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A reported plan to transfer the United States targeted killing program from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Defense Department could improve transparency and accountability, though a number of other concerns with the program would remain. A recent media report that Human Rights Watch could not independently verify indicates that the Obama administration is considering such a move.

The CIA’s oversight of “targeted killings” – deliberate, lethal attacks aimed at specific groups and individuals – has resulted in an unknown number of civilian casualties without adequate accountability or any redress for the victims of violations, Human Rights Watch said.

“A secret intelligence agency that doesn’t follow  international legal rules to investigate alleged violations shouldn’t be carrying out what are essentially military attacks for the US,” said Laura Pitter, counterterrorism advisor at Human Rights Watch. “Bringing these strikes under military control could bring greater transparency and accountability to the public.”

After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush began a campaign of targeted killings against alleged members of Al-Qaeda and so-called associated forces. The frequency of targeted killings has increased dramatically under President Barack Obama. Some of these attacks have been carried out by the US military in Afghanistan while many others are believed to have been carried out by the CIA in other locations, including Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, using aerial drones armed with missiles and laser-guided bombs. The US officially acknowledges the role of the US military in some targeted killing operations but not that of the CIA.

Though US government officials have claimed that targeted killing operations are conducted in full compliance with all applicable law and have resulted in minimal civilian casualties, the Obama administration has not provided independent observers, or even US congressional committees with oversight responsibilities, any meaningful ability to examine these assertions.

In February 2013, a “white paper” produced by the Justice Department  that appeared to summarize purported legal justifications for the use of targeted strikes against US citizens abroad was leaked to the media, but the US has yet to make public any other official documents explaining the US legal rationale for carrying out the killings, or the factual basis underlying the need to resort to such attacks. The US has also refused to make public the number of people killed as part of the program. Senator Lindsey Graham, a supporter of the targeted killing program, stated in February that the US has killed 4,700 people in drone attacks.

Human Rights Watch has previously called for the drone attacks to be exclusively within the command responsibility of the US armed forces. The military has more transparent procedures for investigating possible wrongdoing and a longstanding tradition of legal oversight – although it too needs to ensure and make clear that it is conducting attacks in accordance with the requirements of international human rights and humanitarian law.

If the targeted killing program is transferred to military control, Human Rights Watch urged the Defense Department to adopt a policy of acknowledging all strikes after they occur, explaining who was targeted, and the legal basis for the attack.

“It would defeat the purpose of transferring drone strikes to the US military if the CIA’s practice of refusing to acknowledge strikes carries over as well,” Pitter said.

Human Rights Watch has called upon the US government to clarify fully and publicly its legal rationale for conducting targeted killings and the legal limits on such strikes. The US should also explain why it believes that specific attacks conform with international law and make information public, including video footage, on how particular attacks comply with those standards.

To ensure compliance with international law, the United States should conduct investigations of all targeted killings in which there is credible evidence of wrongdoing, provide compensation to all victims of unlawful strikes, and discipline or prosecute as appropriate those responsible for conducting or ordering illegal attacks.

“Transferring the targeted killing program from the CIA to the military is a start on the road to transparency, though it is certainly not the end,” Pitter said. “The US needs to ensure that all credible allegations of civilian casualties are fully investigated, wrongdoing punished, and the victims of violations compensated.”

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