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US sticks to secrecy as drone strikes surge

WASHINGTON - Since September, at least 60 people have died in 14 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions. The Obama administration has named only one of the dead, hailing the elimination of Janbaz Zadran, a top official in the Haqqani insurgent network, as a counterterrorism victory.

The identities of the rest remain classified, as does the existence of the drone program itself. Because the names of the dead and the threat they were believed to pose are secret, it is impossible for anyone without access to US intelligence to assess whether the deaths were justified.

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The administration has said that its covert, targeted killings with remote-controlled aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and potentially beyond are proper under both domestic and international law. It has said that the targets are chosen under strict criteria, with rigorous internal oversight.

It has parried reports of collateral damage and the alleged killing of innocents by saying that drones, with their surveillance capabilities and precision missiles, result in far fewer mistakes than less sophisticated weapons.

Yet in carrying out hundreds of strikes over three years - resulting in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths in Pakistan - it has provided virtually no details to support those assertions.

In outlining its legal reasoning, the administration has cited broad congressional authorizations and presidential approvals, the international laws of war, and the right to self-defense. But it has not offered the American public, uneasy allies, or international authorities any specifics that would make it possible to judge how it is applying those laws.

The rapid expansion in the size and scope of the drone campaign as the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been winding down has led to increased criticism from human rights and international law experts, many of whom dispute the legal justification for the program.

‘They’ve based it on the personal legitimacy of Obama. . . . That’s not a viable concept for a president going forward.’

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The criticism has struck a chord inside an administration that prides itself on respect for international law, and it has intensified an internal debate over how much information can and should be revealed.

“Everybody knows we’re using drones,’’ said a senior US official familiar with the program, one of several who agreed to discuss intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity. “On the other hand, we’re doing it on a pretty systematic and standardized basis. Why don’t we just say what those standards are?’’

In Pakistan, at least 240 CIA drone strikes have been reported since 2009. The CIA and the US military carried out strikes this year in Yemen and Somalia, with at least two US citizens among those killed.

As armed drones become “an increasingly usual tool of war,’’ said a second official, the public and US allies have a right to ask “who makes these decisions. How are they made? Is there any sort of court or something that reviews them? Should there be?’’

Even outside experts who believe the program is legal find the secrecy increasingly untenable. “I believe this is the right policy, but I don’t think [the administration] understands the degree to which it looks way too discretionary,’’ said American University law professor Kenneth Anderson.

“They’ve based it on the personal legitimacy of Obama - the ‘trust me’ concept,’’ Anderson said. “That’s not a viable concept for a president going forward.’’

Administration advocates of more openness about the drone program are in a minority. Many of them are in the State Department, where some officials argue that the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan is the primary cause of widespread anti-Americanism.

The Pakistani government charges the United States is wantonly killing far more militant foot soldiers and civilians than senior insurgent leaders. With no independent access to the region by journalists or humanitarian organizations there is no way to verify the accuracy or effectiveness of the strikes.

Much of the resistance to increased disclosure has come from the CIA, which has argued that the release of any information about the program, particularly on how targets are chosen and strikes approved, would aid the enemy.

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has opposed the declassification of any portion of its opinion justifying the targeted killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen this year.

Awlaki, a propagandist for the Yemen-based Al Qaeda affiliate whom President Obama identified as its “external operations’’ chief, was the first American known to have been the main target of a drone strike. While officials say they did not require special permission to kill him, the administration apparently felt it would be prudent to spell out its legal rationale.

Asked about the Awlaki case at an American Bar Association conference this month, top CIA and Pentagon lawyers declined to address it directly. Those allied with Al Qaeda, including US citizens, are at war with the United States and are legitimate targets, said Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson and his CIA counterpart, Stephen Preston.

Others counter that such blanket assertions serve only to convince critics that wrongdoing is being concealed.

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