Civil liberties group probes legal basis for drone attacks

By Katherine McIntire Peters

January 14, 2010

The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA and the Defense, Justice and State departments seeking the legal justification for targeted killings using armed drones.

The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, uses unmanned aircraft to conduct counterterrorism operations targeting key enemy operatives overseas, not only on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan and Yemen.

"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," said Jonathan Manes, a legal fellow with the ACLU National Security Project.

The FOIA request seeks records pertaining to the use of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft used by the CIA and the military for the purpose of killing targeted individuals. In addition to the legal basis for the program, the group is interested in the rules and standards surrounding the aircraft's use. The request also seeks information about how the rules and standards are enforced and implemented, and how the consequences of drone attacks are assessed.

Additionally, the ACLU wants information on the frequency of drone strikes, the individuals targeted and the number of people killed, including innocent civilians.

The request noted that not only are military personnel using the drones, but so are civilian CIA personnel and contractors: "It appears, therefore, that lethal force is being exercised by individuals who are not in the military chain of command, are not subject to military rules and discipline, and do not operate under any other public system of accountability or oversight."

CIA spokeswoman Paula Weiss said she could not comment on the drone program. "Without commenting on any specific request, we take seriously our obligations under the FOIA program," she said.

P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin Books, 2009), said during a recent interview that lawmakers and other government officials have not adequately considered the meaning and consequences of using unmanned aircraft in combat operations.

"We are carrying out the equivalent of war in Pakistan right now," said Singer, who also is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. "We've carried out more air strikes in Pakistan using drones than we did using manned bombers in the opening round of the Kosovo war. But it's not one that was authorized by Congress. More importantly, it's not one that the military is doing. It's mainly a civilian air war, and mainly a CIA air war."

There are many unresolved questions surrounding the use of drones, he said: "Are we at war in Pakistan, or is it not a war because we are using drones? By the old standard this would be war. Why don't we view it as such? Is it because it's being conducted by the CIA and not the military? Is it because Congress never debated it? Or is it because we view the whole thing as costless?"

The use of drones in targeted killings has expanded under the Obama administration, something officials have not publicly explained or justified legally, Manes said.

"We're hopeful that the request we've filed … will encourage the Obama administration to disclose information about the basis, scope and implementation of the program," he said.

By Katherine McIntire Peters

January 14, 2010