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How Lawyers Sign Off on Drone Attacks

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How Lawyers Sign Off On Drone Attacks: Strict protocols govern conduct of unmanned air war, but poor intelligence still causes lethal errors (excerpt)

(Source: The Guardian, published June 15, 2011)

To kill or not to kill? How does the Pentagon decide that they have the legal right to assassinate an alleged insurgent or terrorist in Afghanistan or Iraq?These questions gained a new urgency this week, as the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the Central Intelligence Agency is about to launch a secret new campaign to 'carry out aggressive drone strikes' in Yemen modelled on the alleged existing assassination programme in Pakistan. The WSJ report noted that 'the CIA operates under different legal restrictions, giving the administration a freer hand to carry out strikes.'

The answer involves two different sets of lawyers who are called upon when the target is to be taken out with a missile fired from an aircraft or a remotely piloted drone, depending on whether the theatre is Afghanistan or Pakistan, Iraq or Yemen, and whether the Pentagon or the CIA is in command. Potential targets in Afghanistan and Iraq are tracked by Pentagon 'joint forces' teams at the al-Udeid air base in Qatar: working inside a giant converted hanger known as a combined air and space operations centre, they view giant screens displaying maps and video from drone aircraft. There are other combined air and space operations centres scattered around the world, such as one in Ramstein, Germany, where Major General Margaret Woodward was in charge of Operation Odyssey Dawn, the US bombing of Libya.

As many as four military lawyers are available 24 hours a day for commanders to consult before they give the order to shoot anyone. These lawyers are called judge advocate generals and they must undergo special training in the Geneva conventions in Charlottesville, Virginia, before they deploy. The military lawyers are required to make sure that an operation – including the kind of weapons to be used and the risk of civilian casualties – meets with three overarching sets of rules: the laws of armed conflict, official (but top secret) rules of engagement for a given conflict and a set of specific instructions (known as 'Spins') drawn up by the commanding officers. Until the lawyers sign off on all three, the senior offensive duty officer cannot request permission from the joint force air component commander to fire weapons such as a Hellfire missile from a drone or use close air support from manned aircraft like the A-10 Warthog.

A checklist for commanders and for lawyers alike is provided in a 'standard operating procedures' manual on how to conduct a taregted killing – whether deliberate (pre-planned) or dynamic (based on events of the day). Colonel James Bitzes, the US Air Force senior legal adviser at the al-Udeid air base in 2010, recently showed a group of political analysts and journalists a video of an actual strike (an edited version is shown above) at a recent event organised by Arizona State University.

His boss, Charles Blanchard, the US Air Force general counsel, says that the sophisticated computer and video systems at al-Udeid allow the military to better obey the laws of war: 'Technology has actually raised the bar on military leaders as to when they can have strikes. We've gotten quite good at this. When we have planned attacks, we rarely have civilian casualties,' the Harvard-trained lawyer told the audience at the event.

But for all the sophisticated legal advice from Washington and the multiple drone feeds available to the commanders in Qatar, the US military makes glaring mistakes. Local communities almost always allege that civilians have been killed – yet, few cases are properly investigated. Last month, a new report conclusively documented how military intelligence and lawyers had planned a 'targeted killing' in Takhar, Afghanistan that assassinated the wrong man. (end of excerpt)

Click here for the full story, on the Guardian website.