Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Obama's drone wars continue with no end in sight

In spite of the fact that recently President Obama announced that a drone strike in Pakistan killed two innocent hostages being held by Al Qaeda, there is no sign of the drone program ending any time soon or that it will even be altered.
Last Thursday, Obama said he took full responsibility for drone strikes that killed two Al Qaeda hostages in Pakistan. The strikes killed an American, Warren Weinstein,and Giovani Lo Porto, an Italian, along with two American Al Qaeda members. Weinstein was a 73-year-old economic advisor, and Lo Porto a 39-year-old aid worker. Obama gave few details of the operation but officials said that it took place in January after hundreds of hours of surveillance. If there was so much surveillance, how is it that there was so little intelligence about who was with the Al Qaeda operatives?
As Jeremy Scahill points out, the public only finds out about mishaps when journalists investigate. He claims there is very little transparency as to who the intended targets of the strikes were or what the aftermath is like. There appears to be renewed interest in drone attacks once a foreign citizen, especially an American, is a victim, but when civilians of the country targeted are victims there is often only limited press attention usually accompanied by US authorities denying reports of any civilians being killed. Everyone killed is almost always described as a suspected terrorist. While many anti-war and civil rights organizations have criticized the drone program, except for Pakistan, few countries, particularly U.S. allies, have criticized the program.
The UN, however, has been critical a number of times, including reports claiming the strikes were against international law and some of the practices, such as returning to an attacked site or attacking a funeral, being "war crimes." But as Professor Philip Alston, the former special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, points out this has not resulted in much criticism of the program by countries:‘Instead, most states are remaining relatively silent in the face of the evolution of US policies that are entirely inconsistent with international law and deeply problematic from a human rights and international law perspective.’
There is oversight of the program but it is limited. About once every month staff members of the intelligence committees of Congress go to CIA headquarters in Langley Virginia to watch videos of drone attacks. At the headquarters they get to view selected videos and selected intelligence reports supporting strikes. No doubt the intelligence presented and the videos seen are carefully vetted by the CIA before being presented to the staff. This macabre ritual is then presented as evidence that the drone program is rigorously reviewed.
A key official in developing the "targeted killing" drone operations was Michael D'Andrea. Earlier, D'Andrea was head of operations during the development of the CIA detention and interrogation program. In spite of the backlash against rendition and black sites, D'Andrea became head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center where he was a chief architect of the targeted killing operations. Just last month however, D'Andrea was shifted to another position. It is not clear why.
D'Andrea was a strong and persuasive advocate of the drone program and gained supporters in both parties for the program. In particular he gained the support of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee until January when Republicans took control of the Senate. CIA officials assured her that the program results in hardly any civilian deaths, but different sources come up with wildly different figures on civilian casualties:
Organizations that track drone strikes, like the New America Foundation, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Long War Journal, estimate that drones have killed some 4,000 people, about 500 of them civilians. But these numbers, based on news accounts and some on-the-ground interviews, are considered very rough.Feinstein gave a much lower figure in 2013: "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,”These figures have been shown to be far too low by many investigations. Even though the CIA drone program and the program to capture and question Al Qaeda suspects were run by many of the same CIA agents, the drone program continues to have wide support while the other program was severely criticized and rejected. In March 2013 a Gallup poll showed 65 percent of Americans favoured drone strikes against foreign terrorists in foreign countries. There was much less support if the targets were American citizens. Given the degree of U.S. public support for the drone attacks, there is little incentive to criticize the program as a means of garnering votes.


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