WASHINGTON — The U.S. government's covert program using unmanned drones to strike at terrorists inside Pakistan is not likely to stop or change, despite new criticism from a U.N. human rights expert.
U.S. officials insist the CIA program has been an effective tool to take out insurgents along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, particularly those hidden beyond the reach of the military. The stepped-up use of drones over the past year has shown no signs of slowing down and was credited earlier this week with the killing inside Pakistan of al-Qaida's third in command.
The Obama administration does not acknowledge the secret program, but one senior U.S. official defended its use Wednesday, saying a careful and rigorous targeting process is used to avoid civilian casualties. The official, who is familiar with the operation, spoke on condition of anonymity because the program is classified.
The program, which officials say has killed hundreds of insurgents in dozens of strikes over the past year, has been condemned by critics who say it may constitute illegal assassinations and violate international law. They argue that intelligence officers conducting the strikes could be at risk of prosecution for murder in foreign countries.
In a 29-page report released Wednesday, Philip Alston, the independent U.N. investigator on extrajudicial killings, called on countries to lay out rules and safeguards for carrying out the strikes, publish figures on civilian casualties and prove they have attempted to capture or incapacitate suspects without killing them.
"Unlike a state's armed forces, its intelligence agents do not generally operate within a framework which places appropriate emphasis upon ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law, rendering violations more likely and causing a higher risk of prosecution both for war crimes and for violations of the laws of the state in which any killing occurs," wrote Alston, a New York University professor.
The report to the U.N. Human Rights Council puts unwanted scrutiny on the intelligence operations of the United States, Israel and Russia, who Alston says are all credibly reported to have used drones to kill alleged terrorists and insurgents.
Other experts disagree.
"Drone operations are essential," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Saban Center. "The drones are part of a much broader effort to put pressure on al-Qaida through the war in Afghanistan. They're the cutting edge of the pressure, but they're not the only pressure."
Earlier this week, al-Qaida leaders confirmed that a drone strike in Pakistan had killed the terrorist group's No. 3 officer and top commander in Afghanistan, Mustafa al-Yazid.
U.S. authorities routinely refuse to talk openly or release data about the program, but as criticism has heightened they have slowly begun to respond quietly to the complaints.
"Without discussing or confirming any specific action or program, this agency's operations unfold within a framework of law and close government oversight," said CIA spokesman George Little. "The accountability's real, and it would be wrong for anyone to suggest otherwise."