7 Feb 2013

CIA boss faces questions on ‘unmanned and unseen’ drones

I found myself at an embassy cocktail party last summer balancing a glass of white wine and an elaborate scallop canapé when a voluptuous brunette weighed down by a tribal necklace sidled up to me and introduced herself as “Katie from unmanned vehicle systems of America”.

“Lawn mowers?”

“No, drones”, she replied.

“The unmanned variety hovering over Afghanistan and Yemen?”

“They are ALWAYS unmanned,” she corrected me. “WE in the unmanned vehicles community get very tired when people talk about unmanned drones. It’s an oxymoron. Anyways, the community is having a great, great year and we would love for you to come and visit.”

It was one of those vintage Washington moments that makes you want to scream but no sound comes out. Katie was of course right about the business of drones. Under George W Bush there were 50 drone strikes. Under Barack Obama there have been 350.

Drones are the corner stone of his security policy. They kill terrorists and they are much cheaper and less controversial inside the country that dispatches them than invading armies. The villagers of Waziristan or Yemen who have been living at the receiving end of drones for years see it differently.

Sometimes the drone strikes are popular when they “take out” a thug turned al-Qaeda leader. But more and more often they are feared with visceral hatred. They have killed innocent civilians. In one well documented example they incinerated a local Yemeni leader who was actually trying to rebuff al-Qaeda. And as they hover and buzz in the skies above for months on end they become a truly terrifying presence worthy of a science fiction terror movie.

Drones driving al-Qaeda recruits

Senior American generals openly worry that despite their reputed accuracy, the drones are becoming counter productive. They may have depleted the leadership of al-Qaeda but how many fresh recruits has their terror spawned? The drones are guided much like video games from a military base somewhere in the corn fields of Nebraska. They have been operating for the last four years without barely any discussion in the American media or public.

Only when it came to light that the American born al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki had been killed by a drone did the debate begin. Now, with the confirmation hearings of John Brennan for his next job as head of the CIA, it is at full throttle.

Brennan is the prime architect of the drone program. From a windowless room in the basement of the West Wing he has been drawing up the “kill lists” of targets before sending them up to his boss in the Oval Office for approval. Brennan gets to decide who lives and who dies in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and wherever else the drones hover.

The only barrier is a president, his conscience and a copy, we are told, of St Augustine which Mr Obama likes to thumb like a philosopher king when he decides over life and death.

Unmanned and ‘unseen’

There is no congressional oversight and of course no judicial process. There is, we now know, a memo concocted by White House lawyers that justifies the legality of the drone strikes in terms of the imminence of a threat. But since America’s war against al-Qaeda is open ended the use of the word imminent is as flexible as a rubber band.

Before he joined the Obama administration, Brennan was a CIA veteran of 25 years engaged on the sharp end as station chief in Saudi Arabia and the corporate end in Langley, the CIA headquarters. Under the Bush administration he was involved in the rendition programs and the use of water boarding as an “enhanced interrogation technique”. In other words he is a veteran of the post 9/11 “war on terror”, a term this administration no longer likes to use even if many of the methods have not changed.

If this president was called Bush, the international outcry against Brennan and his drones would have them marching in London and Berlin. Back at the embassy Katie, from “the unmanned vehicle community” made the point succinctly.

“Our drones are not just unmanned,” she said. “Unlike American troops, aircraft carriers or Apache helicopters they are also unseen.”

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