Kafka in droneland

IssueDecember 2013
News by Gabriel Carlyle

In a Kafkaesque twist, even the explanation of why the release of this information would involve ‘risk to [service personnel’s] life and limb’ has been witheld.

Chris Cole, founder of the small NGO Drone Wars UK, brought a case before the tribunal in September after an earlier appeal to the information commissioner was turned down in February.

Early in 2012, Cole had asked the ministry of defence to release information about (a) ‘the date and province within Afghanistan of each weapon launch’ by UK drones; and (b) how many of these weapon firings were pre-planned and how many were done on the fly (see PN 2547-48).

The MoD refused both requests on the grounds that discloure ‘would be likely to prejudice... the capability, effectiveness or security’ of the British armed forces and/or any forces co-operating with them. Earlier requests by Cole, requesting information on, for example, the number of British drone strikes, and ‘whether all those killed by British [drones] were directly participating in hostilities at the time they were killed’ had also been refused, citing the same exemption.

Ignorance is strength

After a September hearing – which took evidence both in open court and in secret (from a UK drone pilot) – the information tribunal issued its decision on 30 October, ruling that releasing the information would pose a ‘life or death’ risk to service personnel. It even asserted that publishing annual statistics, breaking drone strikes down by province, ‘would still cause the real risk of harm.’ No evidence for either claim was presented in open court beyond their assertion by the MoD.

Cole had argued that:

  • the Taliban would be unable to glean any specific information about how UK drones operate if the locational information was limited to the province that it took place (Afghanistan has 34 provinces, ranging in area from 1,842km2 to over 58,000km2);
  • UK drone strikes represented a tiny fraction of the total number of airstrikes taking place (less than 2% of the 5,409 strikes in 2011) and therefore information about them would not provide the Taliban with any helpful information;
  • the MoD have themselves been giving out details for some UK drone strikes, containing much greater locational detail greater than what he was seeking.

The tribunal also ruled that there were no ‘real public interest factors that would favour discloure’, and that the MOD was not ‘frustrating any public debate’.

In fact, Cole notes, the locational information would show ‘if UK drones are being used mainly – as many supporters of drones claim – to protect British troops, who are overwhelmingly within Helmand province, or if they are being used for other tasks far beyond Helmand.’

Likewise, ‘knowing whether weapons are launched at pre-planned targets or at targets decided “on the fly” w[ould] inform the debate as to whether drones’ ability to loiter for long periods of time over a particular area looking for “suspicious behavior”... is in fact leading to more strikes.’

In October, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, published a major report on drones and international law, concluding that: ‘The first step towards securing human rights in this context is transparency about the use of drones. A lack of appropriate transparency and accountability concerning the deployment of drones undermines the rule of law and may threaten international security.’

With this decision, Britain has failed to take even that first step.