Drones

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When Does a Random Taxi Driver Become a Lawful Combatant?

Mohammad Azam, in a photo at the linked Guardian article.

Mohammad Azam, in a photo at the linked Guardian article.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post questioning the Obama Administration’s logic in killing the leader of the Afghan Taliban in a drone strike in Pakistan. It turns out that the Defense Department also employed some very suspect reasoning surrounding the drone strike.

On June 1 (apologies for the delay, but as most of you know, our site was hacked and has migrated to a new host) Brigadier General Charles H. Cleveland, who heads the US effort in Afghanistan, took part in a press conference in which he was patched into Washington via a video link from Kabul. At the end of the transcript, we have a very telling exchange:

Q: General, Lucas Tomlinson, from Fox News. Just a quick follow-up to Louis’ question. Were you or General Nicholson concerned that Mullah Mansur was in Iran? And are you concerned about Iran sheltering Taliban officials? Thank you.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, Lucas. Thank you very much.

You know, our — our real focus on it, again, continue to be Afghanistan and I know it sounds like I’m dodging your question and I don’t mean to, but again, you know, the location of Mullah Mansur and where he was either before or during the strike, et cetera, are really questions that probably the team back in Washington, D.C., has got a better answer for you.

Our real role, again, as I think you’re well aware — Mullah Mansur was a threat to U.S. forces, he was an obstacle to peace. An opportunity presented, the president made a decision and he was targeted and he was killed. And so really, the rest of the aspect of that really is better to answer — better answered back in Washington, D.C.

Q: And lastly, was the taxi cab driver — was he part of the Taliban, too? Did he — did he have that same threat to U.S. forces?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: So bottom line is we are confident, Lucas, in our targeting and we are confident that he was a lawful combatant.

General Cleveland’s response to Tomlinson here would have us think that Mohammad Azam, the taxi driver who was killed along with Mansour, was a member of the Taliban who posed a direct threat to the US. That would seem to make him an appropriate target for killing.

It seems that a suitable reference on which to rely for DoD’s thinking on combatants is to go back to William Haynes’ memo dated December 12, 2002 and titled “Lawful Combatants”. This memo comes from Haynes as General Counsel to DoD and is addressed to a Roundtable assembled by the Council on Foreign Relations. It appears that this exercise was geared toward providing legal cover for the Bush Administration’s “new” reading of international law and especially its attempts to shield prisoners from the Geneva Conventions.

In the memo, Haynes says this with regard to combatants:

An “enemy combatant” is an individual who, under the laws and customs of war, may be detained for the duration of an armed conflict. In the current conflict with al Qaida and the Taliban, the term includes a member, agent, or associate of al Qaida or the Taliban. In applying this definition, the United States government has acted consistently with the observation of the Supreme Court of the United States in Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1, 37-38 (1942): “Citizens who associate themselves with the military arm of the enemy government, and with its aid, guidance and direction enter this country bent on hostile acts are enemy belligerents within the meaning of the Hague Convention and the law of war.”

“Enemy combatant” is a general category that subsumes two sub-categories: lawful and unlawful combatants. See Quirin, 317 U.S. at 37-38. Lawful combatants receive prisoner of war (POW) status and the protections of the Third Geneva Convention. Unlawful combatants do not receive POW status and do not receive the full protections of the Third Geneva Convention. (The treatment accorded to unlawful combatants is discussed below).

The President has determined that al Qaida members are unlawful combatants because (among other reasons) they are members of a non-state actor terrorist group that does not receive the protections of the Third Geneva Convention. He additionally determined that the Taliban detainees are unlawful combatants because they do not satisfy the criteria for POW status set out in Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention. Although the President’s determination on this issue is final, courts have concurred with his determination.

So according to the 2002 DoD interpretation of a “determination” by President George W. Bush, members of the Taliban are enemy combatants. But they also are unlawful combatants instead of lawful combatants, so that is one bit of misleading information from Cleveland.

A much bigger problem, though, is that from all appearances, Mohammad Azam was not a driver affiliated with the Taliban and certainly not Mansour’s personal driver. The Guardian looked carefully into the circumstances of how Azam came to be driving Mansour and it appears that Azam was randomly assigned to drive Mansour:

It was a series of chance occurrences that led to Azam finding one of the US’s most wanted men sitting in his white Toyota Corolla.

Azam got much of his work though a small local transport company owned by Habib Saoli, which has its office near the exit of the Iranian-Pakistani border facility that straddles the border.

Mansoor emerged from that building shortly after 9am on 21 May, returning to Pakistan after a long visit to Iran which, it has been reported, was for both medical attention and to visit members of his family.

/snip/

He immediately began looking for a ride for the 600km journey to the city of Quetta.

Said Ahmed Jan, an employee of a bus company, was trying to fill up the final seats of his Quetta-bound minibus but Mansoor wasn’t interested.

“He said, ‘I want to go in a car’, so I called Habib and asked him to provide a car,” said Jan. “Habib took a little commission and gave the job to Azam.”

It’s very hard to see how a taxi driver randomly assigned to transport a legitimate target of the Defense Department suddenly becomes transformed into a lawful combatant himself. Despite Cleveland’s assurance to the contrary, I seriously doubt that DoD considered Azam a lawful combatant at the time they authorized the strike. The most logical assumption is that DoD came to the decision that Azam’s life was acceptable collateral damage for taking out Mansour. Cleveland simply lacked the honesty to deliver that sad truth.

There also may be legal reason for this lie, however, since Azam’s family has started the paperwork within Pakistan to sue the US over his death. It will be interesting to see whether the case proceeds, especially in light of the previous ruling in the Peshawar High Court that US drone strikes in Pakistan are war crimes.

Postscript: I suppose that one might argue that Cleveland was referring to Mansour rather than Azam when he was making his assurance that “he was a lawful combatant”, but then that says Cleveland completely ignored the question about the status of Azam.

NSA Kills People Based on Metadata, But Can’t Preserve Its Own Personnel Metadata for a Simple FOIA

Over at Vice News, I’ve got a story with Jason Leopold on 800 pages of FOIAed documents from the NSA pertaining to their response to Edward Snowden. Definitely read it (but go back Monday to read it after VICE has had time to recover from having NSA preemptively release the documents just before midnight last night).

But for now I wanted to point out something crazy.

There were some funny things about the documents handed over to Leopold, some of which I’ll get into over time. By far the funniest is their claim that this email, from SV2 to SV and cc’ed to SV4:

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Is the same as this email, from E63 to SV and cc’ed to SV43.

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We asked them about that — it was one of the few questions from a list of very detailed questions they actually gave us answers to. Here’s how they explained it.

Due to a technical flaw in an operating system, some timestamps in email headers were unavoidably altered. Another artifact from this technical flaw is that the organizational designators for records from that system have been unavoidably altered to show the current organizations for the individuals in the To/From/CC lines of the header for the overall email, instead of the organizational designators correct at the time the email was sent.

Remember, this is the agency that “kills people based on metadata,” per its former Director, Michael Hayden.

But “due to a technical flaw in an operational system,” it could not preserve the integrity of either the time or the aliases on emails obtained under FOIA.

Update: I asked Douglas Cox, who works on these kinds of issues at CUNY School of Law, about this. Here’s what he had to say:

This is an illustration of why most federal agencies are still “print and file” for email preservation purposes, because many can’t seem to properly preserve email in electronic format. Agencies are supposed to be managing emails electronically by the end of this year, but there are doubts many will get there that soon.

If they had a hard copy version and then screwed up the original electronic version by bringing it on to the live system, that would account for differing headers in copies of “same” email, which is bad enough. To the extent they did not have hard copy and they screwed up the only copy in electronic form that is clearly worse. It does raise a real issue.

But your point is right on, even in more mundane contexts not involving drone strikes it is remarkable the disconnect between standards agencies impose and those they practice. When you are producing docs to a govt agency in response to doc requests, eg, you often have to abide by exacting standards in format including careful capture of metadata, but with FOIA you get things like this.

The artifact in the email — which comes from a string that shows the Compliance training woman modifying her version of the face-to-face interaction with Snowden a year after it happens — must reflect who was printing out documents in timely fashion for the FOIA, and who wasn’t (or perhaps which communications threads they figured they’d include and which they wouldn’t). It may also reflect which of these people are actually complying with Federal Records Act guidelines.

Mullah Mansour Drone Strike: Important Milestone or Radicalizing Event?

How much more ironic could it be? More than 43 years after the last Americans evacuated Vietnam, ending our disastrous occupation there, the dateline reads Hanoi on President Barack Obama’s statement today on the US drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. Mansour was the head of Afghanistan’s Taliban but was in Pakistan at the time the US killed him with a drone, striking a similarity to the US “secret” bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war.

From today’s New York Times, we have parts of Obama’s statement:

Calling the death “an important milestone,” President Obama said in a statement, released just as he was meeting with top officials in Vietnam, that the United States had “removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and coalition forces.”

“Mansour rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children,” Mr. Obama continued in the statement. “The Taliban should seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict — joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability.”

So Obama is saying that the Taliban should respond to our extrajudicial killing of their leader by reconciling with the Afghan government (chosen in large part by John Kerry) and working toward peace. What are the odds of that happening? Max Abrahms has some very important points to make on that topic:

Dr Max Abrahms, from Northeastern University in Boston, said the US Government does not look carefully enough at the strategic implications of its strikes on extremist leaders.

He said he had done a number of studies on leadership decapitation of a militant group and he had not found a statistically significant reduction in the amount of violence perpetrated by the group after a leader was removed.

“In fact these decapitation strikes can actually be counter-productive, because one of the assumptions of the targeted killing campaigns is that the replacement of the leader that you killed will be more moderate,” Dr Abrahms said.

“And yet I find just the opposite to be true. The replacement is even more extreme.

“So for that reason, in the immediate aftermath of a successful targeted killing, like over this weekend, the group’s violence tends to become even more extreme, in the sense that it’s even more likely to attack civilian targets.”

And so our circle of irony is complete. Obama’s statement on the killing of Mansour, released from Vietnam, shows that US military misadventures still rely on faulty logic when major moves are made. A strike made to make the Taliban more peaceful seems virtually certain to result in more indiscriminate killing of civilians.

Because I know how much Marcy enjoys miraculous “left behind” documents, I couldn’t resist following up on a Twitter reference I saw flit by yesterday about how a passport for Mansour somehow survived the conflagration in the taxi in which Mansour met his death by drone. By following it, though, I found even more deep irony in the drone strike. This article by ToloNews carries a photograph of a pristine-looking passport. Compare that with the photo in the New York Times article linked above with the burned out wreckage of the vehicle Mansour was said to have been in when hit. How could the passport have survived?

But wait, there’s more! ToloNews tells us that the passport has Mansour’s name and carries a valid Iranian visa. Furthermore:

Meanwhile, a number of analysts said the Taliban in recent months tried to extend relationships with Iran and Russia to fight Daesh and that there is a possibility that Mansour traveled to Iran to escape ISI and talk with Iranian officials.

“Iran is afraid of Daesh presence in Afghanistan, because Daesh is an enemy to Iranian clerics; therefore, Iran wants to eliminate Daesh with the help of the Taliban. Previously, Taliban had strong affiliation to Saudi Arabia, but now there is a rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Iran wants to expand its influence on the group [Taliban],” political analyst Shafiq Hamdam said.

So while Mansour and his group have continued to reject peace talks with the Afghan government, at least some observers believe that he was in the process of trying to join the fight against Islamic State. And it may well be that he died because of that effort. Here’s a map of the region, showing that the site of the drone attack, Ahmad Wal, lies about 100 miles away from Quetta (where the Afghan Taliban has long been believed to be headquartered) along the highway that is the most direct route to Iran from Quetta.

Google map of the region surrounding Ahmed Wal, where Mullah Monsour was killed.

Google map of the region surrounding Ahmed Wal, where Mullah Monsour was killed.

DOJ Places David Barron’s Anwar Awlaki Memos on the “Not Selected for Publication”

Sometime between March 27 and April 15 of last year, the Office of Legal Counsel posted the two memos David Barron wrote authorizing the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki (February 19, 2010; July 16, 2010) on its list of memos “Not selected for publication” in its reading room. The website explains that these are memos that have been posted through discretionary release, but “may not reflect the Office’s current views.”

Consistent with the President’s FOIA memorandum dated January 21, 2009, and the Attorney General’s FOIA guidelines dated March 19, 2009, OLC sometimes releases requested records as a matter of discretion, even if they fall within the scope of a FOIA exemption or have not been the subject of a FOIA request.  To make such documents generally available when they are the subject of repeated requests or may be of public or historical interest, the Office may post them in this electronic reading room.  Documents posted in this electronic reading room are being disclosed through discretionary release, but they have not been selected for official publication and thus they are not included among the Office’s formal published opinions.  Although these records may be of public or historical interest, the views expressed in some of these records may not reflect the Office’s current views.

Of course, a number of the memos (most but not all of which are tied to the war on terror) weren’t released at DOJ’s discretion. Rather, some of these memos (including the two Awlaki ones) were released after DOJ tried to suppress them, only to have a Federal judge force their release.

I’ve got a call in to see if OLC has some easy explanation. But I’m wondering if it means DOJ may have thought better of now Circuit Court judge David Barron’s advice that you can kill an American citizen with no real due process.

Particularly given the timing, I’m wondering whether any change in DOJ’s views about these memos would affect American citizens overseas, such as Liban Haji Mohamed, a Somali American who was put on the Most Wanted List last year, then detained (never to publicly have shown up in an American court) on March 2, 2015. Unlike Anwar al-Awlaki, Mohamed (who is the brother of Gulet Mohamed, who has had a whole different set of problems with the government) has actually been indicted.

ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer points to a potentially more cynical (and therefore likely) explanation though. As he noted last year, at about the same time DOJ was deeming the Barron memos discretionary releases, it submitted a filing in their lawsuit against ACLU, insisting that having been ordered by a court to release the memo doesn’t count as official disclosure. In a footnote of the April 2 filing, DOJ claimed,

We further note that the Court’s release of the OLC-DOD Memorandum and its order compelling disclosure by the government of additional information would not themselves constitute an independent official disclosure or waiver by the government that would strip protection from otherwise exempt information and material.

That is, during precisely the time period when it was deeming this memo discretionary on its website, it was making that argument to the courts.

So I assume they believe they still have the right to execute American citizens at their discretion. And keep their rationale for doing so secret.

One Reason CIA Is Claiming Drone Emails Are Top Secret: ACLU’s FOIA

The NYT has a really helpful description of the emails to Hillary that intelligence agencies are claiming are Top Secret. It explained how several of the emails almost certainly couldn’t derive from the intelligence the agency claimed they came from, such as this one on North Korea.

The fourth involved an email sent by Kurt M. Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, shortly after a North Korean ballistic missile test in July 2009. The email has not yet been made public, even in redacted form, but the State Department has challenged an assertion from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which gathers data through satellite images, that the email included information that came from a highly classified program.

In a letter this past Dec. 15 to Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a State Department official said that the information could not have been based on N.G.A.’s intelligence because Mr. Campbell did not receive any classified intelligence briefings for what was a new job for him until a few days after the North Korean test.

I believe the NGA was dawdling on signing a sworn declaration about this email, unlike the CIA (whose Martha Lutz has signed her name to many a wacky claim).

Unsurprisingly, the NYT reports that the bulk of the emails in question pertain to the drone program, specifically in Pakistan.

The Obama administration’s decision to keep most internal discussions about that program — including all information about C.I.A. drone strikes in Pakistan — classified at the “top secret” level has now become a political liability for Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign.

[snip]

Several officials said that at least one of the emails contained oblique references to C.I.A. operatives. One of the messages has been given a designation of “HCS-O” — indicating that the information was derived from human intelligence sources — a detail that was first reported by Fox News. The officials said that none of the emails mention specific names of C.I.A. officers or the spy agency’s sources.

The government officials said that discussions in an email thread about a New York Times article — the officials did not say which article — contained sensitive information about the intelligence surrounding the C.I.A.’s drone activities, particularly in Pakistan.

The officials said that at least one of the 22 emails came from Richard C. Holbrooke, who as the administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan would have been intimately involved in dealing with the ramifications of drone strikes. Mr. Holbrooke died in December 2010.

Reading these passages and the article in general made me realize something: The reason the CIA is insisting these are classified is almost certainly because of the ACLU’s two FOIAs for drone information. In the Awlaki-focused one, the ACLU (and NYT) succeeded in arguing that past public statements from people like Leon Panetta constituted a waiver of the classification of the CIA’s involvement in the program. Any public dissemination of other official Administration figures discussing the drone program would provide ACLU another opportunity to go to the judges in these cases and demand further disclosure about CIA’s involvement in the drone program.

Over the years, the Obama Administration has gone to great lengths to defeat the ACLU in its various FOIAs, from having National Security Advisor Jim Jones get involved in the torture FOIA to delaying congressional oversight into the Awlaki killing. Here, it appears they’re even willing to damage Hillary’s campaign to serve as the inheritor to Obama’s legacy to thwart the ACLU.

What Agency Is Claiming Hillary Received SAP Emails?

The political world is a-twitter over the latest in the Hillary email scandal, Fox News’ report that there were emails sent to Hillary classified at the Special Access Program level. To Fox’s credit, Catherine Herridge liberated the letter itself.

To date, I have received two sworn declarations from one IC element. These declarations cover several dozen emails containing classified information determined by the IC element to be at the CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, and TOP SECRET/SAP levels. According to the declarant, these documents contain information derived from classified IC element sources. Due to the presence of TOP SECRET/SAP information, I provided these declarations under separate cover to the Intelligence oversight committees and the Senate and House leadership.

Note, the letter makes clear that those reporting Hillary had two SAP emails may not be correct: Charles McCullough’s letter doesn’t say how many emails were SAP and how many were CONFIDENTIAL. And the letter is conveniently written in a form that can be shared with the press without key information that would allow us to test the claims made in it.

For example, one critical detail in assessing claims about classification pertains to which IC element claims Hillary received SAP email.

That’s relevant because some agencies have more credibility in their classification claims than others. If this is CIA making the claim, for example, we should assume it’s bogus, because CIA — and its Chief of Litigation Support, Martha Lutz — routinely makes bogus claims.

I described, for example, how Lutz shamelessly claimed documents dating to 1987 on dialing a rotary phone were appropriately retroactively classified SECRET after 2006 to back the only piece of evidence admitted at trial that Jeffrey Sterling mishandled classified information.

Martha Lutz, the CIA’s Chief of Litigation Support and the bane of anyone who has FOIAed the CIA in the last decade, was on the stand, a tiny woman with a beehive hairdo and a remarkably robust voice. After having Lutz lay out the Executive Orders that have governed classified information in the last two decades and what various designations mean, the government introduced four documents into evidence — three under the silent witness rule — and showed them to Lutz.

“When originally classified were these documents properly classified as secret,” the prosecution asked of the three documents.

“They weren’t,” Lutz responded.

“But they are now properly classified secret?”

“Yes,” Lutz answered.

[snip]

[T]he defense explained a bit about what these documents were. Edward MacMahon made it clear the date on the documents was February 1987 — a point which Lutz apparently missed. MacMahon then revealed that the documents explained how to use rotary phones when a CIA officer is out of the office.

That’s a big part of why Sterling is sitting in prison right now: because Lutz was willing to claim, under oath, that a 28-year old document on dialing rotary phones still (rather, newly) needed to be protected as SECRET.

But it’s not just this one case: pretty much everyone who has FOIAed CIA in recent years has a Martha Lutz story, because the agency has such a consistent history of making transparently false classification claims to hide CIA’s activities, even those that are widely known.

Just as an example, the torture program was (and possibly the still-classified aspects continue to be) a SAP.  Keep that — and the many publicly known details, such as that Alfreda Bikowsky was central to some of the biggest abuses about torture, that CIA managed to bury in the Torture Report not because they’re secret but because having them officially discussed puts CIA at legal risk — in mind as everyone wags around that SAP label. If CIA is making the SAP claim, the claim itself should be suspect, because there’s such an extensive history of CIA making such claims when they were transparently bogus. Earlier in this FOIA, CIA claimed that Hillary’s staffers could only learn about the Pakistani drone program from classified information, when you’re actually better off learning about such things from Pakistani and NGO reporting; in the end McCullough sided with CIA, not because it made sense, but because that’s how classification works.

I’m on the record as thinking Hillary’s home brew server was an abuse of power and really stupid to boot. But I’m also really hesitant to make blind claims from unnamed Original Classification Authorities on faith, because the record shows that those claims are often completely bogus.

Hillary receiving a SAP email may say terrible things about her aides. Alternately, it may reinforce the case that the CIA is an out-of-control agency that makes ridiculous claims of secrecy to avoid accountability. We don’t know which of those things this story supports yet.

Update: Told ya.

The Central Intelligence Agency is the agency that provided the declarations about the classified programs, another U.S. official familiar with the situation told POLITICO Wednesday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some or all of the emails deemed to implicate “special access programs” related to U.S. drone strikes. Those who sent the emails were not involved in directing or approving the strikes, but responded to the fallout from them, the official said.

The information in the emails “was not obtained through a classified product, but is considered ‘per se’ classified” because it pertains to drones, the official added. The U.S. treats drone operations conducted by the CIA as classified, even though in a 2012 internet chat Presidential Barack Obama acknowledged U.S.-directed drone strikes in Pakistan.

The source noted that the intelligence community considers information about classified operations to be classified even if it appears in news reports or is apparent to eyewitnesses on the ground.

Update: I meant to link this earlier. It’s a complaint submitted to ISOO from Katherine Hawkins detailing all the things CIA kept classified in the Torture Report that aren’t, or were improperly classified.

Grim “Reaper” News: US Drones Inexplicably Falling From Sky

Craig Whitlock has a long read in today’s Washington Post, digging into the issue of US drones suffering problems while in flight. These problems often result in the pilots having to steer the drones into remote locations to crash because they are unable to return to base:

A record number of Air Force drones crashed in major accidents last year, documents show, straining the U.S. military’s fleet of robotic aircraft when it is in more demand than ever for counterterrorism missions in an expanding array of war zones.

Driving the increase was a mysterious surge in mishaps involving the Air Force’s newest and most advanced “hunter-killer” drone, the Reaper, which has become the Pentagon’s favored weapon for conducting surveillance and airstrikes against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

The Reaper has been bedeviled by a rash of sudden electrical failures that have caused the 21/2-ton drone to lose power and drop from the sky, according to accident-investigation documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Investigators have traced the problem to a faulty starter-generator, but have been unable to pinpoint why it goes haywire or devise a permanent fix.

Whitlock goes on to tell us that the Air Force alone saw 20 drones either destroyed or suffer major damage in 2015. Later he also tells us that the Army has its own smaller fleet of drones and it has suffered similar drone catastrophes, with four major crashes last year. Remarkably, if we go to the 20 year history of the Predator drone, Whitlock informs us that about half of the 269 Predators the Air Force purchased have crashed or suffered major damage.

As mentioned above, most of these crashes involve the starter-generator failing. The search for an underlying cause for the starter-generator failures has not been successful:

Working with engineers from General Atomics, investigators identified three parts of the starter-generator that were susceptible to breakdowns. But they couldn’t figure out why they were failing.

No pattern was apparent. Older units had failed, but so had brand-new ones. There was no correlation with operating locations or conditions. The Customs and Border Protection investigation blamed an “unknown factor” that was “likely external.

Oh my. What sort of “external” causes might be at work here? Surely it couldn’t be anything like what Iran experienced in its nuclear program, could it? In a remarkable coincidence, David Sanger has an interesting article today, speculating that US sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program may well have played a role in getting Iran to the P5+1 negotiating table. And, of course, no dirty hippies have ever suggested that US drones might be vulnerable to “external” shenanigans.

Meanwhile, the US is busily installing backup starter-generators on Reapers. Whitlock tells us 47 Reapers have gotten the retrofit and that the backup system so far has been credited with 17 “saves” where the backup kicked in to allow a drone to safely return to base when it otherwise would have been ditched.

Obama Administration Changed the Rationale for Why Assassinations Don’t Violate the Assassination Prohibition

As a number of outlets have reported, the Second Circuit last month upheld the government’s effort to keep a March 29, 2002 OLC memo pertaining to targeted killing secret; the opinion was unsealed yesterday. The government is probably doing so to keep changes in their rationale for why assassinations don’t violate the prohibition on assassination in EO 12333 secret.

The judges on the panel — especially Judge Jon Normand, who wrote the opinion — had pushed during an ex parte hearing in June to release language in that earlier memo because the dog & pony show around drone strikes in 2012 to 2013 had used closely related language. But after some more secret briefing, the court decided the application of EO 12333 was different enough such that it remained properly protected.

It seems highly likely the specific part of EO 12333 under discussion pertains to the assassination ban. Between the earlier hearing and the opinion, the court pointed to language in the March 25, 2010 Harold Koh speech, the March 5, 2012 Eric Holder speech, and the April 30, 2012 John Brennan speech on targeted killing (they also pointed to two Panetta comments). Each of the cited speeches discusses the assassination ban — and little else that might directly pertain to EO 12333, besides just generally covert operations authorized under Article II. There’s this language in Koh’s speech.

Fourth and finally, some have argued that our targeting practices violate domestic law, in particular, the long-standing domestic ban on assassinations. But under domestic law, the use of lawful weapons systems—consistent with the applicable laws of war—for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defense or during an armed conflict is not unlawful, and hence does not constitute “assassination.”

This language in Holder’s speech,

Some have called such operations “assassinations.” They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced. Assassinations are unlawful killings. Here, for the reasons I have given, the U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self defense against a leader of al Qaeda or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful — and therefore would not violate the Executive Order banning assassination or criminal statutes.

And this language in Brennan’s speech.

In this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al-Qa’ida or its associated forces are legitimate military targets.  We have the authority to target them with lethal force just as we targeted enemy leaders in past conflicts, such as German and Japanese commanders during World War II.

But even though all these public speeches commented on this interpretation of the assassination ban, the 2nd Circuit still permitted the government to shield the earlier memo.

The transcript of the June ex parte hearing reveals one explanation for that: the earlier memo was a “far broader interpretation” of the issue.

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That’s consistent with the government’s earlier claim (which I wrote about here).

Although the district court noted that the OLC-DOD Memorandum released by this Court contained a “brief mention” of Executive Order 12,333, the district court concluded that the analysis in the March 2002 Memorandum is significantly different from any legal analysis that this Court held has been officially disclosed and for which privilege has been waived.

In other words, while the earlier memo discusses the same aspect of EO 12333 as these public speeches (again, the assassination ban is by far the most likely thing), the earlier memo uses significantly different analysis, and so it may be hidden.

The June transcript also reveals that OLC lawyers reviewed and wrote on the 2002 memo at a later time — the implication being that someone in OLC reviewed the earlier memo in 2010 when writing the Awlaki one (and curiously, that hard copy with handwritten notes is the only one DOJ claims it can find).

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There are two things I find increasingly interesting about this earlier memo about EO 12333 — including at least one part presumably about the assassination ban. First, the implication that one of the lawyers reviewing it in 2010 saw the need to write a new memo (perhaps seeing the need to clean up yet more crazy John Yoo language? who knows). As I repeat endlessly, we know there’s a memo of uncertain date in which Yoo said the President could pixie dust the plain language of EO 12333 without changing the public language of it, and it’s possible this is what that memo did (though the President was clearly pixie dusting surveillance rules).

But I’m also interested in the date: March 29, 2002. The day after we captured Abu Zubaydah (who, at the time, top officials at least claimed to believe was a top leader of al Qaeda). The SSCI Torture Report made it clear the CIA originally intended to disappear detainees. Were they planning to execute them? If so, what stopped things?

In any case, CIA won its battle to hide this earlier discussion so we may never know. But it appears that DOJ may have felt the need to think thing through more seriously before drone assassinating a US citizen. So there is that.

 

David Cameron Proudly Announces He Drone Kills Too

After previous reporting had already claimed US credit for the kill,

A Cardiff man who is one of three from the city to have joined a jihadist group in Syria has died, BBC Wales has been told.

Reyaad Khan, 21, was killed in a US drone strike at the end of August.

And after the WaPo rolled out claims that our latest “secret” drone killing theater operates under new-and-improved rules,

The CIA and U.S. Special Operations forces have launched a secret campaign to hunt terrorism suspects in Syria as part of a targeted killing program that is run separately from the broader U.S. military offensive against the Islamic State, U.S. officials said.

[snip]

Hussain, the 21-year-old British militant killed last month, was moved toward the top of the target list after being linked to one of two gunmen killed in Garland, Tex., this year after opening fire at a cartoon contest that invited participants to draw pictures of the prophet Muhammad.

Hussain is not known to have been directly involved in the Islamic State’s gruesome beheadings of Western hostages or other violence. The decision to kill him makes clear that even militants involved only in the Islamic State’s media efforts are regarded as legitimate U.S. military targets.

In the past, the Obama administration has stressed that it was not targeting terrorism suspects involved only in propaganda. When Anwar al-Awlaki, an American cleric, was killed in Yemen in 2011, officials emphasized that he had become directly involved in terrorist operations.

A senior administration official said that Hussain “was more than a propagandist. He was actively involved in recruiting [Islamic State] sympathizers in the West to carry out attacks, and he was specifically focused on orchestrating operations targeting U.S. service members as well as government officials.”

Hussain was tracked in part by monitoring his online activities, according to officials who said that the British government had been consulted on the decision to make him a target.

David Cameron has now claimed credit for killing.

The UK government ordered an RAF drone strike which targeted and killed two British Islamic State fighters in Syria last month, David Cameron has said.

Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan was targeted in Raqqa on 21 August and died alongside Ruhul Amin, from Aberdeen, and another fighter, the PM told MPs.

Khan, 21, had been plotting “barbaric” attacks on British soil, he said.

The “act of self defence” was lawful, Mr Cameron said, despite MPs previously ruling out UK military action in Syria.

Khan was killed in a precision strike by a remotely piloted aircraft, “after meticulous planning”, while he was travelling in a vehicle, the prime minister said.

Another British national, Junaid Hussain, from Birmingham, was killed in a separate air strike by US forces in Raqqa on 24 August, the prime minister confirmed.

Both had been planning to attack “high-profile public commemorations” taking place in the UK this summer, he said.

Lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic are already raising questions about the legality of this strike (and given European Human Rights law, it’s at least possible Cameron will have to offer more of an explanation than Obama has offered for killing Anwar al-Awlaki). I’m also interested in what has changed from the time when the UK stripped people of their nationality so we could drone kill them (as we’ve done repeatedly in Somalia). And why a country that was so sensitive about British Telecom’s role in drone operations in Djibouti is proudly announcing this now.

Is it because this strike helps to lay the case for more war-making in Syria?

But there’s something else I’m wondering. Who is flying what over Syria? The US and UK can’t fly drones without either Bashar al-Assad’s blessing or certainty what used to be considerable air defenses have been neutralized.

Moon of Alabama has been wondering the same thing too.

[T]he most curious issue in the piece is the description of the “drone” attack that helped to fend off attacking Nusra fighters. No drone I am aware of and certainly not the “Predator” are equipped with automatic weapons like machine guns. The Drones carry fire-and-forget missiles or bombs but no drone has the necessarily heavy rotating tower and swiveling weapon holder that would allow the use of automatic weapons. “Automatic fire from the sky” as the reporter describes from the video he has seen can only have come from manned helicopters. Or is there some other explanation that I miss?

If there were helicopters who’s birds were these? U.S. or Turkish? Are there more of these flying over Syria and to what purpose? And what would be the Search & Rescue assets that could be used should such a bird come down involuntarily?

Something we are not told about is happening at the Turkish-Syrian border. Is that the reason why the Russians, despiteU.S. efforts to hinder them, prepare air fields for the delivery of new air assets to the Syrian army?

Russia is being painted as the aggressor here. But the story of trans-Atlantic drone successes, whatever the underlying truth, suggests some outside force has been successful at doing more than winning ground battles.

Update: Meant to include this, from the WaPo story, because I find it interesting a story about drones introduces ambiguity both about where the drones might have been launched, but also an acknowledgement there’s more coming out of Jordan (and presumably Turkey).

The U.S. military and European allies operate fighter jets and other aircraft from the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan, a highly secured compound that was used earlier this year by a Jordanian pilot who was captured by the Islamic State and burned alive.

The United States also flies drones from bases in Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, where the al-Udeid Air Base serves as the Middle East headquarters of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Update: In his tweet on this, Cameron said the Brits used an RAF “aircraft;” he didn’t say drone (which uses fewer characters).

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Update: Though in Cameron’s statement, he clearly says it was a remotely piloted aircraft.

Mr Speaker, in recent weeks it has been reported that 2 ISIL fighters of British nationality who had been plotting attacks against the UK and other countries have been killed in airstrikes. Both Junaid Hussain and Reyaad Khan, were British nationals based in Syria who were involved in actively recruiting ISIL sympathisers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the West, including directing a number of planned terrorist attacks right here in Britain, such as plots to attack high profile public commemorations, including those taking place this summer.

We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens. So on this occasion we ourselves took action. Today I can inform the House that in an act of self-defence and after meticulous planning Reyaad Khan was killed in a precision air strike carried out on 21 August by an RAF remotely piloted aircraft while he was travelling in a vehicle in the area of Raqqah in Syria.

In addition to Reyaad Khan who was the target of the strike, 2 ISIL associates were also killed, 1 of whom – Ruhul Amin, has been identified as a UK national. They were ISIL fighters and I can confirm there were no civilian casualties.

Mr Speaker, we took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots. And there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action.

The US administration has also confirmed that Junaid Hussain was killed in an American airstrike on 24 August in Raqqah.

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