ACLU seeks to expose “drone strikes”

On January 13, 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking the U.S. government to disclose the legal basis for its use of predator drones to conduct “targeted killings” overseas. The ACLU seeks to find out when, where, and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and how the United States ensures compliance with international laws relating to extrajudicial killings. 

Since the launch of the U.S. war of terror in 2001, thousands of people have been killed by the use of so-called “smart weapons”, such as the drones. U.S. propagandists tell the public that such weapons are used to target “terrorists.”  But in reality civilians die in much greater numbers than do combatants. Smart bombs, missiles, and drones may be aimed at “insurgents” and “terrorists,” but all too often they kill innocent civilians. But to the U.S. government these people are only collateral damage. And even when the “target” is the actual one killed, that does not lesson the fact that these are assassinations and extrajudicial murders that likely violate international and domestic laws in many instances.

According to Jonathan Manes, a legal fellow with the ACLU National Security Project, “The American public has a right to know whether the drone program is consistent with international law, and that all efforts are made to minimize the loss of innocent lives. The Obama administration has reportedly expanded the drone program, but it has not explained publicly what the legal basis for the program is, what limitations it recognizes on the use of drones outside active theaters of war and what the civilian casualty toll has been thus far. We’re hopeful that the request we’ve filed today will encourage the Obama administration to disclose information about the basis, scope and implementation of the program.”

Drone attacks and assassinations were common under the Bush regime.  But the Obama administration has greatly increased their use. The government now operates hundred of drones, but the exact number is classified. The first two drone attacks of the Obama administration occurred on Obama’s 3rd day in office. One of those attacks hit the home of a Pakistani tribal leader in South Waziristan. The attack killed his family, including three children, one only age five. It turns out the leader was a Pakistani government supporter rather than a “terrorist.”   Of course the U.S. government failed to send out a press release about this “error.” 

These drone attacks launched by the Obama administration have included using unmanned drones to target and kill individuals not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Pakistan and Yemen. It is likely they have occurred in other countries as well.  There have been more than 40 such attacks in Pakistan alone since Obama took office. 

The technology allows U.S. personnel to observe targeted individuals and launch missiles intended to kill them from control centers located thousands of miles away. Drone attacks in Pakistan can be controlled from the Midwest in the U.S. The CIA employees and contractors killed recently in Afghanistan were just some of the thousands of U.S. personnel involved in the crimes committed by the U.S. with the use of drones. Drone attacks are carried out by the CIA and U.S. military forces. Private contractors are also involved in the actual control of the drones in many instances.

The ACLU’s FOIA request was filed with the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice (including the Office of Legal Counsel), the Department of State and the CIA.

“The use of drones to conduct targeted killings raises complicated questions – not just legal questions but policy and moral questions as well,” said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project. “These are not questions that should be decided behind closed doors. They are questions that should be debated openly, and the public should have access to information that would allow it to participate meaningfully in the debate.”

The ACLU’s request seeks, in addition to information about the legal basis for the drone program, data regarding the number of civilians and non-civilians killed in the strikes. Estimates of civilian casualties from the government and human rights organizations differ dramatically, giving an incomplete and inconsistent picture of the human cost of the program. 

Given the record of the Obama administration, it is likely that Obama will direct his Department of Justice and other administration attorneys to fight the ACLU FOIA request. Obama and DOJ have repeatedly gone to court to cover-up the crimes of the Bush regime and his own administration. Administration officials want to keep the true costs and the crimes of the U.S. war of terror secret.  Pretending that drone attacks only kill “terrorists” is safer than admitting that women and children and other innocent civilians are often the casualties of these criminal attacks. The administration also wants to hide the fact that the U.S. regularly violates international law by launching attacks into other nations. In countries such as Pakistan, this has caused much public outrage and has destabilized the Pakistani government. The Pakistanis routinely protest these attacks as a result. 

The ACLU’s attempt to expose all the above needs to be supported.

The text of the FOIA request can be found here: http://www.aclu.org/national-security/predator-drone-foia-request

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