It’s official: Thin on intelligence and transparency, Obama’s drone programme

Few in India will have heard the name, Bilal el-Berjawi. A British citizen of Lebanese origin, he was radicalised in the post-9/11 wave of extremism – like hundreds of other young British Muslims lured by al-Qaeda’s growing appeal at the time. And then one day he was killed. Not in London but thousands of miles away near Mogadishu, Somalia. Hit by a deadly missile fired from an American drone blasting his car to smithereens.

It was the manner of his death that made him posthumously famous; and he became the subject of an anxious debate on America’s controversially opaque counter-terror drone programme dreamt up by the Bush administration – and since vastly expanded by President Obama who saw it (still does) as a cheaper and more effective alternative to a an expensive ground operation.

That debate has been reignited this week with the release of a cache of classified US intelligence documents by The Intercept, an online platform co-founded by Green Glenwald, rights activist and journalist who collaborated with Edward Snowden on exposing the British-US secret surveillance programme. The documents were provided to it by an anonymous whistleblower, identified only as a “source” in the American intelligence community, who ran the type of operations detailed in the documents. And Bilal features prominently in these papers, referred to as “Objective Peckham”, the codename given to him by his American intelligence handlers in a nod to the London suburb where he lived.

Bilal’s case, according to The Intercept, typifies all that has gone wrong with the drone programme.

“The story of Berjawi’s life and death raises new questions about the British government’s role in the targeted assassination of its own citizens — also providing unique insight into covert US military actions in the Horn of Africa and their impact on al Qaeda and its affiliate in the region, al Shabaab,” it says.

The programme started with Iraq and Afghanistan but has since spread to other terror hot- spots around the world, and has effectively become the default weapon in US counter-terror armoury. And yet until two years ago even its existence was even officially acknowledged.

It was only in 2013 that, for the first time, Obama publicly acknowledged its existence, but with a robust defence saying:
“America does not take strikes to punish individuals. We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and most imminent threat to the American people.” And then he made a claim whose hollowness is laid bare by the new revelations.

He said: “And before any (drone) strike is taken, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standards we can set.”

That boast now sounds more a like a joke in the light of “The Intercept Drone Papers” whose significance puts them almost in the same league as the WikiLeaks’ disclosure of classified US diplomatic cables, and the Snowden papers. American rights activists have hailed them as “a blow on behalf of transparency and human rights” with Snowden describing them as “the most important national security story of the year”.

So, what do these papers reveal?

Just one statistic is enough to damn the programme and blow a hole in American claims about its safety and efficiency. And it is this: in a recent five-month period in Afghanistan 90 percent of those killed in drone attacks were not the intended target. In another case, a review of a mission called Operation Haymaker revealed that between January 2012 and February 2013 more than 200 people in northern Afghanistan were killed. But, only 35 were intended targets. The papers suggest that similar operations in Somalia and Yemen, where reliable intelligence is even more limited than in Afghanistan, drone attacks have claimed a much larger number of innocent lives than American has admitted.

That innocent civilians frequently get killed is well-known, but what is new and startling is the high rate of mistaken casualties. Add to these the so-called “collateral damage” – people who die because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – and it becomes obvious that the whole operation is out of control. Obama’s alleged “highest standards” may exist on paper, but in practice clearly they appear to have been observed more in the breach.

To add insult to injury, the unintended casualties are officially recorded as “EKIA” (enemies killed in action) thus branding even innocent casualties as enemy combatants to justify the attack. The intended targets are described as “jackpots”. Questioning the apparently casual manner in which such deadly strikes are made, The Intercept’s source said, “It’s never considered: Is what we’re doing going to ensure the safety of our moral integrity? Of not just our moral integrity, but the lives and humanity of the people that are going to have to live with this the most?’’.

The papers, which cover the period 2011-2013, purport to show that most often the attacks are based on poor intelligence, end up killing a disproportionately large number of civilians, and there is no accountability. The Intercept’s source is reported saying that those running the programme have been extremely reliant on signal intelligence, “sigint” with little or no first-hand human intelligence, “humint” , on the ground.

“It requires an enormous amount of faith in the technology that you’re using,” the source said.

One American official has claimed that The Intercept cache relates to a limited period before Obama’s 2013 speech and “offers only a very narrow snapshot of these operations’’. A contention rejected by rights campaigners who are demanding an independent inquiry into the alleged lack of accountability and transparency revealed by the documents.

“These documents raise serious concerns about whether the USA has systematically violated international law, including by classifying unidentified people as ‘combatants’ to justify their killing,” said Naureen Shah of Amnesty International, USA while the American Civil Liberties Union called the disclosures “a mockery of US government claims that its lethal force operations are based on reliable intelligence and limited to lawful targets”.

The disclosures are likely to put pressure on Britain to explain its role in facilitating Bilawal’s execution which followed shortly after London had revoked his British passport in what The Intercept suggests was “a tactic” to wash its hands of any responsibility for a man Americans had in their sight. At the time, The Economist posed a series of questions which have remained unanswered: “Who was Berjawi? What threat did he pose? Was the British connection a coincidence or a cool calculation? Did British politicians have any knowledge of the action?”

The debate is not about Britain’s alleged complicity in one individual’s death but its broader role in propping up a secretive and, according to many, an illegal American operation.

As Kat Craig of the British human rights group Reprieve argues, “Our government cannot be involved in secret executions. If people are accused of wrongdoing they should be brought before a court and tried. That is what it means to live in a democracy that adheres to the rule of law.”

Feel like clearing the air Prime Minister Cameron?

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