document shows that during the 2006-09 period covered, when Pakistan’s government and military were privately supporting the CIA’s campaign, officials had extensive internal knowledge of high civilian casualties.

Excerpt, Chris Woods, Exclusive: Leaked Pakistani report confirms high civilian death toll in CIA drone strikes, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, July 22, 2013

US-Pakistan Private Deal on the Use of Drones: advantages offered by failed states

Predator_drone_aircraft_at_Shamsi_Airbase_in_Pakistan. Image from wikipedia

Pakistan reached an understanding with the United States on drone strikes targeting Islamist militants and the attacks can be useful, according leaked remarks from a former intelligence chief.

Pakistan publicly condemns US missile attacks on Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives as a violation of its sovereignty, but the new revelations are the latest sign of double-dealing in private…Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who headed Pakistan’s premier Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency at the time of bin Laden’s killing in 2011, told investigators that drone strikes had their uses.  “The DG (director general) said there were no written agreements. There was a political understanding,” the report said.

The Americans had been asked to stop drone strikes because they caused civilian casualties, but “it was easier to say no to them in the beginning, but ‘now it was more difficult’ to do so,” it quoted the former spymaster as saying.  “Admittedly the drone attacks had their utility, but they represented a breach of national sovereignty. They were legal according to American law but illegal according to international law,” the report quoted the ISI chief as saying.  He also confirmed that Shamsi air base, in southwestern Pakistan, had been used for US drone strikes against people in the country.  Pakistan ordered US personnel to leave the base after botched US air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November 2011.

His interviews also laid bare extraordinary levels of distrust between Pakistan and the United States, particularly in 2011 when relations plummeted over the US raid that killed bin Laden and a CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis.  Pasha said US arrogance “knew no limits” and accused the Americans of waging “psychological warfare” over the whereabouts of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.  He quoted a US intelligence officer as saying “you are so cheap… we can buy you with a visa,” and said himself that systemic failures showed Pakistan was a “failing state”.  The Pakistani report condemned the US raid as an “American act of war” and said the military should have responded much more quickly to a three-hour operation, 100 miles inside its territory.  It was Pakistan’s “greatest humiliation” since East Pakistan seceded in 1971, it said.

Pakistan-US had ‘understanding’ on drone strikes, AFP, July 9, 2013

War and Play: the playbook of targeted killings

Image from wikipedia

The Obama administration is nearing completion of a detailed counterterrorism manual that is designed to establish clear rules for targeted-killing operations but leaves open a major exemption for the CIA’s campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.  The carve-out would allow the CIA to continue pounding al-Qaeda and Taliban targets for a year or more before the agency is forced to comply with more stringent rules spelled out in a classified document that officials have described as a counterterrorism “playbook.”

The document, which is expected to be submitted to President Obama for final approval within weeks, marks the culmination of a year-long effort by the White House to codify its counterterrorism policies and create a guide for lethal operations through Obama’s second term.

A senior U.S. official involved in drafting the document said that a few issues remain unresolved but described them as minor. The senior U.S. official said the playbook “will be done shortly.”  The adoption of a formal guide to targeted killing marks a significant — and to some uncomfortable — milestone: the institutionalization of a practice that would have seemed anathema to many before the Sept. 11 , 2001, terrorist attacks.Among the subjects covered in the playbook are the process for adding names to kill lists, the legal principles that govern when U.S. citizens can be targeted overseas and the sequence of approvals required when the CIA or U.S. military conducts drone strikes outside war zones.

U.S. officials said the effort to draft the playbook was nearly derailed late last year by disagreements among the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon on the criteria for lethal strikes and other issues. Granting the CIA a temporary exemption for its Pakistan operations was described as a compromise that allowed officials to move forward with other parts of the playbook.The decision to allow the CIA strikes to continue was driven in part by concern that the window for weakening al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan is beginning to close, with plans to pull most U.S. troops out of neighboring Afghanistan over the next two years. CIA drones are flown out of bases in Afghanistan.

Excerpt, Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Karen DeYoung, CIA drone strikes will get pass in counterterrorism ‘playbook,’ officials say, Washington Post., Jan 19, 2012

The CIA Drone Program in Yemen: the cover up

Hellfire missiles loaded on United States Marine Corps Super Cobra.  Image from wikipedia

A rickety Toyota truck packed with 14 people rumbled down a desert road from the town of Radda, which al-Qaeda militants once controlled. Suddenly a missile hurtled from the sky and flipped the vehicle over.  Chaos. Flames. Corpses. Then, a second missile struck.  Within seconds, 11 of the passengers were dead, including a woman and her 7-year-old daughter. A 12-year-old boy also perished that day, and another man later died from his wounds.

The Yemeni government initially said that those killed were al-Qaeda militants and that its Soviet-era jets had carried out the Sept. 2 attack. But tribal leaders and Yemeni officials would later say that it was an American assault and that all the victims were civilians who lived in a village near Radda, in central Yemen. U.S. officials last week acknowledged for the first time that it was an American strike.  “Their bodies were burning,” recalled Sultan Ahmed Mohammed, 27, who was riding on the hood of the truck and flew headfirst into a sandy expanse. “How could this happen? None of us were al-Qaeda.”

More than three months later, the incident offers a window into the Yemeni government’s efforts to conceal Washington’s mistakes and the unintended consequences of civilian deaths in American air assaults. In this case, the deaths have bolstered the popularity of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s Yemen affiliate, which has tried to stage attacks on U.S. soil several times.

Furious tribesmen tried to take the bodies to the gates of the presidential residence, forcing the government into the rare position of withdrawing its assertion that militants had been killed. The apparent target, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders said, was a senior regional al-Qaeda leader, Abdelrauf al-Dahab, who was thought to be in a car traveling on the same road.

U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world, and those governments have spoken against the attacks. But in Yemen, the weak government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public, fearing repercussions in a nation where hostility toward U.S. policies is widespread. It continues to insist in local media reports that its own aging jets attacked the truck.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has kept silent publicly, neither confirming nor denying any involvement, a standard practice with most U.S. airstrikes in its clandestine counterterrorism fight in this strategic Middle Eastern country.  In response to questions, U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing warplane, that fired on the truck. The Pentagon declined to comment on the incident, as did senior U.S. officials in Yemen and senior counterterrorism officials in Washington.

Since the attack, militants in the tribal areas surrounding Radda have gained more recruits and supporters in their war against the Yemeni government and its key backer, the United States. The two survivors and relatives of six victims, interviewed separately and speaking to a Western journalist about the incident for the first time, expressed willingness to support or even fight alongside AQAP, as the al-Qaeda group is known.  “Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans,” Mohammed said. “If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.”…

After Osama bin Laden’s death last year, Yemen emerged as a key battlefield in the Obama administration’s war on Islamist militancy. AQAP members are among those on a clandestine “kill list” created by the administration to hunt down terrorism suspects. It is a lethal campaign, mostly fueled by unmanned drones, but it also includes fixed-wing aircraft and cruise missiles fired from the sea.  This year, there have been at least 38 U.S. airstrikes in Yemen, according to the Long War Journal, a nonprofit Web site that tracks American drone attacks. That is significantly more than in any year since 2009, when President Obama is thought to have ordered the first drone strike.

The Radda attack was one of the deadliest since a U.S. cruise missile strike in December 2009 killed dozens of civilians, including women and children, in the mountainous region of al-  Majala in southern Yemen. After that attack, many tribesmen in that area became radicalized and joined AQAP.,,,

“The government is trying to kill the case,” said Abdul Rahman Berman, the executive director of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, or HOOD, a local human rights group. “The government wants to protect its relations with the U.S.”  After the 2009 strike in al-Majala, the Yemeni government took responsibility for the assault. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh told Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was then the head of U.S. Central Command, according to a U.S. Embassy e-mail leaked by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks…

On extremist Web sites and Facebook pages, grisly pictures of the attack’s aftermath, with bodies tossed like rag dolls on the road, have been posted, coupled with condemnations of the government and the United States. In Sabool and Radda, youths have vowed to join al-Qaeda to fight the United States.

Excerpts, Sudarsan Raghavan,When U.S. drones kill civilians, Yemen’s government tries to conceal it, Washington Post, Dec. 24, 2012

See also the Drone War in Yemen

The CIA Drone Program and the Right to Information

MQ-9 Reaper drone.  Image from wikipedia

A London court [judgment in pdf] has ruled against examining intelligence-sharing by [Government Communications Headquarters] GCHQ  that leads to CIA drone strikes, claiming it would ‘imperil relations’ with the US.   The case was brought by Noor Khan, a Pakistani national whose father was killed in a drone strike in March 2011. The strike, which killed over 40 people, mostly civilians who had gathered to resolve a mining dispute, is one of the bloodiest on record. Khan has also launched court action against drone strikes in Pakistan. His UK case was supported by legal charity Reprieve and solicitors Leigh Day & Co.

Khan’s lawyers argued that in cases where the UK shared intelligence with the US security services on the location of suspects, knowing that this may be used to kill them with drone strikes, the GCHQ agents responsible may be committing crimes including accessory to murder. The case was an application for a judicial review of the UK’s intelligence-sharing policy in cases where the information might lead to drone strikes.  But Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Simon yesterday rejected the application.  ‘It is plain, from the nature of the claims, that the purpose of the proceedings in England and in Pakistan is to persuade a court to do what it can to stop further strikes by drones operated by the United States,’ said Lord Justice Moses in his written response.  He cited a legal principle whereby ‘the courts will not sit in judgment on the sovereign acts of a foreign state’; breaking with this principle would ‘imperil relations between the states,’ he added.

In order to decide whether GCHQ agents might be open to prosecution if they shared information with the CIA that was used to target drone strikes, a UK court would have to rule on whether the CIA’s campaign in Waziristan could be considered a formal war, as this would allow the agents to claim combatant immunity.  ‘I reject the suggestion that the argument can be confined to an academic discussion as to the status of the conflict in North Waziristan,’ wrote Lord Justice Moses. ‘The claimant cannot demonstrate that his application will avoid, during the course of the hearing and in the judgment, giving a clear impression that it is the United States’ conduct in North Waziristan which is also on trial.’  ‘

The government has never officially confirmed or denied sharing intelligence for drone attacks, although in 2010, a Sunday Times article quoted ‘insiders’ claiming GCHQ had shared information about the locations of al Qaeda and Taliban commanders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. GCHQ told the Sunday Times all intelligence sharing was in ‘strict accordance’ with the law.

Noor Khan announced he would appeal the decision. Rosa Curling, of Khan’s solicitors Leigh Day & Co, said: ‘We are disappointed that the court has decided not to engage in this very important issue, leaving our client no option but to appeal the decision. This claim raises very serious questions and issues about the UK’s involvement in the CIA drone attacks in Pakistan. This case seeks to determine the legality of intelligence sharing in relation to GCHQ assistance in CIA drone strikes.’  Kat Craig, legal director of Reprieve, said: ‘By avoiding judicial scrutiny over drone attacks, combined with its ongoing attempts to push through secret courts, this government is showing a disturbing desire to put itself above the law… If the Government is supporting the CIA’s campaign of drone strikes which are illegal, the British public have the right to know.’

Alice K Ross, High court rejects first UK challenge to CIA’s drone campaign, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Dec. 22, 2012

Covert Operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia: tally and the civilians killed

From the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Pakistan September 2012 actions: Total CIA strikes in September: 3 Total killed in strikes in September: 12-18, of whom 0-3 were reportedly civilians; All actions 2004 – September 30 2012: Total Obama strikes: 294;Total US strikes since 2004: 346; Total reported killed: 2,570-3,337; Civilians reported killed: 474-884; Children reported killed: 176; Total reported injured: 1,232-1,366

After seven strikes in August – the most in a single month since October 2011 – September saw a pause in the bombing which lasted 20 days. The respite coincided with many and sometimes violent anti-US protests around the world. Muslims were inflamed by a blasphemous film, produced in the US and posted online. Up to 17 people died in riots across Pakistan as public outrage at drone strikes reportedly added to the violence.

On September 24 two named al Qaeda militants were killed by the CIA. Saleh al Turki ’was not on the FBI’s bounty list, but was a mid level AQ guy’. However Abu Kahsha al Iraqi was described as ‘a liaison between al Qaeda and the Taliban’ and ‘long a target of Western counterterrorism agencies.’

Yemen September 2012 actions:Confirmed US drone strikes: 0; Further reported/possible US strike events: 4-5′ Total reported killed in US operations: 0-40;Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 0-12  All actions 2002 – September 30 2012: Total confirmed US operations: 52-62; Total confirmed US drone strikes: 40-50; Possible additional US operations: 117-133; Of which possible additional US drone strikes: 61-71; Total reported killed: 357-1,026; Total civilians killed: 60-163; Children killed: 24-34

US and Yemeni officials were unusually reticent in September in attributing air strikes to United States air assets, including drones. That may have been due to the deaths of eleven named civilians in a botched airstrike in Radaa in central Yemen, the worst loss of civilian life since at least 12 civilians were killed in May. Victims of the strike were buried 18 days later in Dhamar with police pallbearers.  Abdulraouf al Dahab was the supposed target of the strike. But it missed the alleged militant leader’s car and hit civilian vehicles. A ten-year-old girl Daolah Nasser was killed with her parents. Two boys – Mabrook Mouqbal Al Qadari (13) and AbedalGhani Mohammed Mabkhout (12) – were also among those killed.  Some reports said US drones carried out the strike. The Yemen Air Force publicly claimed responsibility for the attack but it lacks the technical capability to strike a moving target.  That fact was confirmed by President Hadi on a visit to Washington, where he also claimed to approve every US strike carried out in Yemen, and downplayed civilian deaths  A suspected US drone killed at least six people, eight days after the Radaa strike. Said al Shehri was initially reported among the dead. But subsequent reports say the former Guantanamo inmate and al Qaeda’s number two in Yemen survived the attack.

Somalia September 2012 actions:  Total reported US operations: 0;All actions 2007 – September 30 2012 Total US operations: 10-23; Total US drone strikes: 3-9; Total reported killed: 58-170;  Civilians reported killed: 11-57; Children reported killed: 1-3

Once again no US combat operations were reported for September, although a former UN official told the Bureau that as much as 50% of secret actions by various forces operating in Somalia go unreported. Two previously unrecorded operations have been added to the Bureau’s data. These relate to possible US strikes on al Shabaab bases in Puntland in August, and in Kismayo in October 2011.  Kenyan Defence Force (KDF) troops finally struck al Shabaab’s last stronghold, Kismayo, in Operations Sledge Hammer alongside soldiers of the Somalia National Army. The KDF is fighting in Somalia as a part of the Amisom peacekeeping force and attacked Kismayo from the land and sea before dawn on September 28. Initial reports said they met with some resistance from al Shabaab but had taken control of the city’s port. It is possible that US forces assisted the operation.  A Somali diplomat told the Bureau that the outgoing Transitional Federal Government opened its doors to the US and others to fight al Shabaab, and in doing so allowed them ‘a licence to completely ignore any local or international law.’ US Special Forces and CIA are operating across Somalia. And the US is supporting proxy forces with training and weapons

Jack Serle and Chris Woods, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, September 2012 update, Oct. 1, 2012