Ben Emmerson tells the Guardian drone use likely to be curbed in coming months as program shifts from CIA to US military
The United Nations’ drone investigator says he expects a “significant reduction” in the controversial strikes by the US in the next 18 months.
After meeting the CIA drector John Brennan and other high-ranking Obama administration officials this week, Ben Emmerson, the British lawyer currently serving as the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, told the Guardian it was his expectation that strikes would decrease substantially, although officials did not formally say so in their own words.
Emmerson also said he expected that most of the strikes would be carried out by the US military, rather than the CIA.
He would not be drawn into any detail about the discussions of his conversations with US officials about the controversial strikes – the subject of a wide-ranging investigation into President Obama’s so-called “targeted killing” efforts Emmerson launched in January.
But Emmerson told the Guardian that his firm impression after meeting Brennan, prominent White House national security aides and others, was that the administration will dramatically curb its drone strikes around the world in the coming months. Emmerson is currently conducting a wide-ranging investigation of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes and hopes to present a multilateral legal framework for drone strikes and other lethal counter-terrorism operations to the UN this autumn.
“Within a period of about 18 months, the majority of drone operations will be conducted by the military, rather than by any other branch of the government,” Emmerson said.
The CIA confirmed the meeting.
“Director Brennan appreciated the opportunity to meet with UN special rapporteur Emmerson on his inquiry into US counter-terrorism policy,” said Preston Golson, CIA spokesperson.
Currently, the CIA and the US military operate parallel and sometimes overlapping drone operations for the purpose of surveilling and killing suspected terrorists. The drone attacks have occurred in the tribal regions of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; under the auspices of the US military in the Afghanistan war; and the US recently constructed newer drone bases in Saudi Arabia and Niger, raising questions about the US expanding its deadly aerial strikes deeper into Africa.
But Emmerson said he believes the drone war will wind down – something he suspected would happen once Obama made his trusted aide Brennan his new CIA director, although Brennan was an architect of Obama’s lethal drone efforts.
“With the drawdown of military operations in Afghanistan, I would expect to see a significant reduction in drones for targeted killing by the United States worldwide,” Emmerson said.
Emmerson’s meetings with Obama administration officials – including deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and Stephen Pomper, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs – follow a major speech delivered by Obama about the future of US counter-terrorism at the National Defense University on May 23. The carefully prepared speech, as well as a White House fact sheet that accompanied it, seemed to indicate a forthcoming diminishment in drone strikes.
“By the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection” in Afghanistan, Obama said, “and the progress we have made against core al-Qaida will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.”
Yet Obama did not rule out some of the most controversial aspects of his lethal counter-terrorism operations, such as so-called “signature strikes” that kill people without the military or the CIA first establishing their identities. Nor did Obama commit to an end for the strikes in general, and vigorously defended their legality and wisdom even while acknowledging they had sometimes killed American citizens. A US senator, Lindsey Graham, has publicly estimated that the drones havekilled 4,700 people worldwide.
Six days after Obama’s speech, another missile launched from a US drone hit Pakistan, and is believed to have killed a top Pakistani Taliban commander. The strike occurred before Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who has campaigned as a fierce opponent of the US drone strikes, could take office. Sharif has since called on the US to halt its drone strikes – which have diminished each year after reaching a peak of 122 in 2010.
For all these reasons, critics have questioned the extent of Obama’s purported shift away from intense, lethal counter-terrorism operations. Fred Kaplan, military analyst for Slate magazine, wrote that Obama’s “supposedly new, restrictive policy on drone strikes” was “neither new nor restrictive”. Those questions have intensified with the Guardian’s revelations of massive, secret government surveillance of Americans’ phone records and the internet content provided by nine major companies.
Emmerson acknowledged the ambiguities in Obama’s counter-terrorism policies. “In these engagements with the administration,” he said, “I am beginning by trying to sort out the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.”
Emmerson left Washington on Friday for New York, where he said he intended to attend a screening of Dirty Wars, a new documentary by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill about the consequences of US drone strikes and lethal counter-terrorism operations.