CIA drone attacks branded “illegal” in US House of Representatives Hearing

A lethal Reaper drone, used by the CIA in killings that are illegal under international law

A lethal Reaper drone, used by the CIA in killings that are illegal under international law

AS MALIK Daud Khan rose with the glaring sun on a Pakistani spring morning two years ago, he was blissfully ignorant that this would be the last day his son had a father.

As well as being a British citizen, Khan was a pillar of his North Waziristan community. On March 17 2011, he was living up to this role, presiding over a community meeting trying to settle a mining dispute. Both the young and the old from the village had come to meet, with a child as well as police officials among the scores assembled.

But this made no odds to the inhuman drone flying overhead. It didn’t matter that Khan was a British citizen, or that the meeting had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. It didn’t even matter that Pakistan is not a legally declared warzone.

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Unstoppable, the drone’s shadow snaked over the Pakistani soil as the robot launched a hellfire missile, raining down on the assembly below. The child, Khan, and 48 others were obliterated.

Khan is just one of up to 3573 people killed by drone strikes in Pakistan between June 2004 and September last year. The child was one of 176.

But Malik’s son, Noor Khan, is one of the few whose legal action against those accused of being complicit in these strikes has made it to British courts. He now stands against the British Government in court, on grounds that the UK government shared intelligence with the CIA that led to the US drone strike that killed his father.

Khan is merely asking for a statement on British policy on intelligence-sharing “so that he can understand whether the UK Government was or may have been complicit in the killing of his father and other members of his community”, according to a letter from Khan to Secretary of State William Hague.

In a Pakistani High Court Khan has already won an order for the Pakistani Government to reveal the information it holds on drone strikes that day. But this Christmas, Khan’s UK case was denied. He has now taken it to appeal, and British judges are still to decide whether they will hear it.

GCHQ: the UK government base for military intelligence. Credit: MoD

GCHQ: the UK government base for military intelligence. Credit: MoD

Yet rather than restrict CIA lethal drone activity, the US government has chosen to loosen the rules on American-authorised killing.

Previously, a CIA Predator drone could target and kill a specific individual within US law. Now, weaker regulations allow “signature” attacks, permitting lethal force on any male of fighting age in an insurgent-held area.

U.S. Airmen prepare a drone for takeoff at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. Credit: Sgt. Eric Harris

U.S. Airmen prepare a drone for takeoff at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. Credit: Sgt. Eric Harris

A confidential US Justice Department memo leaked in January said the current rule “does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future”.

This disturbing insight is one of the few indicators we have of the actual rules the US uses to authorise its lethal drone attacks.

Secrecy is such that the “playbook”, the Obama administration’s draft rulebook for drone strikes, is so highly classified that it is carried by hand between departments rather than risking email, according to US government officials.

But regardless of US rules, government documents obtained by Nouse show concerns have been raised by officials that the CIA strikes may be illegal under international law.

A satellite image of a drone at Beale airforce base in California, where the CIA trains drone pilots to conduct lethal missions

A satellite image of a drone at Beale airforce base in California, where the CIA trains drone pilots to conduct lethal missions. Credit: Google

In a hearing on drone use by the US House of Representatives, Law Professor David Glazier said, “CIA personnel are civilians, not combatants, and do not enjoy any legal right to participate in hostilities on our behalf.

“Under the legal theories adopted by our government in prosecuting Guantanamo detainees, these CIA officers as well as any higher level government officials who have authorized or directed their attacks are committing war crimes.”

A transcript of the US government hearing

Governments of countries in which the CIA has conducted lethal drone strikes have expressed their disapproval. A statement from the Pakistan Foreign Ministry said US drone strikes were “Unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty”.

In January last year, Iraqi officials told the New York Times that Washington would need authorization to fly drones in Iraqi airspace, and claimed that there had been no such requests.

In an interview, Iraqi Acting Interior Minister Adnan al Asadi said, “Our sky is our sky, not the USA’s sky.”

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John Brennan, Chief Counterterrorism Adviser to the President, said, “In the Department’s view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban.”

At least 36 people have been killed by CIA drone attacks since Christmas.

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