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DRONE WATCH: Force Alone Cannot Make Us Safe

Saying that drone killings were “effective” and “legal,” President Barack Obama defended the program in a policy speech this afternoon at the National Defense University. He also conceded that “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”

The administration, he said, has “worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists—insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.” He did not go into specific detail, but indicated it included more restrictive targeting criteria along with measures to prevent civilian casualties (“before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”)

The president said that “the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. Because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe.” And as an important part of that strategy, “we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship.”

Over the next days and weeks, we will certainly learn more, and we will see what happens on the ground.

Read reports on the speech in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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DRONE WATCH: Administration Acknowledges American Deaths

The Obama administration formally acknowledged this afternoon that four American citizens have been killed by drone strikes, one intentionally and three who were not targeted. The New York Times reports:

In a letter to Congressional leaders obtained by The New York Times, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. disclosed that the administration had deliberately killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was killed in a drone strike in September 2011 in Yemen.

The American responsibility for Mr. Awlaki’s death has been widely reported, but the administration had until now refused to confirm or deny it.

The letter also said that the United States had killed three other Americans: Samir Khan, who was killed in the same strike; Mr. Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was also killed in Yemen; and Jude Mohammed, who was killed in a strike in Pakistan.

“These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States,” Mr. Holder wrote.

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: Number of Drone Strikes Declines

President Barack Obama will deliver a major speech on drone policy tomorrow. And for a number of reasons—including a smaller number of important al Qaeda targets, issues such as bad weather to diplomatic problems, and concerns about the costs and benefits—the number of drone strikes being carried out is dropping. The New York Times reports:

But lost in the contentious debate over the legality, morality and effectiveness of a novel weapon is the fact that the number of strikes has actually been in decline. Strikes in Pakistan peaked in 2010 and have fallen sharply since then; their pace in Yemen has slowed to half of last year’s rate; and no strike has been reported in Somalia for more than a year.

In a long-awaited address on Thursday at the National Defense University, Mr. Obama will make his most ambitious attempt to date to lay out his justification for the strikes and what they have achieved. He may follow up on public promises, including one he made in his State of the Union speech in February to define a “legal architecture” for choosing targets, possibly shifting more strikes from the C.I.A. to the military; explain how he believes that presidents should be “reined in” in their exercise of lethal power; and take steps to make a program veiled in secrecy more transparent.

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: Serious Moral Questions

In a letter sent to the White House and the leadership of key Congressional committees, Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chair of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote that the use of drones in counter-terrorism “raises serious moral questions.”

Even when viewed through the prism of just war principles, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for targeted killings raises serious moral questions. The Administration seems to have focused narrowly on the just cause of protecting citizens, but other elements of the tradition pose significant questions, including discrimination, imminence of the threat, proportionality and probability of success. Targeted killing should, by definition, be highly discriminatory. The Administration's policy appears to extend the use of deadly force to alleged "signature" attacks and reportedly classifies all males of a certain age as combatants. Are these policies morally defensible? They seem to violate the law of war, international human rights law, and moral norms.

He concludes by asking:

We understand the necessity for operational secrecy in counter-terrorism, but isn’t it critical to have a public discussion of the terms of the Administration’s policy of employing drones for targeted killings? Don’t the moral and strategic issues involved require broader discussion? Shouldn’t a policy with such wide potential consequences be subject to public scrutiny, at a minimum by representative institutions in a democratic society?

Read more here.

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Church Whistle-Blowers Join Forces on Abuse

A group of priests and nuns, some of whom were assaulted as children, has quietly been gathering to publically urge the pope and American bishops to "clean house" on sexual abuse in the church. 

Many members in the group, though vocal on sexual abuse cases in the past, did not know eachother until last year, when a laywoman brought them together for as a "confidential support group."

The New York Times reports:

Their aim, they say, is to support both victims and fellow whistle-blowers, and identify shortcomings in church policies. They hope to help not just minors, but also adults who fall prey to clergy who exploit their power for sex. They say that their motivation is to make the church better and safer, and to show the world that there are good priests and nuns in the church.

“We’ve dedicated our lives to the church,” the Rev. John Bambrick, a priest in the Diocese of Trenton, said at a meeting of the group last week in New York. “Having sex offenders in ministry is damaging to our ministry.”&nbsminp;

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: From CIA to Military

One of the ongoing discussions of the U.S. drone program is who should control it. Having it under the military provides more oversight and accountability; having it under the CIA provides more secrecy. The Obama administration has apparently decided to begin moving control of at least some drone operations to the military. Reuters reports:

Four U.S. government sources told Reuters that the decision had been made to shift the CIA's drone operations to the Pentagon, and some of them said it would occur in stages.

Drone strikes in Yemen, where the U.S. military already conducts operations with Yemeni forces, would be run by the armed forces, officials said.

But for the time-being U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan would continue to be conducted by the CIA to keep the program covert and maintain deniability for both the United States and Pakistan, several sources said.

Ultimately, however, the administration's goal would be to transfer the Pakistan drone operations to the military, one U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: Yemen Drone Strikes

After nearly a month’s lull, two drone strikes were carried out in Yemen over the weekend, killing at least six suspected militants. Reuters reports:

Two suspected al Qaeda militants were killed on Monday in a drone strike on their vehicle south of the capital Sanaa, tribal and government sources said. The strike follows another on Saturday in which at least four militants were killed in Abyan governorate, in southernYemen.

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: Drone Pilot Burnout

A high rate of burnout among drone pilots is leading to concerns in the U.S. Air Force over how they are selected. NBC News reports:  

Pilots may be thousands of miles away from the flying weapons system they're operating. They often head home at the end of the day, as if returning from any other office job, maybe picking up milk on the way. But while at work, their drones' onboard cameras put them in a unique position to watch people being killed and injured as a direct result of their actions.

As psychologists learn more about the mental scarring warfare leaves on drone pilots — caused by long shift hours, isolation, witnessing casualties and those Jekyll-and-Hyde days split between battlefield and home — experts from within the U.S. Air Force are calling for a review of drone pilot selection.

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: Authorizing Drone Strikes

Congress is beginning to assert its oversight role in declaring war by examining drone attacks. Yet, in Congressional testimony yesterday, Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan said that the Pentagon sees no reason to seek additional Congressional authority for the strikes. The Washington Post reports:

“At this point we’re comfortable with the AUMF as it is currently structured,” Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan said of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress in 2001. “Right now . . . it serves its purpose,” he said.

“In my judgment,” Sheehan said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “this is going to go on for quite a while, yes, beyond the second term of the president. . . . I think it’s at least 10 to 20 years.”

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: Drone Launched From Aircraft Carrier

The U.S. Navy took a new step in drone warfare this morning. For the first time, a drone was launched from an aircraft carrier. The drone did not land back on the carrier, a feat that is challenging even for piloted aircraft, but that is expected soon. According to the Associated Press:

The Navy for the first time Tuesday launched an unmanned aircraft the size of a fighter jet from a warship in the Atlantic Ocean, as it wades deeper into America's drone program amid growing concerns over the legality of its escalating surveillance and lethal strikes.

The drone, called the X-47B, is considered particularly valuable because it's the first that is designed specifically to take off and land on an aircraft carrier, allowing it to be used around the world without needing the permission of other countries to serve as a home base.

Read more here.

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NTSB Recommends Lowering Blood Alcohol Threshold for Drivers

The National Transportation Safety Board voted to recommend lowering the blood-alcohol content to legally drive from .08 to .05. While a American Beverage Institute spokesperson called the move "ludicrous," the NTSB has numbers to back them up. According to NBC News: 

The NTSB reports that at .05 BAC, some drivers begin having difficulties with depth perception and other visual functions.  At .07, cognitive abilities become impaired. 

At .05 BAC, the risk of having an accident increases by 39 percent. At .08 BAC, the risk of having an accident increases by more than 100 percent.

Read more HERE.

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DRONE WATCH: New Pakistan PM Questions Drone Attacks

Nawaz Sharif, the newly elected prime minister of Pakistan told reporters yesterday that he considered U.S. drone attacks in that country a challenge to national sovereignty. According to the AP (via the San Jose Mercury News): 

“The CIA's drone campaign targeting al-Qaida and other militants in the tribal regions has been extremely controversial in Pakistan, where people say it frequently kills innocent civilians -- something Washington denies -- and that it violates Pakistan's sovereignty.

"Drones indeed are challenging our sovereignty. Of course we have taken this matter up very seriously. I think this is a very serious issue, and our concern must be understood properly," said Sharif.”

Read more here.

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Gun Control Advocates Target Senators

Gun control advocates are escalating their campaign toward senators who voted against the proposal to extend background checks. The campaign includes letter-writing, protests at town hall meetings and television ads. Several senators including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have seen their poll numbers plunge since voting against the proposal to extend background checks. The Los Angeles Times reports:

"The outside game is about convincing those who voted no that they've made the wrong choice. And that is happening. There are definitely second thoughts out there," said Jim Kessler, a gun policy expert at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. Senators who opposed the agreement, he said, "expected the politics to work for them after the vote and so far it hasn't."

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: NPR Interviews Former Drone Pilot

NPR ran a story today with an interview of a former Air Force drone pilot. He describes some of his experiences, including a death he believes was a child who ran into the target area at the last minute. It brought home to him “the reality of war. Good guys can die, bad guys can die, and innocents can die as well.”

You can listen to the interview here.

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DRONE WATCH: Drone Strikes in Pakistan Ruled Illegal

A Pakistani court has ruled that U.S. drone strikes in that country are illegal. The case was filed on behalf of the families of victims killed in a March 17, 2011 strike. The Independent (U.K.) reports:

In what activists said was an historic decision, the Peshawar High Court issued the verdict against the strikes by CIA-operated spy planes in response to four petitions that contended the attacks killed civilians and caused “collateral damage”.

Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan, who headed a two-judge bench that heard the petitions, ruled the drone strikes were illegal, inhumane and a violation of the UN charter on human rights. The court said the strikes must be declared a war crime as they killed innocent people.

Read more here.

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