In the immediate wake of Thursday's publication of astonishing leaked documents and in-depth reporting by The Intercept which reveal the inner workings of the U.S. military's covert drone campaign overseas, human rights groups are calling for an official congressional inquiry into the program and the Obama administration's efforts to keep it secret.
"These revelations are further damning evidence that the Obama administration is continuing the Bush-era project of treating the world as a global battlefield while evading public accountability."
—Naureen Shah, Amnesty International USA
"These documents raise serious concerns about whether the USA has systematically violated international law, including by classifying unidentified people as ‘combatants’ to justify their killings," said Naureen Shah, director of the Security with Human Rights campaign at Amnesty International USA.
The public release of the documents and their contents, she added, "warrants an immediate congressional inquiry into why the Obama administration has kept this vital information secret, including the real identities of all those killed in this global killing program."
What would such a review look like? As ACLU National Security Project director Hina Shamsi and international human rights lawyer Sarah Knuckey wrote in a post for Just Security in May, it would involve "robust" oversight from Congress, as used during the investigation into the CIA torture report published earlier this year, as well as adjudication by federal courts in cases of alleged wrongful killings, and publication of the Obama administration's "legal and policy justifications, factual
"The Obama administration’s lethal program desperately needs transparency and accountability because it is undermining the right to life and national security."
—Hina Shamsi, ACLUbases, and the consequences of its decisions to kill in response to Freedom of Information Act transparency requests."
Shamsi and Knuckey wrote:
Before and after the President’s 2013 reforms, in speeches and strategic anonymous “leaks,” US officials have sought to portray a “surgically precise” “targeted” killing program that is lawful, necessary, and minimizes harm to innocents. [....] But the administration’s portrayal of its lethal force program is directly contradicted by on-the-ground investigations by civil society groups and others. (For some of the many detailed reports of civilian casualties, see here, here, here, here, here, and here).
The Intercept on Thursday published a cache of U.S. intelligence documents on the global assassination campaign provided by an anonymous whistleblower who said the program was morally flawed. The files show how the orders to place targets on kill lists and assassinate them come from the highest ranks of the U.S. government, including President Barack Obama, and how the military cleans up its dismal track record of civilian deaths by terming unidentified people killed in drone strikes as 'enemies.'
Some of the information disclosed in the leaks was previously known, but the documents provide never-before-seen details about the chain of command and the program's high rates of civilian casualties, with nearly 90 percent of those killed in drone strikes being not the intended target. The Obama administration has occasionally apologized and made condolence payments to victims' families, as he did when a drone strike killed two Western hostages in Pakistan in April, but the documents reveal how these rare instances of public remorse are the exception rather than the rule.
"These eye-opening disclosures make a mockery of U.S. government claims that its lethal force operations are based on reliable intelligence and limited to lawful targets," Shamsi said on Thursday. "In fact, the government often claims successes that are really tragic losses. The Obama administration’s lethal program desperately needs transparency and accountability because it is undermining the right to life and national security."
And as Amnesty's Shah added, "These revelations are further damning evidence that the Obama administration is continuing the Bush-era project of treating the world as a global battlefield while evading public accountability."