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DRONE WATCH: Drone Strikes in Afghanistan Increase

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan released its annual report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan on Tuesday, finding a decrease from 2011. According to the Guardian, the U.N. also reported that 506 weapons were fired by drones in 2012, compared with 294 in 2011. Five cases resulted in civilian casualties, with 16 deaths and three wounded. Although drone attacks have become controversial in Pakistan, the Guardian writes:

 “They have not been a prominent issue in Afghanistan, however. While drone attacks have occurred, they have largely been in support of ground troops during operations and have not been singled out by President Hamid Karzai's administration in its campaign against international air strikes.

“The steep rise in the number of weapons fired from unmanned aerial aircraft – the formal term for drones – raises the possibility that may change as US forces become more dependent on such attacks to fight al-Qaida and other insurgents as combat missions are due to end by the end of 2014.”

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DRONE WATCH: Moral and Ethical Concerns

Dennis Sadowski at Catholic News Service has a good summary of the moral and ethical concerns about drone warfare from a workshop at the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. One participant, Charles Camosy, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University, suggested that it should be viewed as a pro-life issue:

"It involves violence and violent killing. It involves the killing of the innocent in a way that doesn't follow the church's teaching. It's an exercise of raw violent power in a way that I think should get pro-lifers really, really upset," Camosy explained to CNS.

“Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International, suggested that drones have led to 'a battlefield without borders.' "We have a global battlefield, which completely undercuts any possibility of talking about just war. There are no boundaries on this thing," she said.”

As the drone debate continues, it should go deeper into these concerns rather than only discussing legalities.  




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DRONE WATCH: Drones Over the U.S.

While we have been focusing on drones as weapons of war – killing by drone – controversy over the domestic use of drones is also growing. Police forces across the U.S. have become enamored by surveillance drones that can be used in law enforcement. But that has led to a rise in local governments beginning to strictly regulate their use or banning them. The New York Times reports on these efforts:

“To me, it’s Big Brother in the sky,” said Dave Norris, a city councilman in Charlottesville, Va., which this month became the first city in the country to restrict the use of drones. “I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial about it, but these drones are coming, and we need to put some safeguards in place so they are not abused.” … Last week, the Seattle Police Department agreed to return its two still-unused drones to the manufacturer after Mayor Michael McGinn answered public protests by banning their use.”

Some states have adopted moratoriums on drones pending further study, others are considering proposals that would require search warrants for their use. It is heartening that the objections are coming before drones are flying over all of us, rather than attempting to stop them when it is already too late.

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DRONE WATCH: From CIA to Pentagon?

The U.S. killing by drones in countries other than war zones is run by the CIA. This leads to the secrecy of the program, one of its controversial aspects. Now, according to Ken Dilanian in the Los Angeles Times, it may change.

 “Facing growing pressure to lift the veil of secrecy around targeted killings overseas, the Obama administration is considering shifting more of the CIA's covert drone program to the Pentagon, which operates under legal guidelines that could allow for more public disclosure in some cases. John Brennan, whom President Obama has nominated to run the CIA, favors moving the bulk of drone killing operations to the military, current and former U.S. officials say.” 

Some think this would result in less secrecy, as the Pentagon has already acknowledged its use of drones. Others think it would prove more difficult in causing problems for nations that secretly host U.S. drone bases. Whatever the perceived problems may be, if a change leads to a more open and accountable program, it’s a good thing.

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DRONE WATCH: The Drone Medal

Military medals have historically been given for exceptional bravery in combat. But the Defense Department has announced a new medal – for flying a drone.  A servicemember can now sit at a screen in the United States with a joystick and earn a “Distinguished Warfare Medal.” Army Times reports,

“The Pentagon is creating a new high-level military medal that will recognize drone pilots and, in a controversial twist, giving it added clout by placing it above some traditional combat valor medals in the military’s 'order of precedence.'

“The Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded to pilots of unmanned aircraft, offensive cyber war experts or others who are directly involved in combat operations but who are not physically in theater and facing the physical risks that warfare historically entails.”

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DRONE WATCH: Brennan Vote Delayed

As the drone debate continues, the Senate Intelligence Committee is delaying a confirmation vote on John Brennan as CIA Director. Brennan most recently was President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, and in that capacity the administration’s point person on drones. The Washington Post reports:

“A Senate confirmation vote on John O. Brennan as CIA director has been postponed for at least two weeks as lawmakers step up pressure on the Obama administration to provide more information about its drone campaign against terrorism suspects.

“In particular, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that she is seeking seven Justice Department memos related to the administration’s targeted killing program, in addition to four the committee has been allowed to view.”

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Out of Control Partisanship

Like former Sen. Chuck Hagel, Richard Lugar is a moderate-to-conservative Midwest Republican. Lugar was defeated in a primary election last year by a tea party candidate, and this week gave his first public speech since leaving office in January. According to the Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette, he spoke of the out of control partisanship that now controls Washington politics, specifically noting  the “politicization of national security policy” in the debate over Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense. 

“Hagel’s “main transgression is that he is a Republican who has questioned policies that are sacred among most conservative senators,” Lugar said. “These include whether the surge in Iraq was worth the lives lost, whether the current high levels of defense expenditures make strategic sense, whether nuclear forces can be reduced further and whether there are non-military options in dealing with Iran.”

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DRONE WATCH: Drone Strike in Pakistan

The day after the hearing on John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA, U.S. drones were back in action over Pakistan. An attack on Friday in the border tribal region killed seven suspected militants. NBC News reports:

“Seven people were killed and six others injured in a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region on Friday evening, Pakistani security officials said. The officials and tribal sources said the drone fired six missiles and pounded two separate mud-built houses in the Babar area of the Ladha subdivision in the South Waziristan tribal region.”

Other reports with different details include DAWN, Al Jazeera, and the Associated Press.

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DRONE WATCH: Drones Hit Front Page

The publication on Monday of a previously secret Justice Department memo attempting to legally justify the killing of American citizens has opened the door for front-page questions about the entire drone program.    

- The Washington Post revealed the existence of a previously secret drone base in Saudi Arabia, established two years ago when the campaign against al Qaeda in Yemen was Intensified. The story notes that John Brennan, a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, played a key role in negotiations for the base.

- In London, the Guardian headlines the secret base, and notes that “Iranian state media highlighted the story, which is also likely to be seized upon by jihadi groups. Saudi Arabia has previously publicly denied co-operating with the US to target al-Qaida in Yemen.”

- The Associated Press notes a growing number of a growing number of Members of Congress seeking to limit the claimed authority for drone killings and predicts it will be a hot topic in the confirmation hearing tomorrow of John Brennan for CIA Director.

- Bloomberg reports remarks by Pakistan Ambassador to the U.S. Sherry Rehman at a Christian Science Monitor news breakfast in Washington. Rehman called the continuing drone strikes in Pakistan a “direct violation of our sovereignty” and international law as well as a red line that Pakistani authorities are constantly urging the U.S. not to cross.

- The New York Times, noting that Brennan “has taken a particular interest in Yemen,” devotes a long lead story to the drone strikes in that country. It raises the questions about the program: Why are both the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA carrying out drone campaigns in Yemen? Are the strikes creating more militants than they are killing?

- At the White House press briefing Tuesday afternoon, the first question to Press Secretary Jay Carney was about the drone memo. The money quote of his answer, from the official transcript, was “We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats, to stop plots, prevent future attacks, and, again, save American lives.  These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise.”

- And, for the last word, NBC News has Mary Ellen O’Connell, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and an authority on international law and the use of force, saying about the leaked memo: “Anyone should be concerned when the president and his lawyers make up their own interpretation of the law or their own rules. This is a very, very dangerous thing that the president has done.” 

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Giffords at Gun Hearing: 'Be Bold'

The Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on gun control in the new Congress this morning. The first witness was former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who survived being shot in the head two years ago.  

Here, via CBS News, is her statement.

"Thank you for inviting me here today. This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities, for Democrats, and Republicans.

"Speaking is difficult but I need to say something important.

"Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying — too many children. We must do something.

"It will be hard. But the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be Courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you."

Other witnesses included Gifford’s husband Mark Kelly,  James Johnson, chief of police for Baltimore County, Md., and chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, and Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President of the NRA.

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Senate Confirms Kerry

The Associated Press reports that the Senate has confirmed John Kerry as Secretary of State with a 94-3 vote. Earlier today, the Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved the nomination.  Kerry, a Vietnam veteran and five-term Senator, replaces Hillary Clinton as Secretary.

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DRONE WATCH: Drones in Africa

The New York Times reports that the U.S. is preparing to establish a base in northwest Africa so that it can fly drone surveillance missions against the local affiliate of Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups. 

“For now, officials say they envision flying only unarmed surveillance drones from the base, though they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens. …

“A handful of unarmed Predator drones would carry out surveillance missions in the region and fill a desperate need for more detailed information on a range of regional threats, including militants in Mali and the unabated flow of fighters and weapons from Libya. American military commanders and intelligence analysts complain that such information has been sorely lacking.”

This morning, Reuters reports that Niger has given permission for the drones to be based in that country. According to a “senior government source,” the U.S. Ambassador to Niger made to the request to the country’s president, who accepted it.

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DRONE WATCH: UN to Examine Drone Strikes

Ben Emmerson, a U.N. special rapporteur, is beginning an investigation into drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, according to the Guardian.

“About 20 or 30 strikes – selected as representative of different types of attacks – will be studied to assess the extent of any civilian casualties, the identity of militants targeted and the legality of strikes in countries where the UN has not formally recognised there is a conflict.

“The inquiry will report to the UN general assembly in New York this autumn. Depending on its findings, it may recommend further action. Emmerson has previously suggested some drone attacks – particularly those known as "double tap" strikes where rescuers going to the aid of a first blast have become victims of a follow-up strike – could possibly constitute a 'war crime.'"

Several nations, including Pakistan, have requested the investigation.

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DRONE WATCH: The CIA Exemption

Several months ago, the Washington Post reported that presidential counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was developing a “playbook” of rules for drone attacks:

“The “playbook,” as Brennan calls it, will lay out the administration’s evolving procedures for the targeted killings that have come to define its fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It will cover the selection and approval of targets from the “disposition matrix,” the designation of who should pull the trigger when a killing is warranted, and the legal authorities the administration thinks sanction its actions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond.”

On Sunday, the Post followed with a report that the playbook was nearing completion, and would provide clear rules. 

“In Yemen, officials said, strikes have been permitted only in cases in which intelligence indicates a specific threat to Americans. That could include “individuals who are personally involved in trying to kill Americans,” a senior administration official said, or “intelligence that ... [for example] a truck has been configured in order to go after our embassy in Sanaa.

“The playbook has adopted that tighter standard and imposes other more stringent rules. Among them are requirements for White House approval of drone strikes and the involvement of multiple agencies — including the State Department — in nominating new names for kill lists.”

But there is one exception to the new rules. The CIA drone program in Pakistan gets an exemption for at least a year.  That exemption is described as “a compromise that allowed officials to move forward with other parts of the playbook.” The disputed point that apparently led to it was the CIA’s use of so-called “signature strikes,” attacks based on behavior seen as suspicious rather than in specific identified targets.

It also appears that the coming withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will lead to more and more drone attacks. The Post quotes a former official involved in the playbook, “There’s a sense that you put the pedal to the metal now…”


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DRONE WATCH: Yemen — 4 Attacks, 4 Days

While Washington, D.C., reveled in the ceremonies and parties surrounding Inauguration Day, U.S. drones were busy in Yemen. According to Reuters, four attacks in four days, from Saturday to Tuesday, killed at least 14 people. The attacks led to a protest blockade by angry tribesmen:

“On Sunday armed tribesman, angry at what they said was a drone attack on an area inhabited by civilians, blocked the main road linking Maarib with Sanaa. Earlier this month, dozens of armed tribesmen also took to the streets in southern Yemen to protest against drone strikes that they said had killed innocent civilians and fuelled anger against the United States.”

In another protest, Reuters reported a rare criticism of drone strikes by a member of the Yemeni cabinet. Human rights minister Hooria Mashhou, who was formerly a top activist in the movement that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh a year ago, said during a U.N. Yemen humanitarian appeal meeting in Dubai:

"I am in favour of changing the anti-terrorism strategy. I think there are more effective strategies. We're committed to fighting terrorism but we're calling for changing the means and strategies. These means and strategies can be applied on the ground without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations."

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