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December 21, 2012

British High Court Refuses to Review UK Intelligence Agencies’ Involvement in CIA Drone Strikes

Posted in: Drones,Secrecy,US Foreign Policy

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

The British High Court has refused to review whether intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom have been involved in passing on information that has been used by the CIA to carry out drone attacks.The Pakistani man, Noor Khan, whose father was killed by a US drone strike, intends to appeal the decision.

On March 17, 2011, Malid Daoud Khan, Khan’s father, 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.”

Noor Khan filed a lawsuit in March of this year “against the Foreign Secretary in order to clarify the British Government’s reported policy of supporting the CIA’s covert campaign of attacks on his home region of Waziristan,” according to the legal action charity Reprieve, which supported Khan’s legal challenge.

The challenge asserted, “British law makes it clear that in these circumstances UK intelligence staff and those who direct their actions could be committing various criminal offenses, including conspiracy to murder.” But, the High Court denied Khan the opportunity to have his challenge heard in a full hearing.

“CIA drone attacks in Pakistan terrorize entire communities of innocent civilians in a country with which the UK is not at war,” declared Kat Craig, legal director of Reprieve. “By avoiding judicial scrutiny over drone attacks, combined with its ongoing attempts to push through secret courts, this government is showing a disturbing desire to put itself above the law. We should not be involved in secret, dirty wars, where civilian casualties are ignored or hushed up.  If the Government is supporting the CIA’s campaign of drone strikes which are illegal, the British public have the right to know.”

Rosa Curling of solicitors Leigh Day & Co, which also supported the challenge, reacted, “We are disappointed that the court has decided not to engage in this very important issue, leaving our client no option but to appeal the decision. This claim raises very serious questions and issues about the UK’s involvement in the CIA drone attacks in Pakistan.”

In September, former law chief Ken MacDonald QC, now a director of the human rights organization Reprieve, told Telegraph, “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.)

As I wrote, 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.”

I noted the US was likely applying pressure behind the scenes to ensure details of CIA collaboration with UK intelligence agencies were not made public. 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.’”

Then, a justice and security bill was being deliberated and the House of Lords was scheduled to address 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 prevent 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. (The bill, according to The Guardian, was proposed after revelations on “MI5’s knowledge of American torture emerged in the case of Binyam Mohamed.” Thus, a key motive was to shield the US from scandal or potential legal problems.)

As BBC reported:

Government lawyers warned that the British courts were being drawn into a highly sensitive area concerning the activities of intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic and, also, the relationship between Pakistan, the UK and US.

James Eadie QC, for the government, argued that the case could not be dealt with by the judges because ministers were being asked questions they could not answer in open court.

He said it was hard to imagine a more obviously sensitive case and that there was a “potential for real damage to international relations” which could, in turn, damage national security.

It is not like there is no concern in government over how intelligence agencies may be cooperating with the CIA. Just like in the US, there is an enormous level of secrecy and the government refuses to provide answers to basic questions on, for example, the criteria or circumstances for determining who is to be targeted.

Similar to numerous instances in the US, the High Court appears to have determined that Khan’s case needed to be dismissed not because it lacked merits but because they wished to show deference to the British government and not create a possible situation that could “damage national security” or relationships with national security agencies in the United States.

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