ACTION ALERT: Drone-gate: US Air Force Using CIA for Cover in Drone Killings
April 24, 2014
Just Foreign Policy & The Guardian
A new documentary -- three years in the making -- identifies the unit conducting CIA strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas as the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron, which operates from Creech Air Force base, 45 miles from Las Vegas. As one operator confides: "The lie is that it's always been the Air Force that has flown those missions. The CIA might be the customer but the air force has always flown it. A CIA label is just an excuse to not have to give up any information. That is all it has ever been."
ACTION ALERT: Dronegate: US Air Force Using CIA for Cover in Drone Killings
Just Foreign Policy
A new documentary reveals that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have been carried out by regular US Air Force personnel. [See Guardian story below.]
Former US drone pilot Brandon Bryant says:
"… the lie is that it's always been the air force that has flown those missions. The CIA might be the customer but the air force has always flown it. A CIA label is just an excuse to not have to give up any information. That is all it has ever been." (1)
Members of the House can do something very simple to address this. They can co-sponsor the Schiff-Jones bill, H.R.4372, which would require the government to report on who is being killed by drone strikes, including how many civilians. Because the House is on recess, today is a good day to call House offices - you have a better chance of speaking with a staffer who handles the issue.
Call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 225-3121 today and ask to be transferred to your Representative's office. When you reach the office, ask if it's possible to speak to the legislative assistant who handles military affairs. Regardless of who you get to speak with, you can say:
I'm calling to urge [your Representative's name] to co-sponsor H.R.4372, the Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act. This bipartisan bill would require the government to report on who is being killed by US drone strikes, including how many civilians.
The bill has been endorsed by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The American people have the right to know what is being done in our name. You can co-sponsor the bill by contacting Rep. Adam Schiff's office or Rep. Walter Jones' office.
ACTION: When you're done, report your call with our easy response form:
CIA chief John Brennan has claimed that civilian casualties from drone strikes have been "exceedingly rare." The record of independent reporting strongly indicates that John Brennan's claim was not true. But because of the secrecy of the program, the CIA has not been forced to account for the discrepancy between their claims and the record of independent reporting. (2)
Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) have introduced legislation (3) -- H.R.4372, the Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act -- to require an annual report on the number of combatants and civilians killed or injured annually by US drone strikes. (4) The Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act has been endorsed by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. (5)
Please take two minutes to call your representative today. Thanks for all you do to help hold US officials accountable to the rule of law.
Megan Iorio, Chelsea Mozen and Robert Naiman
Just Foreign Policy
1. "CIA's Pakistan Drone Strikes Carried Out by Regular US air force Personnel: Former drone operators claim in new documentary that CIA missions flown by USAF's 17th Reconnaissance Squadron," Chris Woods, Guardian, April 15, 2014.
2. "Pass the Drone Strike Transparency Act," Robert Naiman, Huffington Post, April 9, 2014.
3. "H.R.4372 - To require the President to make publicly available an annual report on the use of targeted lethal force by remotely-piloted aircraft."
4. "Reps. Adam Schiff and Walter Jones Introduce Bipartisan Bill Requiring Annual Reporting on Drone Casualties," April 2, 2014.
5. "Joint Statement in Support of The Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act," April 2, 2014.
CIA's Pakistan Drone Strikes Carried Out
By Regular US Air Force Personnel
Chris Woods / The Guardian
(April 14, 2014) -- A regular US Air Force unit based in the Nevada desert is responsible for flying the CIA's drone strike program in Pakistan, according to a new documentary to be released on Tuesday.
The film -- which has been three years in the making -- identifies the unit conducting CIA strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas as the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron, which operates from a secure compound in a corner of Creech Air Force base, 45 miles from Las Vegas in the Mojave desert.
Several former drone operators have claimed that the unit's conventional Air Force personnel -- rather than civilian contractors -- have been flying the CIA's heavily armed Predator missions in Pakistan, a 10-year campaign which according to some estimates has killed more than 2,400 people.
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said this posed questions of legality and oversight. "A lethal force apparatus in which the CIA and regular military collaborate as they are reportedly doing risks upending the checks and balances that restrict where and when lethal force is used, and thwart democratic accountability, which cannot take place in secrecy."
The Guardian approached the National Security Council, the CIA and the Pentagon for comment last week. The NSC and CIA declined to comment, while the Pentagon did not respond.
The role of the squadron, and the use of its regular Air Force personnel in the CIA's targeted killing program, first emerged during interviews with two former special forces drone operators for a new documentary film, Drone.
Brandon Bryant, a former US Predator operator, told the film he decided to speak out after senior officials in the Obama administration gave a briefing last year in which they said they wanted to "transfer" control of the CIA's secret drones program to the military. Bryant said this was disingenuous because it was widely known in military circles that the US Air Force was already involved.
"There is a lie hidden within that truth. And the lie is that it's always been the Air Force that has flown those missions. The CIA might be the customer but the Air Force has always flown it. A CIA label is just an excuse to not have to give up any information. That is all it has ever been."
Referring to the 17th squadron, another former drone operator, Michael Haas, added: "It's pretty widely known [among personnel] that the CIA controls their mission."
Six other former drone operators who worked alongside the unit, and who have extensive knowledge of the drone program, have since corroborated the claims. None of them were prepared to go on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Bryant said public scrutiny of the program had focused so far on the CIA rather than the military, and it was time to acknowledge the role of those who had been carrying out missions on behalf of the agency's civilian analysts.
"Everyone talks about CIA over Pakistan, CIA double-tap, CIA over Yemen, CIA over Somalia. But I don't believe that they deserve the entirety of all that credit for the drone program," he said. "They might drive the missions; they might say that these are the objectives -- accomplish it. They don't fly it."
Another former drone operator based at Creech said members of the 17th were obsessively secretive. "They don't hang out with anyone else. Once they got into the 17th and got upgraded operationally, they pretty much stopped talking to us. They would only hang out among themselves like a high school clique, a gang or something."
Shamsi said the revelations, if true, raised "a host of additional pressing questions about the legal framework under which the targeted killing program is carried out and the basis for the secrecy that continues to shroud it."
She added: "It will come as a surprise to most Americans if the CIA is directing the military to carry out warlike activities. The agency should be collecting and analysing foreign intelligence, not presiding over a massive killing apparatus.
"We don't know precisely what rules the CIA is operating under, but what we do know makes clear that it's not abiding by the laws that strictly limit extrajudicial killing both in and out of traditional battlefields.
"Now we have to ask whether the regular military is violating those laws as well, under the secrecy that the CIA wields as sword and shield over its killing activities. Congressional hearings in the last year have made it embarrassingly clear that Congress has not exercised much oversight over the lethal program."
In theory, the revelation could expose serving Air Force personnel to legal challenges based on their direct involvement in a program that a UN special rapporteur and numerous other judicial experts are concerned may be wholly or partly in violation of international law.
Sitting 45 miles north-west of Las Vegas in the Mojave desert, Creech Air Force base has played a key role in the US drone program since the 1990s.
The 432d wing oversees four conventional US Air Force Predator and Reaper squadrons, which carry out surveillance missions and air strikes in Afghanistan.
There is another, far more secretive cluster of units within the wing called the 732nd Operations Group, which states that it "employs remotely piloted aircraft in theatres across the globe year-round". This operations group has four drone squadrons, which all appear to be linked with the CIA.
The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron "test-flies" the RQ-170 Sentinel, the CIA's stealth drone which made headlines after one was captured over Iran in December 2011.
The 22nd and 867th Reconnaissance Squadrons each fly Reaper drones, the more heavily armed successor to the Predator. But it is the last of the four units -- the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron -- that is now under the most scrutiny.
It is understood to have 300 air crew and operates about 35 Predator drones -- enough to provide five or six simultaneous missions during any 24-hour period.
It operates from within an inner compound at Creech, which even visiting military VIPs are unable to access, say former base personnel. Former workers at Creech say the unit was treated as the "crown jewels" of the drone program.
"They wouldn't even let us walk by it, they were just so protective of it," said Haas, who for two years was a drone operator. He was also an operational trainer at Creech. From what I was able to gather, it was pretty much confirmed they were flying missions almost exclusively in Pakistan with the intent to strike."
In the Operations Cell, which receives video feeds from every drone "line" in progress at Creech, mission coordinators from the 17th were kept segregated from all the others.
Established as a regular drone squadron in 2002, the unit transitioned to its new "customer" in 2004 at the same time that CIA drone strikes began in Pakistan, former personnel have said.
The operators receive their orders from civilian CIA analysts who ultimately decide whether -- and against whom -- to carry out a strike, according to one former mid-level drone commander.
Creech Air Force base would only confirm that the 17th squadron was engaged in "global operations".
"The 732nd Operations Group oversees global operations of four squadrons -- the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron, 22nd Reconnaissance Squadron, 30th Reconnaissance Squadron and the 867th Reconnaissance Squadron. These squadrons are all still active . . . their mission is to perform high-quality, persistent, multi-role intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in support of combatant commanders' needs."
Although the agency's drone strikes have killed a number of senior figures in al-Qaida and the Taliban, the CIA also stands accused by two United Nations investigators of possible war crimes for some of its activities in Pakistan. They are probing the targeting of rescuers and the bombing of a public funeral.
• Tonje Schei's film Drone premieres on Arte on 15 April.
Chris Woods is the author of Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars, which is published next winter in the US and Europe.
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