The use of the Drone (unmanned aircraft) strikes to kill Al Qaeda suspects in the Wazirisan area of Pakistan and in Yemen started under former President George Bush. These strikes are carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Mr Bush carefully maintained the deniability of any role that he might be playing from the White House in ordering these strikes.
Under the CIA’s charter as revised in the 1970s, the CIA cannot undertake any operation to kill an individual without a written directive from the President. Keeping this view, the Bush Administration kept the circumstances surrounding the Drone strikes vague and unclear.
After coming to office, President Barack Obama has ordered a dramatic escalation of Drone strikes in the Waziristan area as well as in Yemen to neutralise identified suspects of Al Qaeda. These strikes have killed many important operatives of Al Qaeda. At the same time, they have also killed many innocent Pakistanis adding to anti-US anger in Pakistan.
To give a heroic image to Mr Obama, his advisers have been projecting the Drone strikes as carefully chosen and decided by Mr Obama himself, thereby weakening the deniability of his role.
This is now threatening to boomerang by raising two issues: Firstly, is it legal for the US President to knowingly order a Drone strike meant to kill a US citizen? Secondly, is it legal for the US to knowingly undertake Drone strikes despite the knowledge that they might kill innocent civilians? The first question has been raised in the US itself and the second before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The relevance of the first question in the US arises from the fact that Anwar al-Awlaki, the chief of Al Qaeda in Yemen, who was allegedly killed in a US Drone strike, was stated to have been a US citizen before he fled from the US to Yemen and took over the leadership of the local Al Qaeda. Those who have raised this issue in the US suspect that Mr Obama might have ordered other Drone strikes against US citizens knowing them to be US citizens.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The New York Times (NYT) have filed separate petitions before a US federal court requesting for access to government documents relating to the Drone strikes. The Obama Administration has strongly opposed their petitions on grounds of national security and urged the court to reject their petitions outright. After having boasted that Mr Obama personally orders the Drone strikes, the government is now refusing even to confirm whether any documents on the subject exist.
In a counter filed before a district court in New York on June 20, 2012, the government said: “Whether or not the CIA has the authority to be, or is in fact, directly involved in targeted lethal operations remains classified.”
The ACLU and NYT have requested for access to the documents explaining the legal basis for the raids and the killing of terror suspects who are US citizens. The government has asked the court for a summary judgement to dismiss their petitions.
The government’s counter-petition said: “Even to describe the numbers and details of most of these documents would reveal information that could damage the government’s counterterrorism efforts.”
Describing the government’s argument as “absurd”, the ACLU said the Drone strikes were an open secret that government officials had boasted about to reporters.
“Senior officials have discussed it, both on the record and off. They have taken credit for its putative successes, professed it to be legal and dismissed concerns about civilian casualties,” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement.
“The public is entitled to know more about the legal authority the administration is claiming and the way that the administration is using it.”
The ACLU called on the Obama administration to reveal information “about the process by which individuals, including American citizens, are added to government kill lists”.
The White House has simultaneously organised a series of speeches and briefings by officials, including Mr Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, to explain to the American people “the legal analysis and process involved.”
In the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Mr Ben Emmerson, a Special Rapporteur, urged the US on June 21 to demonstrate that its Drone strikes are legal. Otherwise, he warned that the Council may be called on to investigate. He added: “Each and every US attack will be investigated. Somebody needs to do right by these victims. The international community is extremely concerned about the use of targeted killings”.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.
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