Category Archives: Drones

Trump May Not Finish His Term But the Assassination Complex Will Live On

Jeremy Scahill writes for The Intercept:

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, NV - AUGUST 08:  A pilot's heads up display in a ground control station shows a truck from the view of a camera on an MQ-9 Reaper during a training mission August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Reaper is the Air Force's first "hunter-killer" unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and is designed to engage time-sensitive targets on the battlefield as well as provide intelligence and surveillance. The jet-fighter sized Reapers are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for as long as 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. They can fly twice as fast and high as the smaller MQ-1 Predators reaching speeds of 300 mph at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet. The aircraft are flown by a pilot and a sensor operator from ground control stations. The Reapers are expected to be used in combat operations by the United States military in Afghanistan and Iraq within the next year.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)Donald Trump’s speech on Afghanistan will briefly turn the media spotlight onto America’s longest war. Much of the media analysis will undoubtedly be about how the speech impacts Trump politically. Given the events of the past week, it seems unlikely that Democratic pundits will repeat their inane praise of the State of the Union address, in which Trump apparently became presidential for the first time. But this speech should serve as a moment to seriously examine the trajectory of the U.S. war machine from 9/11 to the present.

Amid the deluge of scandal, incompetence, and bigotry emanating from the Trump White House, the relative calm of the Obama era seems like a far-off galaxy. The reality that Trump may not even finish a full term as president, either due to removal or resignation, means that the palace intrigue must be reported on thoroughly by the press. But a dangerous consequence of the overwhelming, obsessive focus on the daily Trump affairs is a virtual dearth of coverage on the permanent, unelected institutions of U.S. power, namely the military and the CIA.

Spend just a moment studying moves of the Pentagon and Langley during the Trump era, and you will find that very little has changed in their post-9/11 course. Covert operations continue unabated throughout the Arab world and, increasingly, in Somalia. The U.S. remains in Iraq and Afghanistan and is becoming entrenched more deeply in Syria. If anything, the military and CIA are less restrained and are in greater control of decisions — that arguably create policy rather than implement it — than they were under Obama. And civilians are being killed at a greater rate under Trump, particularly in Iraq and Syria. There are reports that Trump has delegated more unilateral authority to the commanders than his predecessor and has relaxed rules ostensibly put in place to minimize civilian deaths. He has surrounded himself with generals who have spent their lives studying and preparing for war and know how to marshal the resources needed for overt and covert campaigns. This — combined with Trump’s questionable sanity, his pathological addiction to television and Twitter, and his compulsive need to respond to random pundits and congressmen at all hours — removes a crucial component of civilian oversight of the world’s most lethal force.

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Study: U.S. Only Admits to About One in Five Lethal Drone Strikes

Jason Ditz reports for Antiwar:

A new report compiled by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies has found that the United States only admits officially to about one fifth of their drone strikes which end up killing someone, saying this hurts accountability.

That the US has been deliberately evasive about its drone program is hardly news, but this appears to be the first study aimed at specifically figuring exactly how many lethal drone strikes have been officially acknowledged.

This has been a growing problem with US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria as well, with official Pentagon figures on civilian death tolls dramatically lower than those recorded by private NGOs, with the difference often a factor of ten or more as the US downplays the tolls.

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The US Air Force Wants Cheap, Disposable Killer Drones

David Axe reports for Motherboard:

The future of air combat is small, cheap and disposable. That is, if a bunch of US Air Force scientists get their way.

In early May 2017, the Air Force Research Laboratories—the flying branch’s Ohio-based science wing—released the first photo of a stealthy, weapons-capable robotic jet that just might become America’s next major warplane.

The Low Cost Attritable Aircraft, or LCAA, has been in a development since July 2016. That’s when AFRL awarded Kratos, a San Diego drone-maker, a $41-million contract to work alongside the labs to design and demonstrate what the government described as a “high-speed, long-range, low-cost, limited-life strike unmanned aerial system.”

Less than a year later, Kratos had produced at least one copy of the new drone, using its existing XQ-222 concept as a starting point. AFRL first began talking about the LCAA during a May 9, 2017 conference at the labs’ headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. A little over a week later, the Defense Department circulated the first public photo of the roughly 30-foot-long drone.

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Trump Broadens CIA Powers, Allows Deadly Drone Strikes

Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris reports for The Wall Street Journal:

Image result for Trump Broadens CIA Powers, Allows Deadly Drone StrikesPresident Donald Trump has given the Central Intelligence Agency secret new authority to conduct drone strikes against suspected terrorists, U.S. officials said, changing the Obama administration’s policy of limiting the spy agency’s paramilitary role and reopening a turf war between the agency and the Pentagon.

The new authority, which hadn’t been previously disclosed, represents a significant departure from a cooperative approach that had become standard practice by the end of former President Barack Obama’s tenure: The CIA used drones and other intelligence resources to locate suspected terrorists and then the military conducted the actual strike. The U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in May 2016 in Pakistan was the best example of that hybrid approach, U.S. officials said.

The Obama administration put the military in charge of pulling the trigger to promote transparency and accountability. The CIA, which operates under covert authorities, wasn’t required to disclose the number of suspected terrorists or civilian bystanders it killed in drone strikes. The Pentagon, however, must publicly report most airstrikes.

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Trump Administration Preparing for Deeper Involvement in Yemen?

Gregory Wilpert speaks to CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin who says the recent failed US Navy Seal raid shows that the Trump administration’s plans for Yemen will contribute to making the horrific humanitarian crisis there worse. (The Real News)

Questioning the “Success” of Trump Raid That Killed 24 Civilians in Yemen

Amy Goodman speaks to Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept, Pardiss Kebriaei, staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Baraa Shiban, the Yemen project coordinator and caseworker with Reprieve, about the questions surrounding the first covert counter-terrorism operation approved by President Donald Trump. (Democracy Now!)

Obama Killed a 16-Year-Old American in Yemen, Trump Just Killed His 8-Year-Old Sister

Glenn Greenwald writes for The Intercept:

[…] Few events pulled the mask off Obama officials like this one. It highlighted how the Obama administration was ravaging Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries: just weeks after he won the Nobel Prize, Obama used cluster bombs that killed 35 Yemeni women and children. Even Obama-supporting liberal comedians mocked the Obama DOJ’s arguments for why it had the right to execute Americans with no charges: “Due Process Just Means There’s A Process That You Do,” snarked Stephen Colbert. And a firestorm erupted when former Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered a sociopathic justification for killing the Colorado-born teenager, apparently blaming him for his own killing by saying he should have “had a more responsible father.”

The U.S. assault on Yemeni civilians not only continued but radically escalated over the next five years through the end of the Obama presidency, as the U.S. and the UK armed, supported and provide crucial assistance to their close ally Saudi Arabia as it devastated Yemen through a criminally reckless bombing campaign. Yemen now faces mass starvationseemingly exacerbated, deliberately, by the US/UK-supported air attacks. Because of the west’s direct responsibility for these atrocities, they have received vanishingly little attention in the responsible countries.

In a hideous symbol of the bipartisan continuity of U.S. barbarism, Nasser al-Awlaki just lost another one of his young grandchildren to U.S. violence. On Sunday, the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, using armed Reaper drones for cover, carried out a commando raid on what it said was a compound harboring officials of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. A statement issued by President Trump lamented the death of an American service member and several others who were wounded, but made no mention of any civilian deaths. U.S. military officials initially denied any civilian deaths, and (therefore) the CNN report on the raid said nothing about any civilians being killed.

But reports from Yemen quickly surfaced that 30 people were killed, including 10 women and children. Among the dead: the 8-year-old granddaughter of Nasser al-Awlaki, Nawar, who was also the daughter of Anwar Awlaki.

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US Drone Killing Machine Now on Autopilot

Laurie Calhoun writes for The Drone Age:

photo credit: mikechurch.comFor years now I have been pointing out that Obama’s lasting legacy would be his ill-advised decision back in 2009 to normalize assassination, which his administration successfully rebranded as “targeted killing”. This was supposed to be the latest and greatest form of “smart war”: the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), or lethal drones, to go after and eliminate evil terrorists without risking US soldiers’ lives.

It all sounds so slick and, well, Obama cool. The problem is that any sober consideration of Obama’s foreign policy over the course of his eight years as president reveals that the reality is altogether different. Judging by the murder and mayhem being perpetrated all across the Middle East, “smart war” was not so smart after all.

It’s not easy to tease out how much of the mess in the Middle East is specifically due to Obama’s accelerated use of lethal drones in “signature strikes” to kill thousands of military-age men in seven different lands. For he also implemented other, equally dubious initiatives. Planks of Obama’s bloody “smart power” approach included deposing Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and massively arming (from 2012 to 2013) a group of little-understood “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria.

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Yemen Reports First US Drone Strikes Under Trump

Jason Ditz reports for Antiwar:

Image result for trump droneA pair of US drone strikes in Yemen’s Bayda Province have killed at least 10 people over the weekend, according to Yemeni officials, marking the first drone strikes to be conducted under President Trump, who was inaugurated on Friday.

Both drone strikes were in roughly the same rural area, with the first killing three “suspects” on motorcycles, and the second strike also hitting a vehicle, and killing seven people. Yemeni officials, as they always do, labeled all of the slain “armed fighters of al-Qaeda.”

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U.S. Airstrikes in Afghanistan May Now Be Riskier For Civilians

Abigail Fielding-Smith and Ruhullah Khapalwak report for Newsweek and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Predator Drone[…] By early 2015, the American war against the Taliban was supposed to be over. President Barack Obama had drawn down the troop force—roughly 100,000 at its height—to about 10,000, most of which remained only to train the Afghan security forces. U.S. planes continued to kill militants loyal to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group (ISIS), but airstrikes against the Taliban were allowed only in self-defense.

There was one exception, however: American aircraft could pursue the Taliban when Afghan allies were about to be overrun. This scenario became increasingly common as the insurgent group took advantage of the security vacuum created by U.S. troop withdrawals in 2014 and 2015. Losses among Afghan security forces shot up by nearly 30 percent in those two years. Last September, the Taliban took control of most of the northern city of Kunduz. U.S. commandos set out to help Afghan forces retake it, and American gunships scrambled to support them. In the fog of the ensuing battles, the U.S. accidentally bombarded a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 42 doctors and patients.

Later, as the Taliban continued to rampage through Kunduz and Helmand provinces, America adjusted its rules. In June, the U.S. announced its forces would now be allowed to attack the Taliban proactively.

This has resulted in an anomalous situation: a conventional aerial campaign but with virtually no American forces on the ground to provide reliable intelligence to guide it. The U.S. is now broadly dependent on its Afghan partners and the notoriously limited insights of drones.

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Obama Is Expanding Trump’s War-Making Powers on His Way Out the Door

Micah Zenko writes for Foreign Policy:

Obama Is Expanding Trump’s War-Making Powers on His Way Out the Door The scope of war-making authorities and powers available to the Trump administration depends on decisions made by the Obama administration. Two recent news reports shed some troubling light on its approach to the coming transition.

The Obama administration’s present mindset reflects a departure from its approach in the fall of 2012. In anticipation of an election it believed Republican challenger Mitt Romney might win, the Obama White House accelerated the development and implementation of a “drone rule book” that codified the procedures for drone strikes in non-battlefield settings. As one official worried aloud in November 2012, “There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands.”

The latest reporting suggests that, rather than restraining and limiting Trump, the Obama administration, in its final weeks in office, is further expanding the geographic scope of airstrikes, the nature of combatants who can be targeted, and the legal justification underpinning such strikes. The incoming president-elect, who has previously pledged to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” will have the capabilities and authorities to do just that — for the Islamic State and other terrorist and militant armies.

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Obama Will Not Restrict Drone Strike ‘Playbook’ Before Trump Takes Office

Spencer Ackerman and Patrick Wintour report for The Guardian:

Image result for obama trump dronesBarack Obama will not tighten the rules governing US drone strikes ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Guardian has learned.

Trump will inherit the apparatus for what Obama calls “targeted killing” – the so-called drones “playbook” formally known as the 22 May 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance or PPG – that has turned drone strikes into Obama’s signature counter-terrorism tactic.

While the White House considers its standards for drone strikes to be scrupulous, much of the rest of the world considers them to represent an arbitrary, secret and dangerous apparatus of secret killing that Trump will soon have at his disposal.

“Maybe on the left no one would believe that Trump has a steady hand, but Obama has normalized the idea that presidents get to have secret large-scale killing programs at their disposal,” said Naureen Shah of Amnesty International USA.

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Donald Trump Is About to Inherit Obama’s Unchecked Drone Program

Ryan Devereaux reports for The Intercept:

drone-memos-coverAs the former deputy legal director of the ACLU, Jameel Jaffer made many arguments challenging the Obama administration’s drone program over the years, both in and out of court. While those critiques frequently included complex legal challenges, one of them was fairly straightforward. Jaffer would often make the case that even if many people considered President Barack Obama a good and honest man, his bureaucracy for secret killing should not be built on trust alone. Rather, it required publicly demonstrable legality and efficacy — the idea being that those powers would one day be handed off to a new president.

Last week, the scenario at the heart of Jaffer’s argument ceased to be rhetorical.

President-elect Donald Trump has been notoriously vague when describing his counterterrorism vision — arguing that he doesn’t want to telegraph his secret plans — but if his vows to “bomb the shit out of” the Islamic State and kill the family members of suspected terrorists are any indication, the next four years are likely to include continued, or increased, lethal American operations abroad. If that’s the case, Trump will have at his disposal a host of executive power precedents set by the Obama administration. For Jaffer, who now heads the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the implications of that reality are profound.

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Thanks, Obama: Commander-In-Chief Donald Trump Will Have Terrifying Powers

Alex Emmons writes for The Intercept:

Image result for trump obamaWhen Donald Trump becomes commander in chief in January, he will take on presidential powers that have never been more expansive and unchecked.

He’ll control an unaccountable drone program, and the prison at Guantanamo Bay. His FBI, including a network of 15,000 paid informants, already has a record of spying on mosques and activists, and his NSA’s surveillance empire is ubiquitous and governed by arcane rules, most of which remain secret. He will inherit bombing campaigns in seven Muslim countries, the de facto ability to declare war unilaterally, and a massive nuclear arsenal — much of which is on hair-trigger alert.

Caught off guard by Hillary Clinton’s election defeat, Democrats who defended these powers under President Obama may suddenly be having second thoughts as the White House gets handed over to a man they described — with good reason — as “unhinged,” and “dangerously unfit.”

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Obama Has Handed a Surveillance State and War Machine to a Maniac

Trevor Timm writes for The Guardian:

Image result for trump surveillance dronesIn a little over two months, Donald Trump – after his shocking victory last night – will control a vast, unaccountable national security and military apparatus unparalleled in world history. The nightmare that civil libertarians have warned of for years has now tragically come true: instead of dismantling the surveillance state and war machine, the Obama administration and Democrats institutionalised it – and it will soon be in the hands of a maniac.

It will go down in history as perhaps President Obama’s most catastrophic mistake.

The Obama administration could have prosecuted torturers and war criminals in the Bush administration and sent an unmistakable message to the world: torture is illegal and unconscionable. Instead the president said they would “look forward, not backward”, basically turning a clear felony into a policy dispute. Trump has bragged that he will bring back torture – waterboarding and “much worse”. He has talked about killing the innocent family members of terrorists, openly telling the world he will commit war crimes.

Now that Trump will take the reins of our various Middle East wars in January, who’s going to stop him from following through on his heinous proposals?

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Obama Worries Future Presidents Will Wage Perpetual, Covert Drone War

Ryan Devereaux and Alex Emmons report for The Intercept:

President Obama warns in a new interview of a future in which a U.S. president could engage in perpetual covert wars “all over the world.” But he claims that the accountability and transparency measures he is instituting will make that less likely.

In the interview, with New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, Obama expressed agreement with one of the most salient critiques of his drone war, that it risks creating “institutional comfort and inertia with what looks like a pretty antiseptic way of disposing of enemies.”

Obama explained that he had looked at “the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD and CIA and our intelligence teams think about this.”

He continued: “And it troubled me, because I think you could see, over the horizon, a situation in which, without Congress showing much interest in restraining actions with authorizations that were written really broadly, you end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.”

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U.S. Military Is Building a $100 Million Drone Base in Africa

Nick Turse reports for The Intercept:

From high above, Agadez almost blends into the cocoa-colored wasteland that surrounds it. Only when you descend farther can you make out a city that curves around an airfield before fading into the desert. Once a nexus for camel caravans hauling tea and salt across the Sahara, Agadez is now a West African paradise for people smugglers and a way station for refugees and migrants intent on reaching Europe’s shores by any means necessary.

Africans fleeing unrest and poverty are not, however, the only foreigners making their way to this town in the center of Niger. U.S. military documents reveal new information about an American drone base under construction on the outskirts of the city. The long-planned project — considered the most important U.S. military construction effort in Africa, according to formerly secret files obtained by The Intercept through the Freedom of Information Act — is slated to cost $100 million, and is just one of a number of recent American military initiatives in the impoverished nation.

The base is the latest sign, experts say, of an ever-increasing emphasis on counterterror operations in the north and west of the continent. As the only country in the region willing to allow a U.S. base for MQ-9 Reapers — a newer, larger, and potentially more lethal model than the venerable Predator drone — Niger has positioned itself to be the key regional hub for U.S. military operations, with Agadez serving as the premier outpost for launching intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions against a plethora of terror groups.

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Medea Benjamin: If Americans Can Sue Saudis over 9/11, Drone Victims Should Be Able to Sue U.S.

Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez speaks to Medea Benjamin, author of the book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection, to get her response to the vote by Congress to allow Americans to sue Saudi Arabia over the 9/11 attacks, overriding President Obama’s veto of the bill. The legislation would allow courts to waive claim of foreign sovereign immunity after an act of terrorism occurs within U.S. borders. “If innocent families [of drone attacks] were able to take the U.S. to court instead of seeing joining ISIS or al-Qaeda as their only resort, that would be a very positive thing.” (Democracy Now!)

Inside Menwith Hill: The NSA’s British Base at the Heart of U.S. Targeted Killing

Ryan Gallagher reports for The Intercept:

[…] Top-secret documents obtained by The Intercept offer an unprecedented glimpse behind Menwith Hill’s razor wire fence. The files reveal for the first time how the NSA has used the British base to aid “a significant number of capture-kill operations” across the Middle East and North Africa, fueled by powerful eavesdropping technology that can harvest data from more than 300 million emails and phone calls a day.

Over the past decade, the documents show, the NSA has pioneered groundbreaking new spying programs at Menwith Hill to pinpoint the locations of suspected terrorists accessing the internet in remote parts of the world. The programs — with names such as GHOSTHUNTER and GHOSTWOLF — have provided support for conventional British and American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they have also aided covert missions in countries where the U.S. has not declared war. NSA employees at Menwith Hill have collaborated on a project to help “eliminate” terrorism targets in Yemen, for example, where the U.S. has waged a controversial drone bombing campaign that has resulted in dozens of civilian deaths.

The disclosures about Menwith Hill raise new questions about the extent of British complicity in U.S. drone strikes and other so-called targeted killing missions, which may in some cases have violated international laws or constituted war crimes. Successive U.K. governments have publicly stated that all activities at the base are carried out with the “full knowledge and consent” of British officials.

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Drones: U.S. Law Enforcement’s Secret Eye In The Sky

Sam Richards reports for Think Progress:

[…] The county’s drone policy states that all drone operations will be consistent with federal law and the Constitution — but current federal law allows visual aerial surveillance to be conducted without a warrant due to a little known and arguably outdated Supreme Court ruling.

Lack of warrants for visual aerial surveillance is a hallmark of federal aerial surveillance operations, and a ruling on the police helicopter exemption is used to enforce this on a state level as well. Florida v. Riley (1989) is now used to justify warrantless aerial surveillance across the United States, but it originally considered such surveillance as encompassing only the naked eye of an officer inside a low flying helicopter. The law has not matured with advances in technology, like thermal imaging (which can peer through walls), wide area surveillance (capable of spying on an entire metropolitan area), or any of the other commonly utilized technologies of today. This means the use of drones, without first obtaining a warrant, is actually legal due to the lack of other precedent.

Ben Feist, the legislative director for ACLU of Minnesota, told ThinkProgress that in “exceptional circumstance operations” requiring police agencies to apply for a search warrant even after a drone flight is “too onerous.” For routine patrols, the ACLU tried to meet their counterparts halfway by suggesting law requiring something less than a warrant, such as a court order. That proposal was also rejected by police lobbyists.

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The Drone Presidency

David Cole reviews four new books on Obama’s drone wars for The New York Review of Books:

Anti-drone graffiti in Sanaa, Yemen, November 2013On March 5, the United States used unmanned drones and manned aircraft to drop bombs on a group of what it described as al-Shabab militants at a camp about 120 miles north of Mogadishu, Somalia, killing approximately 150 of them. The administration claimed that the militants presented an imminent threat to African Union troops in the region with whom US advisers have been working, although it produced no evidence to support the claim. The news that the United States had killed 150 unnamed individuals in a country halfway around the world with which it is not at war generated barely a ripple of attention, much less any protest, here at home. Remote killing outside of war zones, it seems, has become business as usual.

This is a remarkable development, all the more noteworthy in that it has emerged under Barack Obama, who came to office as an antiwar president, so much so that he may be the only person to win the Nobel Peace Prize based on wishful thinking. Our Peace Prize president has now been at war longer than any other American president, and has overseen the use of military force in seven countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. In the latter four countries, virtually all the force has come in the form of unmanned drones executing suspected terrorists said to be linked to al-Qaeda or its “associated forces.”

That an antiwar president has found the drone so tempting ought to be a warning sign. As Hugh Gusterson writes in Drone: Remote Control Warfare:

If targeted killing outside the law has been so attractive to a president who was a constitutional law professor, who opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning, who ended the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture program, and who announced his intention to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp on assuming office, it is unlikely that any successor to his office will easily renounce the seductions of the drone.

And it is not only President Trump or Clinton we need to worry about. Other countries are unlikely to be reticent about resort to unmanned aerial warfare to “solve” problems beyond their borders. Already, Israel, the United Kingdom, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and Pakistan have joined the US in deploying armed drones. China is selling them at a list price of only $1 million. In short order, most of the developed world will have them. And when other nations look for precedents, Obama’s record will be Exhibit A.

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Are There Any Limits on Obama’s Drone War, Really?

Marcy Wheeler writes for New Republic:

Early in his second term, President Obama set out to create a Rule Book that would provide some semblance of legal oversight over his administration’s drone program, which in the previous four years had become the administration’s preferred method of targeting suspected terrorists in remote regions of Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Sometimes dubbed the “Disposition Matrix,” news articles about the Rule Book offered tidy flow charts of how a suspected terrorist would go from “suspect” to “dead”—or, less realistically, “captured.” The book was intended to bring new order to the war on terror, there being “a broad consensus that such operations are likely to be extended at least another decade,” as The Washington Post reported in the fall of 2012.

Obama announced the formalization of the Rule Book—now dubbed the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG)—in May 2013. It was partly a response to critics who said the administration was essentially conducting extrajudicial killings, with no rubric by which to judge whether it was staying within the bounds of international law. Obama explained that after four years of drone war without such formal rules, he was now “insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight, and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance.”

It took three more years and a lawsuit before, on Friday, the administration finally released a copy of the PPG to the ACLU in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. While some of the policy promises in the document are laudable, the document, in a structural sense, doesn’t seem to add the oversight to the war on terror that Obama promised back in 2013. Indeed, it seems designed not to.

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‘Drones playbook’ shows key role played by White House staff in deadly strikes

Spencer Ackerman reports for The Guardian:

The White House staff for national security, exempt from review by Congress, plays a substantial role in the process for killing suspected terrorists, according to a newly released document on drone strikes.

The 2013 document, known informally as the “playbook” for Barack Obama’s signature counterterrorism operations, was released on Saturday by the justice department as the result of court requests by the American Civil Liberties Union. The playbook provides the closest look to date at the bureaucratic machinery of global killing that Obama will pass on to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

The document designates the National Security Council (NSC) staff as a body of review over “all operational plans” for either killing or capturing terrorist subjects. Once representatives of various cabinet agencies and departments meet to discuss a specific plan, NSC attorneys provide legal input.

Those operational plans, which are conceived by the CIA or the Pentagon and not the NSC staff, provide granular details about life-or-death decision-making and address issues a level above the specific people or categories of people targeted for death or capture. While the NSC staff plays a role in nominating people for inclusion on the so-called “kill list”, it neither makes the nomination nor involves itself in carrying out a strike or raid.

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The Unintended Consequences of Unintended Casualties

Charles V. Peña writes for The National Interest:

The White House recently acknowledged that drone strikes against terrorism suspects in nonwar zones have killed between sixty-four and 116 civilians. Independent groups, such as the New America Foundation and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, put the number of civilians killed by drones at over two hundred and three hundred, respectively. Regardless of the exact number, these unintentional deaths—so-called collateral damage—matter.

Every one of those civilians killed has a mother, father, brother, sister or other relatives. Each of those now has powerful motivation to hate America, which makes them more easily radicalized and take the first step toward becoming a terrorist. According to Wing Commander Andrew Brookes of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, “Kill a wife, children, mother, or uncle and people become so angry the terrorist cycle starts all over again.”

Still, the administration defends the use of drone strikes. According to secret Presidential Policy Guidance, “lethal force will be used only to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons” when capture is not feasible. And such force is to be used only when there was a “near certainty” that “the terrorist target is present” and that “noncombatants will not be injured or killed.”

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Do Not Believe the U.S. Government’s Official Numbers on Drone Strike Civilian Casualties

Micah Zenko writes for Foreign Policy:

Do Not Believe the U.S. Government’s Official Numbers on Drone Strike Civilian Casualties In February 2013, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then-chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, went public on the collateral damage of “targeted strikes”: “The figures we have obtained from the executive branch — which we have done our utmost to verify — confirm that the number of civilian casualties that have resulted from such strikes each year has typically been in the single digits.” Afterward, journalist Spencer Ackerman asked Feinstein how she could be so confident the CIA was not misleading with its drone strikes when it had misled Congress regarding its rendition and interrogation program. Feinstein replied, “That’s a good question, actually. That’s a good question.”

On Friday, July 1, the Obama administration released information that more or less confirmed Feinstein’s claim from three years ago but did nothing to address the underlying question of why those numbers should be trusted. With a long-awaited presidential executive order and a two-and-a-half-page “report” released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Obama administration has carefully revealed some additional information about “U.S. Government” (no distinction given between CIA and U.S. military operations) “strikes” (no mention of drones or unmanned aircraft) against “terrorist targets” (broadly defined) that are “outside areas of active hostilities” (meaning Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia).

According to the ODNI report, between Jan. 20, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2015, there were 473 strikes that killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants and between 64 and 116 noncombatants. According to the averages within the ranges provided by the New America Foundation, Long War Journal, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (found here), as of Friday President Barack Obama has actually been responsible for 528 strikes that killed 4,189 persons, an estimated 474 of whom were civilians.

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One Cheer for Obama’s Executive Order on Drone Strikes?

Rachel Reid writes for Foreign Policy:

One Cheer for Obama’s Executive Order on Drone Strikes President Barack Obama finally released data on civilians killed in U.S. counterterror operations in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen — an important step toward ending the absurdity of undeclared drone wars.

The government’s estimates that 64 to 116 civilians have died in 473 drone strikes since 2009 fall short of independent counts by a wide margin. Without satisfactory justification, the administration has refused to disaggregate the data by countries, years, or incidents. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have begun to challenge the government’s numbers, but without the disclosure of further details, an exchange about methodologies can only go so far. Nonetheless, it’s a step in the right direction, and at least the commitment to release annual data binds the next administration to rudimentary transparency.

Alongside the data, however, comes a policy breakthrough: For the first time, the United States will have an interagency policy on protection of civilians.Compared with the civilian casualty numbers, this part of the executive order did not generate much chatter, but it will have a far-reaching impact. During a presidential race that has seen candidates argue for war crimes rather than the protection of civilians, it’s a bold move.

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Obama Drone Casualty Numbers a Fraction of What’s Recorded

Jack Serle reports for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Civilian deaths from air and drones strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya - January 20 2009 to December 31 2015The US government today claimed it has killed between 64 and 116 “non-combatants” in 473 counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between January 2009 and the end of 2015.

This is a fraction of the 380 to 801 civilian casualty range recorded by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from reports by local and international journalists, NGO investigators, leaked government documents, court papers and the result of field investigations.

While the number of civilian casualties recorded by the Bureau is six times higher than the US Government’s figure, the assessments of the minimum total number of people killed were strikingly similar. The White House put this figure at 2,436, whilst the Bureau has recorded 2,753.

Since becoming president in 2009, Barack Obama has significantly extended the use of drones in the War on Terror. Operating outside declared battlefields, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, this air war has been largely fought in Pakistan and Yemen.

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Questioning Obama’s Drone Deaths Data

Micah Zenko writes for the Council on Foreign Relations:

Pre-flight inspection of an MQ-1B Predator unmanned drone aircraft on September 3, 2008 (Christopher  Griffin/Reuters).Months after promising to release the number of civilians that have been killed in U.S. lethal counterterrorism operations outside of “areas of active hostilities,” the Obama Administration today released its count in a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. According to the numbers provided, there were 473 “strikes” [presumably this includes both manned and unmanned aircraft conducted by both the CIA and the U.S. military] which killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants, and between 64 and 116 civilians.

According to the numbers that we have provided since our Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies report in January 2013, the numbers of strikes in non-battlefield settings and fatalities of both combatants and civilians is much higher. As of today, there have been approximately 578 strikes—50 under George W. Bush, 528 under Obama, which have cumulatively killed an estimated 4,189 militants and 474 civilians. This information is fully presented in the chart below with the sources used.

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Obama Administration Finally Releases Its Dubious Drone Death Toll

Ryan Devereaux reports for The Intercept:

In a long-anticipated gesture at transparency, the Obama administration on Friday released an internal assessment of the number of civilians killed by drone strikes in nations where the U.S. is not officially at war.

According to the data, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya killed between 64 and 116 civilians during the two terms of the Obama administration — a fraction of even the most conservative estimates on drone-related killings catalogued by reporters and researchers over the same period. The government tally also reported 2,372 to 2,581 combatants killed in U.S. airstrikes from January 20, 2009, to December 31, 2015.

Releasing the figures — which appeared on a Friday afternoon, on a holiday weekend, after seven years of selective leaks and official secrecy — along with an executive order prioritizing the protection of civilian life in counterterrorism operations, reflected core American principles, the president asserted.

In addition to mandating an increased emphasis on civilian protection in U.S. tactics and training, the executive order also called on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to release annual reports on civilian casualties resulting from counterterrorism operations, such as drone strikes, in nations where the U.S. is not at war  — a move that, in effect, signals the further institutionalization of borderless wars for the foreseeable future.

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NATO Mulls Use of New Drones Near Libya

Nikolaj Nielson reports for EU Observer:

Nato is procuring powerful new Global Hawk drones and may seek to deploy them near the Libyan coast, Euobserver has learned.

“Perhaps if the EU moves more closely to the Libyan shores, as we see what happens in New York with the new Libyan government, we can perhaps have some kind of division of labour with Nato providing situational awareness,” said an official, who asked not to be named, with knowledge of Nato’s plans at a security conference in Brussels on Thursday (26 May).

Nato would still have to seek permission from the Libyan authorities.

He said a team from Nato will be visiting Libya in the next few days to discuss a mandate that includes on-the-ground “capacity defence building”.

“These I stress are just ideas, we haven’t yet come to any particular agreement,” he said.

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