Obama's decision to elevate 'Mr Drone' meets with outrage among liberal groups who plan to protest at inauguration
The nomination of President Barack Obama's top counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan to head the CIA has sparked outrage and concern about America's growing drones programme and its use for targeted killings of suspected Islamic militants.
Brennan has been a key architect of drones policy under Obama and many experts believe that the use of the unmanned robot planes in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia is likely to increase if he becomes America's top spy.
"If Brennan leads the CIA then you ain't seen nothing yet. That troubles me greatly," said Amos Guiora, a legal professor at the Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.
During Obama's time in office there has been a huge increase in the use of drones, especially in the tribal areas of Pakistan where many Islamic militants have their bases. However, the policy is widely disliked in the country and is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians alongside those believed to be terrorists.
The use of drones has been slammed as causing more harm than good and also being potentially illegal when used to target high profile figures. It has been criticised as having little transparency, a too broad definition of what defines a target and not enough legal oversight, especially in attacks like those that caused the deaths of American citizens such as radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son.
Officially, the CIA still does not admit that its programme exists, but Brennan has been closely identified with promoting its use in the Obama administration. He has been dubbed "Mr Drone" in the media and has been the public face of the programme when it comes to arguing that its use is both legal and effective. In a speech last year at the Woodrow Wilson Center he said: "There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat."
However, those statements do not convince some civil liberties experts. Hima Shamsi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said that the targeted killing programme had seen the CIA extend its overseas activities into morally and legally questionable behaviour and that Brennan was intimately linked to that. "The CIA has morphed into a paramilitary organisation with an expansive unlawful killing programme," Shamsi said.
So far, however, there has been little meaningful opposition or criticism of Brennan's nomination. California's liberal senator Dianne Feinstein, who is the chair of the powerful Senate intelligence committee, has issued a statement saying she believed Brennan will be a "strong and positive" CIA chief.
But among many liberal and protest groups that sort of sentiment is rare. "I am just astounded at the general acceptance of this nomination," said Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of protest group Code Pink and author of a book on drones called Drone Warfare. Benjamin has spent time in Pakistan examining the impact of the strikes on the local population and said that the programme's biggest problem was not that it was illegal or immoral but that it was also ineffective in protecting American interests. "It is the best recruiting tool for al-Qaida and the Taliban. The hatred for it is visceral there," she said.
That concern is shared by other protest groups. "John Brennan has deliberately deceived the American public about the effects of these drone strikes, claiming they haven't killed any civilians and refuses to acknowledge empirical evidence to the contrary," said Leah Bolger, president of anti-war group Veterans for Peace. "The combat drone program is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, none of whom received any sort of due process; were citizens of a country with which we are not at war; and were murdered not as a result of military action, but by a civilian agency – the CIA," she added.
The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism monitors US drone strikes and has tracked some 308 attacks in Pakistan alone during Obama's time in office. Out of a total number of 360 uses of drones in the country since 2004, the US is thought to have killed up to 3,449 people, of which some 891 were believed to have been civilians.
In the US the increased use of drones has given birth to a protest movement that has encompassed numerous groups all over the country. Anti-drone activists are now planning a major protest for Obama's inauguration in Washington, DC, this month and also a month of actions in April aimed at military bases where drones are controlled, factories where they are made and universities where drone research is carried out. "More people are waking up to this," said Nick Mottern, director of a group called Know Drones.