June 14, 2012

Written by

Alice Ross
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As reports of ‘kill lists’ have emerged and murmurs of increasing use of surveillance drones over US soil – not to mention the London Olympics – have grown louder in recent months, drones have leapt onto the news agenda and into public debate. In a special report this week’s New Statesman special looks in detail at the expansion of drones both in warfare and in civilian airspace.

The Bureau’s drone team leader Chris Woods writes the cover story, which details how a collapse in accountability in Washington has enabled President Obama to carry out drone strikes on an industrial scale with no legislative scrutiny and, for the most part, little public debate. Examining the eight-year campaign of strikes on Pakistan – which is carried out by the CIA and was only publicly acknowledged for the first time by Obama earlier this year – Woods explains how the CIA has been able to avoid legal challenges by claiming the campaign is a ‘state secret’.

This lack of accountability extends to the CIA simply refusing to account for how many people it has killed with drones, and who they might be. Despite US claims that ‘only’ 50 or 60 civilians have been killed in a campaign that has killed at least 2,000 people, the Bureau has identified by name over 310 civilians killed.

See the Bureau’s full drones research here.

Chillingly, it was recently reported that according to the US definitions, ‘all military-age males in a strike zone’ are regarded as militants, and will only be counted as civilians where ‘explicit evidence proves them innocent’ – a lethal inversion of the fundamental legal principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

For many years, these attacks were carried out with the complicity of the Pakistani authorities, who protested the strikes in public while secretly condoning them. In a startlingly frank interview, former president Pervez Musharraf tells Jemima Khan the strikes are ‘a breach of sovereignty’ but says the Pakistani government is ‘double-crossing the people of Pakistan’ with its contradictory public and private attitudes.

Musharraf is, Khan says, ‘plotting his return to Pakistani politics’, and like fellow political hopeful Imran Khan he talks a hard line on drones – although he falls short of Imran Khan’s pledge to shoot them from the sky, instead saying he would prefer to request that the US gives Pakistan the drones so they can launch the attacks.

This level of co-operation with the US is nothing new to Musharraf: one of the most lethal strikes took place on his watch and killed up to 81 people including 69 children in October 2006. The Pakistani army claimed responsibility for the attack – covering for the CIA. Musharraf says the reported counts of the dead – and particularly the number of children – are ‘absolutely wrong’, adding: ‘There may have been some collateral damage of some children but they were not children at all, they were all militants doing training.’

In ‘Trial by fury’, rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC analyses the legality of Obama’s covert war, examining the legal landscape of a war that is fought against a loose international network of ideologues, rather than an opposing army. ‘War law’, Robertson says, does not apply in this case – yet for over a decade the US has behaved as though it does.

Human rights are ‘less relevant’ under war law, and there is no ability for relatives to challenge the grounds on which ‘kill’ decisions were made. There is no publicly available guidance for what merits inclusion on the ‘kill list’: ‘is it enough to be sympathetic to terrorism, married to a terrorist, or anti-American?’ asks Robertson. ‘To provide shelter or give funds to terrorist groups? What is the required degree of proof?’

International legal systems have completely failed to rise to the challenges of asymmetric warfare, Robertson says: the challenge is ‘to find a way back, to reasonable force and proportionality’ – as well as a return to ‘the right to life, the presumption of innocence, and a fair trial’.

And just to bring things home, the special report includes a guide to the incredible variety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) coming soon to a sky near you, from the $300 toy you can control with your iPhone to surveillance flights during the London Olympics. While in the US it is envisaged drones will be used for ‘crowd control’, science writer Michael Brooks says, in London ‘they will be used for surveillance only’. In the UK in general, ‘very few’ police forces have bought drones, and those that have have barely used them – so far.

If the special report illustrates one thing, it’s that this is a new force that is in its infancy – and which has a long way to grow.

The New Statesman is out today.