9 December 2011
The nascent effort is being modeled after the challenges brought by some of the same groups against the administration of President George W. Bush over detentions at the Guantanamo Bay military prison and in secret CIA "black sites," say lawyers involved in the planning.
The British-based charity Reprieve and its Pakistani partners, in an initial step, sent a letter Dec. 2 to the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, asking about his role in authorizing a drone strike on Oct. 31 that the lawyers said killed two youths, age 12 and 16. The letter offers Mr. Munter a chance to "disavow what happened" before the group files suit.
U.S. officials deny any youths were killed, and identified the dead as al Qaeda facilitators. U.S. officials say that the drones are a centerpiece of the campaign against al Qaeda and that the CIA takes extraordinarily steps to target only wanted militants and minimize civilian casualties.
Reprieve says the aim of the campaign is to hold senior U.S. officials responsible for possible human-rights violations in the drone attacks.
The Obama "administration needs to think about the potential international legal liability of their officials," said John Bellinger, a former legal adviser for the State Department during the Bush administration who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They're convinced they're on the side of the angels and can't believe someone might accuse them of war crimes."
There is some precedent in recent years for using lawsuits and public campaigns to embarrass the U.S. and compel disclosures.
Legal actions filed in the U.S. and Europe helped expose details of clandestine CIA programs, prompting some governments to scale back their cooperation. These include the agency's practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the U.S. moved prisoners to third countries for detention and questioning.
Mr. Munter and his spokesman didn't respond to requests to comment. Lawyers said the planned lawsuit will accuse the ambassador of being a co-conspirator in the two deaths.
Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith said the group was also preparing to press European governments to detail their role in providing intelligence that allegedly has been used in the U.S. strikes. He said the group also intends to target European companies which help to build components used in the drone program.
While earlier legal campaigns produced few victories for human-rights groups, the attention they generated in some cases moved public opinion, resulting in policy changes.
A U.S. lawsuit against Boeing Co.'s Jeppessen unit, for its role as a CIA contractor in rendition flights, was turned back in 2009 by U.S. courts. But during its years under litigation, it brought attention and helped expose details about the CIA program.
In the U.S., the American Civil Liberties Union last year used a lawsuit on behalf of the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric who the U.S. said was a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to force the U.S. for the first time to explain why Mr. Awlaki was being targeted for killing.
The ACLU failed in the father's aim to stop Mr. Awlaki from being killed. "That said, the case has served a purpose—it has provoked a public debate," said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU lawyer who argued the case. He said the case "ultimately compelled the Obama administration to at least explain the understanding of the law. And ultimately the case was important in forcing a conversation about transparency."
The ACLU is in discussions with family members about follow-up legal action. That includes a suit over another drone strike in Yemen that inadvertently killed the young son of Anwar al-Awlaki.
Mr. Smith acknowledged the uncertainty of bringing a lawsuit in Pakistan targeting Mr. Munter because of the immunities typically afforded to diplomats.
The letter sent by Reprieve's Pakistani partners, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, to Mr. Munter says Tariq Aziz, 16, and Waheed Khan, 12, were killed in a drone strike in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area just days after participating in meetings in Islamabad organized by Reprieve, which gave cameras to Tariq and others to document drone strikes.
The Foundation's letter to Mr. Munter says he may share in the liability for the deaths because, as ambassador, he is consulted before each strike, and can raise objections. The letter cites reports by The Wall Street Journal describing Mr. Munter's role in the process.
U.S. officials deny that any innocent civilians, or children in particular, were killed in the Oct. 31 strike. The officials said the CIA is able to differentiate between adults and children and said they believe the individuals killed were adults who were involved in al-Qaeda's activities.
Mr. Smith said his group plans to release video footage showing the bodies of Tariq and Waheed at their funerals to show they were killed.