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WASHINGTON, Apr 30 2012 (IPS) - In a major address here Monday, John Brennan, the U.S. official in charge of counterterrorism, formally admitted that the United States engages in attacks using armed unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as “drones”.
But, Brennan argued, the drones programme is “legal”, “ethical” and “wise”.
The speech, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, marks the first official public discussion of the U.S.’s highly secretive drones programme. Overseen by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the programme has been stepped up significantly under President Barack Obama.
Brennan’s presentation comes amidst a barrage of events marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, with President Obama making much of the event as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up. According to Brennan, “President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about … using remotely piloted aircraft.”
However, that newfound openness has not included an explanation of how potential drone targets are vetted.
Brennan defended the programme in part because, he said, it targets only those individuals who are known to pose a “significant threat” to the United States and constitute a “legitimate … lawful target”.
That type of secrecy, say observers, leaves in the dark one of the most central issues at stake in the U.S. drone programme.
“Unfortunately, John Brennan’s speech today did little to assure us that the U.S. is only targeting those individuals that are directly participating in hostilities against the United States, perform a continuous combat function with Al Qaeda or its affiliates that are targeting us, or pose an imminent threat of harm to the United States,” Daphne Eviatar, a lawyer and researcher with Human Rights First, told IPS.
“Those are the legal requirements for any targeted killing in this context. Brennan, like others in the administration before him, said that the United States is following international law without explaining how it decides whether the individuals or groups of people targeted meet the legal requirements.”
On Sunday, Brennan had already made waves by admitting publicly that civilian deaths are an inevitable part of counterterrorism operations. That issue strikes at the heart of much of the criticism that has built up against the U.S. use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles over the past half-decade.
“For a long time, the narrative was that drones were only killing militants,” Shazad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer, told an international conference on drone warfare that took place in Washington over the weekend.
In Waziristan, in western Pakistan, he reported, “more than 3,000 people have been killed in 300 drone strikes.” Given the lack of independent monitoring, it is unclear what percentage of those people were civilians.
Akbar’s mere presence at the conference was a surprise, and underscored the longstanding secrecy that has surrounded the U.S.’s use of drone technology. Since 2010, Akbar and the organisation he founded, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, have been representing the families of non-militants allegedly killed by U.S. drone strikes.
For that work, Akbar said, he had been unable to get a U.S. visa for the past 14 months. Ahead of this weekend’s conference, the U.S. State Department is said to have relented only at the last minute.
“President Obama would like us to believe that there are no civilian victims to drone attacks,” Akbar said. “In that, I think he is lying to his own nation.”
Brennan’s talk lauded the “astonishing precision” of U.S. drone technology, but Akbar’s experience on the ground is different.
“There is no truth behind the suggestion that drone strikes are very precise,” he said, proceeding to show documentary proof of several cases of children who were killed while in buildings neighbouring targeted structures.
“Drone strikes are targeting daily life,” he noted. “Attacks take place around dinnertime, breakfast, at night – there doesn’t seem to be any thought given to how to minimise civilian casualties.”
These are just some of the human rights aspects surrounding this new form of warfare, but there are critical political issues unfolding as well.
Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have been at a dangerously low ebb since two dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed in a drone attack last November. The freeze has included the Islamabad government’s cutting of critical NATO resupply routes through Pakistani territory.
High-level bilateral discussions restarted only late last week, when a U.S. delegation including Special Envoy Marc Grossman arrived in Islamabad. Already, however, relations have soured again.
Grossman’s visit came on the heels of the unanimous approval by the Pakistani Parliament of a set of recommendations, months in the making, on how to redefine the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
These included a demand for a full apology from the U.S. for the November 2011 deaths, as well as an immediate halt to drone strikes within Pakistani territory.
But following initial meetings with Grossman last week, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar complained that the U.S. was not “listening … the language is clear: a clear cessation of drone strikes.”
By Saturday, the talks had broken down, reportedly over the U.S.’s refusal to offer a full apology for the November 2011 deaths.
By Sunday, a far stronger message was sent. After a break in attacks of nearly a month, a U.S. drone killed three to four suspected militants at an abandoned girls’ school in Miramshah, in North Waziristan.
On Monday, without making any direct reference to these recent events, John Brennan affirmed that the U.S. “respects national sovereignty and international law”.
Analysts speaking with IPS called the new attack an “embarrassment”, given the timing. Others suggest that the strikes have put an end to the possibility of reopening the NATO supply lines anytime soon.
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