WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Stucknation: Drones, War Crimes and Obama
Tuesday, April 26, 2011 - 12:41 PM
When President Obama ran for president he took President Bush to task for his lack of a nuanced strategy when it came to the global war on terrorism. Why with the election of a President Obama, we were told, we would have a leader who would engage the Muslim world in a productive dialogue.
Scroll forward a few years. What we have is an Obama Presidency even more reliant on the use of predatory drones in the never ending "war on terror." And according to well-respected experts, this growing reliance on targeted killings in countries we are not at war with may put the current president and our nation on the wrong side of international law.
And unlike with the Obama about face on keeping Guantanamo open, which can be attributed to Congress, expanding the use of robo-drones to kill people is something the sitting president has fully embraced.
Last year the Los Angeles Times reported that from 2006 to 2009, the flight hours of the Predator and Reaper drones had more than tripled and that the pilotless aircraft "suffer from frequent system failures, computer glitches and human error." But the U.S. likes them because it keeps American personnel out of harm's way while sending a whole lot of death and destruction to another continent.
Just this past weekend it was reported the Obama Administration signed off on the use of predator drones to take out human beings in Libya. Some members of Congress applauded. Most said nothing. Under President Obama, the summary execution of anyone he finds unfit to live anywhere in the world is just another presidential prerogative.
It's ten years after the September 11th attacks and the U.S. still has a "further notice" kind of cart blanche to torch up anybody's house or village based on intell they never have to share? Scan, track, load and fire - that's our due process.
If the uniformed U.S. military does it, there might be some fact finding if errant targeting took out an innocent wedding party. If it is the CIA they don't even confirm it ever happened. We're the sheriff and our territory is global.
President Obama is evidently so comfortable in the role of planetary chief judge and executioner he joked about it last May at the White House correspondents dinner when he warned off teen heart throbs the Jonas Brothers from his daughters. "Sasha and Malia are huge fans but boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming."
It is hard to get an honest body count for those innocent civilians caught up in the U.S. pursuit of terrorists and other unworthy miscreants. But published numbers of those non-combatants that include women and children range from several hundred to three thousand civilians
For months, Pakistani and U.S. relations have been deteriorating as repeated U.S. drone attacks have reportedly killed scores of non-combatant women and children. And while U.S. networks don't seem to think it is much of a story, media in the Pakistan and the Arab world have dutifully carried pictures of the throngs of Pakistanis out in the street protesting.
The coverage includes the disturbing pictures of children in their coffins and the ruins of civilian housing. It's easy to imagine how a steady diet of those images starts to re-enforce the notion of the US as a "great satan" that strikes from the sky without warning----just like a terrorist. It showed up in the testimony of would be Times Square bomb plotter Faisal Shahzad who cited as a rationale for his bomb making the errant drone attacks in Afghanistan that killed innocent women and children.
Pakistani TV's coverage this past weekend included panelists from that country's Human Rights Commission warning that the so-called "collateral" civilian damage wrought by the U.S. predator drones was the best recruiting tool Al Qaeda had, that this increasing use of drone technology for targeted killings inside countries with whom we are not at war is not without consequence.
And where it really gets sticky is when it is the civilian CIA launching the attacks from here in the United States.
"The problem for me is that when this happens, especially as a matter of state policy, there is no willingness to comply with any of the requirements as to transparency and accountability which are central to international law," NYU International Law Professor Philip Alston told the BBC last year. Alston was also the Special Rapportuer for the United Nations acting as a monitor and fact finder on potential human rights violations."That means that we have a situation where [the United States] asserts the right to kill individuals almost anywhere in the world provided they are linked to this very amorphous conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban."
And now with the the strikes in Libya, it has gone beyond even that.
In 2010 Alston reported to the United Nations on the genesis of the concept of "targeted killings" by governments. He noted that when the Israelis espoused it as public policy for the occupied territories, the Israeli Supreme Court put limitations on the strategy - which included accountability for collateral damage "even if the target was identified by the government as legitimate."
The Isreali high court required that "after a targeted killing there must be retroactive and independent investigation" of the circumstances that led up to the targeting. And whatever collateral harm there was to civilians "must meet International human rights law requirements for proportionality."
Last year the issue of the U.S. increasing use of the deadly drones prompted Congressional hearings. One of the expert witnesses was Loyola Law School professor David Glazier, who was also a former Navy surface warfare officer. Glazer laid out for the House panel what he saw as the legal exposure U.S. civilians who were not "military combatants" who were part of the drone machinery.
He testified that he along with " most other law-of-war scholars" thought CIA civilians who were taking part in combat remotely without the combatant's privilege extended to those in military uniform were not violating "the law of war" by doing so. But on the flip side they could not gain immunity from domestic laws in the countries they were striking.
"Under this view CIA drone pilots are liable to prosecution under the law of any jurisdiction where attacks occur for any injuries, death or property damage they cause," he was quoted as saying.
And in an ironic twist "under the legal theories adopted by our government in prosecuting Guantanamo detainees," said Glazier "these CIA officers as well as any higher-level government officials who have authorized or directed their attacks are committing war crimes."
In an email exchange with Glazier, he confirmed that under the current " U.S. theory of unlawful belligerency" the liability would extend all the way to the Oval Office and to the president himself.
So why does it matter whether or not U.S. actions, especially ones that kill people, comport with international law? Glazier told the House panel that the U.S. relies on multiple treaties to secure international cooperation on fighting terrorism. When the U.S. colors out of the lines the "collateral dead civilians" are not the only casualty.
"So it seems to me one of the most important reasons to try and ground our conduct across the board in an area of law is to facilitate that international cooperation and to lay the ground work for the ability to call upon, even demand upon other nations to cooperate with us in this effort," testified Glazier.
Global cooperation. Sound familiar? Vintage Obama, say October of 2008.