ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani lawyer filed charges Monday against the CIA's former legal counsel for authorizing drone missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal area that activists say killed mostly innocent civilians.
Advocacy groups hope that the charges against John A. Rizzo, a now-retired longtime CIA lawyer, will lead eventually to a lawsuit in the United States over the controversial, secretive drone program, which is highly unpopular in Pakistan but has become a central tool of the Obama administration's fight against al Qaida and Taliban militants in Pakistan's remote tribal areas near Afghanistan.
The use of the unmanned drones began in 2004, but President Barack Obama has ramped it up significantly. While the CIA and other U.S. government officials don't publicly comment on the drones as a matter of policy, Washington claims privately that there are few civilian victims.
Lawyers connected with the case said they focused on Rizzo, 63, because he discussed the process of drone targeting, determining who should be "blown to bits," as he put it in an interview with Newsweek magazine earlier this year. Rizzo, who retired in 2009, described how he signed off on a monthly hit list, though he said at one point that "they tried to minimize collateral damage, especially women and children."
The charges filed in Islamabad by lawyer Shahzad Akbar — who's working with the British-based legal aid group Reprieve — are on behalf of two men who say they lost family members in drone attacks. They come as the U.S. and Pakistani militaries are struggling to patch an uneasy alliance that's been on the rocks since the May U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
A separate lawsuit that Akbar filed late last year in Pakistan named the CIA station chief in Islamabad. The official was forced to flee the country and U.S.-Pakistani ties were badly strained.
George Little, a CIA spokesman, didn't comment on the lawsuit specifically but said: "American counter-terrorism operations are precise, lawful and effective. They're coordinated across our government."
Though never admitted by the agency, the CIA's drone program is meant to assassinate suspected extremists hiding in Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan's tribal area, a wild mountainous region on the Afghan border. Drones are the only weapon readily available to the U.S. there, because Pakistan won't allow American soldiers on the ground.
Waziristan is almost impossible for outsiders to enter without Pakistani army escorts, so verifying drone attacks and casualties is a murky process. News stories on drone strikes often rely on unnamed Pakistani intelligence officials.
A London art gallery is preparing to open on Tuesday an exhibition of photographs by a Waziristan resident that show what he says is the aftermath of drone attacks, including images of dead and injured children.
The photographer, Noor Behram, who visited the sites of 27 drone attacks, said that one militant was killed for every 10 or 15 innocent people.
It wasn't possible for McClatchy to confirm the authenticity of Behram's often-grim photographs.
An analysis by the New America Foundation, an independent research organization in Washington, shows that 258 drone strikes have taken place in Pakistan since 2004, mostly in Waziristan. They've killed somewhere from 1,579 to 2,490 people, the foundation says.
It estimates that 20 percent of those killed were militants, though that percentage dropped to 5 percent last year, which saw a record number of 118 drone attacks.
Officially, the Pakistani government condemns the drone strikes but it secretly cooperates with them, even allowing the use of an air base from which the drones take off. However, the Pakistani military reportedly has grown opposed to the frequency with which drone strikes are used now.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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