Extrajudicial killing by pilotless air strikes is just something our government does now. Weaponized drones are sent out to eliminate enemies of the United States, supposedly under the guidance of the Dept. of Justice and some presidential policy directives. But the rules aren’t rules. They appear to be set in stone when the legal authority behind these drone strikes is questioned. But they’re much more fluid when they “need” to be… like, say, after a drone strike takes out more than its intended target. [h/t Chris Soghoian]

Last week, the U.S. officials disclosed that two Western hostages, U.S. and Italian aid workers Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, were killed on Jan. 15 by a U.S. drone strike aimed at al Qaeda militants in Pakistan…

Last week, Mr. Obama apologized for the killings and took personal responsibility for the mistake. He called the operation “fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region…”

But what guidelines? Certainly not those that supposedly govern these strikes. According to those guidelines, the target must be determined to be an “imminent threat” before the strike can be authorized. EXCEPT:

President Barack Obama tightened rules for the U.S. drone program in 2013, but he secretly approved a waiver giving the Central Intelligence Agency more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else to strike suspected militants, according to current and former U.S. officials.

These rules were in place to prevent exactly what occurred in this drone strike: civilian casualties. In Pakistan, this condition does not apply. So, rather than have the CIA hold off until it had gathered more intelligence, the strike was carried out at the agency’s discretion.

Obama apparently issued a Presidential Policy Directive on drone strikes in 2013. Whatever it changed in the existing policies has yet to be implemented. It certainly didn’t revoke the CIA’s Pakistan pass. Rules don’t apply in that country’s borders. And there’s no way of telling if the similar waiver exempting Iraq and Syria has been withdrawn.

The DOJ’s drone strike memo says targets must present a “continued” and “imminent” threat. This wording alone ensures only minimal investigative standards need to be met before authorizing a drone strike in any country the US currently has a military presence. (Or adjacent to that country…) Because troops may be targeted by terrorist groups, any suspected terrorists in the area can be considered “imminent threats” simply because of their proximity — not their actions.

This language — along with multiple administrative waivers — has turned drone strikes into something performed almost exclusively at the CIA’s discretion. Sure, there’s some oversight of the program, but like a majority of US intelligence oversight, it’s mainly words rather than deeds.

Here’s what drone killing oversight looks like:

About once a month, staff members of the congressional intelligence committees drive across the Potomac River to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., and watch videos of people being blown up.

As part of the macabre ritual the staff members look at the footage of drone strikes in Pakistan and other countries and a sampling of the intelligence buttressing each strike, but not the internal C.I.A. cables discussing the attacks and their aftermath.

So, the CIA holds a monthly snuff filmfest for intelligence oversight committees. Figuring moving pictures are worth thousands of words, it then withholds the thousands of words justifying its decision to carry out a strike. Despite this process being clearly aimed at minimizing objections and questions, intelligence committee heads still offer their support of the program and the agency running it, even when they clearly don’t trust the CIA on other issues.

When Ms. Feinstein was asked in a meeting with reporters in 2013 why she was so sure she was getting the truth about the drone program while she accused the C.I.A. of lying to her about torture, she seemed surprised.

“That’s a good question, actually,” she said.

Cognitive dissonance has long been a feature of intelligence committee leadership. Sen. Feinstein has now done this twice — the other time being her outrage over the CIA spying on her staffers, while simultaneously offering her support for NSA programs that performed similar functions.

The CIA holds an extreme amount of power, one that can be used carelessly and/or thoroughly abused. And no one — at any level of government — has done anything more than encourage it to handle drone strikes as it sees fit. And all the while, the rules continue to shift, molding themselves to each situation, often applying retroactive forgiveness for legally-questionable strikes.


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