Rights groups renew call for further disclosures on drone strikes

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 5, 2013 

            Nine human rights and legal rights groups have called anew on President Barack Obama to provide more details of U.S. targeted killing operations, saying that he has not made any new information public since he delivered a speech on the controversial counter-terrorism tactic nearly seven months ago.

            The organizations on Thursday made public a letter that they sent Wednesday to Obama in a bid to keep pressure on the administration to provide greater transparency into the top-secret operations, which are mainly carried out by unmanned missile-firing drone aircraft.

            “Your speech left many important questions unanswered, and since then the U.S. government has not publicly disclosed any further information about its targeted killing operations,” the groups wrote to the president.

            In his May 23 address at the National Defense University, Obama said the operations would continue, but he indicated that they'd be under tighter restrictions. He sought to explain necessity of the operations, insisted that they are legal under U.S. and international law and justified a 2003 drone strike that killed Anwar al Awlaki, an American who played a prominent role in al Qaida’s branch in Yemen.

            Since the speech, CIA drone operations in Pakistan have continued - at a significantly lower rate than their height in 2010-11 - with at least 75 people killed in 16 strikes, according to tracking by the New America Foundation, a policy institute. In Yemen, where drones are operated by the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Command, at least 64 people have died in 14 strikes since Obama’s address, the foundation’s data shows.

            In their letter, the human rights and legal rights organizations noted how they’d expressed in an earlier letter to Obama a concern about the legality of targeted killings, especially outside the internationally recognized war zone in Afghanistan.

            “Since then, a number of new developments have reinforced our concerns and raised new questions,” the groups wrote in their latest letter.

            While Obama summarized in his speech new guidelines that he’d issued for targeted killing operations, his precise criteria remain classified. They should be made public, including the method by which the administration determines whether people killed in drone strikes are civilians, militants or combatants, the groups said.

            “In U.S. court cases, the government continues to refuse even to acknowledge which agencies carry out lethal strikes, let alone provide basic information about the number and identities of the people these strikes have killed,” the letter said. “The result is that the public remains in the dark about how exactly U.S. policy governing targeted killings is operating, under what legal authorities, and who exactly are its victims.”

            The groups said they remain concerned about the standard for deciding who is targeted, which Obama stated as “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people” that can’t be dealt with by any other government.

            That definition, they said, “is inconsistent with international law.”

            Obama also should explain more fully the standards behind his assertion that lethal force isn’t used when the United States has “the ability” to capture individual terrorists and order investigations into the alleged killing of civilians in drone strikes, the groups said.

            The groups that signed the letter were the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and the Global Justice Clinic at the New York University School of Law, the Center for Civilians in Conflict, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Foundations.


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