The CIA’s targeted killing program

As a month of anti-drone protests begins in the United States, some advocates are calling for the controversial targeted killing program to be shifted from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Defence Department. The program targets suspected members of terrorist groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Human Rights Watch is among the groups advocating for this transfer. “Our first and primary concern right now is the lack of transparency,” says Andrea Prasow, HRW’s senior counterterrorism counsel for the U.S. She says the Defence Department tends to be more transparent and accountable than the CIA, and must report its actions to Congress.

The Obama administration is widely reported to be seriously considering such a transfer. Prasow is cautiously optimistic. “I think the reason the administration is considering that move is because they recognize that the lack of transparency has become a problem. At least I hope that’s why.”

Prasow says if the Pentagon takes over the program it won’t necessarily solve the transparency problem.  “We welcome that as an improvement, but only if it actually means increased transparency and not a secretive program just inside the military.”

She warns that the program may be taken over by the Joint Special Operations Command within the military, which is not known for its transparency and is excluded from Congressional oversight.

Andrea Benjamin, an activist who recently published a book about drones, will be protesting and speaking during “April Days of Action.” The anti-drone protests will see participants across the U.S. demonstrate outside of military bases and companies that make drones.

“While it is a positive move to have drones taken out of the hands of the CIA, we do have to demand more accountability from the military,” she says, pointing out that the Pentagon doesn’t disclose the number of deaths from its drone strikes in Afghanistan.

Benjamin is an ardent critic of the use of armed drones. She’s met victims of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and says the strikes are hurting American security more than helping it.

She encountered many people who had no animosity toward America until their loved ones were injured or killed in drone strikes. “We met people who said to us [after losing someone in a strike], ‘If I could kill an American soldier I would do so.’ The anger was palpable, and revenge is part of the culture.”

Benjamin says most of the victims are either local militias or civilians, none of whom threaten Americans in any way. “I would say most of those militants are not after Americans and therefore should not be targeted by Americans.”

She says drones terrorize entire communities, not just victims of the strikes. A recent study by Stanford and New York University found that people in the northern tribal region of Waziristan are suffering severe psychological effects, including suicide and heart attacks, caused by drones constantly flying overhead.

Daniel Byman is Research Director at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He says drone strikes have multiple benefits for counterterrorism because they disrupt terrorist groups and give them less time to plan attacks. “It forces the terrorist group to play defence.”

He says there is a “moral concern” over civilian casualties, but this isn’t a major factor in causing more terrorism.

Byman says there aren’t any good sources for drone strike casualty data, and wishes the government would release its own. “They need to be much more transparent with the process, and put the data out there.”

He says it’s possible the government doesn’t release their own data because U.S. allies don’t want domestic publicity about letting the CIA conduct strikes within their borders, which would hurt them politically. “This has historically been a very opaque issue. [Governments] want a lot of deniability.”

Yemen has publicly given consent for American strikes within their borders. Pakistan is more complicated because some Pakistani government officials have explicitly stated they haven’t given consent, but Andrea Prasow says “everybody knows that they sort have must have” given consent.

The most widely-cited data about drone strikes is collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, England. Its data is collected from publicly available sources such as local news reports, leaked intelligence and academic studies. When members of the Bureau have questions about local news stories, they call up and interview the reporters who originally wrote them. They also occasionally conduct their own investigations on the ground.

According to the Bureau’s data, well over 3,000 people have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan alone, and only two per cent of those have been high profile terrorists.

Chris Woods heads the Bureau’s drone project, and has worked as a journalist in Pakistan on and off since 1999. He says the CIA doesn’t even know the identity of most of the drone strike victims. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal broke a story claiming that the bulk of the targeted killing attacks were “signature strikes,” where a group is targeted based on their “intelligence signature,” a pattern of behaviour collected through intelligence, but their actual identity is unknown.

“If nobody knows exactly who they’re killing, I’m not clear how people can talk about success or failure in Pakistan. We need to understand much more clearly who’s being killed,” Woods says.

He’s skeptical of transferring the targeted killing program to the military. “When either the CIA or the Pentagon kills important bad guys, they are both pretty quick to claim responsibility for those strikes. Unfortunately, when civilians are killed, we see both those organizations behaving pretty appallingly and refusing to take any responsibility for civilian deaths.”

Woods helped to shed light on one of the most controversial parts of the drone program, the so-called “double-tap” strikes. This is when locals trying to help victims of an initial strike are themselves targeted by another strike, or when people attending a funeral of drone strike victims are targeted.

Woods says there were about twenty reports of double tap strikes, and the Bureau was able to confirm beyond a doubt at least a dozen of those, after a three-month investigation involving eyewitnesses in Pakistan. They found that at least 50 civilians had been killed while attempting to help drone strike victims, and over 20 were killed while attending funerals.

“I have absolutely no doubt that the CIA has deliberately targeted first responders and funeral goers in Pakistan,” Woods says. This form of attack is now being investigated by the United Nations as a possible war crime.

Another controversial legal aspect to the targeted killing program is the issue of imminent threat. Under international law, if a state of armed conflict doesn’t exist, a military can only target people to prevent an imminent attack. According to a leaked white paper from the Department of Justice, the Obama administration’s definition of imminence is extremely flexible, not requiring evidence of a planned attack. American citizens can also be targeted, as Anwar al-Awlaki was in September 2011.

“The use of targeted killing in international law is something that is supposed to be used in very narrow circumstances and clearly that is not what is happening here,” says Brett Kaufman, a legal scholar at the American Civil Liberties Union. “The government establishes a very flexible interpretation of imminence which doesn’t match up with what most of us understand to be imminence.”

Andrea Prasow says the U.S. follows its own set of rules that it wouldn’t accept from many other countries. “The U.S. tends to operate under the theory that it can do whatever it wants, but if another country decides to do the same thing, that might be illegal.” She says these rules create a dangerous precedent for other countries that are pursuing their own drone technology.

Medea Benjamin says the damage done by the targeted killing program won’t be easy to fix. “It will take generations to get beyond the hatred that has been built up because of these drones.”

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