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State Dept Promises To Produce Legal Justification for Drone Attacks

State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh has promised to produce the Obama administration’s legal justification for its increased use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists, reports Shane Harris of the National Journal.

"I have studied this question," Koh told the audience at an American Bar Association breakfast yesterday. "I think that the legal objections that are being put on the table are ones that we are taking into account. I am comfortable with the legal position of the administration, and at an appropriate moment we will set forth that in some detail."

Let’s hope that "appropriate moment" comes pretty soon, because controversy over the drone attacks is heating up. The ACLU in January filed a FOIA request asking the government to turn over that legal justification, as well as the facts underlying it. Then this week, after receiving a response from the CIA that it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any relevant documents, the ACLU filed a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, as Adam Serwer points out at The American Prospect, a New America Foundation study raises concerns that about a third of the victims of drone attacks have been civilians, and international lawyers have been debating for months now whether the targeted killings violate international law. (Jane Mayer’s story on drone attacks in The New Yorker last October does an excellent job of laying out the controversy.)

Such an eminent legal expert as Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, has said that the drone attacks, despite their obvious appeal to the U.S. and the U.K., raise serious legal concerns.

As he explained in a recent article in The Guardian with Hina Shamsi, "Drones may only be used to kill in an armed conflict. The killing must fulfill a military need, and no alternative should be reasonably possible." In Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are fighting armed militants but not the troops of another country, "the target must have a direct connection to the combat, either as a Taliban or al-Qaida ‘fighter’, or as a civilian who is ‘directly participating in hostilities’. The use of force must be proportionate, meaning that commanders must weigh any expected military advantage against possible harm to civilians." Violating these requirements could constitute a war crime.

Given the secrecy of the United States’ drone program, it’s impossible to know whether the government has met these legal requirements. That’s left the administration open to critics’ suggestions that it has not, and may well be fomenting anger among the residents of areas being targeted.

General Stanley McChrystal has said that reducing civilian casualties in Afghanistan is critical to a key part of his counterinsurgency strategy — winning the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people. Revealing the facts about how the United States is using its expanded and now well-known drone program must be a critical component of that strategy.

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As Senior Associate in Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program, Daphne Eviatar investigates and reports on U.S. national security policies and practices and their human rights implications.

Daphne is a lawyer and award-winning journalist who has written widely about law, human rights and economic development. A former legal correspondent for The Washington Independent, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek International, Harper’s and many others. She’s been interviewed on radio and television, including on The Rachel Maddow Show and Morning Meeting with Dylan Ratigan (MSNBC), Al Jazeera, and WNYC and KCRW Public Radio.

Daphne was a 2005 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow, a 2003 Pew International Journalism fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, and has taught law and journalism at New York Law School.

Daphne is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, New York University School of Law and Dartmouth College. She was a law clerk to Judge Irma E. Gonzalez on the United States District Court in San Diego, and to Judge Dolores K. Sloviter on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.