Drone strikes in Pakistan

UK complicity in US drone strikes is ‘inevitable’, Emmerson tells parliament

Palace of Westminster - London, England

Conflict experts told British lawmakers the UK is probably complicit in the secret drone war (Jim Trodel/Flickr)

It is ‘inevitable’ British spies are sharing intelligence with the US that is then used in drone strikes, a prominent UN expert told UK politicians yesterday.

Ben Emmerson QC, who is leading an ongoing drones investigation for the UN, and Professor Michael Clarke, director-general of military think-tank Rusi, told politicians there is little doubt the UK has given the US information used in drone strikes.

There’s a reasonable presumption that the provision of information or sharing of information makes us complicit – Professor Michael Clarke

The British government has consistently refused to confirm or deny whether its spies have passed information to the US that has been used to target drone strikes in covert campaigns such as Pakistan and Yemen.

But Emmerson said that the UK and US intelligence relationship is so close that this type of information-sharing is ‘inevitable’. He added: ‘It would be absurd if it were not the case.’

UK drones have only been used to launch missiles where there is a declared war, Clarke said. According to the Bureau’s estimate the US has launched over 430 covert drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – beyond declared war zones such as Afghanistan.

‘The integration of information operations and sharing means that of course we share information,’ Clarke said. ‘It would be very hard to say that the information that we share about people of interest isn’t used for a drone strike.’

He added: ‘There’s a reasonable presumption that the provision of information or sharing of information makes us complicit in an American policy.’

He warned the issue is ‘coming down the track with increasing force’.

Emmerson and Clarke spoke to members of both Houses of Parliament at an event organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Drones and the APPG on the UN.

Related story: Consensus grows among UN states for greater transparency on drone civilian deaths

A Pakistani tribesman is currently challenging the UK’s silence on its alleged complicity in the CIA’s lethal drone campaign in Pakistan. Noor Khan’s father was one of as many as 40 civilians killed in a CIA strike in March 2011. His lawyers claim British spies who share intelligence with their CIA counterparts could be complicit in murder or war crimes if that information is used to target drone strikes.

The UK High Court rejected the case in 2012 saying that it could ‘imperil international relations‘. But as the Bureau reported yesterday, Khan is appealing and the latest stage of this unprecedented legal challenge is now before the Court of Appeal.

Canada, New Zealand and Australia also have close intelligence sharing relationships with the US. These countries with the US and UK make up the so-called Five Eyes, an alliance of Anglophone countries established after the second world war.

It emerged this summer that Australia’s Pine Gap spy base has provided the US with the intelligence across the eastern hemisphere. It has intercepted radio transmissions from Pakistan and used the intelligence to fix the location of suspects, feeding this information into the CIA drone programme, according to the reports.

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