Obama's Shadowy Drone War Taking Out the Terrorists by Remote Control


By and John Goetz

Part 3: The Accountability Vacuum

The evolution of warfare means that many countries are now building drones. Some 40 nations already have them. Did the United States open a door, once again? Sounding somewhat cautious, Jumper says that naturally the weapons are attractive.

On what basis, and by what right, is the CIA acting in Pakistan, on the territory of an ally? "I don't think that this (new kind of warfare) imposes any new strains on the legal system that don't already exist today," says Jumper.

There are others who aren't just concerned about the legal implications, but also the moral consequences of Jumper's idea. The United Nations has a "special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions," a post held until a few weeks ago by the Australian Philip Alston, a clever man who also teaches law at New York University. Alston is soft-spoken and parts his white hair on the left, and his glasses are constantly sliding off his nose. In a 29-page report he wrote for the UN Human Rights Council, he argues forcefully that the United States should exercise restraint in the use of drones.

His line of thought is clear, ending in the theory that if everyone starts using drones, it will spell the end of civilization. International law will no longer exist, because any nation will take it upon itself to declare person X a terrorist or a trainer of terrorists or a sponsor of terrorism, and then person X will simply die -- without so much as a trial or any further investigation.

Alston singles out Israel, Russia and above all the United States as trendsetters. According to Alston, all three countries argue that they are fighting "asymmetrical wars" and "terrorism," stretching the law in the process. "The result has been the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined license to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum," he writes in the report.

'Quantum Leap'

The term "targeted killing" has been around for many decades. In 2000, Israel began liquidating Palestinians from the air. In November 2002, the CIA sent its first armed drone to Yemen, where it killed al-Qaida leader Ali Kaid Sinjan al-Harithi and five of his men.

Is this state-sponsored murder?

As a lawyer, Alston is hesitant to use such strong words, but he says: "It tends to be assumed in good faith almost, that intelligence agencies exist in a complete legal vacuum. That, of course, we couldn't do certain things in terms of the official police or other agencies of the state. But if it's carried out by intelligence agencies under cover, then by definition there can be no possible accountability."

He describes putting the CIA "in charge of major weapons systems in a program that is killing large numbers of people on a regular basis" as a "quantum leap." "And, of course, once you have made that leap, then with each controversial program that comes up, you simply say: 'Well, let it be done by the CIA.'"

For the US Air Force's drone attacks in Afghanistan, Alston writes that there is a list of future targets, and that two verifiable human sources and "substantial additional evidence" are required before a target can be placed on the list. (No one knows the level of proof that the CIA requires for its drone attacks in Pakistan.) The drones, according to Alston, have murdered al-Qaida members, Taliban fighters and even drug barons who had given money to the Taliban. Is this legal? Is it legitimate? And where does it stop?

On the Kill List

When Anwar al-Awlaki heard the whirring of a drone in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, he knew that he was the target. He left his wife and three children to hide in the desert, and a lawsuit has now been filed on his behalf to protest his impending assassination.

Al-Awlaki, a US citizen born in New Mexico, is on the Obama administration's kill list. He is a Muslim, was a radio imam and was in contact with Nidal Malik Hasan, the officer who shot and killed 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas in 2009. The CIA calls him a "recruiter." "The US government has decided to put this man on the 'kill list' and they refuse to tell us why and what proof they have against him," says Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

Of course, many in Washington hold a completely different view of cases like these. They characterize the targeted killings as self-defense and insist that they represent the autonomous decisions of an autonomous nation at war.

It takes a while to reach the people in Washington who were instrumental in developing the push-button war. Roger Cressey helped to design the American counterterrorism strategy in the war on terror, as the Bush administration called it. As the director for transnational threats at the US National Security Council, Cressey had significant influence on the president.

The Ability to Take Out Bin Laden

Cressey has wavy hair and rosy skin, and he drinks "Vitaminwater," the drink of the moment among health-conscious Americans. He was in office on Sept. 7, 2000, when Osama bin Laden was spotted, through a drone camera, in a training camp in Afghanistan wearing a white robe. Cressey explains that at the time he asked himself what it would be like if they had the ability to take him out.

He argues that this, in fact, is all there is to say about the matter. "If we had developed the ability to perform a Predator-style targeted killing before 2000, we might have been able to prevent 9/11," he says. "We fought for the ability to take out known terrorists like Osama bin Laden and were only given permission after 9/11."

But there are those with different views. John Radsan, a former CIA legal adviser, says: "What is unique about targeted killings is that former President Bush seems to have delegated his trigger authority, his ability to order a killing, to the head of the CIA, who then delegated it to the head of the Counterterrorist Center. That means that someone who has not been elected, not been confirmed by the Senate, is able to determine if someone lives or dies."

John Rizzo, the CIA's acting general counsel from 2003 to 2009, finds the image of the drones bewildering. He cuts an elegant figure, with his yellow socks, yellow shirt, suspenders and white beard. Rizzo says that he is surprised that waterboarding, a method of torture, was so widely condemned, while hardly anyone questions the drone strategy. And then he asks: "Wouldn't it be safer, and cleaner, wouldn't it be better in terms of avoiding killing innocent civilians, wouldn't it actually be humaner if we had hit squads who followed high-value al-Qaida operatives and put a bullet in their head?"

The Limits of Drone Warfare

Robert Baer, a former CIA agent, says: "Targeted killings provide what seems like a clean and easy solution to a problem. But where does it stop? If we can perform targeting killings in Pakistan, a nominal ally, why can't we do it within the borders of allies like the UK or Germany? Should we be able to perform them to clean up our cities? When does it stop?"

There is undoubtedly a debate going on in Washington. But it is not being conducted openly, because any politician who questions the drones would likely be painted as unpatriotic and become unelectable in the current political climate.

Baer is a stocky man with a cynical streak. He once came up with a plan to assassinate former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, but it never materialized. He was the inspiration for actor George Clooney's character in the film "Syriana." Today Baer is one of the few Washington insiders who is openly expressing what many people are thinking.

"Targeted killings are easier for the CIA or for the military to deal with than taking someone prisoner," Baer says. "No one really ever questions a killing, but when you take someone prisoner, then you are responsible for the person and then the headaches come. We have a logic which leads to more and more targeted killings."

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