Monday, April 16, 2012

Drone Summit: Killing and Spying by Remote Control

Originally published by AlterNet at:

Drone proliferation is slowly waking up members of the U.S. public who have intensifying concerns about extrajudicial drone killings and about the onset of a surveillance society in America. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress seems more interested in promoting drone proliferation than in fulfilling its oversight responsibilities.

Three years ago, members of the U.S. House of Representatives formed a special caucus to address issues related to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). For the most part, prior to the formation of the Unmanned Vehicle Caucus, drone regulation had been left almost entirely to the executive branch, largely the Department of Defense and the CIA.

Recognizing that drones were not only increasingly occupying domestic and foreign airspace but were also advancing on the ground and in global waterways, the House leadership last year broadened the name of its group from the UAV Caucus to the House Unmanned Systems Caucus.

Drones are proliferating with virtually no governmental oversight.

Yet the mission of the bipartisan drone caucus, which includes liberal and conservative representatives, is not to regulate drone operations but to promote them.
Financial interests — campaign contributions from drone manufacturers and the income flowing into districts from drone bases and production plants, not concerns about the lack of congressional oversight — spurred the creation of the drone caucus.

Over the past three years, the concerns of the drone caucus have mirrored the concerns of the drone industry about access to domestic airspace, export controls and the modestly declining military budget.

The U.S. public has other concerns, joining others around the world already alarmed about killer strikes and surveillance by drones.

Frustrated by government secrecy and the lack of accountability, several prominent nongovernmental organizations have joined forces to sponsor the "Drone Summit: Killing and Spying by Remote Control" in Washington, D.C., on April 28–29.

“We are bringing together drone-strike victims, human rights advocates, robotics technology experts, journalists and military experts,” says Medea Benjamin of the women’s piece group CodePink. Other sponsors includes two legal advocacy organizations, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the London-based Reprieve.

The summit’s objective is to inform the American public about the widespread and rapidly expanding deployment of both killer and surveillance drones. Drones are at the very center of the new U.S. paradigm in foreign policy, say summit organizers. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta describes them as “the only game in town.”

That being the case, the public and policy community need to be closely involved. “Right now it’s a secret game out of democratic control,” says Benjamin. “We have to change that.”

Billed as the first international drone summit (other than those sponsored by the drone industry), the Drone Summit aims to raise awareness and discuss the full range of ethical questions posed by the use of drones.

“The Drone Summit is an important means of penetrating the mystique and political rhetoric surrounding the use of drones,” explains Tara Murray, deputy legal director of Reprieve, a London-based legal advocacy organization that is cosponsoring the summit.

“Concerns surrounding drones transcend political and national boundaries,” stresses Murphy, noting that the summit is encouraging all members of the public and the policy community to attend “regardless of political affiliation or nationality.”
Participants at the drone summit will hear the testimonies of victims of drone strikes in South Asia.

As Murray points out, the U.S. government’s “hit lists” leads to the targeted killing of both U.S and non-U.S. citizens. This practice, she says, “ignores the constitutionally enshrined principle of due process” and will likely concern “anyone with a commitment to the rule of law, civil liberties and checks on executive power.”

The summit organizers dismiss the notion that they are antitechnology Luddites. Echoing the common perspective of the summit organizers, Murray observes, “Drones are ultimately a tool, and their impact depends primarily on human decisions.”

“We are not antitechnology, and all scientific discoveries, if used in right way, have helped humanity a great deal,” says Shahzad Akbar of the Pakistani Foundation for Legal Rights, which represents drone victims. “But the question is,” he says, “can we trust a program which is being run for the last eight years with no information to its process and under no accountability, having killed almost 3,000 people whose identities are not known to their killers?”

The lack of oversight over drone operations and the booming international drone industry has alarming implications for war and peace. Yet, as the summit organizers note, drone proliferation is also rapidly advancing on the home front.

Drones are also being deployed domestically for “border security” and law enforcement. Predator drones are hunting immigrants and drug smugglers on the northern and southern borders. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department are working with the drone industry to get lightweight drones into the arsenals of metropolitan police and county sheriffs.

Congress recently mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration open up domestic airspace to private and commercial drones by 2015 and that it immediately speed up the licensing process to permit the deployment of government (military, homeland security and law enforcement) drones in commercial U.S. airways.

“As drones become an increasingly common form of warfare, and as their presence expands at home, it is time to educate ourselves, the U.S. public and our policymakers about drone proliferation,” says Medea Benjamin, the author of the forthcoming book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. 

“As remotely controlled warfare and spying race forward, it is also time to organize to end current abuses and to prevent the potentially widespread misuse both overseas and here at home,” she warns.

Among the topics the workshops will discuss include disputed legality of drone warfare, compensation for victims, transparency and accountability for drone operation, domestic drone surveillance, and development of autonomous drones.
Speakers will include leading figures from such organizations as Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International-USA, ACLU, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

The summit will kick off at 9 a.m. on April 29 and continue all day until 9 p.m. Those interested in attending the summit, which will be held at 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., can register online. The following day the summit will host a strategy session at 100 Maryland Avenue NE to network, discuss and plan advocacy efforts focused on various aspects of drones, including surveillance and targeted killings.

Organizations endorsing the summit include the Center for International Policy, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Global Exchange, Peace Action, United for Peace and Justice, Veterans for Peace, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, the Washington Peace Center and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

The fundamental issue that concerns summit organizers is the near-total lack of transparency and accountability in drone proliferation, at home and abroad.

With respect to killer drones, Leili Kashani, advocacy program manager for the Center for Constitutional Rights, explains: “The executive branch of the U.S. government is claiming the authority to target and kill any individual anywhere in the world, including American citizens, without any judicial process or oversight, and without any transparency or accountability. It is subverting the Constitution and international law in assuming the role of judge, jury and executioner.”

Participation in the summit, says Murray, will be an important step in reining in uncontrolled drone proliferation. The lack of congressional oversight means that the drones operations are vulnerable to abuse,” she warns, “and civil society institutions should be evermore vigilant in monitoring the use and impact of drones.

To register for the summit, go to 

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy. He is the author of Border Wars (MIT Press, 2011) and blogs at

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Shut Out of U.S., Drone Victim Lawyer Speaks Out

By Tom Barry, Truthout | Interview
Predator DronePredator aerial vehicles at General Atomics, a defense contractor, in Poway, California, March 13, 2009. (Photo: Jim Wilson / The New York Times)

Shahzad Akbar can no longer travel to the United States.

Akbar is a Pakistani lawyer who founded the human rights organization Foundation for Fundamental Rights in 2010 and represents the family members of noncombatant victims of US drone strikes.

Columbia University invited Akbar to speak at a law school forum in May 2011, but he couldn't get a visa, even though he has been to the United States multiple times and used to work as a consultant for US agencies.

Akbar is scheduled to speak at the upcoming first international drone summit in Washington DC, on April 28 and 29. The State Department, however, says that there is a problem getting the necessary authorization from the "Homeland Security structure."

Given that Akbar wants to talk about the CIA's clandestine drone operations and the military's Joint Operations Intelligence Centers (JOIC), keeping him out of the United States and far away from the US public and the US media might seem to make good sense from the point of view of the Obama administration.

Why, after all, would the US government facilitate an open dialogue at home while it mounts these extensive, clandestine operations overseas?

Yet it is Akbar's contention that the fundamental issues are not about security, but rather, they are about the constitutional right of due process, upholding the rule of law and ensuring proper Congressional and judiciary oversight.

The organizers and sponsors of the summit contend that, unless the Obama administration subjects its extensive drone operations to the rule of law, it is effectively undermining the very US interests and values that the CIA, the military and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are supposed to be protecting.

In an op-ed Akbar penned for The Guardian after he was denied a visa to speak at Columbia last year, he wrote: "Instead of preventing me from speaking with American colleagues about these legal cases, the US government should support our attempt at justice within the law - even if it disagrees with our view of the facts. Let us debate and sometimes disagree; after all, that is how American justice is supposed to be done."

Leili Kashani of the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the sponsors of the upcoming summit, said, "By refusing to grant Shahzad Akbar a visa to speak at the Drone Summit, the Obama administration is further silencing discussion about the impact of its targeted killing program on people in Pakistan and around the world."

Here's what Akbar has to say.

Tom Barry: Is the Drone Summit really necessary? What could possibly be accomplished?

Shahzad Akbar: It is vital to put the debate on drones in the right perspective, with information from sources on ground , away from the US State Department's narrative that is given to the American public. The US drone policy is becoming a vital part of US foreign policy in conflict zones, and people at home need to know more about what their government is doing, more then just their own health care and housing issues. What the people in the United States decide in their elections has reaching consequences on the rest of the world.

A debate including all stakeholders can bring transparency and accountability to the drone program, which is currently being run by the CIA without information as to its operations being made available to the US public or their Congressional representatives.

TB: Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the government's term for drones, are now used widely for aerial surveillance and intelligence gathering, and they are also used to make targeted kills. Aren't the two uses very different, with different legal ramifications, and as such, shouldn't they be addressed at separate meetings - one on civil liberties and another on extrajudicial killings?

SA: The proliferation of drones raises fundamental concerns about the rights of individuals, whether drones are used for surveillance or as killing machines. We need to determine what latitude we are ready to give to government to usurp the rights of individuals  - and under what circumstances? Should we rely on the unfettered discretion of intelligence and covert agencies in the name of making us safe? The emphasis needs to be on due process in the rule of law and in judicial/representative oversight. This can be the beginning of it, and later, we can debate whether drones used for surveillance or for killing is right or wrong.

TB: Is this drone issue simply the latest cause of the left/progressives, who are fundamentally anti-war, anti-United States, anti-national security? Or are there constituencies and organizations that represent other sectors of the political spectrum concerned about the issues that will be addressed during the Drone Summit?

SA: For us, questioning drone strikes is not a so-called anti-war/anti-national security pastime activity. Rather, it is a question of the fundamental right to life. Real people, mostly civilians, are being killed by a foreign nation without any due process or recognition. The victims become just numbers in news reports claiming that so many militants have been killed in a drone strikes, as if that was all there was to it - nothing more!

We [the Pakistani Foundation for Fundamental Rights and Reprieve, a fellow human rights organization] along with other rights groups, are not on a fashionable parade of an anti-war agenda. Rather, it is, for us, a question of bare survival - the survival of real people who do not have any voice to access the world outside their tribal lands. They are being slaughtered for the sake of the Great Game in South Asia.

Those who might represent the other side could only be those who think that killing anyone without due process is permissible or can be right under certain circumstances. I believe that such defenders of the current policy and practices would mainly be either governments or their think tanks that address what are called strategic-depth issues.

TB: Isn't it possible that drones could be considered an instrument for peace and for the rule of law, rather than just a danger or a threat?

SA: We are by no means anti-technology. All scientific discoveries, when used in the right way, have helped humanity a great deal. But the question remains the same: Can we trust a program that has existed for eight years, provides no information as to its process of targeted killings, faces zero accountability and has killed almost 3,000 people whose identities are not known to their killers?

TB: With the US military presence in Iraq dwindling and the US warfighting winding down in South Asia, aren't the issues you raise about drone victims and illegal drone strikes also going away? How relevant are they to the new foreign policy environment?

SA: As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and Iraq, drones will become more relevant. UAVs are the new weapon of American policing of the world. The US government is budgeting a huge amount for drone purchases. Indicators are that the United States will keep its drone program in South Asia even after withdrawal of boots off the ground.
Drones are deemed an eminently viable solution for US foreign and military policy, since having boots on the ground is so problematic politically.

In South Asia and in the Middle East, drones will surely be used more in the future. This constitutes a real threat to world peace, especially if the United States or Israel deploys drones in Iran. Following the US precedent, India could use drones to interfere in Pakistan - which could precipitate a war between two nuclear states.

In short, with changing environments in South Asia and in the Middle East, drones are going be an increasing part of international affairs. Yet there are no laws covering this new technology, which represents a major threat to the rule of law, both nationally and internationally.

TB: Are there any other matters that you believe should be mentioned about the Drone Summit, or about drone proliferation in general?

SA: The American people and taxpayers need to know that their money is being used to kill people in another part of the world - people who are no threat to the United States. However, through its clandestine drone program, the US government is certainly making new enemies and promoting new militancy against the United States as a consequence of its killer drones.

You can register here for the Drone Summit in Washington DC April 28-29. 

This article is a Truthout original.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Immigrants Rights -- Discussing Failed Strategy of Reform

Immigrant Rights -- Scope, Limits, and Implications

March 30, 2012 | Report
“Immigrant-rights” is a term commonly used by immigrant advocates – including service providers, community organizers, leftists, lawyers, foundation program officers, labor organizers, and policy reformers.
But the term immigrant-rights is seldom defined by those who refer to the rights of immigrants when campaigning for immigration reform. This is especially true for immigrant-rights advocates and organizations that aren’t directly involved in the defense of the legal rights of immigrants. 
Over the past few decades, most of the organizations and coalitions involved in grassroots efforts and policy advocacy for liberal immigration reform have identified themselves as “immigrant-rights” groups. At the same time, since the early 1980s many organizations and campaigns have emerged to serve immigrant communities and to fight discrimination against immigrants. 
In the aftermath of the defeat of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) campaign over the past decade– routinely described as an “immigrant-rights” struggle and movement – the value of the term as a framework for reform efforts and as a messaging tool needs review. 
Immigrant-rights is a term that is still widely used by groups and activists who call for an immigration reform that would legalize the status of unauthorized immigrants. But there are indications that at least some sectors of the pro-immigrant movement have become more circumspect about what they contend are immigrant rights. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Drones Flying Under the Radar

Thursday, 05 April 2012 09:33By Tom Barry, Truthout | News Analysis

Drones are the future, especially in foreign wars, surveillance and law enforcement.

In all sizes, armed and unarmed, drones are proliferating at home and abroad. Some are loaded with missiles, others simply with Tasers, but all carry surveillance payloads.

These "eyes in the skies," also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPA), may soon be inescapable. For the most part, however, drones fly outside the radar of public scrutiny, Congressional oversight or international control.

In the seven years that the CIA and US military have deployed killer drones, the US Congress has never once debated the new commitment to drone operations. Although the CIA and the US military now routinely direct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations that enter foreign airspace, these interventions haven't been subject to serious Congressional review.

Drone operations often proceed without any authorization or knowledge of the intervened nations.

On the domestic front, local police and Homeland Security agents are also enthusiastically deploying drones for law enforcement and border security missions. At all levels, government in the United States is sidelining mounting civil rights, privacy and air safety concerns. The US Congress functions more as a booster for the drone industry than as a regulator.

In the United States, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the ACLU have brought a legal challenge to the "targeted killings" carried out by the CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command. "The executive branch is claiming the authority to target and kill any individual anywhere in the world - including American citizens - without any judicial process or oversight and without any transparency or accountability," Leili Kashani, CCR's advocacy program manager, told Truthout. "It is subverting the Constitution and international law in assuming the role of judge, jury and executioner."

Lately, other civil liberties groups, local and national, are also raising concerns about the lack of transparency, accountability and oversight over domestic drone deployment. Such groups include the Center for Technology and Democracy, the Electronic Policy Information Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Drone proliferation has sparked the creation of new organizations, such as theInternational Center for Robotic Arms Controls, which are demanding global governance over international drone missions.

A stream of recent media reports about drone proliferation at home has sparked rising public interest and concern in the United States. The lack of attention by Congress to the drone-related privacy issues has precipitated a surge of citizen activism and nongovernmental organization advocacy - accompanied by a wave of alarmed blog postings and commentary.

The rising concerns in America about the implications of drone deployment parallels a more advanced public debate in Great Britain about the onset of the "surveillance society" and about the legal and human consequences of drone interventions in foreign nations.

One example of this new attention in the United States is the upcoming Drone Summit, which will bring a variety of civil libertarians, human rights activists, robotics technology experts and peace activists to Washington, DC, on April 28-29.  The Drone Summit is jointly sponsored by the peace group CodePink and the legal advocacy organizations Reprieve (UK) and Center for Constitutional Rights. Described as the "first international drone summit," the event will feature military experts and first-hand testimonies by victims of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Medea Benjamin, author of the forthcoming book "Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control," says that "our nation is leading the way toward a new form of warfare where pilots sitting on the ground thousands of miles away command drone strikes, where targets are- in military jargon- 'neutralized,' and where unintended victims are dismissed as 'collateral damage.'"

Yet, drones aren't only about war fighting and extrajudicial killings overseas. Drones are also being deployed domestically by border security and law enforcement agencies. Predator drones deployed by Customs and Border Protection search for immigrants and drugs on the northern and southern borders, while metropolitan police and county sheriffs are acquiring smaller drones to assist their SWAT operations.

Under industry pressure, the Federal Aviation Administration was mandated by new Congressional legislation to adopt procedures to open US domestic airspace to private and governmental drones by 2015 and to allow police to start flying lightweight, line-of-sight drones by this summer. The new law was a major success for the new House Unmanned System Caucus and for the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, a drone industry group that works closely with the House drone caucus.

The drone freedom law also served as a wake-up call for a US public, which has been largely oblivious to advance of drones as a surveillance and law-enforcement instrument. Benjamin, who founded CodePink, warns, "As drones become an increasingly preferred form of warfare and as their presence expands at home, it is time to educate ourselves, the US public and our policymakers about drone proliferation."

 For Benjamin, activism needs to complement education if drone proliferation is to be subjected to the necessary accountability, transparency and oversight. "As remotely controlled warfare and spying race forward," she says, "it is also time to organize to end current abuses and to prevent the potentially widespread misuse both overseas and here at home."

Internationally, the simultaneously contentious and mutually self-serving relationship between the United States and Pakistan has lately been stuck at an impasse over routine US drone surveillance over that nation and killer drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas. The Pakistani Parliament and public protests say the drone interventions must stop, while the Obama administration says that the UAV deployments must and will continue.

It wasn't until January of this year that the president even acknowledged the secret targeted killing missions of drones by the CIA when he insisted in the midst of rising concern of noncombatant (collateral damage) deaths that the overseas killer drones were on a "very tight leash."

"Under the Obama administration, drone strikes have escalated and expanded in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia," said Kashani. "In Pakistan alone, the Obama administration has launched six times as many drone strikes as the Bush administration, in fewer years in office, killing hundreds of innocent people and devastating families."

"Ultimately, efforts to end the expansion of US drone strikes and covert wars are not only a legal matter," Kashani said, "but a political and ethical one on which the viability of a livable future and meaningful democracy is based."

Although information is restricted and controlled, it does appear that noncombatant deaths by killer drone strikes are declining - although continuing. But security questions remain about the level of threats represented by combatants who are being targeted and constitutional questions persist about the legality of these extrajudicial killings.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be winding down after nearly a decade. But the US military and the Obama administration are committed to the increased use of UAVs in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and war fighting.

In January, President Obama announced a shift in US military strategy, including the shedding of "outdated Cold War systems" in favor of the high-tech instruments and conflicts of the future - including the aptly denominated "shadow wars." This evolution in military strategy, including the increased reliance on drones and special operations (and presumably a continuing pattern of extrajudicial killings by drone strikes around the globe) may, as its supporters contend, be exactly the course the US military needs to ensure national and global security.

Whether strategically right or not, this is a shift that clearly calls out for the processes of moral, ethical and legal scrutiny at all levels of government - local, national and international.

The crash of the CIA's highly sophisticated - and extremely expensive (even its price tag is secret) - US stealth Sentinel drone in Iran last December proved another wake-up call about the risks of drone interventions. The US military, intelligence agencies and counterterrorist units may be the top dogs in the drone world now - but things change, blowback happens and drones have no national loyalty. Many close observers of drone proliferation point to near complete lack of governance structures, international conventions and adequate export controls to regulate drones.

Meanwhile, Iran is busy incorporating US drone technology into its own now-extensive drone program, and China has surged into the international drone market.
Understandably, this competition concerns the US drone industry - led by the major US military contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, among others.

Currently the industry - with support of the Congressional caucus - is pressuring the administration to continue relaxing the export controls on US-made drone technology to ensure that the industry keeps its market share of the fastest growing military and aviation sector. As speakers at the annual Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in February reminded industry representatives and the attending Congressional representatives, drone competition is sparking new markets for drone detection technology, defenses against enemy drones and electronic warfare instruments designed to break drone communications with their remote piloting.

"It is vital that the debate on drones is brought to American public since US drone policy is becoming vital part of US foreign policy in conflict zones," says Shahzad Akbar, attorney with Reprieve in London and with the Pakistani Foundation for Fundamental Fights. Akbar, who is listed as a summit speaker, says that a debate about drones needs to include all stakeholders, including the US public and that's a central objective of the planned drone summit in Washington, DC.

"Central to the debate are questions about the rights of individuals, whether as objects of surveillance or targets of killing machines," says Akbar. Essentially, we are asking to what degree "we [are] ready to allow government to "usurp the rights of individuals and under exactly what circumstances?" With respect to the objectives of the drone Summit, Akbar said that the summit's organizers are working to ensure that in the United States and in other drone-deploying countries they will subject their use to the "due-process rule of law" and to "proper judicial and democratic oversight."

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