Tag Archives: CIA drones

The CIA Drone War: the 2014 Deaths Update

Predator drone

US drone strikes kill 28 unknown people for every intended target, new Reprieve report reveals
US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have killed as many as 1,147 unknown people in failed attempts to kill 41 named individuals, a report by human rights charity Reprieve has found.The report looks at deaths resulting from US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan between November 2002 and November 2014. It identifies 41 men who appeared to have been killed multiple times – drawing into question the Obama administration’s repeated claims that the covert drone programme is ‘precise.’

While the US drone programme is shrouded in secrecy, security sources regularly brief the media on the names of those suspected militants targeted or killed in the strikes. Frequently, those individuals are reported to have been targeted or killed on multiple occasions.

Reprieve’s assessment is the first to provide an estimate of the number of people – including in some cases children – who are killed each time the US apparently attempts to assassinate a ‘high value target.’ Due to the US Government’s refusal to publish any information relating to the programme, or the ‘Kill List’ said to determine its targets, the analysis is limited to existing, publicly-available data from media reports and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Key findings of the report include:

In Pakistan, 24 men were reported as killed or targeted multiple times. Missed strikes on these men killed 874 people, including 142 children.
In Yemen, 17 men were reported killed or targeted multiple times. Missile strikes on these men killed 273 others and accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties and 100% of all recorded child deaths.
In targeting Ayman al Zawahiri, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults. They failed twice, and Ayman al Zawahiri is reportedly still alive.
It took the US six attempts to kill Qari Hussain, a Pakistani target. During these attempts, 128 people were killed, including 13 children.

Each assassination target on the US government’s so-called Kill List ‘died’ on average more than three times before their actual death.

The US government’s drone programme has come under increasing scrutiny after a number of strikes that hit large numbers of civilians by mistake. It was recently revealed – as a result of investigations by Reprieve – that the US government compensates civilian victims of drone strikes in Yemen.

Excerpt from US drone strikes kill 28 unknown people for every intended target, new Reprieve report reveals, Nov. 25, 2014 (You never Die Twice pdf)

Pakistani Courts and the CIA Drone War

raven drone

A judge at the High Court in Islamabad, Pakistan, has ordered the Pakistani police to open a criminal investigation into the CIA’s involvement in a drone strike that killed three people, including a teenager, on December 31 2009. Ruling in the case of Kareem Khan, a resident of the country’s North Waziristan region whose brother and son were among the dead, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui ordered police to examine whether Jonathan Banks, former CIA station chief in Islamabad, and John Rizzo, former CIA General Counsel, are guilty of committing murder, waging war against Pakistan and offences under the provisions of the Terrorism Act 1997 for their involvement in authorizing the New Years’ Eve strike.

Mr Khan first brought the case in 2011 with support from the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR) in Pakistan. In February this year Mr Khan, who has been an outspoken critic of the covert US programme, was illegally detained for ten days by unknown men in police uniforms, ahead of a European trip where he spoke to parliamentarians about the civilian impact of the US drone programme.Commenting on the judgement, Kareem Khan said: “Today’s order is a victory for all those innocent civilians that have been killed in US-led drone strikes in Pakistan. I also feel heartened that people like me in Waziristan might now also be able to get justice for the wrongs being done to them. I sincerely hope that the authorities now do their job and investigate the culprits”.

Jennifer Gibson, attorney for legal charity Reprieve, which is assisting Mr Khan, said: “Today’s decision marks a crucial first step in finally providing justice for people like Kareem – the innocent victims of the CIA’s illegal drone wars. The message is clear – there can be no impunity for the killing of innocent people. The police in Pakistan should move to launch their investigation as soon as possible.”

Pakistani High Court orders police to investigate CIA drone strikes, Reprieve Press Release, June 5, 2014

The Hunter and Killer Algorithmic Drones

Drone Aladin of the German army 2008. Image from wikipedia

The Pentagon is discussing the possibility of replacing human drone operators with computer algorithms, especially for ‘signature strikes’ where unknown targets are killed simply because they meet certain criteria. So what characteristics define an ‘enemy combatant’ and where are they outlined in law?

Drone strikes and targeted killings have become the weapon of choice for the Obama administration in their ongoing war against terrorists. But what impact is this technology having, not only on those who are the targets (both intended and unintended), but on the way we are likely to wage war in the future?

John Sifton is the advocacy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, and says that while drones are currently controlled remotely by trained military personnel, there are already fears that the roving killing machines could be automated in the future.  ‘One of the biggest concerns human rights groups have right now is the notion of a signature strike,’ he says. ‘[This is] the notion that you could make a decision about a target based on its appearance. Say—this man has a Kalashnikov, he’s walking on the side of the road, he is near a military base. He’s a combatant, let’s kill him. That decision is made by a human right now, but the notion that you could write an algorithm for that and then program it into a drone… sounds science fiction but is in fact what the Pentagon is already thinking about. There are already discussions about this, autonomous weapons systems.’‘That is to human rights groups the most terrifying spectre that is currently presented by the drones.’

Sarah Knuckey is the director of the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at New York University Law School and an advisor to the UN. She says the way that drones are used to conduct warfare is stretching the limits of previous international conventions and is likely to require new rules of engagement to be drawn up…The rules of warfare built up after World War II to protect civilians are already hopelessly outdated, she says. The notion of border sovereignty has already been trashed by years of drone strikes, which she estimates have targeted upwards of 3,000 individuals, with reports of between 400 and 800 civilian casualties.

Excerpt from Annabelle Quince, Future of drone strikes could see execution by algorithm, May 21, 2013

Taking Down the Unknown Extremists: drones

Predator Avenger image from wikpedia

The US government was accused of hiding the truth about its drone programme after leaked intelligence files revealed that it was targeting unidentified militants who posed no immediate threat to the United States.

Despite President Barack Obama’s public promise that the CIA’s armed Predators and Reapers were only firing on those suspected of plotting against America, top-secret documents show that in one year alone almost half of those killed were simply listed as “unknown extremists”.  he documents, obtained by US news agency McClatchy, also reveal Pakistan’s intelligence agency was co-operating with the US at the same time as its government was condemning drone strikes on its soil.  “There is now mounting evidence that the Obama administration is misleading the American public – and the world at large – about the drone war it is waging in Pakistan,” said Jennifer Gibson, a lawyer working with the British human rights charity Reprieve.

“The reports show a significant number of the strikes have nothing to do with al-Qa’ida. Instead, they may have been a quid pro quo exchange between two countries’ spy agencies. The result is that the US often doesn’t know who it is killing.”

The US has come under increasing international pressure to open up its decision-making process to scrutiny following claims that the drone programme has killed hundreds of civilians among an estimated death toll of 2,500, predominantly in Pakistan and Yemen. Preparations are in place to transfer more control of the programme from the CIA to the Pentagon, in a move said to herald greater transparency.

The US intelligence reports leaked to McClatchy covered, its reporters said, most of the drone strikes in Pakistan during 2006 to 2008 as well as 2010 to 2011. Most of the attacks targeted al-Qa’ida but many were aimed at the Haqqani network and factions of the Pakistani Taliban.  At least 265 of the 482 people killed by the CIA programme in the 12 months up to September 2011 were listed as Afghan, Pakistani or “unknown extremists”.This contrasts sharply with US administration’s claim that drones are only used to target “senior operational leaders” in al-Qa’ida, those involved in the 11 September 2001 attacks or individuals plotting imminent attacks on the US.

Last night a spokesman for the US Department of Defence said neither they nor the CIA commented on intelligence matters

Excerpt, Terri Judd US drones target low-level militants who pose no threat, Independent, April 10, 2013

Drone Warfare is Mainstream: yes, we like it

occupy drone warfare.  Image from https://www.facebook.com/OccupyDroneWarfare

Rand Paul’s filibuster (March 2012) drew renewed attention to the U.S. government’s program of drone warfare. Paul’s focus — whether Obama believed that he could legally authorize a drone strike on a U.S. citizen on American soil — ultimately earned a direct response from Attorney General Eric Holder.

But  the main targets of drones have been mostly foreigners living in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The irony, given all the attention and some plaudits given to Paul’s filibuster, is that most Americans support the use of drones to fight terrorists abroad. While Paul inveighed against a hypothetical killing, the actual killings that do happen are not that controversial in the minds of most Americans. An open question, however, is whether their minds could be changed.

Only last month, the Pew Center asked a random sample of Americans whether they supported “the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia?” A majority, 56 percent, approved while 26 percent disapproved and 18 percent were not sure — numbers similar to two 2012 polls.

In fact, drone strikes attracted roughly similar amounts of support from across the partisan spectrum: 68 percent of Republicans approved, as did 58 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents. A pattern of relative bipartisanship is not all that common in public opinion today, but it is predictable in this case. When leaders in the two parties don’t really disagree on something, there is no reason for partisans in the public to disagree either. In John Zaller’s magisterial account of how public opinion is formed and evolves, he refers to a pattern of bipartisanship like this one as a “mainstream effect.” Like it or not, drone warfare has become so common that “mainstream” does not sound inapt.

Thus, there is little reason to expect public opinion about the drone program to change without concerted and prolonged dissent from political leaders. That does not seem to be forthcoming. Paul’s dissent — which didn’t even emphasize foreign targets of American drones — was met with harsh rebuttals from Lindsay Graham, John McCain and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Democrats were not exactly rushing to stand with Paul either.

Would dissent from Capitol Hill make any difference? Actually, it might. Some evidence suggests public support for drone warfare is soft. The Pew survey provides hints of that. The main concern about drones — one that 53 percent of the public was “very concerned” about — was civilian casualties, which occur with some regularity…

Excerpts from Ezra Klein, Most Americans approve of foreign drone strikes, Washington Post. Mar. 8, 2013

Lethal Operations Directed Against US Citizens are Lawful: secret memo

Underground facility detection and characterization. Image from wikipedia.  See http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DARPA_Strategic_Plan_(2009).pdf

A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects abroad, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes….The undated memo is entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force.” It was provided to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees in June by administration officials on the condition that it be kept confidential and not discussed publicly.

Although not an official legal memo, the white paper was represented by administration officials as a policy document that closely mirrors the arguments of classified memos on targeted killings by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides authoritative legal advice to the president and all executive branch agencies. The administration has refused to turn over to Congress or release those memos publicly — or even publicly confirm their existence. A source with access to the white paper, which is not classified, provided a copy to NBC News.

“This is a chilling document,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, which is suing to obtain administration memos about the targeted killing of Americans. “Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen. … It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated.”…..

The completeness of the administration’s public accounts of its legal arguments was also sharply criticized last month by U.S. Judge Colleen McMahon in response to a lawsuit brought by the New York Times and the ACLU seeking access to the Justice Department memos on drone strikes targeting Americans under the Freedom of Information Act. McMahon, describing herself as being caught in a “veritable Catch-22,” said she was unable to order the release of the documents given “the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for the conclusion a secret.”  In her ruling, McMahon noted that administration officials “had engaged in public discussion of the legality of targeted killing, even of citizens.” But, she wrote, they have done so “in cryptic and imprecise ways, generally without citing … any statute or court decision that justifies its conclusions.”……..

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” the white paper reads. “In the Department’s view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban. Similarly, the use of lethal force, consistent with the laws of war, against an individual who is a legitimate military target would be lawful and would not violate the assassination ban.”

Excerpts from Michael Isikoff. EXCLUSIVE: Justice Department memo reveals legal case for drone strikes on Americans, NBC News, Feb. 6, 2012

Drones: Rules and Reality

In his most comprehensive public comments yet on the US covert drone war, President Barack Obama has laid out the five rules he says the United States uses to target and kill alleged terrorists – including US citizens.  The president has also warned of the need to avoid a ‘slippery slope’ when fighting terrorism, ‘in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means.’  Obama’s comments were made in an on-camera interview with CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Only once before has the president publicly discussed the US covert drone policy, when he spoke briefly about strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  Now Obama says there are five rules that need to be followed in covert US drone attacks. In his own words:

1 ’It has to be a target that is authorised by our laws.’

2 ’It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative.’

3 ’It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.’

4 ‘We’ve got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties.’

5 ‘That while there is a legal justification for us to try and stop [American citizens] from carrying out plots… they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.’

Obama twice referred to what he claims has been ‘misreporting’ by the media of his drones policy.  Apparently responding to recent allegations that his administration prefers to kill rather than capture suspects, the president said that ‘our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence’ but that it’s sometimes ‘very difficult to capture them.’  CNN’s Yellin did not bring up the issue of civilian casualties – despite CNN itself reporting multiple civilian deaths in a suspected Yemen drone strike just hours earlier. However Obama insisted that ‘we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties, and in fact there are a whole bunch of situations where we will not engage in operations if we think there’s going to be civilian casualties involved.’

Obama also took on the contentious targeted killing of US citizens – the subject of a number of high profile legal cases. Insisting that there was ‘legal justification’ for such killings, the president conceded that ‘as an American citizen, they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.’  The US Department of Justice (DoJ) is presently trying to block publication of administration legal opinions which allegedly provided the justification for the killing of US citizen Anwar al Awlaki and others.  In a recent court submission the DoJ insisted that Obama’s January comments on the covert drone war could not be taken as an admission that it was taking place: ‘Plaintiffs speculate that the president must have been speaking about CIA involvement in lethal operations…. This is insufficient to support a claim of official disclosure.’  With Obama now publicly laying out the ground rules for the covert drone war, the DoJ’s position appears further damaged.

The president also discussed in some detail his moral concerns regarding the campaign, admitting that he ‘struggle[s] with issues of war and peace and fighting terrorism.’  Our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence.’  He said that he and his national security team needed to ‘continually ask questions about “Are we doing the right thing? Are we abiding by the rule of law? Are we abiding by due process?”‘  If that failed to happen, the president warned, there was the risk of a ‘slippery slope… in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means.’  The continuing deaths of civilians – and CIA tactics such as the deliberate targeting of rescuers – have led some to argue that the US is already bending or even breaking those rules.

Chris Woods, Obama’s five rules for covert drone strikes, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Sept. 6, 2012

Kamikaze Drones; the drone technology that shortens the kill chain

The 2-foot-long Switchblade drone [unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)] 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.”

The Obama administration, notably the CIA, has long been lambasted by critics for its use of combat drones and carelessly killing civilians in targeted strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. In 2010, a United Nations official said the CIA in Pakistan had made the United States “the most prolific user of targeted killings” in the world.

The Switchblade drone appears to be an improvement as an alternative to traditional drone strikes, in terms of minimizing civilian harm, but it also raises new concerns, said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School.  She pointed out that when a drone strike is being considered there are teams of lawyers, analysts and military personnel looking at the data to determine whether lethal force is necessary. But the Switchblade could shorten that “kill chain.”  “It delegates full responsibility to a lower-level soldier on the ground,” she said. “That delegation is worrisome. It’s a situation that could end up in more mistakes being made.”  Arms-control advocates also have concerns. As these small robotic weapons proliferate, they worry about what could happen if the drones end up in the hands of terrorists or other hostile forces.

The Switchblade “is symptomatic of a larger problem that U.S. military and aerospace companies are generating, which is producing various more exotic designs,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn. “This technology is not always going to be in the sole possession of the U.S. and its allies. We need to think about the rules of the road for when and how these should be used so we can mitigate against unintended consequences.”

The Switchblade is assembled in Simi Valley by AeroVironment Inc., the Pentagon’s top supplier of small drones, which include the Raven, Wasp and Puma. More than 50 Switchblades will be sent to the war zone in Afghanistan this summer under a $10.1-million contract, which also includes the cost of repairs, spare parts, training and other expenses. Officials would not provide details about where the weapons would be used, how many were ordered and precisely when they would be deployed.  AeroVironment, based in Monrovia, developed the weapon on its own, thinking the military could use a lethal drone that could be made cheaply and deployed quickly by soldiers in the field, said company spokesman Steven Gitlin.

“It’s not inexpensive to task an Apache helicopter or F-16 fighter jet from a base to take out an [improvised explosive device] team when you consider fuel, people, logistics support, etc.,” he said.

About a dozen Switchblades were tested last year by special operations units in Afghanistan, according to Army officials, who said the drone proved effective.  The Army is considering buying $100 million worth of the drones in a few years under a program called the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System, Nichols said. The Air Force and the Marine Corps have also expressed interest in the technology.

AeroVironment is not the only company pursuing small, lethal drones. Textron Defense Systems is also working on a small kamikaze-style drone. Named the BattleHawk Squad-Level Loitering Munition, the drone is being tested at an Army facility in New Mexico.

Excerpts, W.J. Hennigan, Pentagon to soon deploy pint-sized but lethal Switchblade drones, LA Times, June 11, 2012

See also Why They Love their Drones

US Spies against Pakistan Spies, drones and attacks

A US drone strike in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt on Friday[Sept. 23, 2011] killed at least six militants including four foreigners and destroyed a compound, security officials said. Two missiles fired by the unmanned aircraft hit a house in the village of Khushali Turikhel, 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Miranshah, the main town in the lawless North Waziristan tribal district, security officials told AFP.  “The US drone fired two missiles which hit a house. Two locals and four militants of central Asian origin have been killed,” a Pakistani security official said. The official based in Peshawar said militants were using the house as a compound, which was completely destroyed.  Two intelligence officials based in Miranshah confirmed the attack and the number of casualties, adding that three militants whose identities were not yet clear were wounded in the strike.  Although the United States does not publicly confirm drone attacks, its military and the CIA in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy the unmanned Predator aircraft in the region.

North Waziristan is the headquarters of the Haqqani leadership and the main militant bastion in the semi-autonomous tribal belt.  The Haqqani network is considered the deadliest enemy of US troops in eastern Afghanistan. It was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani and is run by his son, Sirajuddin, both designated “global terrorists” by Washington.  The United States blames it over some of the most spectacular attacks in Afghanistan, such as last week’s 19-hour siege in Kabul and the 2009 killing of seven CIA agents, and accuses Pakistani spies of having ties to the group.  In an unprecedented condemnation of Pakistan the US military’s top officer Admiral Mike Mullen said this week that the country’s main intelligence agency the ISI was actively supporting Haqqani network militants.  Pakistan has reacted angrily to the US allegations, saying they are “not acceptable” and warning that Washington stands to lose a vital ally.

Drone attacks are unpopular among many Pakistanis, who oppose the alliance with Washington and who are sensitive to perceived violations of sovereignty.   Around two dozen drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan since elite US forces killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a suburban home near Pakistan’s main military academy in Abbottabad, close to the capital, on May 2.  Pakistani-US relations sank to a new nadir after the unilateral American raid that killed bin Laden but in recent months had appeared to recover slightly.  Washington’s pressure on Islamabad to launch a decisive military campaign in North Waziristan, as Pakistan has conducted elsewhere in the tribal belt, has so far fallen on deaf ears.

US drone kills six militants in Pakistan: officials, Agence France Presse, Sept. 24, 2011