A key aspect of our work over the past decade has been to challenge the secrecy that surround the use of armed drones. The Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) insist that many aspects of these operations must remain secret in order to protect lives and national security. And in some cases, that is no doubt true.
However, it is also without question that some of the secrecy that surrounds the use of drones is to enable these systems to be used without awkward and difficult questions being asked by parliamentarians, press and the public.
A narrative has been created around the use of armed drones to try to negate criticism – that they protect troops lives, that they are, in effect, no different from traditional aircraft, that they enable careful and precise airstrikes that ‘take out’ bad guys and leave the innocent untouched. Information and data that could challenge this framing, or enable us to have a better understanding, is often amongst the information refused.
Here are some examples from our work over the past decade:
Case study: Reapers watching over British troops in Helmand?
In the early days of UK drone operations in Afghanistan, ministers and officials sought to distance the British use of Reaper from US use across the border in Pakistan where there was mounting evidence that US were using drones to undertake a campaign of targeted killing. British drones, we were told, were not being used in that way. Rather they were providing overwatch to troops operating on the ground in Helmand province, where UK forces were based. The narrative was that the UK Reaper drones watched over troops and UK bases in Helmand allowing them to sleep easy – who could object to that?
In January 2012, we asked MoD to tell us in which provinces UK Reapers had launched strikes and when. We wanted to check whether the assertion that British drones were being used for force protection in Helmand was accurate. The information request, however, was refused, with the MoD telling us that release of the information would put UK service personnel at risk and could harm relations with other states. We appealed this refusal, first to the Information Commissioner and then at an Information Tribunal, but the MoD’s strong insistence that to reveal this information would threaten lives won the day.
Three years later, after UK forces had left Afghanistan and were operating in Iraq and Syria, and questions about where UK drones were operating in Afghanistan had faded, we resubmitted the question and got the answer.
Far from just supporting troops in Helmand, UK Reaper drones had in fact launched strikes in more than half-of Afghanistan’s provinces. (end of excerpt)
Click here for the full story, on the Drone Wars website.