January 30, 2013
Drone Strike Prompts Suit, Raising Fears for U.S. Allies
By RAVI SOMAIYA
The death of Malik Daud Khan, a Pakistani tribal elder, in a C.I.A. drone strike might have remained widely unremarked upon, lost amid thousands of others analysts have tallied  in the American drone campaign, had not the British courts been brought into it.
The drone strike, which killed Mr. Khan and dozens of others  at a tribal council meeting in North Waziristan in 2011, spawned a lawsuit that accuses British officials of becoming "secondary parties to murder" by passing intelligence to American officials that was later used in drone strikes.
The case has put a spotlight on international intelligence-sharing agreements that have long been praised by officials as vital links in the global fight against terrorist groups, but that rights advocates criticize as a way for Britain and other European countries to reap the benefits of the contentious drone program without its political costs.
Judges in Britain have yet to decide whether to hear the case, brought forward by Mr. Khan's son, Noor Khan, a British citizen. (They initially declined, but are considering an appeal that was lodged in January.) It has caused a particular sensation, though, because it raises the prospect of legal liability for European officials by linking them to an American drone campaign that is widely seen as publicly unpalatable, or simply illegal, in their home countries.
In interviews, current and former British government and intelligence officials, some of whom worked closely with the United States after the drone campaign's inception in 2004, said Britain does provide intelligence to the United States that is almost certainly used to target strikes. Many in Britain's intelligence community, said one person with detailed knowledge of internal discussions, are now distinctly worried they may face prosecution.
"The policy on drones and torture is clear: We don't do any of it," one former British counterterrorism official said. "But if we pick up on some hostile phone chatter, and we pass the number on to the Americans, who then pinpoint the phone and target the person, did we provide intelligence for the killing?" The official, like others interviewed on the issue, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the legal delicacy of the case.
The Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment. But Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer and the author of "Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad," said, "The British are our most important partner in the war against Al Qaeda in all respects."
The British government, according to the response it filed in Mr. Khan's case, now refuses to discuss the matter and "neither confirms nor denies" what it carefully characterizes as "any such alleged activities."
"The inference that can be drawn," said Rehman Chishti, a lawmaker with the governing Conservatives who has campaigned for more information on Britain's role in American drone strikes, "is that intelligence sharing is taking place, because if it wasn't then it could easily say so."
The issue is more complex than drone-strike foes suggest, the current and former officials said, and is based on decades of cooperation rather than a shadowy pact for the United States to do the world's dirty work.
The arrangements for intensive intelligence sharing by Western allies go back to World War II, said Richard Aldrich, professor of international security at the University of Warwick, when the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand agreed to continue to collaborate.
"There's a very high volume of intelligence shared, some of which is collected automatically, so it's impossible to track what every piece is potentially used for," said Mr. Aldrich, who is also the author of a history of the Government Communications Headquarters, the British signal-intelligence agency.
Britain's history and expertise in South Asia means that the intelligence it gathers in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the tribal areas in between is in high demand, Mr. Aldrich said. The arrangement has been focused recently by a chill in relations between the United States and Pakistan, and by the shared war in Afghanistan.
Other nations, too, intercept communications in the region that are shared broadly with the United States, he said. In Afghanistan, for example, German and Dutch forces run aggressive electronic interception operations, he said, because their rules on collaborating with local interpreters are less stringent than those of the United States.
A spokesman for the coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Lester Carroll, declined to give details about intelligence sharing, saying agreements were classified. But he confirmed that American military forces "do share information with other U.S. government organizations on a need-to-know basis."
Few argue against the notion that European nations, many of which have been attacked by terrorists, have benefited from the drone killing, however controversial, of many of the most hardened Islamic extremist leaders.
The threat level for international terrorism in Britain was reduced to "substantial," the middle of five ratings, in July 2011. The switch was due largely to the "removal of operational planners" through drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas and Yemen, a former senior intelligence official said. Another former official put it more simply, saying the "strikes have decimated the Al Qaeda senior leadership, and we didn't have to get directly involved."
But in light of Mr. Khan's lawsuit and the potential for others, operatives across the British intelligence agencies are concerned that if they share information, they could be "punished by the judiciary for something the executive ordered them to do," said the person with knowledge of internal discussions.
"They are willing to go the last mile, but they don't want to go to prison for it," the person said. "If the sword of Damocles is hanging over our intelligence officers, they can't do their job."
In an interview, Mr. Khan said that if Britain was involved in the attack that killed his father he would like "the people involved" to be arrested, and compensation to be paid to the families of those who died. The drone strike that killed his father became a point of outrage within Pakistan, criticized by officials there who said more than 40 civilians had been killed when the Americans mistook a tribal council gathering for a meeting of militants.
For the government's part, one senior official said, it "would just like the issue to go away."
A similar issue was raised in 2008, according to classified State Department cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010. British officials demanded to be given full details of intelligence-gathering flights  the United States flew from its base in Cyprus, in case they "put the U.K. at risk of being complicit in unlawful acts." The United States responded that such safeguards would "hinder, if not obstruct, our cooperative counterterrorism efforts."
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.