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Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Joins Chorus Questioning Legality of Drone Killing Program

Statement by Rep. Keith Ellison sparked by Intercept exposé on killing program

Rep. Keith Ellison speaking at a Stop Fast Track rally in April.  (Photo: AFGE/flickr/cc)

Sparked by an exposé on the Obama administration's drone war, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) has echoed human rights groups and called into question the legality of the killing program.

Based on documents leaked to The Intercept by an anonymous intelligence source, The Drone Papers offers an unprecedented look at the global killing program.

As Common Dreams previously summarized,

The series of articles [...] follows months of investigation and uses rare primary source documents and slides to reveal to the public, for the first time, the flaws and consequences of the U.S. military's 14-year aerial campaign being conducted in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan—one that has consistently used faulty information, killed an untold number of civilians, and stymied intelligence-gathering through its "kill/capture" program that too often relies on killing rather than capturing.

The "program needs transparency and oversight," Rep. Ellison said in a statement to The Intercept, the publication reported Friday. He added that it "result[s] in significant civilian casualties" and "breeds resentment and erodes our credibility with international partners."

"Attempts to hide civilian casualties by naming any person within the vicinity of an airstrike an 'enemy combatant' is wrong," Ellison stated.

"The report makes it clear," he said, "the U.S. drone program operates on highly questionable legal ground and offends our principles of justice."


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Jeremy Scahill, lead author of the Drone Papers, spoke last week to Democracy Now! about the findings, and said the program, as it often relies on "signals intelligence," is "basically death by metadata."

What we’ve published is an extensive look into how this program has operated historically, but specifically under President Obama. One of the most significant findings of this—and my colleague, Cora Currier, really dug deep into this—is we published for the first time the kill chain, what the bureaucracy of assassination looks like. And what you see is that all of these officials, including people like the treasury secretary, are part of signing off on all of this, where they have these secret meetings and they discuss who’s going to live and die around the world. And at the end of that process, it is the president of the United States who signs what amounts to a death warrant for whoever they’ve decided should die, based on what amounts to a parallel, secret judicial system in the United States that is not really subjected to any kind of judicial review, where the president acts sort of as emperor—issues an edict that you die.

And what we show—and this is the first time that there’s documentary evidence of this—is that the president gives the military a 60-day window to hunt down and kill these individuals. Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch pointed out today, if the standard is that the people who are being targeted for assassination is that they represent an imminent threat, which is what the president says the U.S. policy is, then why do they have 60 days to do it? Why don’t they need to do it now, if it’s imminent? Well, that’s because they’ve redefined the term "imminent" to be so vague as to not even resemble its actual commonly understood definition.

In addition to Ellison's calls for further oversight, human rights group Amnesty International said the Intercept exposé showed the need for an urgent congressional inquiry into the administration's drone assassination program.

"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," Naureen Shah, Director, Security with Human Rights at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement following the publication.

"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," Shah added.

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