Five years on from UK’s first drone targeted killing, increasing secrecy needs serious challenge

Secret British drone operations getting little scrutiny

The long delay to the release of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report showed all too clearly just how much control the government can wield over Parliament’s weak powers of scrutiny.  While the ramification of this latest setback to parliament’s role of holding the executive to account are still being worked out, the consequences of a similar failure five years ago – when MPs attempted to investigate the use of drones by British forces for targeted killing –  are now apparent.  This should act as a salutary reminder of the need for MPs to constantly push to strengthen their oversight powers.

Five years ago today (21 August 2015), an RAF Reaper drone operating over Syria launched a missile at a vehicle travelling along a dusty road in Raqqa, killing its three occupants including the target of the strike, 21-year old Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan. The targeted killing caused a storm of controversy when then PM David Cameron reported it to parliament three weeks later. The government had not only for the first time launched a lethal strike in a country in which it was not at war, but had also defied a resolution supporting use of force in Iraq though specifically ruling it out in Syria. The government insisted that the operation was necessary as Khan was instigating and encouraging terror attacks in the UK.

The Joint Human Rights Committee (JHRC) and the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), supposed heavyweights in the area of parliamentary scrutiny launched inquiries, the former looking at the policy and legal issues and the latter at intelligence aspects.  Both, however, were seriously hamstrung by ministers and officials failing to provide crucial details or answer straightforward questions. For example, although in its evidence to the JHRC the government flatly denied it had a policy of targeted killing, the committee found that in practise, it did. The Committee also damningly reported that the government had simply “failed to answer” one of the most obvious and crucial  questions about the event: the legal framework under which the strike against Khan had taken place.

The ISC too was frustrated in its attempts to investigate.  Firstly, its remit was strictly curtailed by Number 10, and then, as the Committee detailed in their report, they were refused access to what they described as “central”, “key” and “clearly relevant” documents. The release of this report, like the Committee’s recent Russia report, was long delayed by the government, only being released after ISC members agreed not to challenge a whole raft of government redactions.

The government’s tactics worked.  Despite the findings of the JHRC, investigation of ‘kill lists’ and UK targeted killings virtually disappeared even amid further reports of such targeted killings. The government felt so confident that it wasn’t long before ministers felt able to talk up a policy of eliminating all UK members of ISIS.

Increasing secrecy around British use of armed drones

Fast forward five years and the use of armed drones by British forces is now even more opaque than at the time of the killing of Reyaad Khan. While a small number of MPs, journalists and NGOs continue to try to track the impact and use of these systems, for the most part, the world has turned its attention elsewhere.  Only when there are particularly egregious examples of drone targeted killing – such as that of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani by the US – does it hit the headlines.

Here in the UK, the shock and awe at the advent of remote, targeted killing with virtual impunity has waned, helped by the simple but effective tactic of stonewalling journalists parliamentarians and NGOs seeking information. As our report into media coverage of UK drone targeted killing found, by refusing to discuss key details or policy issues, the government dramatically curtailed media coverage.

However, the government’s response has not been to sit back, satisfied that it can keep its drone targeted killing programme under wraps. Instead, it has chosen to extend secrecy still further. Since the beginning of this year, ministers have begun to refuse to say where British drones are operating or the purpose of those missions.  Freedom of Information requests and parliamentary questions seeking broad details of new drone operations outside of Operations Shader are refused under the rather feeble excuse that they are gathering intelligence and therefore cannot be discussed. We have also revealed this week that the MoD has, without any announcement, begun to use private contractors and Australian Air Force pilots to fly parts of these drone missions. This is a serious step backwards in transparency.

Last month, Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, wrote in her annual report to the Human Rights Council:

Drones sit at the intersection of several oversight regimes, but, being an intelligence asset, they somehow fall between them. With few to no risks involved for those directing or operating drones, including little risk of legal accountability, “the typical decision-making barriers to the use of force become eroded … because they do not attract ‘the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites’”, as then US President Barrack Obama conceded in May 2013 . In general, at the domestic level, there seems to be many loopholes by which to avoid scrutiny, not the least because the matter can fall within the remit of many agencies but under the responsibility of none.

Despite regularly paying lip service to the notion of democratic scrutiny, governments will always seek to control investigations into their work, perhaps particularly in the realm of intelligence gathering and national security.  Nevertheless, no matter how difficult, parliament and civil society has to step up and resist attempts to close down scrutiny in this area.  History shows time and time again that decisions made without such oversight and accountability are decisions that are hugely costly and damaging.

Five years after the UK’s first drone targeted killing, MPs and peers need to step up and demand to know where Britain’s drones are operating and exactly what they are doing.   Please take a few minutes to write to your MP asking them to push for greater transparency on the use of drones using this draft letter.

Leave a Reply