Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on New Zealand’s role in the US drone programme

May 20th, 2014

So, thanks to our membership of the Five Eyes network, the GCSB spy agency has been supplying information on “persons of interest” in Afghanistan (at least) that may be used for targeting them in US drone strikes. At his post-Cabinet press conference yesterday, Prime Minister John Key said that he did not know how, or for what purposes, the information that New Zealand supplies to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is being used. He did however confirm that GCSB-supplied information had not been used to target the New Zealand citizen Daryl Jones, killed by a drone strike in Yemen last November. (How Key could be so sure when he claimed not to know the purposes for which ISAF uses the data that we supply, was left unclear.) Key would not confirm whether any other New Zealanders had been killed by drone operations.

Click a link to play audio (or right-click to download) in either
MP3 format or in OGG format.

Key insisted that New Zealand’s contribution to the US drone programme is legal, and that moreover, our efforts “would be in the pursuit of trying to hold to account very bad people.” Both assertions completely beg the questions. The legality of drone strikes is still very much in dispute under international law, given that drones are being used to kill people in countries with whom the US and New Zealand are not in a declared state of war – and where the rules of engagement, the criteria for targeting and the proportionality of killing the individuals in question relative to the threat that they pose, are all unknowns.

More to the point, not only “very bad people” are being killed. The most disturbing aspect of yesterday’s admissions by Key is that New Zealand is now publicly complicit in the killing of innocent people – some of them children – who have been either (a) the victims of mistaken or careless targeting by US drone operators, or (b) have had the misfortune to be in the vicinity of the real targets when the button was pushed. New Zealanders now know they have been complicit in an assassination-by-drone programme that is known to have killed scores of innocent people, time and again, in countries with which we are not at war. We do not know the criteria for targeting or the degree of care that the US operators are using to identify their targets and to avoid “collateral” killings. Anecdotal evidence that successful drone strikes are called “bug splat” by US drone operators – apparently because the aftermath looks to them like a bug on a windshield – will not inspire New Zealanders to share Key’s confidence that only “very bad people” are being carefully selected for elimination by these devices. This kind of incident, where 15 Yemeni civilians were killed on their way to a wedding has occurred with regularity. Glenn Greenwald has pointed out the likely impact of such incidents.

It’s not hard to imagine what ordinary Yemenis think of the U.S., and whether they’d be more sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s message after all of this. Here we have — yet again — the U.S. doing more than anyone else could to increase the threat of Terrorism with the very policies it claims are necessary to combat Terrorism.

There is widespread concern about the dubious legality of drone strikes. Last October, the Guardian reported on two separate UN investigations into the drone programme. One, by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Ben Emmerson, examined a range of drone strikes in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Gaza and Somalia. The other report was carried out by Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, who warned that the technology was being misused as a form of “global policing.” True, in the course of his investigation, Heyns is reported by the Guardian as being informed that in Afghanistan, “targeting intelligence is ‘thoroughly scrubbed’ to ensure accuracy before authorisation to proceed is given.”

However, and on that same point, Emmerson found that the involvement in the drone programme of the CIA – and presumably of sister intelligence agencies, such as the GCSB – has created an “an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency” with respect to the drone programme. “One consequence is that the United States has to date failed to reveal its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft in classified operations conducted in Pakistan and elsewhere.”

Emmerson does acknowledge that if drones are used “in strict compliance with the principles of international humanitarian law, remotely piloted aircraft are capable of reducing the risk of civilian casualties in armed conflict by significantly improving the situational awareness of military commanders.” However, he adds, “no clear international consensus” exists on the laws controlling the deployment of drone strikes; and in the view of the Special Rapporteur, the US needs to be far more transparent about the criteria it is using in targeting, and the extent of civilian casualties.

So, to repeat…as New Zealanders, we are accomplices in a programme of dubious legality, in which – as a matter of routine – scores of innocent civilians and their children are being killed. Thanks to the cloak of secrecy draped over the drone programme, we are totally in the dark about the rules of engagement for drones, the criteria for targeting the individuals concerned, the proportionality of execution to the threat posed by the individuals being targeted, the accuracy of the drone operations, and the extent of civilian casualties that drones have inflicted within countries with whom we are not at war. Welcome to 21st century push-button war making.

Preachers, Leeches
We all know “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, which became a fluke hit in 1969 – thanks mainly to the relentless zeal with which a San Francisco DJ called Abe ‘Voco’ Kesh promoted it on his show on KSAN – FM, after he’d stumbled across the track two years after it had been recorded. “Like a Ship” a great 1971 track by Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth For Christ Choir in Chicago is in similar vein, and it richly deserves to be far better known.

The story behind the man who made the track is also pretty fascinating. Barrett had shined shoes for a living before going to Bible school to get a theological degree. By 1971 he was on the evangelical rise and had friends with clout in the music business; that’s Phil Upchurch, the jazz and R&B session maestro, on guitar. Come the late 1980s though, and Barrett got into serious trouble for running a pyramid scheme at his church, supposedly to finance social housing in the neighbourhood. The fallout cost many in his congregation a pile of money, and Barrett almost ended up in jail. In the 25 years since, he has doggedly stuck to preaching, his flock have stuck by him, …and “Like a Ship” has finally become recognised as the stone gospel classic that it is. Barrett’s problems aside, songs about wayward preachers do tend to be fairly thick on the ground. A particular favourite is “You Shall” a 1927 track by the pioneer Memphis bluesman Frank Stokes, who had a fantastic voice (he sounds completely modern) and a keen wit. The entire lyric is quite amusing, and this verse is typical:

Now when I first moved to Memphis, Tennessee
I was crazy about the preachers as I could be
I went out on my front porch a-walking about
Invite the preacher over to my house
He washed his face, he combed his head
Next thing he want to do was slip in my bed
I caught him by the head, man kicked him out the door
Don’t allow no preacher at my house no more

I don’t like ’em / they will rob you
Steal your daughter/take your wife from you
Eat your chickens…[too]

Praise the Lord…but keep the hands of his priests out of your back pocket, and off your nearest and dearest. That’s a timeless message.


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    1. 15 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on New Zealand’s role in the US drone programme”

    2. By Gil Gurney on May 20, 2014 | Reply

      So it remains after all these years – the terms – terrorist and freedom fighter – depends on what side you’re on as to what you are

    3. By MarcoK on May 20, 2014 | Reply

      When John Key says “Don’t worry, it’s all legal” I am reminded of the CIA saying “It’s not torture, and even if it is, the government lawyers say it’s legal”.

      Given the breadth and vagueness of the laws passed by the current, and past, governments of New Zealand regarding the GCSB interceptions of data, claiming legality does not reassure me.

    4. By Gerald Lynch on May 20, 2014 | Reply

      John Key, and because of him, New Zealand, is complicit in extra-judicial murder, so John Key is no better than the people supposedly targeted, very bad. And by definition, a murderer! Now think about it, John Key will be expecting ordinary New Zealanders to vote for him and his party com the election later this year. How many times do NZers get to vote for a murderer? And the expose on Campbell Live tonight on TV3, proved beyond doubt that Key is a shabby liar as well. Well, Tories, you will be voting for a lying murderer in Sept. Voting for National makes you complicit in lies and murders. If you have even the faintest semblance of a conscience, you will not vote for either Key or National. But thousands of you will. John will of course be bum licking at the White House, receiving thanks from another despicable murderer. Birds of a feather……………

    5. By Syd on May 20, 2014 | Reply

      You got that right Gerald…. Did you hear Cunnles’ pathetic comment? Wouldn’t rule drone support out but would like to know a bit more about them while we do it. Of. A. Feather.

    6. By M Thomas on May 20, 2014 | Reply

      Well from now on don’t expect to pull the “we’re not Americans” line when touring the Middle East.

      Also how can NZ as part of five eyes supply intelligence on communications around the world when are so far away from it all?

    7. By clairbear on May 21, 2014 | Reply

      I do not believe that you can make the jump from providing information about potentially bad people – who might be training and or conspiring to create harm in the world to the methods some might use to make these people go away.

      I see that we have a clear duty to our citizens and citizens of the world in general to assist in our small way to identify people who may do us collective harm.

      What you are saying is that if you provide information to the police about people say with a P lab in your street and when the police go in guns are fired and people are killed that you are somewhat complicit in those deaths and in fact should be considered a murderer.

      I believe there is a clear separation between those two actions.

      I do agree that if there is an unacceptable level of civilian deaths leading from this programme then the USA should look at the viability of the drone attacks against whatever other methods may be available to them.

      However this does not mean we are complicit.

      Perhaps you could choose some methods in which we can protect people from terrorist attacks and give your preference.

    8. By Peter Smith on May 21, 2014 | Reply

      I think you’re making a rather extreme jump yourself clairbear. The difference with a local killing by the police (which you may have been complicit in by drawing the P lab to the attention of the authorities) is that the police action in our community is open to scrutiny and judicial process. If the perpetrator of the killing is found to have done this unlawfully, they will be accountable to the law. In the case of our complicity with US drone strikes, our community has no legal recourse to hold those responsible for the killings accountable. Our only real recourse in this situation is to replace the current government with one that takes its international independence seriously and refuses to be complicit in execution without trial.

    9. By Dan on May 21, 2014 | Reply

      clairbear: I have a foolproof way of protecting people from terrorist attacks: Stop participating in them.

      When you drone-strike a group of people going to a wedding, that’s terrorism.

      Perhaps you will say we had nothing to do with that. Of course, you don’t know that. You have no idea what information is passing through Waihopai, you don’t know what information the GCSB is passing on, and neither does anyone else.

      Your post buys into the idea that it’s acceptable for US armed forces to act unilaterally on foreign soil without UN approval. It is not. Just because they do it all the time does not make it OK and no other country does this.

      My concern with Key is his total contempt for the rule of law and the rights of NZ citizenship. Basically what he’s saying is that if he considers you to be “not a nice guy” and you’re on foreign soil, a foreign country can asassinate you with no meaningful response from the NZ govt.

    10. By Cam McLeod on May 21, 2014 | Reply

      “The legality of drone strikes is still very much in dispute under international law, given that drones are being used to kill people in countries with whom the US and New Zealand are not in a declared state of war – and where the rules of engagement, the criteria for targeting and the proportionality of killing the individuals in question relative to the threat that they pose, are all unknowns.”

      I disagree with this point. The United States and New Zealand are combating terrorism which happens to cross territorial boundaries. It is not a violation of territorial sovereignty to cross boarders in a number of circumstances.

    11. By Dan on May 21, 2014 | Reply

      Thanks for that Cam.

      “The United States and New Zealand are combating terrorism which happens to cross territorial boundaries. It is not a violation of territorial sovereignty to cross boarders in a number of circumstances.”

      And those circumstances are? Repeated violations of a sovereign nation’s airspace, assassinations of it’s citizens (and anyone else who happens to be standing nearby) with no trial and no explanation apart from “we think they are terrorists mmkay” is OK under what circumstances? Can you point me to where those circumstances are clearly defined?

      PS: You can’t, because they aren’t.

      Basically what your post boils down to is “The Governments of the USA and NZ can do what they like because Terrorism”.

    12. By Elyse on May 22, 2014 | Reply

      This issue brings up the pesky question of whether or not the USA, and if we are aiding them, we, are at war with the countries in which the drone attacks are taking place. I’m thinking we’re not. So,in that case, is it ok for us to flout the principle of our own system of justice,”innocent until proven guilty”. Or does that only apply to us? Is it ok to bomb innocent citizens in other countries where mostly brown-skinned people live, in the hope that we might catch a baddie or two?
      The Brits dealt with terrorisom in Northern Ireland (which also made its way to the streets of London) with police actions. The USA should too. The majority of the hi-jackers on the 9/11 planes were supposedly Egyption and Saudi. Why not attack those countries? They got Bin Laden, remember? Wasn’t that the point of it all?
      @clairbear you are condoning government-sponsored terrorism and it makes you and your like (every other kiwi)less safe.

    13. By awryly on May 22, 2014 | Reply

      It is quite clear that Key will do whatever his Yank mates want him to do. If that means killing a few innocent civilians, and then using weasel words to make it look like something he (a) either didn’t do or (b) was somehow justified in doing, or (c) something he can’t remember doing he will. “I have no recollection” is his usual last line of defence.

      Just guess what he saying about his complicity in the orchestrated contortions to ensure the US has the ability to spy on New Zealanders with the help of the GCSB. “I have no recollection”.

      Why should we tolerate these antics from a prime minister, with hundreds of staff evidently unable to treat his apparently profound amnesia when the going gets tough? He seems to have forgotten that is was elected to serve this country, not sell it wholesale to his American mates.

    14. By Joe Blow on May 24, 2014 | Reply

      If drone strikes are war crimes as they arguably are, then John Key himself and his GCSB spooks are potentially criminally liable in any complicity with the US drone programme.

      Unlike the US we are a signatory to the Rome Statute granting the ICC criminal jurisdiction over our citizens.

      I don’t think wilful blindness (I don’t recall) is going to get Mr Key out of that one…

    15. By bernard on May 24, 2014 | Reply

      just tell the truth national have made nz a huge fat target for terrer attacks.

    16. By Macro on May 24, 2014 | Reply

      Key has not been called the “smiling assassin” for nothing.
      How can he say there was noting “illegal” in the killing of Jones? He qualifies the killing by pretending that any information provided by the GCSB was not used in the killing – so therefore in his confused mind – NZ had nothing to do with it! Yet he acknowledges that we have provided information on “persons of interest”, i.e. support these continued war crimes -for that is what they are.
      Weather of not Jones was involved with partisan action in Pakistan is neither here nor there – As a NZ citizen he was entitled to impartial justice and we abolished the death penalty years ago. Key has neither the right nor the mandate to order the killing of anyone.
      Key has shown over the past 6 years that his moral judgment and ethical standards are not fit enough for him to be a head of state. He needs to be “gone by lunchtime”.

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