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Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland

Obama’s Killer Drones

By Mariusz Zawadzki

Translated By Aleksandra J. Chlon

7 February 2013

Edited by Kyrstie Lane

Poland - Gazeta Wyborcza - Original Article (Polish)

Before John Brennan becomes head of the CIA, he will have to publicly explain the secret drone program, the license to kill and the hypocrisy of Barack Obama’s team.

Since Obama moved into the White House in 2009, drones – unmanned planes armed with bombs or rockets – have become America’s most important weapon in the war against terrorism. They have carried out more than 300 attacks, mainly in the inaccessible regions of Pakistan, but also in Yemen and Somalia, killing nearly 3,000 people.

Strictly speaking, the drone program remains secret. Obama’s administration has not revealed what the criteria are when making decisions about who to kill from the sky, despite numerous pleadings, protests and appeals from journalists and human rights activists, who would really like to know these criteria.

We know that the drones are operated by the CIA, and that John Brennan supervises the program from the White House. He is the presidential advisor for counterterrorism, who for 20 years worked in the CIA and was the head of its division in Saudi Arabia.

Brennan is Obama’s candidate for the new director of the CIA, but before he can be confirmed he must answer senators’ questions on Thursday. This occasion has revived the debate about drones, of which Brennan is a great enthusiast and promoter. In the summer of 2011, for instance, he boasted that in the previous 12 months the unmanned planes did not kill a single accidental civilian, solely terrorists and other enemies of the U.S.

This declaration was undermined and mocked by journalists who examined the consequences of the air raids in Pakistan and established that not only fighters died in them, but also hundreds of innocent people, including children. It has also been put to doubt whether drone raids make any sense at all since they provoke such hatred toward America that they create more enemies than they kill.

Aside from these “practical” controversies, there are also numerous reservations of a fundamental nature.

George W. Bush's administration was generally criticized for torturing those suspected of terrorism in secret prisons of the CIA and detaining them indefinitely in Guantanamo without making any concrete allegations.

Meanwhile, during Obama’s reign those suspected of terrorism are neither tortured nor detained, but instead killed from the air, without any interrogations or investigations. Paradoxically, this does not cause as much controversy or as many protests as water torture did during Bush’s time.

Obama’s critics also point out that he revealed the directives and legal opinions of Bush’s administration that permitted torture, but he is unwilling to reveal the criteria for killing with the use of drones. The issue is particularly controversial when Americans become targets – as in 2011, when drones killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida propagandist who had U.S. citizenship, in Yemen.

It is only this week that a directive was revealed which gives Obama the license to kill, i.e. the right to decide on the life or death of his compatriots without the supervision of the courts. But this happened without the participation of the government – the document was obtained and published by NBC television.

There are three criteria: to be attacked by drones an American must be a high-ranking member of al-Qaida or a terrorist organization affiliated with it, the threat he represents must be immediate, and his capture and trial must be difficult and risky.

At first glance the criteria seem reasonable, but the devil is in the details. It is unknown exactly what “immediate threat” means, and compared to a drone raid any operation of trying to capture a suspect alive seems risky.

Many journalists, including Amy Davidson from the New Yorker, note that the license to kill that Obama has granted himself gives him too much freedom.

Before Brennan’s interrogation, another secret was revealed – it turned out that for two years the Americans have had a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia. It is from there, and not from the sea, as was previously speculated, that they attack targets in Yemen. Apparently, the candidate for CIA director himself sought permission from the Saudi Arabians to build the base.

The location of the base is fairly risky. As one of the reasons for his attacks on America, Osama bin Laden cited the fact that “infidels” are stationed on the sacred Saudi soil where the prophet Muhammad walked and on which Mecca and Medina are located.

A difficult Thursday awaits Brennan, but the nomination seems a foregone conclusion. Doubts are raised by a rather small group of liberal journalists and human rights activists. Generally, the public and the Congress have nothing against drones, which are considered a very comfortable, fairly cheap and safe (as it does not put American soldiers at risk) method of eliminating enemies in distant corners of the world.



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