Obama admits drone strikes in Pakistan as US drone strikes Yemen

For the first time, the United States has confirmed that it is undertaking drone strikes in Pakistan.

Many may feel that this has long been an open secret as unnamed officials regularly take to the press about CIA drone strikes. However the admition by President Obama during a ‘Google online hangout’ will no doubt have legal and political implications. In september 2011 a Federal Judge dismissed an ACLU lawsuit seeking information about CIA drone strikes in Pakistan as the CIA would not confirm or deny the drone strikes took place.

Meanwhile a US drone strike killed between 12 and 15 people in Yemen overnight according to Reuters.

Drones: PR, Proliferation and Prangs in the Pacific

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) have continued their excellent work exposing US drone strikes in Pakistan by publishing extensive new research.  According to their research, more than 160 children are among at least 2,292 people reported killed in US attacks since 2004.  In addition they suggest that there are credible reports of at least 385 civilians among the dead.   Full details including a searchable database of  drone strikes is available on thebureauinvestigates.com.

Clearly rattled, US officials have gone on the PR offensive and challenged the figures (AFP reported an anonymous US official saying “The  numbers cited by this organization are way off the mark”)  and US officals have also attempted to discredit the report by suggesting that a source, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who is suing the Central Intelligence Agency on behalf of civilians has an “agenda” and has ‘possible links with Pakistani Intelligence agencies’.    However a New York Times editorial on the drone strikes this weekend challenged the CIA’s claims that no civilians have been killed saying “We find that hard to believe”.  So do a great many people.

As well as the US military going on a PR offensive,  the drone industry too is trying to challenge the ‘killer drones’ image.  According to National Defense Magazine

“the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International hosted a news conference at the National Press Club on August 10 to talk about the warm and fuzzy side of robotic machines [with] several executives on hand …to discuss the humanitarian roles of robotic equipment.”

As well as launching its PR offensive, AUVSI are trying to persuade the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to relax the rules on flying drones in civil airspace.  AUVSI are arguing that ‘limitations to UAV flight in U.S. airspace are hindering the industry’s growth and getting in the way of job creation.’  (We have previously reported on efforts to similarly persuade the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK.)  Privacy and safety it seems have no place to limit the ‘tremendous impact’ that lifting such “restrictions” would bring. By co-incidence It was announced this week that the FAA are investigating Rupert Murdoch’s  News Corps for using a drone in civilian airspace to film flooding in North Dakota.

Drone strikes andproliferation have continued over the past two weeks – notably a strike in Yemen on 1st August killed 15 people and a strike in North Waziristan killed over twenty people on 10th August. Press reports have also indicated that Italian Predator drones are also now flying missions over Libya.    Russia is about to show off its new combat drone, Lutch, at the Moscow airshow and the Welsh Government have been granted a certificate by the local planning authority to use the Llanbedr military airfield in Snowdonia to test and develop drones.   The Welsh government are freeholders of the site and are keen to lease it to Llanbedr Airfield Estates who wish to develop  the site.

There was much press coverage in the run-up to the test flight of DARPA’s new Hypersonic drone, the Falcon, last week, including this piece in the Guardian.  The Falcon drone, built by Lockheed Martin at a cost of about $320 million, is designed to fly at twenty times the speed of sound and undertake strikes anywhere in the world in less than one hour.  Red faces all around then when the test failed and the Falcon crashed into the Pacific.  Back to the drawing board!

Transfer Speculation

I wrote most of this post last night before the announcement that US special forces entered Pakistan and killed Osama Bin Laden and members of his family.  It is noteworthy that drones were not used to attack the compound where Bin Laden was staying – were they not see as reliable? –  but no doubt they were flying overhead recording the attack.

There has also already been much speculation about what impact this will have on drone strikes in Pakistan with some arguing that with Bin Laden death the strikes should cease.  Others are arguing, however, that Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan justifies further strikes.  There will, no doubt , be more on this….

Leon Panetta, nominated US Defense Secretary calls drones "the only game in town"

There has been a fair amount of speculation – but no official confirmation – that the CIA has been asked by Pakistan to leave the Shamsia Air Base in Pakistan. It is from this base, in South West Pakistan, where the CIA are said to launch their drones against targets in Pakistan (although the drones are controlled remotely from the US).

As we have detailed over past months, there has been growing anger in Pakistan at the continued CIA drone strikes and even senior Pakistani military and political figures are now calling for an end to the CIA’s drone strikes. It should be remembered that the CIA Predator drones are a different ‘fleet’ of drones than are being used by the USAF in Afghanistan.

The CIA’s drones, according to reports, will be moved to Afghanistan from where they will continue to attack targets inside Pakistan.

The drones transfer comes as Barack Obama has nominated the head of the CIA, Leon Panetta to the post of Defence Secretary while nominating General David Petraeus, the Afghan war commander, to replace Panetta at the CIA. Given that Panetta, has been a big supporter of drone strikes in Pakistan, calling them “the only game in town” as US Defense Secretary, he may well expand their use.  Petraeus, too has been a supporter of drone strikes in his time as the Afghan war commander and will no doubt maintain their use as he oversees the continued transformation of the CIA from an intelligence gathering agency into a paramilitary organisation.

Pakistan protests after deadly drone strike and release of CIA Agent

Pakistan protests at release of Raymond Davis

Twenty-four hours after the release of CIA man Raymond Davis, a US drone strike has killed more than 40 people, mostly civilians, in North Waziristan.  Protests and a nationwide strike have been called for Friday.

CIA ‘contractor’ Raymond Davis was released from prison after the murder charges against him were dropped following the payment of ‘blood money’ to relatives of the victims.  Davis, named by The Guardian as a CIA spy,  had shot dead two men  –  Faizan Haider and Mohammad Faheemin – in  disputed circumstances in Lahore.  A third man, Muhammad Yameen, was killed by a US embassy car speeding to the scene to rescue Davis.  The widow of Mohammad Faheemin, Shumaila Kanwal,committed suicide soon after.

The killings caused outrage in Pakistan coming on top of the hated CIA drone strikes and there were public demonstrations calling for Davis to be hanged.  Meanwhile the US put enormous pressure on Pakistan to release Davis arguing that he had diplomatic status.  Aid budgets were threatened and the drone strikes were halted – at least for the first month of his incarceration – in an attempt not to further inflame anger.

Wednesday’s  agreement to accept the multi-million dollar compensation by relatives of the dead men was apparently done under duress, with the family’s lawyer under detention.  The relatives have now left Pakistan and disappeared.

Thursday’s drone strike, on a tribal meeting near Miranshah, in which 41 people are known to have died, (some reports suggesting  up to 80 victims) has been condemned by many including the Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayaniv.  As Jason Ditz of Antiwar.com reports:

The casualties from the attack included six tribal elders who were overseeing the jirga, which was apparently to discuss the ownership of mineral rights, a number of children who were brought by their families to the gathering, and several members of a pro-government militia the tribe helped organize.

The US has announced that it will close its embassy on Friday in anticipation of nationwide protests.

Newsweek: Inside the Killing Machine

by Tara McKelvey

Don’t normally repost other people’s articles here but this is an illuminating piece from Newsweek on how, as it says in the article “the formal process of determining who should be hunted down and “blown to bits” by a drone  is undertaken.

It was an ordinary-looking room located in an office building in northern Virginia. The place was filled with computer monitors, keyboards, and maps. Someone sat at a desk with his hand on a joystick. John A. Rizzo, who was serving as the CIA’s acting general counsel, hovered nearby, along with other people from the agency. Together they watched images on a screen that showed a man and his family traveling down a road thousands of miles away. The vehicle slowed down, and the man climbed out.

A moment later, an explosion filled the screen, and the man was dead. “It was very businesslike,” says Rizzo. An aerial drone had killed the man, a high-level terrorism suspect, after he had gotten out of the vehicle, while members of his family were spared. “The agency was very punctilious about this,” Rizzo says. “They tried to minimize collateral damage, especially women and children.”

The broad outlines of the CIA’s operations to kill suspected terrorists have been known to the public for some time—including how the United States kills Qaeda and Taliban militants by drone aircraft in Pakistan. But the formal process of determining who should be hunted down and “blown to bits,” as Rizzo puts it, has not been previously reported. A look at the bureaucracy behind the operations reveals that it is multilayered and methodical, run by a corps of civil servants who carry out their duties in a professional manner. Still, the fact that Rizzo was involved in “murder,” as he sometimes puts it, and that operations are planned in advance in a legalistic fashion, raises questions.   [[Article continues on Newsweek site here]]

Justifying the unjustifiable: drones attacks foil “possible” terror plot

Many news outlets are covering the story that the recent mass drone strikes in Pakistan have foiled a ‘Mumbai-style’ terror attack on UK, France and Germany.  The suggestion that mass drone strikes in Pakistan are justified because of intelligence of a possible terror attack in Europe are simply ludicrous.  Let’s set aside for a moment the notorious unreliability of such ‘intellegence’, particularly the kind that is so crucial that it is leaked to the media in a style reminiscent of the now  notorious ‘Saddam WMD 45 minutes away’ threat.

More importantly Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, has repeatedly made it clear that targeted attacks on individuals outside armed combat may well be unlawful under international and humanitarian law  particularly, as in this case, if the state in which it occurs (Pakistan) objects and, as stated in many of the reports, no plot was in fact imminent.   

The idea that armed drones can be let loose to “‘pre-empt possible terror plots” by unaccountable security and intelligence agencies is extremely worrying, as is the way that much of the mainstream media seems happy to acquiesce with this fallacy.