Senate Says Obama Need Not Name Civilians Killed by Drones – Even if They Are Australians or Americans
May 1, 2014
Spencer Ackerman / The Guardian & Antony Loewenstein / The Guardian
A provision that called for disclosure of 'noncombatant civilians' killed by US forces has been dropped "at the behest of" National Intelligence Director James Clapper. Clapper, who committed perjury when he lied during a Senate hearing, gave "assurances" that the Administration would work out its own oversight. Meanwhile, the killing of two Australians by a drone strike in Yemen has raised the issue anew. "If these men were threats to national security, then the public deserves to know why."
US Senators Remove Requirement for
Disclosure over Drone Strike Victims
Spencer Ackerman / The Guardian
New York (April 28, 2014) -- At the behest of the director of national intelligence, US senators have removed a provision from a major intelligence bill that would require the president to publicly disclose information about drone strikes and their victims.
The bill authorizing intelligence operations in fiscal 2014 passed out of the Senate intelligence committee in November, and it originally required the president to issue an annual public report clarifying the total number of “combatants” and “noncombatant civilians” killed or injured by drone strikes in the previous year. It did not require the White House to disclose the total number of strikes worldwide.
But the Guardian has confirmed that Senate leaders have removed the language as they prepare to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, after the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, assured them in a recent letter that the Obama administration was looking for its own ways to disclose more about its highly controversial drone strikes. [Guardian.com/world/interactive/2014/apr/29/cia-us-national-security>Read James Clapper's letter to the key senators]
“The executive branch is currently exploring ways in which it can provide the American people more information about the United States’ use of force outside areas of active hostilities,” Clapper wrote to the leaders of the Senate committee, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, on 18 April.
“To be meaningful to the public, any report including the information described above would require context and be drafted carefully so as to protect against the disclosure of intelligence sources and methods or other classified information. … We are confident we can find a reporting structure that provides the American people additional information to inform their understanding of important government operations to protect our nation, while preserving the ability to continue those operations,” Clapper continued.
Another provision, which would require alternative intelligence analysis, as well as commensurate congressional notification should an intelligence agency consider legal action against a US citizen, has been moved to a classified annex of the bill.
Lawmakers were said to remove the provision in hopes of passing the full bill in the coming weeks.
The removal of the drone transparency requirement is the latest in a pattern by legislators to preserve the status quo surrounding the strikes.
In January, the Senate obstructed an effort by the Obama administration that would have removed the CIA from drone operations and given responsibility for them to the Defense Department, which conducts parallel and occasionally complementary drone strikes.
Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, has recently been locked in a different sort of declassification battle: an effort to compel the Obama administration to declassify aspects of a major report into the CIA’s post-9/11 torture of terrorism detainees, completed by her committee.
But Feinstein has long been a defender of the CIA’s drone strikes. During a February 2013 confirmation hearing for CIA Director John Brennan, Feinstein stated that the CIA’s targeting procedures kills only “single digits” of civilians annually, an assertion that cannot be independently confirmed because of the official secrecy surrounding the strikes.
The sharing of even basic information about drone strikes has run into a wall of official secrecy. Several independent groups attempt to track the numbers of people killed in the strikes, but no official US confirmation has been possible. Word of the strikes usually arises from news accounts in their places of occurrence, such as Yemen or Pakistan.
Independent observers, including the United Nations special rapporteur on counterterrorism, have repeatedly called on Washington to increase transparency around the lethal operations.
An April paper by Larry Lewis of the CNA Corporation, who has close ties with the US military, urged the administration to conduct and appropriately disclose assessments of civilian casualties from drone strikes, to help “ensure that official US statements reflect operational realities, helping to guard the credibility and reputation of the US”.
Thus far those efforts have largely floundered. In May 2013, Obama announced that he wanted to restrict but not eliminate drone strikes, whose use he defended as a necessary component of counterterrorism.
Obama confirmed that civilians have died from drone strikes, an effect that he said “will haunt us as long as we live”, but he did not disclose how many cases of errant missile or mistaken targeting strikes have occurred.
In public testimony, leaders of the intelligence agencies have not rejected the transparency provisions. During a February House hearing, Brennan called a proposal from congressman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, to disclose the annual numbers of fighters and civilians killed by drones “certainly a worthwhile recommendation”.
Schiff and a North Carolina Republican, Walter Jones, introduced a bill this month to compel the drone casualty totals and combatant breakdowns, which Schiff termed a “modest, but important, measure of transparency and oversight regarding the use of drones”.
The previous February, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the armed services committee, was quoted tallying the deaths caused by drone strikes over the past decade at 4,700 people. Graham did not disclose either the basis for his estimate or a breakdown of how many civilians the total includes.
US drones strikes are declining worldwide, according to statistics gathered and analyzed by the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2013, there were approximately 55 strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, killing as many as 271 people, down from the 92 strikes that killed up to 532 people in 2012.
While drone strikes in Pakistan are sharply down in 2014, a recent offensive aimed at Yemen’s al-Qaida affiliate and including US drone strikes left about 55 people dead last week.
Human rights activists reacted with disappointment to the removal of the transparency requirement.
“How many people have to die for Congress to take even a small step toward transparency? It's stunning that after all these years we still don't know how many people the Obama administration has killed with drones,” said Zeke Johnson, the director of Amnesty International’s security and human rights program.
Australians Were Killed by a US
Drone Strike, and We Deserve to Know Why
Antony Loewenstein / The Guardian
(April 28, 2014) -- The news that the US had killed two Australian “militants” in a drone strike was announced in mid-April. Christopher Havard and “Muslim bin John”, who also held New Zealand citizenship, were allegedly killed by a CIA-led airstrike in eastern Yemen in November last year.
Readers were given little concrete information, apart from a “counter-terrorism source” who claimed that both men were foot soldiers for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, though they may also have been collateral damage (the real target being other terror heads).
The Australian government claimed ignorance of the entire operation. “There was no Australian involvement in, or prior awareness of, the operation”, a spokesman said. New Zealand prime minister John Key released some more details, saying that the country’s GCSB spies had been authorised to spy on him. “I knew that he had gone there [to Yemen] and gone to a terrorist training camp”, he stated.
Since publication of these bare facts, little new information has emerged from the government or other sources – except for some reporting in The Australian about Havard’s apparent transformation after he converted to Islam in his early 20s and went to Yemen to teach English.
The paper editorialised in support of the strike: “to be killed in this way is regrettable”, it wrote, but obliterating civilians without a trial was acceptable because “such attacks have done much to stop the terrorists committing even more atrocities.” There was no condemnation of the scores of civilians killed by drones since 9/11.
It’s of course morally convenient to believe that the death of these men will make the world a safer place by removing "threats" without the need to place western soldiers in harm’s way -- this is, after all, the apparently compelling logic of drone warfare. But it’s a myth challenged by the former drone pilots featured in the recently released documentary Drone, in which ex-Air Force pilot Michael Haas explains that:
You never know who you’re killing, because you never actually see a face. You just have a silhouette. They don’t have to take a shot. They don’t have to bear that burden. I’m the one that has to bear that burden.
Yet, uncertainty be damned, the Australian government seems to keep on supporting the CIA killings with most of the media following without question.
Fairfax Media headlined one story “Abbott government defends drone strike that killed two Australian Al-Qaeda militants" without challenging that the two men were, indeed, militants or affiliated with Al-Qaida – they may or may not have been, but innocent civilians have been killed by drones before.
The sentence “alleged militants, according to the government” never appeared in the article (this is a relatively common habit in journalism – see for example this essential take-down of a New York Times report on drone killings in Yemen).
I’ve reported independently from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and accurate journalism requires finding reliable sources on the ground (or corresponding with individuals through email, phone, encryption or Twitter) who can confirm or challenge the official version. It’s not rocket science, though definitive information can be scarce in a war zone.
In the last days I’ve reached out to various sources in Yemen (some of the best are here, here and here) and asked Sanaa-based Baraa Shiban to comment. His answer is revealing. “The lack of transparency has became a fixed strategy for the US in its drone war. The US announced recently the death of almost 30 militants in a training camp in Abyan, south of Yemen, but can't release a single name; this tells it all.”
Taking the word of security sources and the state, when this information is so often wrong or deliberately skewed by anonymous officials who strategically leak to justify their counter-terrorism policies, is sadly all too common. “We don’t know the facts” is not a shameful statement. To be skeptical shouldn't be a flaw, but an asset.
The desultory lack of debate over this latest drone attack is a sadly familiar tale (former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser lent a rare voice of criticism, saying Australians assisting the US drone program could face crimes against humanity charges).
The Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan, former army officer and Australian diplomat, offered a commonly-held view of the deaths: “If it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and were not deliberately targeted”, he wrote, “then I don't think either the Australian government or public will lose much sleep over their passing.”
This misses the point entirely. The two men are dead, so arguments about the legality of their assassination should surely have happened before the US fired its missiles. Shanahan expressed confidence without evidence that Australia “would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power.”
This is a familiar refrain echoed by governments, too: that if you’re standing, sitting or socialising with militants, with or without your knowledge, your life could be in jeopardy.
The effect of this random violence, along with the devastating signature strike policy – drone attacks based on “suspicious” behaviour without knowing names or identities of people – is well documented. In Yemen, hatred of the US, along with major social and political tensions, is growing amongst a poor and scared population.
Although the Yemeni regime works openly alongside Washington in its war against perceived enemies (unlike Pakistan, which many say behaves in a similar way but feigns opposition to appease the angry masses) the death of dozens of alleged Al-Qaida militants and civilians at a major base in the remote southern mountains last week will only inflame tensions in the nation.
Let us not forget that the US drone program, massively accelerated under the Obama administration, is mired in secrecy. Earlier this month, a US federal appeals court ordered the government to release legal advice relating to the killings of three US citizens in Yemen in 2011.
The American Civil Liberties Union correctly argued that it was unacceptable for the US to both claim the program was classified and yet leak selective information to favoured journalists to “paint the program in the most favourable light.”
The latest killing of two Australian citizens is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning. If these men were threats to national security, then the public deserves to know why and the legal backing behind it. The countless lies during the “war on terror” warrants skepticism of official claims.
James Clapper's Letter to Senate Intelligence Committee
DIRECTOR or NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE
WASHINGTON, DC 20511
(APR 18 2014) The Honorable Dianne Feinstein
Chairman, Select Committee on Intelligence
United States Senate
Washington, DC. 20510
The Honorable Saxby Chambliss Vice Chairman
Select Committee on Intelligence
United States Senate
Washington, DC. 20510
Dear Madam Chairman and Vice Chairman Chambliss:
I write in reference to legislative proposals, such as Section 312 of the proposed Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (S. 1681) as reported by your Committee on November 12, 2013, that the President shall prepare and make public an annual report that sets forth the following:
"(1) The total number of combatants killed or injured during the preceding year by the use of targeted lethal force outside the United States by remotely piloted aircraft.
(2) The total number of noncombatant civilians killed or injured during the preceding year by such use of targeted lethal force outside the United States."
Consistent with President Obama's 23 May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, in carrying out the fight against al-Qaeda and its associated forces, the Executive Branch is committed to upholding our laws and values, and to sharing as much information as possible with the American people and the Congress.
The Executive Branch is currently exploring ways in which it can provide the American people more information about the United States' use of force outside areas of active hostilities.
To be meaningful to the public, any report including the information described above would require context and be drafted carefully so as to protect against the disclosure of intelligence sources and methods or other classified information.
As we continue to work with the Committee towards making public additional information regarding the United States' use of targeted lethal force in counterterrorism operations outside the United States and areas of active hostilities, the Executive Branch will continue to ensure that appropriate Members of Congress are kept fully informed, including updates on specific counterterrorism operations.
We are confident that we can find a reporting structure that provides the American people additional information to inform their understanding of important government operations to protect our nation, while preserving the ability to continue those operations.
The Honorable Madam Chairman Feinstein and Vice Chairman Chambliss
We look forward to updating you on our progress and welcome any thoughts you may have.
James R. Clapper
Co: The Honorable Mike Rogers The Honorable CA. "Dutch" Ruppersberger
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.