To Kill or Not to Kill: The Question of a Drone Lawyer

A story appearing in the Guardian discusses how military lawyers are consulted prior to lethal drone strikes.

Targets in Afghanitan and Iraq are tracked by Pentagon ‘joint forces’ teams at the al-Udeid air base in Qatar.

As many as four military lawyers are available 24 hours a day for commanders to consult before they give the order to shoot anyone. These lawyers are called judge advocate generals and they must undergo special training in the Geneva conventions in Charlottesville, Virginia, before they deploy. The military lawyers are required to make sure that an operation – including the kind of weapons to be used and the risk of civilian casualties – meets with three overarching sets of rules: the laws of armed conflict, official (but top secret) rules of engagement for a given conflict and a set of specific instructions (known as “Spins”) drawn up by the commanding officers. Until the lawyers sign off on all three, the senior offensive duty officer cannot request permission from the joint force air component commander to fire weapons such as a Hellfire missile from a drone or use close air support from manned aircraft like the A-10 Warthog.

However, with it comes to assassinations in Pakistan, it is not US Air Force lawyers that are in charge. Rather, it is the CIA’s team of up to ten lawyears in northern Virginia, where they consult ‘five-page’ requests to kill someone.

Gabor Rona, the international legal director of Human Rights First, says there are three problems with the way the US government conducts “targeted killing”.

“First, the US uses an overly-broad concept, rejected by many of its allies, of when and where the laws of war apply. Second, even where the laws of war do apply, the US won’t say what are their criteria for targeting, but indications are that they are broader than what the laws of war would permit. Third is the risk of bad intelligence – that the target was not who they thought it was, or did not do what they thought he did.”

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