The CIA’s Push to Expand ‘Killer Drone’ Operations in Yemen

by Kevin Gosztola 

The CIA is pushing for the authority to expand drone operations and would like permission to attack “terrorism suspects,” even if they are not certain those people being attacked are, in fact, the “suspects” that are believed to be “enemies” of the United States.

The push to expand comes as government agencies continue to withhold documents on that might indicate whether the agency should be conducting operations which involve lethal force and whether the CIA program is lawful or not.

The Washington Post‘s Greg Miller reports the administration would like to use “signature strikes,” which are strikes launched at men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups but still people whose identities are not known for certain. These kinds of strikes have been what the CIA employs most in Pakistan. And, now CIA director David Petraeus would like to “employ the tactic against the Al Qaeda afilliate in Yemen,” which the US government now considers “the most pressing terrorism threat.”

Miller writes an endorsement from President Barack Obama “would mean a significant, and potentially risky, policy shift. Until now, the administration has placed tight limits on drone operations in Yemen to avoid being drawn into an often murky regional conflict and risk turning militants with local agendas into potential al-Qaeda recruits.” But that raises the following questions: What “tight limits”? How has the Obama administration’s policy not risked “turning militants with local agendas into potential al-Qaeda recruits”? How can one conclude that the US has not been drawn into a “murky regional conflict”?

Rezzaq al Jamal, an independent Yemeni journalist who regularly interviews Al Qaeda leaders, told The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill:  ”I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy…The strikes “have recruited thousands.” Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, “which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.” And, the Yemeni Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), according to Scahill, which was “created and funded with the explicit intent to be used only for counterterrorism operations redeployed” to protect then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime from the Yemeni people.

Additionally, Michael Hastings reports for Rolling Stone on the CIA’s use of “signature strikes” in Pakistan in a recent article, “The Rise of the Killer Drones.”

…to countries like Pakistan, what America considers a legitimate strike against terrorists appears to be little more than a militarized version of homicide. “From the perspective of Pakistani law, we probably committed a murder,” says the former CIA official. “We commit espionage every day, breaking the laws of other countries.” To absolve itself in the most sensitive strikes, the CIA has become skilled at using lawyers to cover its tracks. “They use paper when it is going to help them,” says the former official. “Or they get on the secure phone. Or they get in an elevator casually with a lawyer and ask for his advice, like, ‘There’s nothing preventing me from destroying those tapes, is there?’”

All of which indicates the CIA knows it is illegal. That is why the Obama administration had Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department craft legal justification—so-called “execution memos”—that are secret so that extrajudicial killings in countries where Congress has signed no declaration of war could be considered not just acceptable but legal.

The CIA has a counsel that acts as judge, jury and executioner for “terror suspects.” John Rizzo, former chief counsel for the CIA, explains:

…[T]he process of approving drone strikes effectively required him and 10 other lawyers at the agency to “murder” people from the CIA’s counterterrorism center in Langley, Virginia. Most of the lawyers are either down the hall from the CIA director’s office on the seventh floor – the “power floor,” as it’s known within the agency – or embedded in different services, including those designated as “clandestine” and “forward deployed.” When the agency wants to launch a drone strike, Rizzo explained in an interview withNewsweek, it asks a lawyer to provide legal cover for the assassination by signing off on a five-page dossier laying out the justification for the attack. The cable usually contains a list of 30 people targeted for death. Occasionally, the memos are rejected for not containing enough information. More often, Rizzo would approve the kill, writing the word “concurred” following the phrase, “Therefore we request approval for targeting for lethal operation.” In his six years as chief counsel, Rizzo says, he signed off on about one kill list per month…

It appears rarely does the chief counsel stop the CIA from carrying out a targeted killing. The counsel usually “concurs” and, if not, the CIA just has to conjure some more “proof” or reason why the named terror suspect should be killed.

Miller diminishes the murder of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s son, by a drone strike. He writes that a “US drone strike inadvertently killed” him. While Miller notes the teenager never was “accused of terrorist activity,” one wonders if “inadvertently” murdering a US citizen is still a crime? He also calls Anwar al-Awlaki an Al Qaeda leader, something that US officials only stated with complete certainty after he had been assassinated. Before then, he was not thought to be involved in operations and was just someone who would urge others to conduct attacks through a computer.

The story from Miller mentions Obama “ruled out a similar push for such authority more than a year ago.” If Guantanamo Bay prison, military commissions, accountability for torture, etc, didn’t stand out as examples where Obama caved on “national security,” it would be refreshing to know Obama had stood firm. But, with Petraeus behind the expansion, it seems unlikely that Obama will oppose expanding authority.

Insight into just how perpetual the “war on terror” might be also can be found in the story:

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as the Yemen-based group is known, has not been linked to a major terrorist plot since its failed attempt to mail parcels packed with explosives to addresses in Chicago in 2010. The death of Awlaki in a CIA drone strike last year is thought to have diminished the group’s ability to mount follow-on attacks.

But U.S. counterterrorism officials said that Awlaki’s death did not extinguish the group’s determination to attack the United States and noted that other key operatives — including Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who designed the bombs used in the parcel plot — remain at large. [emphasis added]

Is that what has to happen for a group to no longer pose a “threat”? It has to no longer possess the “determination” to attack? If this is the threshold, there will always be groups that could be considered terrorist, which publicly or secretly are known to want America to be attacked. The United States will be launching attacks in countries, where it has not declared war, for decades. The CIA, a civilian agency, will only become more militarized and engage in more paramilitary activity.

Seventy-five percent of US drone attacks in Yemen occurred after May 2011, when the Yemeni uprising was had created instability for the country. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), as of March 29, 44 US attacks have taken place in Yemen (34 of them have happened since May of last year). Somewhere between 275-390 people have been killed. Fifty-four to one hundred of those have been civilians while 221-289 have been “alleged militants.” Those numbers are higher now as drone strikes have continued into April.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and others have advanced a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to force the release of information on the CIA’s drone program. Agencies have asked a judge presiding over the lawsuit for multiple delays and last week POLITICO‘s Josh Gerstein reported the judge was “losing his patience.” He agreed to permit another delay but told the agencies, “OK, but don’t ask for any more time…If government officials can give speeches about this matter without creating security problems, any involved agencies can.”

This is the main tragedy and farce. In order to keep the covert drone war going and not be forced into obtaining declarations of war in the multiple countries where drone attacks occur like Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen, the Obama administration refuses to acknowledge publically that the drone program exists.e. It refuses to show empathy and even acknowledge that not all drone strikes kill only “militants.” And, it won’t even say the words “drone” or “strike” when speaking to the press about the outrage people in the world have towards US drone attacks.

However, if there’s a chance to win public support, the Obama administration will pounce on the opportunity, as Attorney General Eric Holder did in a speech at Northwestern University that laid out the supposed legal justification for drone strikes that kill people extrajudicially in March and as President Obama did when he participated in a Google event in January. Unnamed officials will “selectively leak” details on the CIA’s “covert” program to build support for expanding the program or to reassure the public that the program is not illegal or conducted without restraint (as they did for Miller’s story).

This conduct from the Obama administration would have created much more outrage if President George W. Bush had been expanding the use of drones secretly, as Obama has done. But, like many other assaults on civil liberties that Obama has continued or amplified, there is a hopeless silence as media and citizens privately accept the reality that if Obama supports terrible policies there will be no challenge because the alternative is Mitt Romney and he would probably support these policies too.

This conventional wisdom makes any law enforcement, military or security agency encroachment on American civil liberties possible. Accepting this dynamic permits the CIA to mount “killer drone” operations in any country where “terrorist” groups are said to be lurking. It means that an administration continues to conceal information that civil liberties groups want released so perversions of the rule of law do not provide illegitimate cover for more carnage.