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But a secret Saudi Arabian base was dragged into the glare of publicity Wednesday as President Barack Obama’s controversial nominee for CIA chief, John Brennan, came under scrutiny — along with the U.S.’s main tactic for fighting Al Qaeda’s regional cells.
The Washington Post said it had refrained from disclosing the location at the request of the administration, to avoid undermining operations against one of America’s “most potent” enemies. But a New York Times report published Tuesday night ended an “informal arrangement” to maintain media silence.
It was a bad week for secrets in Washington. The Saudi spill followed the contentious leak of a 16-page white paper that showed the grey areas in U.S. policy on targeted killings, including identification of who might be considered an “imminent threat,” and when it is acceptable to assassinate an American citizen.
Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, is to face a gruelling Senate confirmation hearing Thursday. Some of the hardest questions will be on targeted killing, which Obama has increased dramatically since George W. Bush left office, through the use of remotely controlled drones.
Brennan, who reportedly compiles the lists of potential drone targets for Obama’s approval, is regarded by some as the administration’s architect of assassination. He was also a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia who reportedly played a key role negotiating the deal for the drone base there. One of the most hotly debated drone killings, of American-born cleric Anwar al Awlaki, a key figure in Al Qaeda’s Yemen cell, was said to have been launched from Saudi Arabia. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was later killed in a strike.
Over the past months, reports have also leaked out on America’s network of covert drone bases in East Africa, which are launching pads for attacks on Al Qaeda cells across the region. Locations include Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.
There are also plans to base more drones in the West African state of Niger, following the takeover of neighbouring northern Mali by Islamic militants who have now been pushed into the Sahara by French and Malian forces.
“From September 2001 to April 2012, the U.S. military increased its drone inventory from 50 to 7,500 – of which 5 per cent can be armed,” wrote Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations in a report on reforming drone strike policies.
Al Qaeda members, including Americans, may be assassinated if an “informed, high-level official” judges that they pose an “imminent threat” of attacking the U.S., and their capture is not feasible. But no evidence is needed that they are planning a specific or immediate operation, and they may have no previous criminal charges. It claims the killing is justified under laws of armed conflict because the U.S. is at war with Al Qaeda — an opinion voiced by Brennan in a speech last year.
“Any way you slice and dice it, to target people from a list when they are not combatants amounts to extrajudicial killing,” says Stuart Hendin, an Ottawa-based legal scholar in international humanitarian law. “The use of drones during military operations is a valuable device, but provided only that they are used in armed conflict.”
There are also fears that more countries will follow America’s example once they obtain attack drones. Israel has unacknowledged combat drones and Pakistan and China are developing them. The United Arab Emirates has reportedly built but not used them, and Russia claims it has attack-ready drones, Zenko says.
“The rapid spread of (drone) technology to other states means that the implications of U.S. policy . . . are of potentially major significance in the future, in relation to the legal framework which will be applied to the actions of those other states,” says an essay by Philip Alston, a former UN special rapporteur on targeted killing.