Obama Approves Expanded Drone War in Yemen

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by
Common Dreams

Obama Approves Expanded Drone War in Yemen

Increased airstrikes will raise number of civilian casualties, undermine US law, and further destabilize Yemen, say critics

by
Common Dreams staff

Obama approved the use of “signature” strikes this month and that the killing of an al-Qaeda operative near the border of Yemen’s Marib province this week was among the first attacks carried out under the new authority.

The CIA and US military may target suspected al-Qaida militants in Yemen with drones even when suspects' identities are not known, report the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post citing "unnamed" US government officials.  The policy shift gives permission to the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to fire on targets based solely on the targets' intelligence "signatures" -- patterns of behavior detected through intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance that indicate the presence of "key operative" or a "threatening" act.

Obama approved the use of “signature” strikes this month and that the killing of an al-Qaida operative near the border of Yemen’s Marib province this week was among the first attacks carried out under the new authority, officials told the Post. The new lethal authority is given even when identity of those in harm's way is not known, the reports indicate.

The Wall Street Journal quotes a US official as saying "Every Yemeni is armed, so how can they differentiate between suspected militants and armed Yemenis?"

After reports of the new strategy in Yemen -- which came in the form of a request from CIA Director David Petraeus -- law professor Bruce Ackerman, in a Washington Post op-ed, urged the president to reject it, arguing that even George W. Bush never received authorization to carry out such expansive war powers. "The president should not try to sleep-walk the United States into a permanent state of war by pretending that Congress has given him authority that Bush clearly failed to obtain at the height of the panic after Sept. 11."

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The Washington Post: White House approves broader Yemen drone campaign

The decision to give the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) greater leeway is almost certain to escalate a drone campaign that has accelerated significantly this year, with at least nine strikes in under four months. The number is about equal to the sum of airstrikes all last year.

The expanded authority will allow the CIA and JSOC to fire on targets based solely on their intelligence “signatures” — patterns of behavior that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance, and that indicate the presence of an important operative or a plot against U.S. interests.

Until now, the administration had allowed strikes only against known terrorist leaders who appear on secret CIA and JSOC target lists and whose location can be confirmed.

Moving beyond those rules of engagement raises substantial risks for the Obama administration, which has sought to avoid being drawn into a fight between insurgents and Yemen’s central government.

Congressional officials have expressed concern that using signature strikes would raise the likelihood of killing militants who are not involved in plots against the United States, angering Yemeni tribes and potentially creating a new crop of al-Qaeda recruits.

Critics have also challenged the legal grounds for expanding the drone campaign in Yemen. In an opinion piece published in The Washington Post on Sunday, Bruce Ackerman, a law professor at Yale University, argued that war measures adopted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were not aimed at al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate and don’t provide Obama “with authority to respond to these threats without seeking further congressional consent.”

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Bruce Ackerman: Mr. President, Don't Go There

The risk of attacks from Yemen may be real. But the 2001 resolution doesn’t provide the president with authority to respond to these threats without seeking further congressional consent.

"If the administration wishes to escalate the fight against terrorists in Yemen, it should return to Congress for express approval."

Congress hasn’t reversed itself in the years since it authorized the use of military force. While lawmakers recently elaborated on the president’s powers over captive terrorists in the military appropriations act of 2012, that legislation declared that “[n]othing in this section is intended to. . . expand the authority of the President or the scope of the Authorization for Use of Military Force [of September 2001].” If the administration wishes to escalate the fight against terrorists in Yemen, it should return to Congress for express approval.

Obama has an option. He has avoided Bush-era claims that he has the unilateral power as commander in chief to open up new fronts in an endless war against terrorism, independently of Congress. As a constitutional lawyer, he recognizes the weakness of such claims. As a politician he recognizes that they would profoundly alienate his base just when he needs it.

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Al-Jazeera: CIA and Pentagon given right to launch attacks even when identity of those in harm's way is not known

Some congressional officials have expressed concern over the use of such signature strikes, stating that they raise the likelihood of killing fighters who may not be involved in plots either to do with attacks against the US, or affiliated with al-Qaeda, potentially angering the local population and pushing them to join in the struggle against the US.

Yemeni officials rejected on Wednesday a request from the CIA and US military to expand the signature strikes to the target of groups who they deem to be fighters.

The Wall Street Journal quotes a US official as saying "Every Yemeni is armed, so how can they differentiate between suspected militants and armed Yemenis?"

The signature strikes have to be approved by Yemen before they are conducted, according to Yemeni and US officials.

In a related development, Yemeni officials rejected on Wednesday a request from the CIA and US military to expand the signature strikes to the target of groups who they deem to be fighters.

US officials say the CIA and US military had asked the White House for permission to target larger groups if intelligence points to al-Qaeda-related activity, as the CIA does in Pakistan's tribal regions.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic matters.

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