US defends unmanned drone attacks after harsh UN report

UN special rapporteur Philip Alston on Wednesday called for a halt to US unmanned drone attacks, which he called a path to a 'Playstation' mentality towards killing.

REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Handout/Files
Members of the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron from Indian Springs, Nev., perform pre-flight checks on the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle prior to a mission, in this November 9, 2001 file photo shot at an undisclosed location. US officials defended the use of unmanned drones after a critical UN report was released.

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US officials and security analysts defended the use of unmanned drone attacks, after a UN official urged a halt to such killings in a strongly worded report released Wednesday.

The debate comes in the wake of reports that Al Qaeda's No. 3 commander, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, was killed along with his wife, three daughters, and a grand-daughter in a US drone attack in Pakistan.

Since 2004, the US has conducted a covert assassination campaign against suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan, using unmanned drones often operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in control rooms thousands of miles away. Drone use has soared under President Barack Obama. (Agence France-Presse offers a graphic of a how a drone operates.)

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The campaign has included some 135 attacks in northwest Pakistan since 2004 which have killed between 944 and 1,398 individuals, about 30 percent of whom were "non-militants," according to the New American Foundation, which derived its numbers from media reports.

The US has been cagey about publicly discussing its drone attacks, particularly those in Pakistan. But the assassination campaign has become such public knowledge that President Obama joked about drones during the White House Correspondents' Dinner, saying to a boy band in the audience: "Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming.”

Pakistan has publicly objected to the killings but its military has provided target information and approved of the attacks in at least some cases.

In his report (pdf) released Wednesday, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Philip Alston criticized the secrecy of the CIA's drone attacks, writing they had resulted in "the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined license to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum." Remote attacks also led to a "risk of developing a 'Playstation' mentality to killing," he wrote.

Alston urged US officials to "publicly identify the rules of international law they consider to provide a basis for any targeted killings they undertake" and to "specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture."

In an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio interview, Alston said the US was creating troubling precedents that might encourage other countries such as China to behave in the same fashion.

The Pakistani daily Dawn emphasized Alston's claim that drone attacks may violate international law:

Although not illegal as such, CIA drone strikes are more likely to breach the rules of war than similar operations carried out by armed forces, who are more familiar with international law and can resort to non-lethal means because they have troops on the ground, Alston said.

''Unlike a state's armed forces, its intelligence agents do not generally operate within a framework which places appropriate emphasis upon ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law, rendering violations more likely and causing a higher risk of prosecution both for war crimes and for violations of the laws of the state in which any killing occurs,'' he wrote.

But on Thursday, the Associated Press reported that US officials took issue with Alston's conclusions:

"Without discussing or confirming any specific action or program, this agency's operations unfold within a framework of law and close government oversight," said CIA spokesman George Little. "The accountability's real, and it would be wrong for anyone to suggest otherwise."

Administration officials have pointed to a carefully worded speech in March by State Department legal adviser Harold Koh, who said that "U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war." The Obama administration, he said, is committed to following the law in its operations against terrorists.

The Associated Press also quoted a former US intelligence official defending the use of drones. "Drone operations are essential," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Saban Center. "The drones are part of a much broader effort to put pressure on al-Qaida through the war in Afghanistan. They're the cutting edge of the pressure, but they're not the only pressure."

Jane Mayer, in an October article for The New Yorker, wrote that the appeal of drones has increased as public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has waned:

It’s easy to understand the appeal of a “push-button” approach to fighting Al Qaeda, but the embrace of the Predator program has occurred with remarkably little public discussion, given that it represents a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force. And, because of the C.I.A. program’s secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war.

Council on Foreign Relations fellow for conflict prevention Micah Zenko says that insurgents appear to be adapting to drone attacks and their usefulness may be waning. But he also argues that drone attacks remain an "essential tool for killing terrorists" even if their use should be more carefully scrutinized:

Targeted Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in northwest Pakistan have responded to the increasing efficiency of the drone strikes by developing standard defensive tactics. [They've begun] killing suspected informants who provide intelligence, destroying communication towers that can better intercept satellite and cell phone signals; they've dispersed into smaller cells; they've moved into heavily populated areas where it is very unlikely that the United States will attempt strikes. So they've adapted defensive strategies in response....

Predator strikes are the worst kept covert secret in the history of US foreign policy.... [S]ince they are such a significant part of US national security strategy, they should be debated, not simply applauded.

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