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UK’s Role in US Drone Strikes Challenged by Former Law Chief

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: hyperion327)

A former Director of Public Prosecutions in the United Kingdom was recently interviewed by The Times (UK) where he called upon the British government to reveal its involvement in supporting the US drone war in Pakistan.

Former law chief Ken MacDonald QC, now a director of the human rights organization Reprieve, told the news organization, “There was compelling evidence that the Government’s secret listening post, GCHQ, had assisted the US in locating al-Qaeda and Taliban chiefs before the strikes.” (GCHQ is the Government Communications Headquarters, and it provides signals intelligence (SIGINT) and information assurance to the British government and its armed forces.)

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has a policy not dissimilar from US agencies, it will not say if it cooperates with US drone attacks. But a GCHQ admitted the agency was proud to provide “locational intelligence” to the CIA and so those seeking justice for drone strike victims have latched on to this statement as proof the United Kingdom is providing intelligence to the US for drone strikes.

MacDonald also stated in the interview (which is behind a pay wall) that ministers in the UK could be “forcing some of their own workers to break international law by passing on intelligence.” He called the decision by ministers to help America with attacks a “major decision.”

That might be because, as noted by The Guardian when al-Qaeda operative Fahd al-Quso was assassinated in Yemen by a drone attack, “Britain’s security and intelligence agencies are not allowed to task their agents for operations deliberately designed to lead to the death of an individual.” (The MI6 banned assassination plots in the 1960s.) A British citizen had gone undercover and helped the CIA uncover an underwear bomb plot, which revealed intelligence that reportedly was used to kill Quso.

Describing how he had visited Pakistan and seen what drone strikes can do, MacDonald declared, “Innocent people do get killed as a result of misplaced strikes. It is also succeeding in creating a new generation of people with huge resentment against the West, fuelling the kind of terrorism we are trying to fight. The fact this is one-sided, mechanized and robotic gives these strikes a particularly sinister dimension.”

In the coming months, there is likely to be a battle in court as Pakistani student Noor Khan, whose father Malik Daud Khan was killed in a drone strike, brings a case before a British court and seeks to reveal whether Britain has a policy of sharing intelligence with the US for drone strikes.

Khan was killed along with more than forty others, many of whom were tribal elders that had gathered to resolve a mine dispute between two tribes. CIA-operated drones fired several missiles killing many innocent people, and as the Telegraph reported, “Seven British passport holders” were reportedly killed “raising the possibility of the UK being accused of complicity in the deaths of its own citizens, whether they were suspected of terrorist activity or not.” 

But if the British (and US) government has its way this case backed by Reprieve will be heard behind closed doors. In May a senior judge suggested this case about “intelligence-sharing agreements with the US go through a ‘secret justice’ process because of its possible ‘national security implications.’”

A justice and security bill is currently being deliberated and the House of Lords will be addressing the issue of whether security services in Britain should have the unprecedented power to invoke secrecy in open court. This sort of process would help deter people like Khan from uncovering sordid details about the British government, such as whether they have been “secondary parties to murder” or have broken international law by killing people in a country where Britain is not directly involved in conflict. And this is the sort of information that is in the public interest that the people behind this legislation seek to keep concealed.

The bill, according to The Guardian, was proposed after revelations on “MI5’s knowledge of American torture emerged in the case of Binyam Mohamed.” To prevent information like this from ever being revealed in a court of law again became a key driver behind proposals that are now the justice and security bill.

Legislation like this would not just benefit the powerful in Britain, but also would help the national security state in the US conceal war crimes and other civil liberties violations or human rights abuses it is committing.

Back in April, Kenneth Clarke, UK justice secretary, renewed controversy surrounding plans to have secret court proceedings. He said, “US security services had become ‘extremely cautious’ when dealing with Britain on the basis that shared national secrets risked being made public in open hearings.”

The justice secretary backpedaled almost immediately and denied the suggestion that plans to let “spies” give evidence in secret were a result of “immense American pressure.” But he confessed what had happened in the case of Mohamed had gotten in “the way of cooperation.” He added, “If they fear our courts, they won’t give us the material.” Material like briefings or intelligence on dubious or atrocious operations US forces are carrying out in countries all over the world, which likely violate international law.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."