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DRONE WATCH: Law and Secrecy

John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor and nominee for CIA Director, is one of the architects of the administration’s drone policy. The New York Times and the ACLU recently lost a case in court that attempted to make public the secret legal memos that are claimed to justify the policy. The confirmation hearings coming up will offer another chance.

Salon reports that Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote a letter to Brennan in light of his nomination asking to see the legal opinions that justify killing American citizens.  He wrote:

“Senior intelligence officials have said publicly that they have to authority to knowingly use lethal force against Americans in the course of counterterrorism operations, and have indicated that there are secret legal opinions issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and explain the basis of this authority. I have asked repeatedly to see these opinions, and I have been provided some relevant information on the topic, but I have yet to see the opinions themselves.”

From a broader viewpoint, Mary Ellen O'Connell, law professor at the University of Notre Dame and a specialist on the international law of armed conflict, expresses surprise that anyone would need to see the memos.  Comparing it to the legal memos that claimed to justify waterboarding and secret detention by the Bush administration, she writes:

“It is surprising to me that anyone feels the need to actually see these secret memos. International law clearly makes waterboarding, secret detention and targeted killing away from battlefields unlawful. The fact these practices have continued after the writing of the memos demonstrates the analysis is window dressing.”

But, she adds:

“The greater importance of the secret memos does not concern what they contain, but the fact our democratic government believes legal analysis can be secret -- that how the government understands the law that regulates its conduct need not be made public.” 

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DRONE WATCH: A Better Drone Policy

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) writes in a Washington Post op-ed of the many unanswered questions about drone strikes. He points out that:

“The heart of the problem is that our technological capability has far surpassed our policy. As things stand, the executive branch exercises unilateral authority over drone strikes against terrorists abroad.”

And as a way of changing that unilateral authority, he proposes three major points that should be considered by Congress to create a “legal framework to guide executive action.”

“First, we must do more to avoid innocent civilian casualties.

“Second, Congress must require an independent judicial review of any executive-branch 'kill list.'

“Third, the United States must collaborate with the international community to develop a widely accepted set of legal standards.”

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DRONE WATCH: What We Know … And What We Don’t Know

For a number of months, I’ve reported and commented on news of drone strikes, the drone program, and legal and political challenges to it. But with the administration’s refusal to officially acknowledge the program, there’s a a lot we don’t know. Cora Currier at Pro Publica has an informative summary of what we know and what we don’t know about drone strikes. 

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The Obama Synthesis

Ross Douthat posits that President Obama’s nominations of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense and John Brennan as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency represent the synthesis of two strains in former President George Bush’s foreign policy. Hagel as one of those who turned against the war in Iraq, and Brennan as one of those who defended controversial counterterrorism policies.

“To the extent that it’s possible to define an “Obama Doctrine,” then, it’s basically the Hagel-Brennan two-step. Fewer boots on the ground, but lots of drones in the air. Assassination, yes; nation-building, no. An imperial presidency with a less-imperial global footprint.

“This is a popular combination in a country that’s tired of war but still remembers 9/11 vividly. Indeed, Obama’s foreign policy has been an immense political success: he’s co-opted foreign policy realists, neutralized antiwar Democrats and isolated Republican hawks.”

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Afflictions of the Soul

Counter-insurgency wars, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, frequently place soldiers in morally ambiguous situations. What they did or didn’t do in those situations can leave lasting moral effects. Following an epiphany at an antiwar rally, Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock

“… has devoted the years since then to tending the spiritual wounds of warriors, seeking theological answers to the condition among veterans called “moral injury.” In her current position at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, she has begun the first program in the nation to develop a treatment that she terms 'soul repair.'

“Moral injury might best be defined as an affliction of the soul, as distinct from a specific mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder. It arises, to speak in a very broad way, from the way a combatant’s actions in war seem to violate and thus undermine the most deeply held moral beliefs.”

Her “Soul Repair Center” is now teaching congregational leaders how to address moral injury among veterans.

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DRONE WATCH: Escalation in Pakistan

Since the start of the year, drone attacks in Pakistan have been escalating. In the first ten days of January, seven attacks have been reported.

Thursday morning, according to the Global News/AP:

“U.S. drone-fired missiles hit a house in Pakistan's northwest tribal region Thursday, killing five suspected militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said. It was the seventh such attack in less than two weeks.

“The recent spate of strikes has been one of the most intense in the past two years, a period in which political tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan led to a reduced number of attacks compared to 2010, when they were at their most frequent.”

Tuesday, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported:

“In twin strikes CIA drones killed at least six people, including up to two reported civilians. There were conflicting accounts of the events that night. Some sources reported there was a single strike that killed up to nine people. However multiple sources reported up to 17 missiles were fired on two close but separate targets at least 15 minutes apart. The first of the potentially coordinated attacks killed at least four in Haider Khel village shortly after midnight. …                    

“The Agency’s drones killed at least two people in the second strike in nearby Hesso Khel village. As many as 11 missiles were fired on a ‘two room house‘ belonging to Noor Mohammed – his fate was not reported. Villagers said there was no way to tell the identity or nationality of the ‘mutilated bodies’. Many drones were reportedly seen overhead after the strike making tribesmen panic.” 

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DRONE WATCH: Drones in the News

The United Nations wants to use drones in peacekeeping missions, but some developing countries are opposed, fearing that it will become  a new way for Western countries to gather and control intelligence. According to the Washington Post:

“The United Nations, looking to modernize its peacekeeping operations, is planning for the first time to deploy a fleet of its own surveillance drones in missions in Central and West Africa. The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping has notified Congo, Rwanda and Uganda that it intends to deploy a unit of at least three unarmed surveillance drones in the eastern region of Congo.”

As the tension between China and Japan over disputed islands increases, both are in a “drone race.” The Guardian reports:

“Drones have taken centre stage in an escalating arms race between China and Japan as they struggle to assert their dominance over disputed islands in the East China Sea. China is rapidly expanding its nascent drone programme, while Japan has begun preparations to purchase an advanced model from the US. Both sides claim the drones will be used for surveillance, but experts warn the possibility of future drone skirmishes in the region's airspace is "very high".

USA TODAY notes a “global arms race” in acquiring drones:

“The success of U.S. drones in Iraq and Afghanistan has triggered a global arms race, raising concerns the remotely piloted aircraft could fall into unfriendly hands, military experts say. The number of countries that have acquired or developed drones expanded to more than 75, up from about 40 in 2005, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.”

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DRONE WATCH: Drones Counter-Productive

Michael Boyle, an assistant professor at La Salle University, who served on President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisory group during the 2008 campaign, has written a new, critical article on drones for the journal International Affairs.

The Guardian reports:

 

“The United States' use of drones is counter-productive, less effective than the White House claims, and is 'encouraging a new arms race that will empower current and future rivals and lay the foundations for an international system that is increasingly violent,' according to a study by one of President Obama's former security advisers.

“Michael Boyle, who was on Obama's counter-terrorism group in the run-up to his election in 2008, said the US administration's growing reliance on drone technology was having 'adverse strategic effects that have not been properly weighed against the tactical gains associated with killing terrorists.'"

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DRONE WATCH: Just the Facts.

The secrecy of the U.S. drone program often makes it difficult to follow what is happening. News reports cite unnamed intelligence or security officials, sometimes tribal sources, usually with different information.

For example, on Sunday a large number of people were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan's South Waziristan region. The story was reported by Al Jazeera, Reuters, DAWN, Associated Press, and CNN; among others.

The strike involved “several missiles” (AP), “eight to 10 missiles” (Al Jazeera), or “four unmanned drones fired ten missiles” (DAWN).  It was aimed at “a suspected Taliban compound” (Al Jazeera), “three Taliban compounds” (Reuters), “three militant hideouts” (AP), or “three houses” (DAWN). The casualties were “sixteen killed and several others wounded” (Al Jazeera), “seventeen dead, three wounded” (CNN), “between ten and twelve dead” (Reuters), “seventeen dead” (DAWN), or “nine dead” (AP). They were “believed to be militants” (CNN), “suspected to be Taliban fighters” (Reuters), or “fighters belonging to the Punjabi Taliban” (Al Jazeera),

So, how many people were killed? Who were they? You decide.

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DRONE WATCH: A Year of Drones

 

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has a comprehensive year-end report on U.S. drone strikes in 2012, month-by-month and country-by-country.

“Drone strikes in Pakistan are now at their lowest level in five years, as Islamabad protests almost every attack. The CIA also appears to have abandoned ‘signature strikes’ on suspected militants fitting certain patterns of behaviour – at least for the present. Almost all attacks in recent months have been against named al Qaeda and other militant leaders.

“As drone strikes fell in Pakistan they rose steeply in Yemen, as US forces aided a major military campaign to oust al Qaeda and other Islamists from southern cities. A parallel CIA targeted killing programme killed numerous alleged militants, many of them named individuals. Yet US officials took more than three months to confirm that American planes or drones had killed 12 civilians.”

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DRONE WATCH: Escalation in Yemen

Drone strikes are being escalated in Yemen with the fifth attack in the past ten days occurring on Thursday. Reuters reports:

“At least three suspected al Qaeda militants including a local commander were killed on Thursday in Yemen by a strike from an unmanned aircraft, residents and a local official said.”

Today, in response, Yemeni tribesmen organized a protest in front of a government administration building. According to Reuters:

“Dozens of armed tribesmen took to the streets in southern Yemen on Friday to protest against drone strikes that they say have killed innocent civilians and increased anger against the United States. …

“One tribesman participating in a sit-in in front of the government administration building in Redaa told Reuters by telephone that at least seven innocent civilians were killed in the recent raids.”

Unlike Pakistan, the Yemeni government openly supports the U.S. strikes.

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DRONE WATCH: Senior Taliban Commander Killed

 

Over the last two days, multiple drone strikes in Pakistan killed at least 13 people. According to the Associated Press,

“Two U.S. drone strikes on northwest Pakistan killed a senior Taliban commander who fought American forces in Afghanistan but had a truce with the Pakistani military, intelligence officials said Thursday.

“The commander, Maulvi Nazir, was among nine people killed in a missile strike on a house in the village of Angoor Adda in the South Waziristan tribal region near the border with Afghanistan late Wednesday night, five Pakistani security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. …

“Fighters under Nazir's command focused their attacks on American forces in neighboring Afghanistan, earning him the enmity of the U.S. But many in Pakistan's military viewed Nazir and militant chiefs like him as "good Taliban," meaning they focus attacks only on foreign forces in Afghanistan, keeping domestic peace by not attacking Pakistani targets.”

In a separate drone strike, at least four people were killed early Thursday morning near Mir Ali in the North Waziristan tribal region.

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Are the U.S. and Israel Heading For a Showdown?

The Nation reports that the Obama administration may be heading toward confrontation with Jerusalem. During the brief war between Israel and Gaza in November, Obama pressured both sides to a truce. After Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas asked for Palestine observer status at the U.N. General Assmebly, Israel retaliated by expanding settlements on the West Bank. This move ended hope for a two state solution. The Nation notes:

If Obama is planning to put more heat on them, he will undoubtedly wait until after their election. Then, in the late winter months of 2013, before spring comes and Netanyahu can revive the possibility of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, the president might well provoke a showdown.

He has good reason. If he can secure a definitive halt to settlement expansion, he can bring the Palestinians back to the table with a promise to press Israel to negotiate seriously for a two-state solution. In a chaotic region where the United States seems to be losing ground weekly, Washington could score sizeable foreign policy points, especially in improving relations with regional powers Turkey and Egypt.

Read more here.

 

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Iranian Pastor Re-Arrested

Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian pastor imprisoned for nearly three years for “apostasy” until his release in September when the charge was changed to "evangelizing," was reportedly re-arrested on Christmas Day and ordered to serve the remaining 45 days of his prison sentence.

Morning Star News reports:

An Iranian pastor freed from prison in September after nearly three years of detainment was re-arrested on Christmas Day in a move that human rights groups consider intentional harassment for rejecting Islam. …

“Those close to the case and Nadarkhani’s family said the re-arrest may also have served as a direct message for the pastor to leave the Islamic Republic, according to Jason DeMars of PTM [Present Truth Ministries].

“It appears that it is a move to harass him,” DeMars told Morning Star News. “Perhaps they want him to leave the country permanently.”

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Reports: 27 Dead in Conn. Elementary School Shooting

According to AP, 27 have been killed, including 18 children, at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school. 

An official with knowledge of a shooting at a Connecticut elementary school says 27 people are dead, including 18 children.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still under way.

Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, says the gunman is among the dead.

Sojourners extends our thoughts and prayers to all of the children, teachers, staff, and families of those involved. 

Lord, give peace to those who await news about their loved ones. Show your presence to those who may feel far from you during this tragedy. Amen.

Watch live reports here: 

Watch live streaming video from foxct at livestream.com
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