EU borders agency must improve information access arrangements following complaint by Drone Wars UK

The European Ombudsman has ruled that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, should reform its access to information arrangements following complaints about difficulties in obtaining information made by Drone Wars UK and German open government platform FragDenStaat.

The Ombudsman’s ruling follows a two year investigation which examined how Frontex deals with requests for public access to documents, and particularly requests submitted by email and through civil society access to information websites such as FragDenStaat and AskTheUK.org.  At present Frontex only accepts communications through its own difficult-to-use communication portal and  refuses to communicate by e-mail or third party information access websites – a complicated and unnecessary hurdle for anyone seeking information about the organisation.

As well as investigating the portal requirement and the ability to submit and to receive documents by e-mail the Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly also inquired into concerns about restrictions imposed by the copyright of Frontex documents, long-term accessibility of documents through the portal, and Frontex’s requirement for those requesting information to submit personal identification and the lack of routes to allow this.

Border Drones

Drone Wars UK submitted an information request to Frontex in July 2020 as part of our ‘Crossing A Line‘ investigation, in which we highlighted the growing use of drones for border control operations and the threats to human rights which this poses.  Read more

Unreported drone strikes revealed as complete list of UK air and drone strikes against ISIS published  

Drone Wars is today publishing a sortable and searchable dataset of all known UK air and drone strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since September 2014.  Included in the data are a small number of UK drones strikes that occurred in the second half of 2018 that were not reported at the time.

The data, compiled from official sources, contains more than 1,650 individual reports with the vast majority detailing the target, the aircraft used to launch the strike and which munitions were used.  Our aim in publishing this dataset is to both aid transparency and to encourage greater study of the impact of UK air and drone operations.

Transparency

While the MoD currently has a list of UK air strikes in Iraq and Syria on its website (available here), the reports in many cases are only a summary of the original releases, with vital detail edited out. For example the entry for 18 January 2018 reads as follows:

2 Reapers struck 6 terrorist targets, including 2 armed trucks, 2 lorry-bombs, a mortar and a Daesh held building, in eastern Syria.”

However the original report, available in our dataset, reads:

“SDF operations north of Abu Kamal on Thursday 18 January were supported by two RAF Reapers as well as other coalition aircraft. One of our Reapers used a Hellfire to knock out an armed truck that was firing on the SDF, then pursued a second such vehicle as it drove away and destroyed it with another Hellfire. A third Hellfire was used in a successful attack on a Daesh-held building.  The second Reaper also conducted three attacks; a Hellfire missile silenced a mortar spotted firing from beneath some trees, and a further missile and a GBU-12 guided bomb took care of two truck-bombs. As well as conducting their own attacks, the Reapers also provided targeting and surveillance support to seven attacks by coalition aircraft, against a range of terrorist positions, including two engineering vehicles being used by Daesh, and a large group of terrorists mounted on motorcycles, whom our aircraft tracked to a compound, where they were successfully targeted by a fast jet.”

Perhaps even more importantly, more than 40 reports of UK strikes – including the first four to occur in late September/ early October 2014 – are simply absent from the MoD’s list.  In addition, the targeted killing of Reyaad Khan in August 2015, which was a separate, UK intelligence-led, mission and not part of coalition operations against ISIS, is also not included in the MoD’s list.  All of these are included in Drone Wars dataset.  For many reasons we think that it is important that a full list of UK air strikes is publicly available.  At the end of UK air operations in Afghanistan in 2014, the MoD deleted details of UK strikes in Afghanistan from its website.

Unreported drones strikes in 2018

Intriguingly, there are eight Reaper drone strikes included in the MoD’s summary list for which no details were released at the time of the strikes  All of these occurred in Syria during the second half of 2018 and several have the potential to be possible targeted killings. It is possibly relevant that these unreported strikes occurred in the months following the May 2018 announcement that a UK drone strike in eastern Syria had killed a civilianRead more

MoD challenged at Information Tribunal on secret UK Reaper drone operations

Drone Wars appeared in court yesterday to appeal the refusal of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to give basic details of UK Reaper operations outside of its campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Judgement in the case is due to be given in around six weeks’ time.

In January 2020 the MoD refused to answer a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Drone Wars UK seeking the number of UK Reaper flights that had taken place outside of Operation Shader during 2019 and their location. The request was refused both on national security and international relations grounds. Subsequently, Ministers refused to answer questions both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords about the sorties, claiming that Reaper was an ‘intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform’ and that Ministers “do not comment on intelligence matters.”

Labour MP Clive Lewis wrote directly to the Secretary of State, Ben Wallace, about the matter and was told in response:

“REAPER is not conducting strike operations outside those theatres for which Parliament has approved the deployment of UK Armed Forces. The vast majority of REAPER missions are reconnaissance and surveillance operations and as I am sure you can understand, to reveal where it is conducting those missions would provide valuable information to our adversaries.”

Clive Lewis and crossbench Peer, Baroness Viviane Stern, member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones and Modern Conflict submitted written statements to the Tribunal urging the need for transparency. Mr Lewis argued that  the refusal to answer questions about the deployment of Reaper is “a serious backward step in terms of transparency and accountability.”

Baroness Stern stated:

“Despite repeated attempts by myself and colleagues to attain even the most basic information about the UK’s drone deployments, policy, and commitments, Parliament has not been provided with the accurate and timely information needed to meaningfully carry out its constitutional scrutiny role. Whilst certain details must be kept secret in order to ensure operational and national security, the current trend of withholding information about the use of drones purely because it is seen as an “intelligence” asset, as well as withholding vital information on the UK’s growing military capabilities and commitments is deeply concerning and unjustified.”

In court, the MoD argued against the release of the information on two grounds.  Firstly, that the information was exempt from release under Section 26 of the Freedom of Information Act, arguing that the information would prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of relevant forces.  Secondly, it argued that release of the information was exempt under Section 27 of the Act, in that its release would prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other State and/or the interests of the United Kingdom abroad.  Read more

Drone Wars continues to pursue details of secret UK drone operations

Drone Wars is undertaking legal action in an attempt to gain details of secret British Reaper drone operations that has been taking place since at least 2019.  Appealing against the MoD’s refusal to answer both FoI requests and parliamentary questions about these missions, Drone Wars is seeking answers before an Information Tribunal.

Drone Wars discovered in early 2020 that the UK was flying Reaper missions outside of ‘Operation Shader’, the name of the UK’s military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Although the MoD acknowledged that such missions were taking place, it flatly refused to detail their location or the number of sorties that had been undertaken.  According to the latest FoI response from the MoD (Jan 2021) it appears these secret sorties are continuing.

After an internal appeal to the MoD was rejected in early 2020, Drone Wars appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in April 2020 with a response received in January 2021. Although the Commissioner accepted that there is “significant and weighty public interest in disclosure of the withheld information,” she ultimately upheld the refusal to release the information following undisclosed submissions made to the ICO by the Ministry of Defence. Read more

New report: Falling Short: An analysis of the reporting of UK drone strikes by the MoD

Click to open report

Drone Wars is today publishing ‘Falling Short: An analysis of the reporting of UK drone strikes by the MoD‘. Since the beginning of air attacks against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (Operations Shader), the MoD has periodically published reports of the RAF strikes on its website. Law lecturer and member of the Drone Wars Steering Committee, Max Brookman-Byrne, has undertaken quantitative analysis of these reports and examined them in the light of international law.

The report finds that while the MoD’s attempts to be transparent in this area are to be welcomed, too often insufficient information is given. The fact that nearly half of all reports of drone strikes fail to convey sufficient information for even cursory or superficial assessments in light of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is highly concerning. It means that while the MoD’s reports provide an apparently transparent framework, in reality they fall short in this regard. Read more

New FoI figures on UK air and drone strikes in Iraq and Syria

New figures released to Drone Wars UK in response to Freedom of Information requests shows a dramatic increase in the number of RAF operations in Syria in the first six months of 2017.  According to the figures, UK armed air missions in Syria rose by 480% in the first half of 2017 compared with the previous six months.

Read more