National Journal on Predator Drone Strikes

by Kenneth Anderson

The National Journal has a two part cover story, January 9, 2010, on Predator drone strikes — required reading for those following the targeted killing and Predator drone developments, and although it is behind a subscription wall, no question that this National Journal issue is making the rounds of Washington and the agencies.  If you follow this topic, you’ll want to make sure you get a copy.

Part 1:  ‘Wanted: Dead’:  With little public debate or notice, the Obama administration has significantly stepped up its targeted assassinations, by James Kitfield. Well-sourced, well-researched story on the ramping up of targeted killing by the administration.

Part 2:  Are Drone Strikes Murder?  A growing number of experts say the legal foundations for targeted drone killings are shaky at best, by Shane Harris. Harris has sought out a wide variety of legal views for this piece, and the result is the best journalist take on the legal issues involved that I’ve read.  In particular, Harris has understood several things no other journalist has (at least that I’ve seen), including the importance in this debate of the customary international law of self-defense, and the controversies over what it makes to undertake “direct participation in hostilities” so as to make yourself a possible target.  Harris interviews a range of sources with, I guess, me on one side, and Mary Ellen O’Connell and Nils Melzer on the other.  But also John Radsan, William Banks, Matthew Waxman, and more — and lots of NGO folks, too.  This piece gets the argument over the law better than any journalism I’ve seen, and Harris has spent lots of time interviewing experts in depth to understand what’s at stake.

Not only is use of Predator drone strikes expanding, indications are that the Air Force has been moving forward with new and more discriminating technology – the “micro-drone” appears to be under development, according to a source indispensable for the outsider keeping up with military robotics, Wired’s Danger Room.  I will get around to putting up a bibliography of new SSRN papers on this topic – Mary Ellen O’Connell, Jordan Paust, John Radsan, others – for now, just want to emphasize that it is not going away as a debate.

2 Responses

  1. While the legal issues are fascinating and important. no less so are the strategic ones — which implicate legal issues related to a targeted killing policy that uses tools other than drones — e.g. ununiformed covert operatives.

    I recommend review of the following:

     “Army Major General Michael Flynn, U.S. and NATO forces deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, released a report in which he labeled military intelligence in the war zone — but by implication U.S. intelligence operatives generally — “clueless.”  They were, he wrote, “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced… and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers… Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy.'”
    The efforts of the CIA operatives at Forward Operating Base Chapman were reportedly focused on “collecting information about militant networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plotting missions to kill the networks’ top leaders,” especially those in the Haqqani network in North Waziristan just across the Pakistani border.  They were evidently running “informants” into Pakistan to find targets for the Agency’s ongoing drone assassination war.  These drone attacks in Pakistan have themselves been on an unparalleled surge course ever since Barack Obama entered office; 44 to 50 (or more) have been launched in the last year, with civilian casualties running into the hundreds.  Like local Pashtuns, the Agency essentially doesn’t recognize a border.  For them, the Afghan and Pakistani tribal borderlands are a single world. 
    “In this way, as Paul Woodward of the website War in Context has pointed out, “Two groups of combatants, neither of whom wear uniforms, are slugging it out on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Each group has identified what it regards as high-value targets and each is using its own available means to hit these targets. The Taliban/Qaeda are using suicide bombers while the CIA is using Hellfire missiles.'”

    “In this war, drones are not the Agency’s only weapon.  The CIA also seems to specialize in running highly controversial, kick-down-the-door “night raids” in conjunction with Afghan paramilitary forces.  Such raids, when launched by U.S. Special Operations forces, have led to highly publicized and heavily protested civilian casualties.  Sometimes, according to reports, the CIA actually conducts them in conjunction with Special Operations forces.  In a recent American-led night raid in Kunar Province, eight young students were, according to Afghan sources, detained, handcuffed, and executed.  The leadership of this raid has been attributed, euphemistically, to “other government agencies” (OGAs) or “non-military Americans.”  These raids, whether successful in the limited sense or not, don’t fit comfortably with the Obama administration’s “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency strategy.”
    See also:

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