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DRONE WATCH: For Many Pakistanis, 'USA' Means 'Drones'

In 2010, Shahzad Akbar, an attorney and founder of the Pakistani Foundation for Fundamental Rights, began filing lawsuits in Pakistan on behalf of drone strike victims. His work, according to MSNBC:

“has raised awareness of the strikes among the general Pakistani population – at the same time anti-American sentiment from a failing alliance with the U.S. is on the rise. He said his mission is to seek justice on behalf of innocent civilians killed in the drone attacks.”

When he began, little was known in Pakistan about the strikes, most of which take place in the remote, western tribal area. But now:

“Today, drones have become a political touchstone, regularly decried as part of politician's campaign speeches, prominently featured in fiery protest rallies, and sitting squarely at the center of a diplomatic war of words between the U.S. and Pakistan. … Though public perception may help him to gain traction, Akbar said his cases are based on the evidence he's gathering from strike locations in coordination with communities in North Waziristan, the tribal agency in which the overwhelming majority of strikes have occurred.”

What drives him to do this work?

"I believe in very simple principles that were taught to us by the West," said Akbar. "That everyone is presumed innocent unless proven guilty. So anyone who is killed in drone strikes, unless and until his guilt is established in some independent forum – that person is innocent."

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Tensions Between Turkey and Syria Grow

The Economist reports on the growing tensions in the Middle East following the shooting down of a Turkish plane by Syrian forces:

"Turkey, a NATO member, was set to hold emergency talks at the alliance’sheadquarters in Brussels on Tuesday. Hillary Clinton, America’s Secretary of State, confirmed that the matter would be also brought before the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile the European Union has agreed on new sanctions against Syria. These include banning insurance and re-insurance of arms shipments to Syria. Yet, in a further sign of western reluctance to intervene militarily Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, stated “We will obviously be looking to Turkey to be restrained in its response.”

"The most Turkey can hope for is verbal condmenations," said a western diplomat in Ankara. Turkish officials insist that Turkey must respond forcefully otherwise its claims at regional leadership will be badly dented as will Mr Erdogan's image at home.

The Turkish media has speculated about an array of options including targeted airstrikes against Syrian military installations and the establishment of a buffer zone along Turkey's 900 kilometre wide border with Syria. But many observers say it is unlikely that Turkey will risk war with Syria."

Read more here

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Following SCOTUS Decision, Where Are We On Immigration Reform?

For CNN, Allison Brennan writes:

"After two years of protests, boycotts and lawsuits over Arizona's immigration law, Monday's Supreme Court decision leaves the state of immigration reform almost unchanged with states frustrated and Congress avoiding the debate. "I would guess [Congress] won't touch this with a 10-foot pole until after they come back after the election," Charles H. Kuck, managing partner at Kuck Immigration Partners in Atlanta, told CNN."

Read her full analysis here

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DRONE WATCH: Congress Keeps Closer Watch on CIA Drone Strikes

In what appears to be a step in the right direction, Congress is paying more attention to drone strikes. From the LA Times:

"Once a month, a group of staff members from the House and Senate intelligence committees drives across the Potomac River to CIA headquarters in Virginia, assembles in a secure room and begins the grim task of watching videos of the latest drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. …

The regular review of some of the most closely held video in the CIA's possession is part of a marked increase in congressional attention paid to the agency's targeted killing program over the last three years. The oversight, which has not previously been detailed, began largely at the instigation of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, ...

In addition to watching video, the legislative aides review intelligence that was used to justify each drone strike. They also sometimes examine telephone intercepts and after-the-fact evidence, such as the CIA's assessment of who was hit."

One of the major criticisms of drone attacks is the lack of transparency and accountability. So, on the one hand, more Congressional oversight is good. On the other hand:

"Members of the oversight committees are limited in their ability to challenge the CIA's conclusions, a senior staff member cautioned. "I can watch video all day long — I'm not an imagery analyst," he said. "I can only look to see if the description reasonably concurs with what my untrained eyes are seeing."

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Archbishop on British PM: Big Society Policy is "Aspirational Waffle"

The Observer newspaper in the UK published extracts from Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams' new book:

The archbishop of Canterbury has denounced David Cameron's "big society", saying that it comes across as aspirational waffle that was "designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable".
The outspoken attack on the prime minister's flagship policy by Rowan Williams – his strongest to date – is contained in a new book, Faith in the Public Square, that is being prepared for publication ahead of his retirement.
Passages from the book, obtained by the Observer, reflect the archbishop's deep frustration not just with the policies of Cameron's government and those of its Labour predecessors, but also with what he sees as the west's rampant materialism and unquestioning pursuit of economic growth. Williams also laments spiralling military expenditure, writing that "the adventure in Iraq and its cost in any number of ways seems to beggar the imagination".
Read more here
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DRONE WATCH: Drone Flights Over Caribbean

The Los Angeles Times reports:

"After quietly testing Predator drones over the Bahamas for more than 18 months, the Department of Homeland Security plans to expand the unmanned surveillance flights into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to fight drug smuggling, according to U.S. officials.

The move would dramatically increase U.S. drone flights in the Western Hemisphere, more than doubling the number of square miles now covered by the department's fleet of nine surveillance drones, which are used primarily on the northern and southwestern U.S. borders."

Is the next step armed drones that will sink ships suspected of carrying drugs?

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DRONE WATCH: Abandoning Human Rights

Former President Jimmy Carter writes in the New York Times this morning of how far the U.S. has gone in abandoning human rights:

"Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable. After more than 30 airstrikes on civilian homes this year in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has demanded that such attacks end, but the practice continues in areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that are not in any war zone. We don’t know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington. This would have been unthinkable in previous times."

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DRONE WATCH: Administration Refuses Drone Documents

The Obama administration filed its response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the New York Times seeking documents on the legal justification for the drone program. To no one’s great surprise, the administration refused, claiming a release of the documents would damage national security. In its refusal:

"The administration said the information requested is "highly classified," even though details of such operations have been leaked to the media.

"For example, whether or not the United States government conducted the particular operations that led to the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and the other individuals named in the FOIA requests remains classified," the government wrote. The U.S.-born al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September.

"Likewise, whether or not the CIA has the authority to be, or is in fact, directly involved in targeted lethal operations remains classified."

President Obama has publicly spoken about the use of drones. Secretary of Defense Panetta has publicly spoken about the use of drones.  Counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan delivered an entire speech about the use of drones. But whether or not the CIA is involved in “targeted lethal operations” is a secret?  It’s not, the only secret is how the administration justifies it.

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DRONE WATCH: Are Drone Strikes War Crimes?

Several days after urging the U.S. to clarify its policies to ensure that targeted drone killings comply with international law, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, went further at a conference in Geneva. Suggesting that some strikes may constitute war crimes:

"[Christof] Heyns, a South African law professor, told the meeting: "Are we to accept major changes to the international legal system which has been in existence since world war two and survived nuclear threats?"

Some states, he added, "find targeted killings immensely attractive. Others may do so in future … Current targeting practices weaken the rule of law. Killings may be lawful in an armed conflict [such as Afghanistan] but many targeted killings take place far from areas where it's recognised as being an armed conflict.

If it is true, he said, that "there have been secondary drone strikes on rescuers who are helping (the injured) after an initial drone attack, those further attacks are a war crime."

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BREAKING: Attorney General Voted in Contempt of Congress

Breaking news this afternoon –

"A House panel voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt for failing to cooperate with a congressional inquiry into Operation “Fast and Furious,” hours after President Obama asserted executive privilege over related documents. On a party-line decision, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 23 to 17 to hold Holder in contempt for failing to share documents related to the operation run out of the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2009 and 2011, with the backing of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix. The move makes Holder the first member of Obama’s Cabinet held in contempt by a congressional committee."

Columnist Al Kamen wonders why Holder should be concerned about the vote

"While he would be the first Obama administration official to undergo such a vote, he would be joining a long list of well-known officials from prior administrations who lost committee — or even full House or Senate — contempt votes, including two former attorneys general, according to a list compiled by the Congressional Research Service last month."

It’s also not the first time a President has invoked executive privilege to prevent Congress from getting internal administration information, just another round in the perpetual White House vs. Congress struggle.

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