December 21, 2011, midday

Obama abandons drone strikes in Pakistan.

For three years, the CIA has been doing several drone strikes a week against al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects within Pakistan resulting in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths in Pakistan. Since September 2011, about 60 people were killed in 14 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions – only one victim was identified – Janbaz Zadran. However, on November 25, 2011, when U.S. airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani troops in what is known as the “Salala incident”, at two border posts in the mountainous Mohmand tribal area near Eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan reacted. It closed its border area which allows U.S. supplies into Afghanistan, kicked the U.S. out of the Shamsi air base --  the CIA”s main drone base in Pakistan -- and threatened to shoot down any drones over its land.

The result? President Obama shut down the U.S. drone campaign within Pakistan for the last month.  This strategic move is murky -- is the war on terror over over there?

The Shamsi drone air base in the Balochistan province of Pakistan was leased by Pakistan to the United Arab Emirates for falconry and hunting. The UAE then subleased it to the U.S. with Musharraf’s approval in October 2001 to be used as joint CIA-USAF airfield. The US constructed three hangars for drones. In February 2009, the London Times claimed it had Google Earth images from 2006 showing predator drones at Shamsi. Blackwater may have operated there by arming these drones with missiles. The U.S. claimed it stopped drone operations at the base in April 2011. Nevertheless, on November 26, 2011, Pakistan ordered the U.S. to vacate the base within 15 days because of the Salala incident. On December 4, 2011, the U.S. evacuation from Shamsi began. On December 9, 2011, Pakistan’s soldiers arrived to take over Shamsi. On December 11, the U.S. destroyed some equipment and completely left the base and apparently flew to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Pakistan now controls the airbase.

The question is – why did Obama back down on drone attacks within Pakistan and will he resume them? As CIA director, now-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called the agency’s drone campaign “the only game in town.”  Does the U.S. now have no game left?

The U.S. does not need Shamsi to fly drones over Pakistan. It has over 60 drone bases across the globe. Some are in the American Southwest where drone pilots “fly” drones via computer controls all over the world. Some bases are closer to the battlefields. Personnel sit in front of computers and use keyboards, joysticks, mousse and switches to launch, control, shoot missiles from, and land drones. For example, Predator drones, assets of the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, operate out of Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, and are part of the Air Force Special Operations Command, based at Hulbert Field in Florida. Some Predators are flown by in-country pilots from the 62nd Expeditionary Squadron at Kandahar Air Field, whose parent unit is the 18th Reconnaissance Squadron, based in Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, ground zero for the military’s drone operations. Crewmen operating sensors on Predator drones may be members of the Texas Air National Guard based at Ellington Field in Texas.

Drones are not fail safe. 13 drones crashed in 2011. Problems with drones include the inability of remote operators to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians. Killing civilians is essentially a war crime and angers civilian populations. Iraqi insurgents have hacked drone video fees, and virulent computer viruses infested the Air Forces drone fleet. Drone violates suffer job stress. Recently, Iran apparently hijacked a drone and soft-landed it in its own territory, where it will now be subject to reverse engineering.

However, the use of U.S. drones in Libya created a great success for the so-called rebels, which were essentially a ragtag army which followed the vanguard of U.S. air power and drone power, which blasted away at the front, which the rebels then occupied with ease. Compare this to the massive use of ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan which made for long wars and great loss of life of both sides. Clearly, the drone war is quicker, less costly and more effective.

Secrecy is the essence of the drone program.  The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has opposed the declassification of any part of its opening which justified the assassination by drone of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. The Defense Department’s Joint Special Operations command (JSOC) which carries out drone strike in Yemen and Somalia refuse to discuss its drone operations.

The U.S. uses armed drones in overt combat in Afghanistan and did use them in Iraq and in Libya. The CIA has used them until last month, covertly in Pakistan. The CIA and military are now using them covertly in Yemen, Somalia and probably other countries. The Obama administration finds legal justification for all the overt and covert programs in the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed just after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The Authorization gives the president sole power to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against nations, groups or persons who committed or aided the attacks and to prevent future attacks. The Authorization has no expiration date.  It is vague.  The CIA has separate legal authority to conduct counterterrorism operations abroad under a Presidential Finding signed by President Ronald Reagan. In 1998, President Clinton signed a Memorandum of Modification, overriding the long-standing ban on CIA assassinations abroad and allowed “lethal” counterterrorism hits against a list of named targets including Osama bin Laden. Killing was approved if captures were not “feasible.” President George W. Bush amended the Finding again, dropping the list of named targets and abandoning the requirement that no “feasible” capture is a prerequisite to assassination.  Bush's finding was vaguest.  Bush obtained a very broad mandate for the CIA to kill anyone world-wide at his discretion. A year after Bush amended the Finding, a Predator drone took out al-Qaeda leader Abu Ali al-Harithi in Yemen. In 2004, the CIA began drone attacks within Pakistan. It limited itself to doing so in “boxes”, i.e. areas, within tribal regions near Afghanistan’s eastern border. Pakistan President Musharraf was said to have approved each drone strike in advance. When President Zardari replaced Musharraf in 2008. Zardari voiced public disapproval of the drone strikes, but allowed them to continue, and he even said he received “no prior notice” of them.

Upon taking office, President Obama left the drone program in place and retained its legal justifications from the past. He sought no new legal opinion, and did not challenge the CIA’s unilateral authority to choose targets to strike in Pakistan. There was no effective review process. Outside Pakistan, all strikes required the President’s approval, either through the CIA or through he JSOC which kept its own list of targets and separate authorizations. Obama's lawyers concluded that the countries of Pakistan and Yemen had agreed to the drone attacks. Because in Somalia, the government only controlled the capital, there was no authority in power to give permission anyway, so it did not matter.

On September 9, 2011, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in favor of the CIA which had turned down a Freedom of Information Act request from the American Civil Liberties Union in which the Union sought details about the use of drones in operations targeting terrorist in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The judge found that then CIA-director Panetta “never acknowledged the CIA’s involvement in such a program.” Thus, total deniability of the drone programs was allowed to stand as a response to the FOIA request. The existence or non-existence of the program is classified. Of course, this is absurd – the drone programs exist.

According to Pete Yost, AP story, Judge Dumps ACLU Suit for Info on Use of Drones to Kill September 10, 2011:

In refusing to confirm or deny the existence of material, the government was invoking a Cold War-era legal defense known as the Glomar doctrine. Embodied in a 1976 federal appeals
        court ruling, it allowed the spy agency to refuse to confirm or deny its ties to a submarine retrieval ship, the Glomar Explorer. The ship, built by industrialist Howard Hughes, was used in
        an attempt to raise a sunken Soviet submarine.

In May 2010, a U.N. report found that the Obama administration has not revealed if any legal safeguards are in place regarding the drone problem. U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, said, “They have refused to disclose who has been killed, for what reason, and with what collateral consequences. The result has been a vaguely defined license to kill and the creation of a major accountability vacuum.”

There is very little access to the tribal areas in Pakistan and to other areas where drones are killing people. Therefore, the world is in the dark about who is being killed and why. Essentially, the drone program is steeped in secrecy and there is no legal requirements so far that the U.S. reveal details about who is being targeted and killed and for what reasons. Because the drone program does not result in U.S. casualties -- so far -- and it is hidden, the public does not care much. However, if foreign governments, who are now also operating drones, begin to follow the U.S. lead and engage in similar secret killing programs or if drones killed more U.S. citizens abroad – other than al Awlaki – or if drones are employed to threaten or even kill people within the U.S. territory, which now according to the new Defense Authorization Act can also be considered a combat zone, then the U.S. intelligentsia may react --- “not in my back yard!”

                                           Walt Whitman       

A march in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown,
A route through a heavy wood with muffled steps in the darkness,
Our army foil'd with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating,
Till after midnight glimmer upon us the lights of a dim-lighted building,
We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the dim-lighted building,
'Tis a large old church at the crossing roads, now an impromptu hospital,
Entering but for a minute I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made,
Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,
And by one great pitchy torch stationary with wild red flame and clouds of smoke,
By these, crowds, groups of forms vaguely I see on the floor, some in the pews laid down,
At my feet more distinctly a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen,)
I stanch the blood temporarily, (the youngster's face is white as a lily,)
Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o'er the scene fain to absorb it all,
Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead,
Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, odor of blood,
The crowd,
O the crowd of the bloody forms, the yard outside also fill'd,
Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating,
An occasional scream or cry, the doctor's shouted orders or calls,
The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches,
These I resume as I chant, I see again the forms, I smell the odor,
Then hear outside the orders given,
Fall in, my men, fall in;
But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile gives he me,
Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,
Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,
The unknown road still marching.

                                                                        Vasnetsov, Knight