Tag Archives: targeted killings

The Body Count and the Small Footprint

Jan. 14, 2014. Islamic State marching in Raqqa Syria. Image Associated Press

The U.S. assaults… have been far more deadly than is generally recognized. Military sources say that drone strikes have killed between 20,000 and 25,000 Islamic State operatives in Iraq and Syria. U.S. conventional attacks have killed about 30,000 more, for a total “body count” of over 50,000….The CIA and JSOC both conduct roughly the same number of drone flights every day. But the sources said the military’s drones conducted more than 20,000 strikes over the last year, in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, while the CIA is said to have struck less than a dozen targets over that same period.

The CIA oversaw much of America’s drone warfare during the first half of Obama’s presidency, when it was targeting al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan. But the agency’s focus on such counterterrorism “direct action” appears to have diminished over the past several years.
Obama’s  preference for special operations forces and their “small-footprint” tactics, as opposed to big conventional assaults….One unlikely legacy of Obama’s presidency is that he made the secret, once-impermissible tactic of targeted killing the preferred tool of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Excerpt from David Ignatius, Pentagon and CIA in a terror turf war,  Washington Post. Dec 12, 2016

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

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 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

Djibouti, the US Permanent Drone War Base

Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti…began as a temporary staging ground for U.S. Marines looking for a foothold in the region a decade ago (2001). Over the past two years, the U.S. military has clandestinely transformed it into the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone, a model for fighting a new generation of terrorist groups.  The Obama administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the legal and operational details of its targeted-killing program. Behind closed doors, painstaking debates precede each decision to place an individual in the cross hairs of the United States’ perpetual war against al-Qaeda and its allies.  Increasingly, the orders to find, track or kill those people are delivered to Camp Lemonnier. Virtually the entire 500-acre camp is dedicated to counterterrorism, making it the only installation of its kind in the Pentagon’s global network of bases.

Secrecy blankets most of the camp’s activities. The U.S. military rejected requests from The Washington Post to tour Lemonnier last month. Officials cited “operational security concerns,” although they have permitted journalists to visit in the past.  After a Post reporter showed up in Djibouti uninvited, the camp’s highest-ranking commander consented to an interview — on the condition that it take place away from the base, at Djibouti’s lone luxury hotel. The commander, Army Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Baker, answered some general queries but declined to comment on drone operations or missions related to Somalia or Yemen.

Despite the secrecy, thousands of pages of military records obtained by The Post — including construction blueprints, drone accident reports and internal planning memos — open a revealing window into Camp Lemonnier. None of the documents is classified and many were acquired via public-records requests.  Taken together, the previously undisclosed documents show how the Djibouti-based drone wars sharply escalated early last year after eight Predators arrived at Lemonnier. The records also chronicle the Pentagon’s ambitious plan to further intensify drone operations here in the coming months.

The documents point to the central role played by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which President Obama has repeatedly relied on to execute the nation’s most sensitive counterterrorism missions.  About 300 Special Operations personnel plan raids and coordinate drone flights from inside a high-security compound at Lemonnier that is dotted with satellite dishes and ringed by concertina wire. Most of the commandos work incognito, concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base…

In Washington, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps to sustain the drone campaign for another decade, developing an elaborate new targeting database, called the “disposition matrix,” and a classified “playbook” to spell out how decisions on targeted killing are made.

Djibouti is the clearest example of how the United States is laying the groundwork to carry out these operations overseas. For the past decade, the Pentagon has labeled Lemonnier an “expeditionary,” or temporary, camp. But it is now hardening into the U.S. military’s first permanent drone war base.

In August, the Defense Department delivered a master plan to Congress detailing how the camp will be used over the next quarter-century. About $1.4 billion in construction projects are on the drawing board, including a huge new compound that could house up to 1,100 Special Operations forces, more than triple the current number.  Drones will continue to be in the forefront. In response to written questions from The Post, the U.S. military confirmed publicly for the first time the presence of remotely piloted aircraft — military parlance for drones — at Camp Lemonnier and said they support “a wide variety of regional security missions.”….For nearly a decade, the United States flew drones from Lemonnier only rarely, starting with a 2002 strike in Yemen that killed a suspected ringleader of the attack on the USS Cole.  That swiftly changed in 2010, however, after al-Qaeda’s network in Yemen attempted to bomb two U.S.-bound airliners and jihadists in Somalia separately consolidated their hold on that country. Late that year, records show, the Pentagon dispatched eight unmanned MQ-1B Predator aircraft to Djibouti and turned Lemonnier into a full-time drone base.

The impact was apparent months later: JSOC drones from Djibouti and CIA Predators from a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula converged over Yemen and killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric and prominent al-Qaeda member.  Today, Camp Lemonnier is the centerpiece of an expanding constellation of half a dozen U.S. drone and surveillance bases in Africa, created to combat a new generation of terrorist groups across the continent, from Mali to Libya to the Central African Republic. The U.S. military also flies drones from small civilian airports in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, but those operations pale in comparison to what is unfolding in Djibouti.

Lemonnier also has become a hub for conventional aircraft. In October 2011, the military boosted the airpower at the base by deploying a squadron of F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets, which can fly faster and carry more munitions than Predators…

In March 2011, a Predator parked at the camp started its engine without any human direction, even though the ignition had been turned off and the fuel lines closed. Technicians concluded that a software bug had infected the “brains” of the drone, but never pinpointed the problem.  “After that whole starting-itself incident, we were fairly wary of the aircraft and watched it pretty closely,” an unnamed Air Force squadron commander testified to an investigative board, according to a transcript. “Right now, I still think the software is not good.” …

“This [Djibouti] is not an outpost in the middle of nowhere that is of marginal interest,” said Amanda J. Dory, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for Africa. “This is a very important location in terms of U.S. interests, in terms of freedom of navigation, when it comes to power projection.”

The U.S. military pays $38 million a year to lease Camp Lemonnier from the Djiboutian government…

Excerpts, Craig Whitlock, Remote US base at core of secret operations, Washington Post, Oct. 26, 2012

How to Make Targeted Killings Legal

The CRS memorandum, entitled “Legal Issues Related to the Lethal Targeting of U.S. Citizens Suspected of Terrorist Activities,” was prepared in May 2012 by legislative attorney Jennifer K. Elsea. It presents an overview of the pertinent legal context, and then carefully parses official Administration statements in an attempt to infer a detailed legal rationale for lethal targeting. A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

“This memorandum is an effort to clarify the debate by providing legal background, setting forth what is known about the Administration’s position and identifying possible points of contention among legal experts and other observers,” the memo states.  In the end, CRS concludes that none of the established legal frameworks is a perfect fit for the Administration’s lethal targeting operations because the current U.S. practice of lethal targeting involves features that are improvised, inconsistent or otherwise questionable.

For example, CRS says the Administration appears to have redefined the meaning of “imminence,” one of the required elements for justifying the use of force in self-defense on the territory of another country. The standard definition of imminence refers to an overwhelming threat that allows “no moment for deliberation.” But the Administration uses imminence idiosyncratically “to refer to the window of opportunity for striking rather than the perceived immediacy of the threat of an armed attack.” This novel usage “may pose some challenge to the international law regarding the use of force,” CRS said.

The CRS memo notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled — in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld — that when a U.S. citizen is detained as a suspected enemy combatant he must be given notice of the factual basis for his detention and an opportunity to rebut it. Yet, in contrast, when a citizen-suspect is to be killed rather than detained the Administration’s position is that no such notice or opportunity is required.  This embrace of unchecked executive authority may prove difficult to reconcile with the majority holding in Hamdi, the memo suggests.  In fact, CRS says, the Administration’s position “seems to conform more with Justice Thomas’s dissenting opinion in Hamdi, in which Justice Thomas argued that in the context of wartime detention for non-punitive purposes, ‘due process requires nothing more than a good-faith executive determination’.”

By withholding its own Office of Legal Counsel opinion on the legality of lethal targeting of suspected terrorists who are U.S. citizens, the Obama Administration seems intent not on protecting sensitive operational details but on suppressing public awareness and debate. The CRS memo is not a substitute for the OLC opinion, but it nonetheless can serve to advance public understanding of the underlying issues.

Excerpt, Steven Aftergood, Legality of Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists Reviewed by CRS, SecrecyNews.com, Sept. 10, 2012

More than a Tally: Afghanistan

A Civilian population lost between the night raids, drone strikes, suicide bombings and targeted killings….Report from Reuters

In 2010, violence across Afghanistan was its worst since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, with civilian and military casualties at record levels.  A total of 711 foreign troops were killed in 2010, the deadliest year of the war for the coalition, and at least 340 have been killed so far this year, according to independent monitor http://www.icasualties.org and figures kept by Reuters.  U.S. and European military commanders have claimed significant success against Taliban insurgents in the south over the past 18 months, mainly with the help of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops deployed in the Taliban’s southern heartland to fight a growing insurgency.

However the Taliban and other insurgents have shown an alarming ability to adapt their tactics and shift the focus of their attacks out of the south into the east and the once relatively peaceful north and west….There has been a series of high-profile attacks and assassinations in the north in the past couple of years as insurgents seek to demonstrate their reach beyond their traditional southern heartland.  The police chief of north Afghanistan, General Dawood Dawood, was assassinated in late May by a massive bomb in Takhar province that also killed the Takhar police chief.  In June, a suicide bomber killed at least four policemen at a memorial service for Dawood in Kunduz. The attack appeared to target the police chief of Kunduz province, Sameullah Qatra, whose predecessor was killed by a suicide bomber in March.

NATO soldiers killed as Afghan violence flares, Reuters, Aug. 4, 2011