The Obama administration is ramping up its use of drone unmanned aircraft to execute targeted killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and perhaps in other locations - and, in the process, killing civilians along with insurgents, and risking the compromise of US moral imperatives and foreign policy goals.
That's the view of a leading civil rights organization, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), calling on the president to lift the curtain of secrecy and level with the American people.
The ACLU is asking the government to release basic information about its use of drones to execute targeted killings. The group believes that "the use and proliferation of this tactic must be the subject of public scrutiny and debate." The strikes are reportedly being carried out both by US military forces and the CIA.
The request is seeking information, including who may be targeted and the geographical limits on where drone strikes may occur. It wants information about the scope and consequences of drone strikes, including a breakdown of the total number of people killed, the civilian casualty toll, the number of people killed who were fighters with the Afghan Taliban or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or who had some other terror-related affiliation or status.
"The public has been kept in the dark and is therefore unable to assess the wisdom or legality of the strikes," the group claimed.
"The use of drones to conduct targeted killings raises complicated questions - not just legal questions but policy and moral questions as well. These are not questions that should be decided behind closed doors. They are questions that should be debated openly, and the public should have access to information that would allow it to participate meaningfully in the debate," according to Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project.
One of the unmanned vehicles, known as the Predator, is capable of flying for hours, armed or unarmed, remotely controlled by pilots who are stationed thousands of miles away. The Predator is part of a growing number of similar craft that includes the Reaper and Raven as well as a new, high-tech video sensor system called the Gorgon Stare, which is being installed on Reapers.
The ACLU charged that the Obama administration has stepped up the use of drones to target individuals not only in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan and perhaps other countries that are not active theaters of war.
"The use of unmanned drones to target and kill individuals is a profoundly new way of waging war. For the first time, military and intelligence officers can observe, track, and launch missiles at targeted individuals from control centers located thousands of miles away, without any significant US presence on the ground. The technology also permits the United States to target individuals nearly anywhere in the world," the organization claimed.
The number of civilian casualties caused by drone attacks varies from the dozens to the hundreds. Human rights organizations are particularly concerned that drones could be used to target criminal suspects rather than legitimate military targets. Criminal suspects should be arrested and tried in civilian courts, the ACLU contended, adding that failure to do so could amount to "unlawful extrajudicial killings."
The ACLU also raised concerns about the wisdom of using drones on policy and moral grounds.
"We hope that the Obama administration will live up to its professed commitments to transparency and openness in government and release this essential information in a timely manner," the group said.
The increasing use of drones by the US has drawn sharp criticism from President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and other high Pakistani officials.
Jonathan Manes, an ACLU attorney, told Truthout, "The Obama administration has stepped up the use of drones to target individuals not only in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan, and that drones strikes might be authorized in other countries that are not active theaters of war."
Pakistan said the strikes against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban militants along its northwest violate its sovereignty. The attacks have resulted in serious anti-American feelings in Pakistan, which Washington sees as a critical ally in its war on extremism.
Gilani has told the press that drone attacks carried out on Pakistani soil were "counter-productive." He said, "If the drone attacks had been useful, then we would have ourselves supported them."
Gilani said the militants in the northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan are strengthened by US missile strikes. "Our policy is to isolate militants from the local tribes, but drone attacks unite them," he said.
His view was echoed by Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who told Reuters that intensified US drone aircraft attacks against Islamist militants in Pakistan could endanger relations between the two allies.
But when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, she told a news conference the US was standing "shoulder to shoulder" with Pakistan in its military offensive. And the increased use of unmanned Predator drones is one of the highest profile ways the US is doing that.
The White House authorized an expansion of the CIA's drone program in Pakistan's tribal areas to parallel the president's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. The New York Times reported that American officials are talking with Pakistan about the possibility of striking in Baluchistan for the first time - "a controversial move since it is outside the tribal areas - because that is where Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to hide."
US strategy for eliminating safe havens for militants in the region turns on increasing covert pressure on al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan, while ground forces attempt to reverse the Taliban's advances in Afghanistan.
Investigative reporter Jane Mayer of The New Yorker magazine has revealed that the number of US drone strikes in Pakistan has risen dramatically under President Obama. During his first 9.5 months in office, Obama authorized at least 41 CIA missile strikes in Pakistan, a rate of approximately one bombing a week. President Bush sanctioned approximately the same number of attacks in his final three years in office.
The attacks have killed between 326 and 538 people, according to Mayer. She wrote, "there is no longer any doubt that targeted killing has become official US policy."
One of the most high-profile critics of the US drone program has been the United Nations human rights envoy, Philip Alston, the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions.
Alston told Amy Goodman of the Democracy Now! radio program that the US government's use of Predator drones may violate international law. He also raised the issue in a report to the UN General Assembly's Human Rights Committee and said the US should explain the legal basis for using unmanned drones for targeted killings.
In June, Alston presented a critical report on the drone program to the UN Human Rights Council, but he said US representatives ignored his concerns.
He said, "If you're a Defense Department person, it's a very attractive proposition. One can use the Predators without putting US servicemen in any harm. They are very effective. They can kill very significant numbers of people."
But, he added, "The problem is that we have no real information on this program. What Jane Mayer exposed in her New Yorker piece is probably the most detailed information we have. She herself said that the CIA provides no information. It's extraordinary that it's the Central Intelligence Agency which is actually operating a missile program, which is actually deciding who to kill, when and where."
Alston added, "There's no accountability for it. There's no indication of the rules that they use. So, I said before, there are rules, that it's possible to justify a particular killing, but the CIA has never tried to do that. They have simply issued a general assurance: 'No, no, everything's fine. We really follow the rules, and we're very careful.' Well, if Israel or some other country that we're scrutinizing says that, we say, 'Sorry, guys, it's not enough. We need to get the details'."
Alston has called on the American government to make clear the details of the program; the legal basis, under US law, on which they are relying; the rules that they have put in place which govern the CIA actions, assuming there are rules; and what sort of accountability mechanisms they have. Do they review what they've done? They identify an individual. Often these identifications are very vague. But they say, "'O.K., we've got X in our sights.' Did they actually kill X? Did they kill someone else? How many other civilians did they kill? There's never any accounting of that. And we need that sort of retrospective analysis, as well."
He added that, in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, "The United States has not done nearly enough, even today, to make sure that private military contractors do not carry out virtually all tasks, including, it seems, running a part of the drone program."
But the drone program also has its fans. One of them is John Yoo, the former Office of Legal Counsel deputy who wrote the so-called "torture memos. " Yoo appeared at the conservative American Enterprise Institute recently.
He said that in some areas, President Obama has gone beyond George W. Bush when it comes to the use of executive power. Yoo pointed toward the Obama administration's increased use of predator drones overseas as an example.
"If we were still in peacetime, and this were the criminal justice system, police are not allowed to shoot missiles at people who might be criminals, might be about to commit a criminal act or might have committed a criminal act, even if we have a hard time finding and arresting them," said Yoo. He added that in this area Obama has gone beyond Bush.
He said figuring out how to target terrorists is much more difficult because they do not wear uniforms or have territories. "It's a complicated process that we had not had to think about before, but that doesn't mean it's not a war."
Two leading US senators are also strong supporters of the drone program. They are Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Joe Lieberman, Independent of Connecticut. Their recent visit to Islamabad underscored tensions between the anti-terrorist allies caused by strikes unmanned aircraft strikes against suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda targets.
"Friends don't always agree on every issue," Senator . McCain said at a news conference in Islamabad, adding that the United States will "try to find common ground" with Pakistani leaders on the drone issue, but that "we have to do everything we feel is necessary to protect Americans from the attacks of terrorists who may be based here."
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari asked the senators to seek a halt to the drone attacks. He said they are undermining domestic support for the war against Islamist militants and asked that the United States give Pakistan the technology to carry out such strikes on its own.
Following the December 30 suicide bombing at a US base in eastern Afghanistan that killed seven CIA officers and contractors, Washington has also increased its use of the controversial strikes near the Afghan border. Suspected US missiles killed four people and injured three in the latest raid on the North Waziristan tribal area. That was the sixth attack in the region in a week, the Associated Press reported. The AP quoted two Pakistani intelligence officials, who said a pair of missiles struck a house and a vehicle in a village near the town of Miran Shah. They did not identify the victims.
It is the civilian deaths that are giving US policymakers serious headaches. The strategy outlined by Gen. Stanley McChrystal - and supported by Obama with the deployment of 30,000 additional troops - centers on protecting the Afghan people. It is unclear how killing civilians with drone attacks furthers that goal.
In a related development, military observers have revealed - and their revelations have been confirmed by the US military - that a new, "stealthy" US drone, nicknamed "The Beast," is operating out of Kandahar, Afghanistan.
But they question what it's doing there. One military web site wrote, "Since the Taliban do not have radar, why deploy an expensive, stealthy drone when conventional models like the Predator and Reaper work so well? And what's the point of having a high-level, strategic craft in that theater?"
It says the speculation is that The Beast may be carrying out missions outside of Afghanistan, with Iran and Pakistan both being possible candidates.
The Air Force has confirmed The Beast's existence to Aviation Week magazine. "Officially, it's an RQ-170 Sentinel, developed by Lockheed and flown by the flown by the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Tonopah Test Range in Nevada," the magazine reported.
And, in something of an embarrassment for the US military, The New York Times reported that insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have hacked into live video feeds from Predator drones, a key weapon in a Pentagon spy system that serves as the military's eyes in the sky for surveillance and intelligence collection.
Though militants could see the video, The Times said there is no evidence they were able to jam the electronic signals from the unmanned aerial craft or take control of the vehicles, according to a senior defense official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Obtaining the video feeds can provide insurgents with critical information about what the military may be targeting, including buildings, roads and other facilities. The military has reportedly known about the vulnerability for more than a decade, but assumed adversaries would not be able to exploit it.