A US presidential policy guidance document on drone strikes – often referred to as the ‘drone playbook’ – was last week made public in edited form in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Politico’s Josh Berstein writes:
President Barack Obama has to personally approve the killing of a U.S. citizen targeted for a lethal drone strike outside combat areas, according to a policy Obama adopted in 2013.
The president also is called upon to approve drone strikes against permanent residents of the U.S. and when “there is a lack of consensus” among agency chiefs about whom to target, but in other cases he is simply “apprised” of the targeting decision, the newly-disclosed document [pdf] shows.
The guidance provides more detail on some of the more controversial aspects of the drone strike policy, such as official claims that the government only uses lethal force when it isn’t “feasible” to capture someone alive. The document seems to limit the sweep of that restriction by saying that officials can approve a drone strike if they make “an assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation.”
That suggests the U.S. can go forward with a strike even if there’s reason to believe it might be possible to capture someone at some later point, perhaps if he transits between one place and another. On the other hand, given that those targeted are considered involved in imminent terrorist activities, a delay could potentially cost lives.
… the document also makes clear that Obama can bypass the process whenever he sees fit, particularly in situations where those in danger of a terrorist attack are not Americans but “another country’s persons.” It’s unclear whether Obama has ever made such exceptions.
The policy also includes procedures for presidentially-approved last-minute variations to a targeting plan when “fleeting opportunities” arise, as well as policies for Congressional notification. Congressional leaders get an update on so-called “high-value targets” at least every three months, although the policy also allows for so-called “signature” strikes where the specific identity of a target isn’t known, just his role.
A 2015 report by the Intercept found that 90% of the victims of drone strikes are not the intended targets. President Obama, who as we now know is personally required to authorize drone strikes in certain situations, is therefore fully aware that he is likely to be personally bringing about the deaths of completely innocent people – including children – perhaps on a large scale; the definition – in his own words – of a terrorist attack.
The US by now has quite a resume on state-sponsored terror…
In July 2008 47 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in a US military airstrike. The group was escorting a bride to her wedding ceremony in the groom’s village in Nangarhar province. Three bombs hit the group in succession as they stopped for a rest. The first bomb killed a group of children that were ahead of the main group. The aircraft returned and dropped a second bomb in the middle of the main group, killing a large number of women. The bride and two other girls miraculously escaped the second bomb, but the third finished them as they tried to escape. The US government initially denied that any civilians had been killed until an Afghan government investigation determined the facts. It is known as the Deh Bala wedding party airstrike.
In November of the same year 63 people including 37 civilians – again mostly women and children – were killed in another US military airstrike at a housing complex where a wedding was being celebrated in the village of Wech Baghtu in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Two days after the strike, Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded that then newly-elected Barack Obama (soon to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize) end the killing of civilians: “Our demand is that there will be no civilian casualties in Afghanistan. We cannot win the fight against terrorism with airstrikes — this is my first demand of the new president of the United States — to put an end to civilian casualties.” A US government official commented, “If innocent people were killed in this operation, we apologize and express our condolences.”
In June 2009 US drones launched an attack on a funeral procession in the city of Makeen, South Waziristan. Militants killed earlier that same day were being buried. 60 people were killed, while other sources claim that there were up to 83 casualties. The ‘Makeen airstrike’ is considered to be one of the most deadly attacks in the drone era.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism based in London has carried out painstaking research on drone strikes, using extremely conservative methods, meaning it is likely that its figures are well below the reality. Its research has found clear evidence that not only do the US and NATO bomb weddings and funerals, they also target rescuers aiming to recover the bodies of their loved ones and neighbors in so-called ‘double-tap‘ strikes.
John Brennan, CIA Director and former top counter-terrorism adviser to Barack Obama stated that the US has the right to unilaterally strike terrorists anywhere in the world, even away from battlefields:
“Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with al- Qaeda, the United States takes the legal position that, in accordance with international law, we have the authority to take action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces. The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan.”
The stance of the US raises serious questions with regard to international law and the strategies employed in the ‘war on terror’.
From an earlier article on this blog:
Let’s take a closer look at international law. The Third Geneva Convention states that a so-called ‘unlawful combatant’ is a civilian who directly engages in armed conflict in violation of the laws of war.
Targeted killing, often executed by drone aircraft, is the intentional killing of a target deemed to be an ‘unlawful combatant’ not currently in the custody of the attacking power. This assumes that the person has allegedly lost the immunity granted by the Third Geneva Convention because they are allegedly engaged in terrorism or another form of armed conflict. Note that under the most basic concepts of most legal systems, such intent can only be surmised in a court of law or similar tribunal.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provided in August 2010 a succinct FAQ of what is wrong with targeted killing, [standing] in stark contrast to the assertions of Mr. Brennan.
From the FAQ:
Both the Constitution and international law prohibit the use of lethal force against civilians outside of armed conflict except in very narrow circumstances: as a last resort to prevent an imminent attack that is likely to cause death or serious physical injury.
Allowing the use of warlike tactics far from any battlefield — using drones or other means — turns the whole world into a war zone and sets a dangerous example for other countries which might feel justified in doing the same. If the U.S. claims it can kill suspected enemies of the U.S. anywhere — using unmanned drones or otherwise — then other countries will regard killing their enemies within our borders as justified. We wouldn’t be okay with the prospect of other countries executing their suspected enemies within U.S. borders.
The targeted killing of individuals who are suspected — but not proven — to be guilty of crimes also risks the deaths of innocent people. Over the last decade, we have seen the U.S. government wrongly imprison hundreds of men as terrorists based on weak, wrong or unreliable evidence, only to eventually free them. The consequence of such mistakes is far greater when the end result is death; there is no recourse for killing the wrong person.
What about innocent until proven guilty? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which all NATO nations are signatories to, states in article 11:
“Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”
Tragic consequences are not limited to the strikes themselves: A Los Angeles Times articlereports that a militant group called Khorasan Mujahedin targets people suspected of being US or NATO informants. The group kidnaps, tortures and usually kills suspects, then distributes videotapes of killings in street markets to serve as warnings. Almost certainly many of these ‘informants’ will be mistakenly kidnapped, while local power brokers will inevitably abuse the climate of fear to remove rivals: more innocent deaths and grief for families.
As stated by the ACLU, John Brennan’s attempt to justify these killings sets an extremely dangerous precedent. By US logic, any suspected terrorist defined as ‘in conflict’ with a nation state is a viable target at any location on the planet. China or Russia, therefore, can now feel perfectly free to target anyone they deem a ‘terrorist’ anywhere, including – say – a wedding in New York or a funeral in Boston. Can one even begin to imagine what would happen if Russia bombed a New York wedding? Would the Western media label the act as anything other than the most repugnant act of terror possible? Such an action is unacceptable, whatever the justification, and is a textbook example of a terrorist act, hence making the US and its NATO allies purveyors of terrorism on an industrial scale in the nations it targets.
International law, embodied in treaties signed between the nations of the world in good faith, must be regarded neither as an inconvenience nor something to be twisted using weasel reasoning. Any legal ‘ambiguity’, seized upon by the US and NATO for their own strategic goals, is a threat to world security. This faux-perceived ambiguity must be urgently addressed, and any nation which regards itself as moral must stand up to this campaign of mass murder disguised as warfare. There can only be one answer to the murder of children.
Written by Simon Wood
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