UN Special Rapporteur Condemns America’s Killer Drones

One of last Friday’s big stories somewhat lost in the hustle and focus on the BP Gulf oil disaster and the holiday weekend concerned the continuing outrage of the US drone targeted assassination program. Specifically, Charlie Savage’s report at the New York Times that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston, was expected to issue a report calling on the United States to stop Central Intelligence Agency drone strikes thus “complicating the Obama administration’s growing reliance on that tactic in Pakistan”.

Today, the report is out, and Charlie Savage again brings the details in the Times:

A senior United Nations official said on Wednesday that the growing use of armed drones by the United States to kill terrorism suspects is undermining global constraints on the use of military force. He warned that the American example will lead to a chaotic world as the new weapons technology inevitably spreads.

In a 29-page report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the official, Philip Alston,the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, called on the United States to exercise greater restraint in its use of drones in places like Pakistan and Yemen, outside the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. The report — the most extensive effort by the United Nations to grapple with the legal implications of armed drones — also proposed a summit of “key military powers” to clarify legal limits on such killings.

In an interview, Mr. Alston, said the United States appears to think that it is “facing a unique threat from transnational terrorist networks” that justifies its effort to put forward legal justifications that would make the rules “as flexible as possible.”

Here is Alson’s official report.

Interestingly, Alston’s report comes hot on the heels of the news the biggest get yet for the Obama drone assassination program, Al-Qaida Number Three (or at least the latest Number Three) Mustafa Abu al-Yazid. But Alston, although indicating that al-Yazid migh could be distinguished because of the direct al-Qaida status, nevertheless expressed reservations even is such situations.

For example, it criticized the United States for targeting drug lords in Afghanistan suspected of giving money to the Taliban, a policy it said was contrary to the traditional understanding of the laws of war. Similarly, it said, terrorism financiers, propagandists and other non-fighters should face criminal prosecution, not summary killing.

It also said that a targeted killing outside of an armed conflict “is almost never likely to be legal.” In particular, it rejected “pre-emptive self-defense” as a justification for killing terrorism suspects far from combat zones.

“This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defense goes a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the U.N. Charter,” Mr. Alston said. “If invoked by other states, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.”

Alston’s concerns are especially troubling considering Charlie Savage’s first NY Times report in last Friday’s print edition on the quiet efforts of the Obama Administration to insure its drone operators can never be prosecuted for the extrajudicial murders they commit. Describing surreptitious efforts to amend the Military Commissions Manual:

The Pentagon delayed issuing a 281-page manual laying out commission rules until the eve of the hearing. The reason, officials say, is that government lawyers had been scrambling to rewrite a section about murder because it has implications for the C.I.A. drone program.

An earlier version of the manual, issued in 2007 by the Bush administration, defined the charge of “murder in violation of the laws of war” as a killing by someone who did not meet “the requirements for lawful combatancy” — like being part of a regular army or otherwise wearing a uniform. Similar language was incorporated into a draft of the new manual.

But as the Khadr hearing approached, Harold Koh, the State Department legal adviser, pointed out that such a definition could be construed as a concession by the United States that C.I.A. drone operators were war criminals. Jeh Johnson, the Defense Department general counsel, and his staff ultimately agreed with that concern. They redrafted the manual so that murder by an unprivileged combatant would instead be treated like espionage — an offense under domestic law not considered a war crime.

All of which is not just distressing, but telling as to who the United States have become as a country. Made all the more sickening by the fact the extrajudicial assassination program has exacerbated geometrically under the short, but deadly, tenure of the supposedly enlightened Constitutional law authority Barack Obama.

The new rules have transformed the program from a narrow effort aimed at killing top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders into a large-scale campaign of airstrikes in which few militants are off-limits, as long as they are deemed to pose a threat to the U.S., the officials said.

Instead of just a few dozen attacks per year, CIA-operated unmanned aircraft now carry out multiple missile strikes each week against safe houses, training camps and other hiding places used by militants in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

The original NY Times article by Savage last Friday is an excellent piece on the drone program worthy of a read if you did not catch it at the start of the holiday weekend when it first was published.

Getting back to Philip Altson’s UN Special Rapporteur report, the wrath of the world against the US is growing not just from the existence of the program to start with, but by the indiscriminate “collateral damage the US wreaks with callous impunity. Overshadowed by the glee of the Obama Administration and the blinkered stenographic major media over the remote hit on al-Qaida Number Three al-Yazid was a concurrent report lost in the shuffle of that even US Military investigators have determined completely innocent Afghan citizens were being murdered by the Obama Killer Drones along with a pattern of deception trying to cover it up. From the AP via the Arizona Republic:

U.S. military investigators found that “inaccurate and unprofessional” reporting by U.S. operators of a Predator drone was responsible for a missile strike that killed 23 Afghan civilians in February, according to a report released Saturday.

Release of the scathing report is part of a U.S. effort to counter rising public anger over civilian deaths, which threatens to undermine the campaign against the Taliban at a critical juncture in the nearly nine-year war. Twelve other civilians including a woman and three children were wounded in the missile strike, the report said.

Four American officers – two described as senior – received career-damaging reprimands, the U.S. command said in a statement. The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, called on the Air Force to investigate the actions of the Predator crew.

Isn’t that special? Grossly wanton and willful work by American remote video gameboys leave a swath of death 23 innocent civilian souls wide and they have received some demerits on their record. The “operators’ of the drones, back in Nevada, where the video gameboys are shacked up, just somehow had never noticed any Afghani women and children in the cars, despite watching them for 3 1/2 hours. Not only had they not noticed women and children themselves, they didn’t notice warnings intelligence analysts sent to them that children were present and visible.

It is not a mistake, it is murder. But don’t try to tell that to US governmental officials:

That comment drew a response from a U.S. official: “Those who think we strike at terrorists over the objections of the Pakistani government are mistaken. This is a common fight against those who menace both our countries. That fact alone renders absurd the notion that U.S. officials might be tried in a Pakistani court for counterterrorism operations.

Yeah, just totally absurd. You give the CIA a huge budget, the whole world as a killing field, carte blanche to terminate human souls with prejudice, no duty to get individual Presidential authorization for each kill, put the President directly in the authorization to murder chain, remove all substantive accountability and then give them killer drones operated by jacked up video gameboys. What could possibly go wrong?

[Notice of erratum: Due to author error on my part, I incorrectly originally attributed two later block quotes in this post to the LA Times when they, in fact, came from Charlie Savage and the New York Times. The post has been corrected to reflect the same with my sincere apologies to Charlie.]

43 replies
  1. PJEvans says:

    What could possibly go wrong?

    Ummm … they could hit a pipeline with oil or gasoline in it. (Not that I think there are any in Afghanistan, but somewhere along the path that they’re steering us down, it will happen.)

  2. bobschacht says:

    Thanks for reporting on this. It seems hard to believe that a Democratic president is following in the footsteps of George W. Bush in the area of war crimes. I had hoped for better.

    Bob in AZ

  3. cregan says:

    Bmaz, good post. I tend to agree that these drone strikes are a problem. Not only the innocents who get killed by them, but the judge, jury and executioner aspect of them.

    • bmaz says:

      It really is pretty incredible that anybody, much less the Democratic US President just given the freaking Nobel Peace Prize, thinks it is just fine and dandy.

      • cregan says:

        I agree. But, I really think the reasoning behind it is that Obama thinks if people are not killed by troops on the ground, then it is a cost-free kind of war. Not really a war. Not really a police action. Just robots getting rid of bad people.

        Or something like that.

  4. Mary says:

    I don’t think it matters for the point of your post, but just for some emphasis, the UN report is about the CIA drone operations, while the 23 people killed in the February strikes were a military operation.

    Here’s something else I found really conerning about the stories on the child predator bombings as described in the Filkins NYT article, which I think is pretty much the same picked up at your AZ Rep link

    Here’s the scenario described. A spec op team is on the track of some guys they think are/are sure are insurgents. Miles away, there is a caravan of a pickup and two sport utility vehicles. The Dronies watch the little caravan as you note for 3/12 hours and during that time intelligence analysts send them two warnings that there are children in the caravan. The Dronies don’t see the children or women in their 3 1/2 hour tracking time and miss the intel reports too.

    As a matter of fact, they only talk about the men in the pick up, not the two sport utilities.

    The Predator operators reported seeing only military-age men in the truck, the report said. The ground commander concurred, the report said, and the Special Operations team asked for an airstrike.

    I’m not sure the hows and whys and wherefores of the communications between the Dronies and the ground commander – Filkins is vague on that – but what apparently happens is that the Dronies tell the ground commander that there is a [truck][truck plus two sport vehicles] that is seven miles away and the truck looks like it has only “military age” men.

    That’s it.

    That’s the grounds for the strike.

    That seven miles away there’s a truck and some other cars and the truck has men in it.

    In this particular case, the Dronies don’t do the actual bombing if I’m reading the story correctly – instead, they call in a helicopter crew to kill the vehicle drivers and passengers because they were – Afghan men. Men who weren’t tied to the spec op search, but who had driven to within 7 miles of the search op.

    An OH-58D Kiowa helicopter fired Hellfire missiles and rockets, destroying the vehicles and killing 23 civilians. Twelve others were wounded.

    Someone with more weapons info will have to compare the damage done by the Hellfires (apt name for something killing kids) vs. what would have been done with a drone bombing. One thing, though, is that the human element that was finally introduced did at least result lesser killing and damage than there might have been.

    The helicopter crew realizes something is very wrong after their first pass and they stop firing.

    Immediately after the initial attack, the Kiowa helicopter’s crew spotted brightly colored clothing at the scene, and, suspecting that civilians might have been in the trucks, stopped firing.

    Good for them, and how very sad and awful for them as well, to go home with that.

    In any event, though, it’s only because there were women and children that this was put down as anything other than killing more insurgents. This is, I think, a very important but buried element of the story – everything would have been “ok” if the only persons killed were men. Not “insurgents” but men in a pickup several miles away. Men who “might” (bc they were men, and were in a pick up) have been coming to reinforce insurgents – or who might not(bc there are men in pickups all the time in Afghanistan). The only thing that had to be “confirmed” prior to bombing and killing (not warn off shots) was that there were men in a pickup with 10 miles of the spec op team.

    So a few military men get censured and Filkins runs a story that the censure shows how incredibly sensitive we/US is about harming civilians. Some really weird editing went into this sentence:

    The attack, in which three vehicles were destroyed, illustrated the extraordinary sensitivity to the inadvertent killing of noncombatants by NATO forces.

    But I’m kinda thinking he didn’t really say the attack illustrated our sensitivity.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Whew. I’m glad we only killed “three vehicles” in that attack and not anyone inside them. I am amazed at the precision, the restraint, and the lack of lethality (when desirable) of our warfighting machine. Not.

    • bmaz says:

      Yes, it was ultimately a helicopter that fired the kill shots. Recklessly targeted and ordered by the droneboys though, and drones commonly fire the same or similar Hellfire missiles as were apparently used by the Kiowa helicopter. So I did not see any distinction for the purpose here in that regard; although the military involvement as opposed to pure CIA (is there such a thing?) probably should have been pointed out.

    • b2020 says:

      Good point. There is a presumption of belligerence.

      It will be a lot easier when the US finally get UGV drones to work. There is nothing like in-the-face provocation through wanton, excessive and illegal violence, to get that one essential moment of resistance, disobedience or just lagging “compliance” that excuses everything – taser, beatings, shootings. It works for cops, it will work for the brave new world of “victim-perpetrated war crimes”.

  5. BoxTurtle says:

    After all those sternly worded letters we sent out from all the senate or house committees, America FINALLY gets a sternly worded letter of our own!

    Boxturtle (Waddya think, hang it in the living room or the study?)

  6. b2020 says:

    “That comment drew a response from a U.S. official”

    Anonymous “officials” should be referred to as un-officials.

    Thanks for covering this – given the convergence of domestic and military law-less enforcement, this is the trial run. In a decade, the remote-controlled drones will be patrolling the continental US.

    • ghostof911 says:

      this is the trial run. In a decade, the remote-controlled drones will be patrolling the continental US.

      Others have been saying the same for quite some time.

      • mattcarmody says:

        Drones already operate on the border.

        Looking at the use of drones, Robert Fisk, in his book The Great War for Civilization, points out that during the 80s Israel was using drones to recon Palestinian refugee camps in the aftermath of the Lebanon invasion.

        A lot of things this country has been doing in the past 10 years, including “enhanced interrogation techniques,” have their genesis in the Israeli war crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people. Those techniques, of course, were carried over from the Nazis.

        We’ve come full circle.

    • bobschacht says:

      …given the convergence of domestic and military law-less enforcement, this is the trial run. In a decade, the remote-controlled drones will be patrolling the continental US.

      I think it will start with border-patrolling drones.

      Bob in AZ

  7. Jeff Kaye says:

    “If invoked by other states, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.”

    Thank you, bmaz, so, so much for covering this issue, and with the indignant passion it deserves. Outside of the torture issue, nothing marks the United States for the criminal regime it has become than the sordid, indiscriminate use of targeted assassination by “video gameboys.”

    Alston is right (and note, there’s a typo in his name in sentence, “Here is Alson’s [sic] official report”), and how sad, sad, sad it has become, and infuriating, the twisted games with the law made by the U.S., and a policy that assures that only might makes right, and anything, everything this country ever stood for is revealed now as blood-soaked dross.

    I am through with this administration. They are the inheritors of Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. That portion of the eleven-dimensional chess game is over.

    1. Nf3

  8. fatster says:

    Excellent post, bmaz.

    It’s pretty much become SOP now, hasn’t it? Do something that is illegal on all kinds of levels (domestic and international), then once you’re called on it, put lots of people to work finagling with the law and crafting obtuse documents and statements in defense of what’s been done, “work” with Congress so that there will be no in-depth investigations, tell the frightened American public that these things must be done in order to protect them, and deny access to as much relevant information as possible in the name of “national security” and “state secrets.”

    Just think of all our tax dollars being put to work to guarantee that the US government can violate laws and treaties as it deems fit and that the American people are denied knowledge of what their government is doing, and are encouraged to adjust their ethics so that they accept torture and murder as “dark side” activities necessary for protecting them. It is a tragedy that it worked so well during this past decade, obscured by “the fog of war” (and with BushCo, continuous production of the fog was a major endeavor), because that established the firm foundation for what is occurring now.

    Apologies for the outburst and its simplicity.

    • PJEvans says:

      I wish they’d stop and think about all the much more constructive things that could be done with that money.
      Building new houses, schools and hospitals to replace all the ones we’ve turned into rubble would be a good start.

      • fatster says:

        I hear ya, PJEvans, but we seem to be stuck with Old Warheads and the culture in which they thrive.

      • bobschacht says:

        I agree mostly– but for me the Big Three are schools, hospitals and jobs.

        The unemployment rate is really high. A lot of the “Taliban” do what they do only because there’s no other paying jobs.

        Bob in AZ

    • Hmmm says:

      No apology remotely necessary IMHO.

      I’ve been thinking about this lately. What we have here is a case of a new technology — in our case, very remotely controlled weaponized drones carrying extremely accurate missiles — that emerges and makes new forms of violence possible, with different characteristics from any previous weapon systems. And as you say, a flurry of legal scrambling ensues because none of the existing legal or treaty frameworks suits the new weapon and the ways in which it is used — its use breaks old rules, and new rules to legitimate its use aren’t there yet, so therefore new rules have to be fashioned. And of course there is strong motivation to evade legal liability for the use of the new weapon in the period before the new rules legitimizing it are brought up.

      But is this really new? Rules (even territorial waters boundaries) were set based on ballistic weapon ranges — and then those ranges increased over time, invalidating the rules. And then there’s the whole grisly march of atomic and nuclear weapons, which I can only assume were initially extra-legal in full. (?) But after the initial uses, laws, rules, treaties were created. So maybe this is only the most recent trip around the circuit.

      (Of course none of this is to belittle the impact of any of those weapons, I’m just commenting on the pattern.)

    • Hmmm says:

      Thanks, fatster, that’s a very interesting piece. Servicemembers seem to have done a remarkably good job of not blabbing about any of that realtime battlefield IT stuff all these years… most impressive.

  9. harpie says:

    Thanks, bmaz. I just can’t think of anything to say, anymore, but if I could, it would sound something like
    what faster said @12.

  10. stevepatriquin says:

    Who cares what the UN says. They let Iran on the womens rights board. The UN being thrown out of the US, the better.

  11. tjbs says:

    Thanks BMAZ

    FISA knows what we say online

    add facial recognition

    Mix in a little miniaturization

    To come up with an arm sized rocket to track you down on someone’s say so, right through your kitchen or bedroom window.

    Bingo vaporized, cuts back on the need for lawyers, judges and prisons so maybe it will save those not chosen from the burdens of the costs involved in providing these services.

    Imagine how compliant the remaining population will become.

  12. spanishinquisition says:

    “Those who think we strike at terrorists over the objections of the Pakistani government are mistaken. This is a common fight against those who menace both our countries. That fact alone renders absurd the notion that U.S. officials might be tried in a Pakistani court for counterterrorism operations.”

    That is insane that somehow that allows you to do whatever you want carte blanche. This type of thinking is what lead to the My Lai massacre and as such will lead to more massacres. I’m waiting now for the White House to say something along the lines of “Anyone who runs is a VC. Anyone who doesn’t run is a well-trained VC.” What also sounds bad is that Obama is bringing change from the Bush admin in that the Bush admin’s definitions of murder would make Obama’s actions criminal, so Obama is trying to re-write Bush’s rules as Bush’s rules of war were just too strict for Obama.

  13. Mason says:

    Let us also never forget that our corporate doormat for a president joked about murdering the members of some band, whom his daughters admire, with predator drones should they show any interest in his daughters.

    This incredibly lame effort to be funny is pandering of the worse sort and so narcissistic and insensitive on so many levels that I feel I could write a book about what it reveals about Obama.

    He is a very sick, disturbed, and dangerous man whose unbridled passion and continuing support for using predator drones to kill potential insurgents, notwithstanding a horrifying rate of error that includes women and children, is nothing less than a shocking bloodlust that imperils the lives of all Americans by creating hundreds and perhaps thousands of new enemies every day who so hate the United States that they are willing to sacrifice their lives to destroy it.

    We have to stop him.

    • DWBartoo says:

      What nature of beings now rule us? Has our society reached that point where its elite are both self-empowered and widely and popularly revered for their callous disregard of life; for their allegiance to a “pragmatism” of unrestrained and ballyhooed violence?

      Daily, the shocks, the outrages, and the arrogant behaviors of all those in power, not even bothering to hide their lust for wealth and power, nor even disguising, at a minimum their utter disgust and virtual intolerance of any and all who would dare question or gainsay them, not to mention, the rest of us, shout at us from the “headlines”. Perhaps it is become too much?

      One notes, for example, the appalling, nay the deafening, silence from the legal profession which greeted the news of the recent SCOTUS decision regarding MIranda, with no more than wistful, passing anguish that it is either of so little import or was so evident in its eventual manifestation that it warrants no mention. Although, one of the Justices who stood against this “interpretation”, suggested the decision turned certain things … “upside down”.

      Ah, well, them what knows … know discretion is a valorous (and oft-times, needful, survival-wise) thing.

      One imagines we are all learning the lesson.


  14. TalkingStick says:

    One notes, for example, the appalling, nay the deafening, silence from the legal profession which greeted the news of the recent SCOTUS decision regarding MIranda, with no more than wistful, passing anguish that it is either of so little import or was so evident in its eventual manifestation that it warrants no mention. Although, one of the Justices who stood against this “interpretation”, suggested the decision turned certain things … “upside down”.

    If we follow our usual way it will be years before something throws in our face what has been done to Miaranda. There will be shock! shock! but acceptance it is too late to turn it back. —

    There were a few intellectual discussions of, not the morality, the effectiveness of torture as a hypothetical for months before the photos of Abu Ghirab appeared. Shock but still no change in policy.

  15. spencerh says:

    I’m no fan of the way we’re currently going about this, but there does need to be a serious rethink of how we deal with the new reality of Fourth Generation Warfare. The way we’re doing things are surely not the wisest or most effective, so what is? What is the proper way of dealing with enemies – actual ones, not imagined – who no longer wear a uniform? Who blend in with the civilian population? Whose bases are in foreign countries whose governments are too weak or corrupt to do anything about them?

    Yes, we should be funding education and health care. Yes, we should adopt a less aggressive posture on foreign affairs. There are a lot of things we should, and can do, but none of that is going to magically make every hardcore fanatic with their own ideological axe to grind disappear. We could close every military base we have that’s in a foreign country and it wouldn’t automatically stop the groups that are against Liberalism, progress, secularism, or human rights. Sure,a great many of the US actions are hypocritical and betray the Constitution and the UDHR; that doesn’t make its enemies right or any less dangerous.

    We need a serious reconsideration of how we deal with the issue of international, non-state based, asymmetric warfare.

    • Hmmm says:

      Attempts to control others absolutely always backfire, even if not immediately, because they are inherently massively disproportionate, and frequently illegal or hypocritical; they naturally create greater resentment and radicalize the targets and observers, even if they also temporarily subdue the direct targets. A rational approach would accept that there is no way to stop 100% of opposition, or 100% of attacks against us. What is possible is to significantly reduce the number of opponents and their average ferocity, by ending as far as possible those aspects of our use of force, threat, and coercion that are massively disproportionate, and that are illegal, and that are hypocritical.

      • TalkingStick says:

        They are also terrorism as practiced, now on Muslims, by the United States. The tool will will remain to be employed for the same purpose when the government decides there are domestic terrorists…….. such as environmentalists.

    • Mason says:

      We need a serious reconsideration of how we deal with the issue of international, non-state based, asymmetric warfare.

      We need to understand that the real terrorists are the people who run our government.

  16. timbo says:

    I have no positive thoughts to contribute to this thread. Too depressed by the news this week. It’s all bad. I assume I’m not the only one that thinks ‘this is how WWIII starts”? Yeah, I think it’s that bad. Not sure how long it will take but it doesn’t look good for the world economy, it doesn’t look good for national-state stability either. It’s just plumb not looking good.

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