Clive Stafford Smith

We need to know the truth about UK drones policy

on 23 October 2012


Nick Hopkins' Guardian article gives further proof of our leap into an opaque drone age. It is not that all drones are bad drones; rather, decisions are being made that will ripple through the generations. Just as the secret Manhattan Project ushered in the nuclear age, so the military and their corporate colleagues are pressing forward with policies with very little public disclosure or debate.

Consider David Cameron's claim that British drones have killed 124 insurgents in Afghanistan; Hopkins reports that "defence officials said they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure and denied it was from the MoD". Does this mean that our kill-numbers are being conjured up by politicians?

There are many more questions that beg for an answer. One is the degree to which drones are to be used simply as a weapon of terror. In British Air and Space Power Doctrine, the MoD informs us that "air power is not employed solely for kinetic purposes. The psychological impact of air power from the presence of a UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] … has often proved to be extremely effective in exerting influence, especially when linked to information operations." In plain English, the circling drones are used to terrify the citizens below into providing intelligence. Did not the Geneva conventions forbid such a war against civilians? Did we forget so soon how the material frightened out of people in the "war on terror" proved so suspect?

The most harrowing histories I heard in my recent trip to the Pakistan border regions involved the fear factor – 800,000 concededly innocent men, women and children in the region terrified by the sounds of drones overhead, 24 hours a day. To what extent is this to be an intentional policy? Is it regulated? Or even debated?

Hopkins' article tells us, for the first time, that the UK will control its videogame killing machines from Britain. Previously the British "pilots" sat drinking coffee side by side with their American counterparts in their console chairs in Nevada.

The British people need to be told the true reasons for this shift. One, no doubt, is the US predilection for what is called "chopping", a 21st-century euphemism that means a "change in operational control". A Nato or British drone might be on the Pakistan border when the US decides to kill someone in Waziristan – just another international war crime to the CIA, but an act that the UK would rather was committed with no British fingerprints. So the machine metamorphoses into an American drone and the US "pilot" slips into the comfy chair to let loose the Hellfire missile. Moving the controls to RAF Waddington may make this kind of blurred line easier to define, but it does not erase the moral and legal issues.

The blurring of lines is a drone speciality. The US could not fly F16s to bomb an unwilling ally but – for a number of reasons – the CIA feels no compunction about sending drones over Pakistan. A recent MoD paper called Future Air and Space Operational Concept speaks of a world that is "free of the constraints of physical barriers and national boundaries". In other words, might gives us the right in our robot world. Perhaps the UK does not yet run its Reaper drones across the Durand Line, the indistinct border between Pakistan and Afghanistan concocted by the British in 1893. However, even today they fly along the line, and drones can see many miles into the neighbouring country, sharing the intelligence with our US allies.

On Tuesday, we have a case in the high court about British fingerprints at the crime scene. The judges will decide whether the government may blithely refuse to reveal its "policy" when it comes to sharing intelligence with those who commit international war crimes – for that is surely what the US is doing in Pakistan. The government is paying three QCs to assert its right to silence – every time they share a cup of coffee it costs the taxpayer hundreds of pounds.

Why, you may well ask, should politicians, military men and corporations make these decisions in such secrecy when we will all live with them in the decades to come?

This article first appeared in The Guardian on Tuesday 23rd October.

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