Ken Dilanian has a very interesting article in the Los Angeles Times outlining the latest failure in Congress’ attempts to exert oversight over drones. Senator Carl Levin had the reasonable idea of calling a joint closed session of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees so that the details of consolidating drone functions under the Pentagon (and helping the CIA to lose at least one of its paramilitary functions) could be smoothed out. In the end, “smooth” didn’t happen:
An effort by a powerful U.S. senator to broaden congressional oversight of lethal drone strikes overseas fell apart last week after the White House refused to expand the number of lawmakers briefed on covert CIA operations, according to senior U.S. officials.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, held a joint classified hearing Thursday with the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA and military drone strikes against suspected terrorists.
But the White House did not allow CIA officials to attend, so military counter-terrorism commanders testified on their own.
But perhaps the White House was merely retaliating for an earlier slight from Congress:
In May, the White House said it would seek to gradually move armed drone operations to the Pentagon. But lawmakers added a provision to the defense spending bill in December that cut off funds for that purpose, although it allows planning to continue.
Dilanian parrots the usual framing of CIA vs JSOC on drone targeting:
Levin thought it made sense for both committees to share a briefing from generals and CIA officials, officials said. He was eager to dispel the notion, they said, that CIA drone operators were more precise and less prone to error than those in the military.
The reality is that targeting in both the CIA and JSOC drone programs is deeply flawed, and the flaws lead directly to civilian deaths. I have noted many times (for example see here and here and here) when John Brennan-directed drone strikes (either when he had control of strike targeting as Obama’s assassination czar at the White House or after taking over the CIA and taking drone responsibility with him) reeked of political retaliation rather than being logically aimed at high value targets. But those examples pale in comparison to Brennan’s “not a bake sale” strike that killed 40 civilians immediately after Raymond Davis’ release or his personal intervention in the peace talks between Pakistan and the TTP. JSOC, on the other hand, has input from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which, as Marcy has noted, has its own style when it comes to “facts”. On top of that, we have the disclosure from Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald earlier this week that JSOC will target individual mobile phone SIM cards rather than people for strikes, without confirming that the phone is in possession of the target at the time of the strike. The flaws inherent in both of these approaches lead to civilian deaths that fuel creation of even more terrorists among the survivors.
Dilanian doesn’t note that the current move by the White House to consolidate drones at the Pentagon is the opposite of what took place about a year before Brennan took over the CIA, when his group at the White House took over some control of JSOC targeting decisions, at least with regard to signature strikes in Yemen.
In the end, though, it’s hard to see how getting all drone functions within the Pentagon and under Senate Armed Services Committee oversight will improve anything. Admittedly, the Senate Intelligence Committee is responsible for the spectacular failure of NSA oversight and has lacked the courage to release its thorough torture investigation report, but Armed Services oversees a bloated Pentagon that can’t even pass an audit (pdf). In the end, it seems to me that this entire pissing match between Congress and the White House is over which committee(s) will ultimately be blamed for failing oversight of drones.
One tidbit in the long Washington Post profile of Pakistan’s Imran Khan stands out from the standard language describing the former cricket star who has developed a strong enough political movement to control one province. Just over halfway through the article, we have this description of Khan being summoned to a meeting of NATO diplomats after his blockade of the NATO cargo route through the north of Pakistan had become established:
In a blunt signal of the coalition’s unease, about 20 diplomats from NATO countries, including the United States, summoned Khan for dinner in early December at the German ambassador’s residence in Islamabad. According to Khan and others present, the encounter became tense.
“They kept saying, ‘Look, we have nothing to do with it; it’s all the CIA’ ” carrying out the drone attacks, Khan recalled.
Think about that for a minute. The war in Afghanistan is being fought under the NATO banner. Diplomats representing the top countries in that alliance summoned Khan and then lectured him to stop interfering with their supply convoys. They tried to convince Khan that they, as the leaders of the coalition, have no control over John Brennan’s drone strikes inside Pakistan.
But these strikes, of course, are described by the US as serving to protect US troops within the NATO coalition. And the coalition leaders tell Khan that he should stop his blockade of their supplies because they have no control over the drone strikes that have his constituents so upset. In other words, NATO has no control over John Brennan. He makes his decisions on timing and location of drone strikes with no NATO oversight or even input.
Khan instantly saw the absurd depravity of that argument from NATO. The quote from the Post article above cuts the final sentence from the second paragraph. Here is that sentence, which continues Khan’s description of the meeting to the Post:
“I said, ‘Look, you are all coalition partners.’ ”
Khan understands that in a real coalition, the partners would have a say in actions with as much import as drone strikes. But the NATO representatives, who took it upon themselves to lecture Khan about his blockade, had no objection to Brennan being out of their control. Instead, they were using it as an excuse to try to convince Khan to stop obstructing their convoys.
Who is the one with moral rectitude here? The one who understands how members of a coalition should behave or the one who insists that he needs no oversight on any front for raining down death from the sky?
Early this morning, just hours after the US had assured Pakistan that drone strikes would be curtailed if Pakistan is able to restart peace talks with the Taliban (after the US disrupted them with a drone strike), John Brennan lashed out with one of his signature rage drone strikes that seems more calculated as political retaliation than careful targeting. Earlier documentation of political retaliation strikes can be seen here and here.
Here is how Dawn described the assurance from the US late on Wednesday:
The United States has promised that it will not carry out any drone strikes in Pakistan during any peace talks with Taliban militants in the future, the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz said Wednesday.
Briefing a session of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs in Islamabad, Aziz said a team of government negotiators was prepared to hold talks with former Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud on Nov 2, the day after he was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had told reporters last week that the process of peace talks could not be taken forward unless drone attacks on Pakistani soil are halted.
Nisar had said that the drone attack that killed Mehsud ‘sabotaged’ the government’s efforts to strike peace with anti-state militants.
Bill Roggio, writing in Long War Journal, is convinced that the Haqqani network’s leader was the target of today’s strike:
The US launched a drone strike at a seminary in Pakistan’s settled district of Hangu, killing eight people in what appears to have been an attempt to kill Sirajuddin Haqqani, the operations commander of the Taliban and al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network.
But see that bit about the strike being in “Pakistan’s settled district”? One of the many unwritten “rules” of US drone strikes in Pakistan is that they are restricted to the FATA, or Federally Administered Tribal Area, of Pakistan where Pakistani security or military personnel have little to no freedom of movement. In fact, the ability of drones to enter these otherwise forbidden territories is touted as one of their main justifications for use.
Just over a week ago, the chief fundraiser for the Haqqani network was killed near Islamabad. That killing involved a gunman, though, not a drone. If Nasiruddin Haqqani could be taken out by a gunman near Islamabad, why couldn’t Sirajuddin also have been taken out by a gunman in Hangu rather than missed in a drone strike?
Various reports on this drone strike place the death toll at anywhere from three to eight and say that either three or four missiles were fired into the seminary. The seminary appeared to be frequented by Haqqani network fighters. From the Express Tribune:
Another Haqqani source said the seminary was an important rest point for members fighting in Afghanistan’s restive Khost province.
“The seminary served as a base for the network where militants fighting across the border came to stay and rest, as the Haqqani seminaries in the tribal areas were targeted by drones,” the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
An intelligence source told Reuters separately that Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of Taliban-linked Haqqani network, was spotted at the seminary two days earlier.
It appears that there have been no other drone strikes outside the tribal areas since March of 2009. Roggio notes that all three of the others were in the Bannu district.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province now is governed by former cricket star Imran Khan’s PTI party. Khan already was highly agitated by the drone killing of Hakimullah Mehsud and its impact on the planned peace talks with the TTP. It seems entirely possible that striking in Khan’s province was a deliberate act by Brennan in retaliation for Khan’s rhetoric after the Hakimullah Mehsud killing. But by striking out with such rage, and especially by missing his target in a strike in a highly populated area, Brennan seems to have set himself up for a huge blowback. Khan is now ratcheting up his rhetoric considerably: Continue reading
Marcy has been dutifully noting the alignment of forces behind the Czar of Moral Rectitude, John Brennan, in his nomination to be Director of the CIA, as well as the disclosure over the weekend that although a rule book is being drawn up to govern drone strikes, Brennan will be given a free pass for a year or so to avoid any rules for strikes in Pakistan. Who could object to having no rules in Pakistan?
Oh, well, there are the Pakistanis:
Pakistan has asked the United States to halt its highly controversial drone campaign following reports that US President Barack Obama’s administration was planning to give the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) a “free hand” to continue its remotely-controlled war in tribal regions.
The issue was raised by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in a meeting with Richard Olson, the US ambassador in Islamabad, on Tuesday, a foreign ministry official told The Express Tribune.
Foreign Minister Khar voiced her concern over reports that the CIA would step up its drone campaign in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, said the official, who wished not to be named.
She also urged Ambassador Olson to explain his government’s position on the new “playbook” for targeted killings, which would not apply to Pakistan. This, according to The Washington Post, means the CIA will continue to hunt for al Qaeda and its Taliban cohorts in the tribal regions for a year or so before the new rules become applicable to it.
But the fallout from the drone campaign in Pakistan is not limited to the political arena only. Drone strikes are claimed to be targeted, but targeting relies heavily on intelligence. It appears that those targeted have found and executed a man believed to be a spy assisting in drone targeting:
Militants on Wednesday dumped the mutilated body of a purported Afghan spy accused of collaborating on US drone strikes that killed prominent warlord Mullah Nazir in South Waziristan this month, officials said.
The body of the man identified as Asmatullah Kharoti was found in Wana, the main town of the South Waziristan tribal district, which borders Afghanistan.
Local officials said he had been shot dead and there were wounds on his neck.
Two notes on the body ordered the remains to be left on the roadside until 10:00 am “so that everyone could see the fate of spies”, and the second accusing him of being a spy and being responsible for US drone attacks.
Kharoti was accused of “tagging” militants with an electronic marker:
Two militants from Nazir’s group who spoke to AFP accused Kharoti of giving Nazir a digital Quran, fitted with chips to track his movements, during a meeting at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan.
“He presented Nazir and others digital Qurans as a gift which were fitted with chips which help US drones strike their targets,” one of the militants said.
“When Mullah Nazir was returning, US drones fired missiles at him in a Pakistani area,” he said.
I’m guessing that many digital Qurans will be found in roadside ditches in the next few days.
While fallout from US drone operations in Pakistan continues, drones themselves are falling in Afghanistan. Well, at least one did yesterday:
A spy drone belonging to the US-led forces in Afghanistan has crashed in the country’s southeastern Paktika Province, Press TV reports.
The aircraft went down in the Jani Khel district of the Afghan province on Tuesday.
Taliban militants claimed that they had downed the spy drone.
NATO confirmed the crash in a statement on Wednesday. However, it did not provide any details about the cause of the incident.
But don’t worry. I’m sure that our benevolent drone dictator can keep both the rules and the drones up in the air a bit longer.
In a sane world, John Brennan would be on his best behavior while his nomination to lead the CIA is pending approval in the Senate. Sadly, the world we inhabit has become so insane that Brennan’s “best behavior” appears to be a return to drone strikes that come with alarming frequency and include so many missiles fired at each target that it seems likely Brennan has returned to the war crime of attacking first responders who are attempting to rescue survivors at the attack site.
I had noted last May that at least some US drone strikes appeared to have underpinnings that were as political as they were strategic, and my belief in that premise was strengthened as Brennan and the CIA escalated attacks to near daily at the time when US-Pakistan relations had reached a low point during negotiations to re-open NATO supply routes through Pakistan. Although some of the attacks I have described as political seem to have been very poorly targeted, especially the attack that killed 42 people gathered for a jirga just after the release of Raymond Davis, I was encouraged as the attacks slowed and appeared to be targeted on stronger underlying intelligence last fall and this winter.
However, it appears that the pace of attacks is picking up once again, both in frequency and in the number of people killed in each attack. Bill Roggio noted in Long War Journal that the attack on Sunday was already the fourth attack of January in only its sixth day. That attack left 17 dead, although it appears that three separate compounds were targeted in the attack. Today, we have yet another strike, bringing the total to five in eight days. Today’s attack, at least according to the Express Tribune, came in two separate waves, and raises the question of whether the US is once again targeting first responders who are trying to rescue survivors:
US operated armed drones fired missiles in Mir Ali and Essukhel area of North Waziristan in two sorties early on Tuesday morning killing at least eight people, Express News reported.
According to Express News, the CIA-operated drones first fired at least eight missiles at a compound in Haiderkhel area of Miranshah killing five people. Four people were also injured in the attack.
Locals are sifting through the rubble to recover the bodies of the dead and rescue the injured.
In a second attack in as many hours, drone attacks killed at least three people.
Although the Express Tribune article could be read in a way to believe that the two sorties might not have hit the same compound, an article by Reuters and two different AP articles in the New York Times and Washington Post all make it clear that today’s attack concentrated on a single compound. Going back to the information in the Express Tribune article, then, we see eight missiles fired in the first volley. We have no information on how much time passed between missiles or if first responders had time to get to the scene and begin rescue operations. However, the second sortie, described as within two hours, seems quite likely to have been carried out despite the presence of “Locals” described by the Express Tribune as “sifting through the rubble to recover the bodies of the dead and rescue the injured”.
Such is the moral rectitude of the man who has been nominated to be the Director of the CIA. He has once again knowingly targeted first responders who were attempting to rescue survivors from a previous attack.
Update: Long War Journal now reports that today’s strikes were on two different compounds. The primary conclusion about targeting first responders still stands, since it still is being reported that eight missiles were fired at the first compound.