Hearing into CIA drones would dent US ties

Published Oct 25, 2012 04:26pm

American citizens rally in Islamabad against drone attacks in Pakistani tribal belt. – Photo by AP
American citizens rally in Islamabad against drone attacks in Pakistani tribal belt. – Photo by AP

LONDON: Ties between Britain, the US and Pakistan could be jeopardized if a judge grants a request for a court inquiry into the possible role of UK spy agencies in aiding covert CIA drone strikes in Pakistan's northwest tribal region, a government lawyer told Britain's High Court on Thursday.        

James Eadie, lawyer for Britain's Foreign Office, insisted that intelligence sharing between Britain and the US _ already under strain by previous disclosures made in London courtrooms _ and links between Washington and Pakistan would all potentially be cast into doubt.

Noor Khan, a 27-year-old whose father was killed by a drone strike in northwest Pakistan in March 2011, has asked Britain's High Court to examine whether UK intelligence officials assisted the action and may be liable for prosecution.

His legal advisers want a judge to determine whether Britain's secret eavesdropping agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, has passed location data to guide CIA drones, and whether the UK has agreed to a secret policy of assistance to the program of targeting militants.

''Adjudicating on the claim plainly would have significant impact on the conduct of the United Kingdom's relations with both the United States and Pakistan,'' Eadie told a three-day hearing at the High Court. ''It would also be likely to have such an impact on relations between the United States and Pakistan. That impact would be felt in an acutely controversial, sensitive and important context.''

Since 2004, CIA drones have targeted suspected militants with missile strikes in the Pakistani tribal regions, killing hundreds of people. The program is controversial because of questions about its legality, the number of civilians it has killed and its impact on Pakistan's sovereignty.

Khan's father, Malik Daud Khan, was attending a meeting of local elders in Datta Khel, in North Waziristan, when it was hit by a missile fired from an unmanned drone, killing around 40 people.

British officials have not commented publicly on their policy toward CIA drone strikes. US officials do not publicly acknowledge the covert program, but have said privately that the strikes harm very few innocents and are a key tool in weakening al Qaeda and other militant groups.

Pakistani officials have urged the US to halt its program and to instead relay intelligence gathered by the pilot less aircraft to Pakistani jets and ground forces so that they can target militants themselves.

Kat Craig, legal director of the Reprieve charity, which is representing Khan, said that her client ''merely wishes to know what role the British intelligence services play in this game of one-sided Russian roulette.''           ''He is calling for the veil of secrecy around Britain's drones policy to be lifted so that he can keep his community safe. We share his concerns about the lack of accountability, and the morality of the UK being dragged into an illegal attack on a country with whom we are not at war,'' she said.

Last year, British spy agencies were accused of sharing sensitive information with Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya, leading to the torture or rendition of two Libyan men and their families. The case is now the subject of an inquiry by British police.

Previously, intelligence sharing between Britain and the US was put under strain after a London court made public details of abuse that ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed alleges he suffered at the hands of US intelligence officials. Mohamed had accused the British government of complicity in his alleged torture.

Britain's Foreign Office said that a decision on whether to grant Khan a hearing is expected to be handed down by the High Court before the year's end.

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