The documents provided to the Guardian in United Kingdom by Edward Snowden resurfaced this week with yet more revelations of just what our government (and the Brits and Australians) have been up to while we were otherwise paying attention to celebrity gossip and the National Felons League. The new topic for the grist mill: British complicity in American drone strikes.
The documents, provided to the Guardian by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported in partnership with the New York Times, discuss how a joint US, UK and Australian programme codenamed Overhead supported the strike in Yemen in 2012.
The files also show GCHQ and Overhead developed their ability to track the location of individuals – essential for the targeted killing programme – in both Yemen and Pakistan. The legality of the US’s lethal operations in both countries has been questioned by international lawyers and human rights groups.
Jemima Stratford QC, who reviewed the Snowden documents for the Guardian, said: “Assuming that the documents which I have seen are genuine, in my view they raise questions about the extent to which UK officials may have had knowledge of, or helped to facilitate, certain US drone strikes which were not carried out in the context of an international armed conflict,” she said.
“These documents underline why greater transparency as to UK official policies would help to ensure legality from a domestic and international law perspective.”
The New York Times piece on this topic focuses more clearly on the targets of the drone strikes in question and the intelligence gaps revealed as each happened. Intelligence is not an exact science and in one case the CIA did not know the number two Al-Qaeda man world-wide was killed in a strike until after it happened. However, the thrust of the articles in tandem is to tell the world that neither country’s intelligence laws seem to cover sharing of information on a non-traditional battlefield – regardless of where the targets are, within what borders, and whether or not the enemy is stashing some its more important people outside the battle zones.
As it turns out, Overhead developed between the US, UK and Australia over a period of two years beginning in 2010 after a suicide bomber jihadist tried to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day 2009, and another airplane bomb plot was foiled a few months later involving printer cartridges jammed with explosives. Both attempts originated in Yemen with al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen is one of a number of countries not officially listed as battlegrounds in the War on Terror where drone strikes have killed targets. Unfortunately, civilians have been killed as well. (Just a suggestion, but that might be why the terrorist training and development operations are in Yemen. Not being an official battlefield and all.)
The documents in this particular set of Snowden information drips indicate that there was cooperation and knowledge on the part of the British in objectionable, and most likely illegal, American drone strikes. The escalation of this initiative happened in 2009 after Barack Obama took office as President of the United States. The specifics in legality are different for the two countries, but in the end the governments are both mum about what actually happened – and whether or not either government was operating outside of the law.
A June 2009 document indicates that GCHQ appeared to accept the expanded US definition of combat zones, referring to the agency’s ability to provide “tactical and strategic SIGINT [signals intelligence] support to military operations in-theatre, notably Iraq and Afghanistan, but increasingly Pakistan”. The document adds that in Pakistan, “new requirements are yet to be confirmed, but are both imminent and high priority”.
The Guardian explains that the documents released are mostly memos and newsletters of after the fact information, but the New York Times piece gives away at least part of the way intelligence is gathered these days.
The British agency’s documents underscore the central role of eavesdropping and the tracking of electronic signals in identifying suspects and in determining their exact location. Such sophisticated technology may improve the odds of finding and hitting the intended target.
Lovely. Now we need to develop technology to trace throw away phones. No terrorist will be using iPhones or Galaxys if they know we can track them.
Obviously, each country gathers information for its own purposes, and shares such intelligence with allies prudentially. What is the focus for the reporters at the Guardian and the New York Times is less success in the War on Terror than legality the legality of participation in an unpopular program where the enemy combatant target happens to be on the wrong side of a line on a map. In the modern war era, perhaps that aspect of having a less than honorable opponent should be considered.