U.S. veterans support legal fight by Yemeni man whose relatives were killed in drone strike

Three military veterans once involved in the U.S. drone program have thrown their support behind a Yemeni man’s legal fight to obtain details about why his family members were killed in a 2012 strike.

The veterans’ unusual decision to publicly endorse the lawsuit against President Obama and other U.S. officials adds another twist to Faisal bin Ali Jaber’s four-year quest for accountability in the deaths of his brother-in-law and nephew, who he believes needlessly fell victim to one of the most lethal covert programs in U.S. history.

The former enlisted service members told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a recent filing that they believe the 2012 drone strike serves as a case study of how mistakes frequently occur in the nation’s targeted-killing program, where life-or-death decisions are based upon top-secret evidence.

The veterans say they “witnessed a secret, global system without regard for borders, conducting widespread surveillance with the ability to conduct deadly targeted killing operations.”

Though the veterans did not disclose any personal knowledge of the strike that is alleged to have killed Jaber’s relatives, they claim the military frequently labels the deaths of unknown victims as “enemy kills.”

Separately, a 24-page report released Thursday by the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. found that despite recent information released by the Obama administration on U.S. policies about targeted drone killings, the process still involves ambiguities in interpretations of international law and too many generalities.

“I’m a believer that transparency is essential in public debate in order to make the right decisions,” said Lynn Davis, the study’s lead author and former State Department undersecretary for arms control and international security affairs. “The need for transparency is all the more important in an election year with the knowledge that this program will be handed to a new administration.”

The veterans’ 17-page filing urges the court to overturn a previous decision to throw out Jaber’s case. The filing is signed by Cian Westmoreland, a former Air Force technician who worked on communications equipment that enables drones to fly by remote control;  Lisa Ling, an Air National Guard technician who worked on intelligence equipment; and Brandon Bryant, an Air Force sensor operator who controlled cameras on drones.

In an interview, Westmoreland said the American public and innocent victims of the drone program deserve to know how decisions are made.

“People have the right to know how a screw-up can lead to the death of their family members,” Westmoreland said. “This is about accountability, transparency and how we, as a military, can learn from our mistakes.”

Ling said that as a veteran, she has an interest in promoting transparency for any U.S. drone strikes that may have been carried out in violation of domestic or international law. “Faisal deserves the truth,” she said in an interview.

The filing, called an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court” brief,  comes as the Obama administration has promised greater transparency and oversight on the counter-terrorism strikes that have targeted thousands of Islamic militants in remote corners of the globe. The shadow campaigns are being carried out in many countries where the U.S. has not declared war, including Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Somalia. The drone program in those countries is run by the CIA and the U.S. military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command.

The White House, Air Force and Justice Department declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

Jaber, a 58-year-old engineer from Sana, Yemen, who now lives in Montreal, has visited Washington and met with members of Congress and the Obama administration to describe why he thinks his brother-in-law, Salem bin Ali Jaber, a Muslim imam, and his nephew, Waleed bin Ali Jaber, a police officer, were mistakenly targeted.

Jaber said his brother-in-law had given a sermon in Khashamir to denounce Al Qaeda's ideology. Days later, on Aug. 29, 2012, Salem met several men who came to the village in central Yemen, and brought Waleed in case anything went wrong.

That summer evening, as villagers watched near the local mosque, four missiles exploded while the men spoke under a palm tree. Jaber believes the visitors were Al Qaeda members, and his relatives were collateral damage.

He said he was later handed a plastic bag by Yemeni government officials with $100,000 in freshly minted, sequentially marked $100 bills wrapped in rubber bands.

Reprieve, an international humanitarian group, sued the U.S. government for wrongful death on June 7, 2015, alleging the drone strike constituted an extrajudicial killing in violation of customary international law.

The lawsuit was dismissed in February on the grounds that ruling on the case “would require the court to second-guess the executive’s policy determinations in matters that fall outside of judicial capabilities.”

Jaber, who appealed the lower court ruling on Aug. 22, said in an interview he has not spent the $100,000 and does not want more money from the U.S. government. He wants an apology. 

The administration, in most cases, has refused to acknowledge the existence of the drone program or answer questions about how decisions were made about who is targeted. That began to change this year as the administration started to reveal more about the program, making good on Obama’s promise for greater transparency and oversight in a May 2013 speech at National Defense University. 

Last month, the White House released a redacted version of its "playbook" for the lethal U.S. drone program, which set a legal framework for deciding whom to kill, where and under what circumstances. The 18-page document was drawn up in May 2013.

In July, the White House revealed that 64 to 116 civilians had been wrongly killed in 473 strikes launched between the time Obama was inaugurated and the end of last year. The president also issued an executive order promising to “acknowledge U.S. government responsibility for civilian casualties.”

Jaber said his case offers the first chance for Obama to make good on his executive order.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

Twitter: @wjhenn

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