Published On: Tue, Feb 26th, 2013

The Drone War Doctrine We Still Know Nothing About

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By Cora  Currier and Justin  Elliott from ProPublica

The nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director has prompted intense  debate on Capitol Hill and in the media about U.S. drone killings abroad. But the focus has been on the targeting of American citizens –  a narrow issue that accounts for a minuscule proportion of the hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in recent years.

Consider: while four American citizens are known to have been killed by drones in the past decade,  the strikes have killed an estimated total of 2,600 to 4,700 people over the same period.

The focus on American citizens overshadows a far more common, and less  understood, type of strike: those that do not target American citizens, Al Qaeda  leaders, or, in fact, any other specific individual.

In these attacks, known as “signature  strikes,” drone operators fire on people whose identities they do not know  based on evidence of suspicious behavior or other “signatures.” According to  anonymously sourced media reports, such attacks on unidentified targets account  for many, or even mostdrone strikes.

Despite that, the administration has never publicly spoken about signature  strikes. Basic questions remain unanswered.

What is the legal justification for signature strikes? What qualifies as a  “signature” that would prompt a deadly strike? Do those being targeted have to  pose a threat to the United  States? And how many civilians have been killed in such strikes?

The administration has rebuffed repeated requests from Congress to provide answers – even in secret.

“How, for example, does the Administration ensure that the targets are  legitimate terrorist targets and not insurgents who have no dispute with the United States?” asked three  senior Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee in a  letter to Attorney General Holder last May.

The legislators sent a  second letter in December. Republicans on the committee joined in sending another  letter this month. All have gone unanswered, according to committee  staff.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently sent his  own letter to Brennan asking several pointed questions on signature  strikes.

“How do ‘signature strikes’ square with your statement that targeted killing  operations are only approved when a targeted individual poses a ‘significant  threat to U.S. interests?’” McCain asked, quoting a speech Brennan gave on drone strikes last April.

“How can the Administration be certain it is not killing civilians in areas,  like many parts of Yemen and Pakistan, where virtually all men, including  civilians, carry weapons?” the letter continued.

A McCain spokesman said the senator had not received a response. The White  House declined to comment for this story.

When Obama administration officials publicly  address drone strikes, they focus on thwarting imminent threats and  targeting Al Qaeda leaders, including U.S. citizens.

Brennan, for example, said at his confirmation hearing that a lethal  strike only occurs when “the intelligence base is so strong and the nature of  the threat is so grave and serious, as well as imminent, that we have no  recourse.” He was talking only about strikes targeting U.S. citizens, not  signature strikes.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is now threatening to filibuster Brennan’s nomination until he answers questions on the U.S.  citizen issue. And the Justice Department “white paper” leaked  to NBC this month outlines the legal rationale for drone strikes, but only  in cases when they target U.S. citizens who are also Al Qaeda leaders.

“What about the people who aren’t U.S. citizens and who aren’t on a list?”  asks Naureen  Shah, a human rights and counter terrorism expert at Columbia Law School. Of  the few thousand people killed, Shah notes, “it’s hard to believe all of these  people are senior operational leaders of Al Qaeda.”

The hazy history of ‘signature strikes’

The  first public reference to a signature strike appears to have been in  February 2008, when the New York Times reported  a change in drone strike policy, negotiated between the U.S. and  Pakistan.

“Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader  before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of  vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run,  for instance, so long as the risk of civilian casualties is judged to be low,”  the Times reported.

Over the next few years, they became  the majority of strikes conducted in Pakistan, according to media  reports citing  unnamed officials.

The new policy contributed to an increase in strikes in Pakistan – up to  a high of about  120 in 2010 – and also to an increase in the number of low-level militants or foot soldiers killed, according to a New  America Foundation analysis.

It’s not clear how much evidence is needed to justify a strike. In media  reports, U.S. officials have offered scenarios of signature strikes hitting training  camps or fighters who might cross  the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan.  The CIA reportedly uses drone  surveillance and other intelligence to try to ensure those targeted are in  fact militants.

Other officials, however, have described the policy more loosely – one  calling it a “‘reasonable  man’ standard.”

Asked what the standard is for who could be hit, former Ambassador to  Pakistan Cameron Munter recently  told an interviewer: “The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and  40. My feeling is one man’s combatant is another man’s – well, a chump who went  to a meeting.”

It is also next to impossible to say which attacks are signature strikes.

The names of militant leaders killed in strikes are often confirmed by  officials in news reports. But that  doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. knew who was there ahead of the strike. One  unnamed former military official claimed last year that the CIA “killed most of their ‘list people’ when they didn’t know  they were there.”

Conversely, strikes in which little information emerges on who was killed  could be failed attempts to hit specific individuals. (According to  the New Yorker, it took as many as 16 strikes to kill Pakistani Taliban  leader Baitullah Mehsud in 2009.)

The outcomes of strikes are often disputed. In one apparent signature strike  two years ago, unnamed U.S. officials told  the Associated Press that they had targeted a group that “was heavily armed,  some of its members were connected to Al Qaeda, and all ‘acted in a manner  consistent with AQ (Al Qaeda)-linked militants.’” The U.S. said about 20 militants were killed. But Pakistani officials said it had been a meeting of tribesmen and villagers provided evidence to the AP  that 38 civilians were killed.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the attack prompted a debate in the White House about whether signature strikes and strikes on  low-level fighters were worth the diplomatic risks.

The pace of strikes in Pakistan has tapered off since 2010, in large part  because of deteriorating diplomatic relations with Pakistan, according to Bill Roggio, who tracks  strikes for the Long War Journal.

Last spring the U.S. reportedly expanded  signature strikes to Yemen, though administration officials said there were  stricter standards than in Pakistan and evidence of a threat to the U.S. or  “U.S. interests” was  required. Officials referred  to the attacks with a new phrase, “Terror Attack Disruption Strikes.”

That tighter standard is reportedly  also part of the Obama administration’s new guidelines for the targeted  killing program. (The CIA’s strikes in Pakistan will be exempt from any new  rules for at least another year, according to the Washington Post.)

The legal debate

Brennan was  asked about signature strikes last April but sidestepped the question. He  replied: “You make reference to signature strikes that are frequently reported  in the press. I was speaking here specifically about targeted strikes against  individuals who are involved.”

He continued that “everything we do, though, that is carried out against Al  Qaeda is carried out consistent with the rule of law, the authorization on the  use of military force, and domestic law… that’s the whole purpose of whatever  action we use, the tool we use, it’s to prevent attack [sic] and to save  lives.”

The idea of killing members of an enemy force without knowing their  identities isn’t itself controversial.

“In a traditional conflict, there is no requirement that you know every  single person’s identity before you strike, so long as there are reasonable  grounds for determining that the target is part of the enemy force,” said  Jennifer Daskal, a professor at Georgetown Law School and a former attorney  in the Justice Department during the first Obama administration.

But legal observers hotly  debate the bounds of the drone war, and who qualifies as a member of the  enemy force. “In the conflict with a clandestine enemy like Al Qaeda, that  determination is much harder,” said Daskal.

While President Obama pledged in his State of the Union address to be more transparent about drone policy, the administration appears to  maneuvering to avoid sharing additional information with Congress.

According  to the New York Times, the administration may opt to share information on  last year’s Benghazi attack with Republican senators to avoid revealing any more  legal memos on the drone war to Democratic senators.

Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., has  said that her committee reviews videos of strikes. But she also recently said that the committee has long sought all of the legal opinions on drone strikes –  and that the administration has withheld most of the opinions.

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About the Author

- Dean Walsh is the owner and editor of World News Curator. He also owns and runs Ourly News and a range of other online publications.

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