The Debate

Drone Program Under Fire

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The Debate

Drone Program Under Fire

Britain’s government is being taken to court over its alleged role in CIA drone strikes. Will it hurt the program?

Drone strikes have been one of the most controversial aspects of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan, praised by Barack Obama as “precise, precision strikes,” but dismissed by Pakistan as unlawful.

Ties between the U.S. and Pakistan seemed to reach a nadir last year, with the killing of 24 Pakistani troops by NATO forces in a strike on two military border posts in November. But Pakistan appears to have upped the ante a little further, with the PakTribune reporting that Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has called for the strikes to stop, describing them as attacks against the country’s sovereignty.

“The prime minister said that Pakistan considered these attacks against its sovereignty and pointed that the people also saw it as an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty and against the people. He said the matter had been raised with the U.S. authorities,” PakTribune reported. “When questioned about the success of the drone attacks in decapitating al-Qaeda leaders, he said it was beside the point, the matter was of the sovereignty of the country.”

But there’s another potential threat to the drone strike policy, aside from political opposition.

London-based charity, Repriee and law firm Leigh Day & Co have filed papers with Britain’s High Court claiming that civilian staff at British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) might be “secondary parties to murder” for providing “locational intelligence” to the CIA for its drone program.

“GCHQ employees who assist CIA employees to direct armed attacks in Pakistan are in principle liable under domestic criminal law as secondary parties to murder and that any policy which involves passing locational intelligence to the CIA for use in drone strikes in Pakistan is unlawful,” Leigh Day argued in a press release announcing the filing.

“Evidence suggests that drone strikes in Pakistan are being carried out in violation of international humanitarian law, because the individuals who are being targeted are not directly participating in hostilities and/or because the force used is neither necessary nor proportionate.”

The firm said it’s acting on behalf of Noor Khan, a Pakistani whose father was killed by a drone strike in northwest Pakistan last March while attending a gathering of elders.

So how damaging could all this potentially be to the drone strike program? According to The Diplomat security analyst Richard Weitz, it may matter less now than it once did anyway.

“It’s rumored that the CIA and Pentagon have already been running out of targets so it wouldn’t be an immediate blow,” he told me. “But the terrorists might then regroup there.”

“The Pakistani government has tacitly supported the strikes since they have also been against the Pakistani Taliban; if they really do ban them it could be a self-inflicted wound to their own counterterrorist operations.”

Unsurprisingly, the British government isn’t commenting on the case, in keeping with a policy of not commenting on intelligence matters. It’s set to be an interesting test case though.