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ACLU sues to obtain basic data, legal justification for Predator drone program

Stephen C. Webster
Raw Story
March 17, 2010

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit after federal agencies neglected to answer a Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents pertaining to the legal basis for the military’s Predator drone program.

The request specifically seeks information as to how the program is governed, who can be targeted, along with when and where, and the data on civilian casualties caused by the remote-controlled weapons.

It was originally filed on Jan. 13 with the departments of defense and justice, along with the Central Intelligence Agency, none of which replied, according to the non-profit.

“The public has a right to know whether the targeted killings being carried out in its name are consistent with international law and with the country’s interests and values,” said Jonathan Manes, a legal fellow with the ACLU National Security Project, in a media advisory. “The Obama administration should disclose basic information about the program, including its legal basis and limits, and the civilian casualty toll thus far.”

Meanwhile, the globalist thinktank Council on Foreign Relations is circulating an article by Harvard National Security Journal contributor Brett H. McGurk, offering a counter-point on the use of unmanned weapons of war, opening with a rather cold-cocked headline: “Lawyers: A Predator Drone’s Achilles Heel?

Interestingly, in the article’s opening paragraphs, McGurk flatly states that law and ethics “take a back seat” to the “new tactics” arising from the use of drones.

“As a former official overseeing national strategy in two warzones, I appreciate how law and ethics can take a back seat to new tactics that turn the tide against committed enemies,” he wrote. “So long as the tactics are legally available, whatever the theory, then the tactics will be used. In Iraq, there have probably been more Predator drone strikes than anywhere else on earth – and with tremendous effect, degrading extremist networks and decapitating leadership cells. Drone attacks alone are not strategically sound, but when combined with a campaign to secure the population against common enemies, the strategic advantages are proven and empirical. The same strategy is now being employed in Afghanistan.”

A summary published on describes the group as “an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher,” whose members include the likes of former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, media personnel like Brian Williams and Fareed Zakaria, and celebrities such as Angelina Jolee, all of whom are advertised on the group’s “about” page.

In a strange coincidence, the very day the ACLU filed its’ complaint over the government completely ignoring their request, Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., the man considered to be the scientific pioneer of the Predator drone’s technology, stepped down from his post at California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

“General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. said Cassidy, 77, retired as president of its Aircraft Systems Group, which builds unmanned aircraft, including the Predator — currently the most widely deployed unmanned aerial vehicle in the U.S. arsenal,” The Los Angeles Times reported.

“The company, which disclosed the retirement after an inquiry from a Times reporter, said Cassidy was unavailable for comment.”

The ACLU added: “The CIA and the military have used unmanned drones to target and kill individuals not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in Pakistan and, in at least one case in 2002, Yemen. The technology allows U.S. personnel to observe targeted individuals in real time and launch missiles intended to kill them from control centers located thousands of miles away. Recent reports, including public statements from the director of national intelligence, indicate that U.S. citizens have been placed on the list of targets who can be hunted and killed with drones.”

“While the Obama administration may legitimately withhold intelligence information as well as sensitive information about military strategy, it should disclose basic information about the scope of the drone program, the legal basis for the program and the civilian casualties that have resulted from the program,” argued ACLU attorney Jameel Jaffer, who heads the non-profit’s National Security Project.

Credible online reports on the number of civilians killed by Predator drones are rare to come by, leaving much of the reporting to outlets like Iranian media, Long War Journal, Pakistan Observer and others, which occasionally rely on information outside the chain of U.S. command, which typically gives lower casualty counts.

Drone aircraft are known to be currently deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. The United States and Colombia also recently secured a deal to house U.S. troops at Colombian military bases so they could pilot drones over the region to search for terrorists and drug traffickers. The move has angered neighboring countries in South America, causing some governments to bristle and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in particular to warn that the “winds of war” are blowing.

In the wake of increased violence along the Texas-Mexico border, Texas Governor Rick Perry has asked President Obama to dispatch Predator drones to the troubled regions to be the eyes of the currently enhanced patrols. Drones were previously dispatched to Arizona.

The unmanned technology has been called a “lynchpin” for President Obama’s conduct of the continuing terror war, with present U.S. authorities ramping up their use significantly compared to the Bush administration.

An estimated 33 percent of the Predator drone’s victims are thought to be civilians, according to a recent report by Washington-based thinktank New America Foundation.

“Their report, The Year of the Drone, studied 114 drone raids in which more than 1200 people were killed. Of those, between 549 and 849 were reliably reported to be militant fighters, while the rest were civilians,” The Telegraph noted.

“Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department, which is a defendant in the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, said he had not yet seen the complaint,” Politico noted.

“The bottom line is that we will review the compliant once we receive it and make a determination as to how we’ll respond in court,” Miller reportedly said.

The ACLU’s full complaint is available online.

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