Ten civil and human rights organizations are urging President Barack Obama to make good on a pledge to disclose more details of the administration’s targeted killing program by making public the secret legal foundations for drone strikes, ensuring congressional oversight and creating ways of tracking and responding to civilian casualties.
The organizations’ call comes as the administration and Congress are beginning to examine the creation of a “legal architecture” to guide future drone strikes, and the White House is considering ending CIA drone operations and shifting them to the Pentagon.
The United States should “take essential steps to ensure meaningful transparency and legal compliance with regard to U.S. targeted killing policies and practices,” the groups said in a “statement of shared concerns” they sent to Obama on Thursday and made public on Friday.
Late Friday, Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, said senior administration officials had publicly provided “an unprecedented level of transparency into how the government conducts sensitive counterterrorism operations that have undermined terrorists’ ability to plot against U.S. interests.” (Read Hayden's full statement.)
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“We cannot discuss the sensitive details of specific operations but we will continue to disclose as much as we can – as soon as we can – regarding the framework, the standards, and the process through which we approve such operations,” Hayden said.
Hayden noted that in February and March the president directed the Justice Department to provide the House and Senate intelligence committees access to classified Office of Legal Counsel advice. However, that came only after repeated requests from the committees for access. Obama, however, has refused to make public the top-secret Justice Department legal opinions outlining the U.S. and international legal justifications for the targeted killing program, on the grounds that they are privileged legal advice to the president.
A Senate Judiciary Committee panel was to have held a hearing on the issue Tuesday. But the session was postponed a week because the White House so far has declined to send a witness, said a congressional aide who requested anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are coming under increasing scrutiny amid charges they have claimed hundreds of civilian casualties and violated U.S. and international laws. Critics also contend the strikes ignite popular backlashes that have helped al Qaida and other Islamist groups recruit new militants and eliminate terrorists whose capture could provide critical intelligence.
At least four American extremists – only one of whom was deliberately targeted – are among as many as 3,969 people estimated to have been killed in more than 400 strikes since 2001 by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command.
On Tuesday, McClatchy published a review of classified U.S. intelligence reports showing that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal area have killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and “other” militants in marked contrast to the administration’s public assurances that only known leaders of al Qaida and allied groups have been targeted.
The nine-page statement sent to Obama was signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch and six other groups, including programs at the New York University and Columbia University law schools.
“We call on the administration to: publicly disclose key targeted killing standards and criteria; ensure that U.S. lethal force operations abroad comply with international law; enable meaningful congressional oversight and judicial review; and ensure effective investigations, tracking and response to civilian harm,” the statement said.
The groups noted that in his State of the Union speech in February, Obama promised he would make U.S. targeting practices “more transparent to the American people and to the world.”
The administration insists that the program complies with U.S. and international laws, including the laws of war and an “inherent right” to self-defense, and is underpinned by a 2001 congressional resolution authorizing the president to use force against al Qaida and associated groups involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It says civilian casualties have been “exceedingly rare.”
Obama and top aides contend that drones only have struck “specific senior operational leaders” of al Qaida and associated forces who are known to be plotting imminent violent attacks on Americans and who cannot be captured.
McClatchy’s review of the U.S. intelligence reports, however, show that during a one-year period ending in September 2011 at least 265 of up to 482 people estimated to have been killed in CIA drone attacks were not senior al Qaida leaders but instead were “assessed” as lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified “foreign fighters” and “other militants.” Drones killed only six top al Qaida leaders in those months, according to news media accounts.
The administration has disclosed only in broad outlines the procedures the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command use in selecting targets, including for so-called “signature strikes” that hit unidentified individuals whose conduct fits patterns of behavior that the U.S. government associates with terrorists.
In their statement, the organizations asserted that the “commitment to the rule of law requires the administration disclose the legal constraints on its lethal targeting operations. Greater disclosure of legal and policy standards, and procedural mechanisms, is a necessary prerequisite to informed assessment and debate by the U.S. public, policymakers charged with conducting oversight, and the international community.”