The campaign of CIA drone strikes against suspected militants in Pakistan has made the United States “the most prolific user of targeted killings” in the world, said a United Nations official, who urged that responsibility for the program be taken from the spy agency.
Philip Alston, a New York University law professor who serves as the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, made the comments Wednesday as he released a report on targeted killings. The report criticizes the U.S. for asserting “an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe” in its fight against Al Qaeda and other militant groups.
Alston acknowledged that the right to self-defense may justify drone strikes in Pakistan, where the planners of the Sept. 11 attacks are thought to have fled. But he questioned whether that right extended to other countries where links to the attacks are more remote, such as Yemen or Somalia. He urged the U.S. to be more open about the program.
He also expressed concern about the precedent set by the U.S. program. Many other countries are seeking drone technology and when they obtain it, they are likely to copy U.S. tactics, he said.
Alston is scheduled to present his findings Thursday to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. They represent one of the most critical assessments to date of U.S. drone strikes, a tactic that has been stepped up significantly under the Obama administration. U.S. officials have credited the program with inflicting severe blows to militant groups.
As the drone attacks have expanded, they have attracted increasing criticism from human rights organizations and international legal scholars, some of whom claim aspects of the program violate international law. Critics also contend that the attacks risk a backlash in Pakistan and other countries where they are carried out.
The U.S. uses the unmanned aircraft extensively over Afghanistan and Iraq, as well, but those are primarily reconnaissance flights and are run by the military. The U.S. does not officially acknowledge the CIA program that focuses on Pakistan. Still, Obama administration officials dismissed much of Alston’s criticism of the CIA program.
“We have a way to get at dangerous terrorists operating in areas otherwise inaccessible to the central government or to conventional military units. It’s effective, exact and essential,” said a U.S. counter-terrorism official who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
In a statement, CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said: “Without discussing or confirming any specific action, this agency’s operations are, of course, designed to be lawful and are subject to close oversight within our government. The accountability is real, and so is the fidelity to American policy.”
The White House deputy press secretary, Bill Burton, would not comment on the report’s findings but said that the president “is focused on making sure that he’s doing everything in his power to protect the security of our country.”
Alston’s report discusses targeted killings by several countries, including Russia, Israel and Sri Lanka. But he focused on the U.S. use of drones. Many other countries are seeking to acquire unmanned aircraft, the report says, because the aircraft “permit targeted killing at little or no risk.”
“This strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions,” Alston said.
Current and former U.S. officials familiar with the program took issue with several of Alston’s findings. Two officials said the Obama administration has limited the target list outside Afghanistan and Pakistan to members of Al Qaeda and allied groups, a tighter standard than existed during the Bush administration.
Only a handful of attempts of any kind have been made to kill suspected militants outside Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq since 2001, the officials said. One occurred last year in Somalia, where U.S. special operations troops in a helicopter killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior Al Qaeda operative, U.S. officials familiar with the operation have said.
Under President Obama, the number of airstrikes in Pakistan has increased to an average of more than two a week, in part because the CIA was given authority in 2008 to carry out strikes against individuals deemed to be a threat to the United States, even when the U.S. does not know their names or has only fragmentary information about their intentions.
U.S. officials say that precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and that each target is carefully vetted, sometimes by hours of aerial surveillance that is matched against other intelligence.
Such airstrikes, officials say, are one of the few viable options for going after militants who have taken refuge in Pakistan’s remote and lawless border region.
On Monday, U.S. officials revealed that a recent drone attack was believed to have killed Al Qaeda’s No. 3 leader, Sheik Said Masri, who had been in hiding in Pakistan since 2001.
But Alston said that the secrecy surrounding the program makes it impossible to assess whether the CIA is doing enough to prevent the killing of civilians, either because they happen to be too close to a targeted militant or because of faulty intelligence.
“It is clear that many hundreds of people have been killed, and that this number includes some innocent civilians,” Alston said.
He called for greater openness, including disclosure of the identities of those killed. U.S. officials sometimes anonymously confirm the deaths of senior Al Qaeda members, but offer little, if any, detail on the vast majority of the strikes in Pakistan.
U.S. officials have said that fewer than 50 civilians have been killed in the strikes since 2008. “Not even the terrorists can credibly claim — let alone prove — that they cause large numbers of innocent casualties. They don’t,” said the U.S. counter-terrorism official.
Alston called on the Obama administration to turn over responsibility for conducting strikes against suspected militants to the U.S. military, which he said was more accountable than the CIA and likely to be better trained in the law of warfare.
In contrast to CIA secrecy, a U.S. military report last week criticized drone pilots for errors that resulted in the deaths of up to 23 Afghan civilians this year, and recommended punishment for several officers.
Alston’s report comes as some members of Congress and their staffers have begun raising questions about the drone program. In late March, legal experts warned a House subcommittee that the drone campaign could someday result in international charges against government officials.
“I expect there to be continuing legal scrutiny and criticism of drone strikes, especially from abroad, but I don’t expect the Obama administration to change course in a major way,” said Matthew Waxman, a Columbia University law professor and former Bush administration official who considers the use of drones to be legal.
In a speech in March, the State Department’s legal advisor, Harold Koh, offered the administration’s first explicit defense of the use of drone strikes, saying the U.S. was exercising its inherent right to self-defense. He did not mention the CIA or Pakistan in the speech.
Christi Parsons and Julian E. Barnes in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.