L to R: Khan's son, Noor, holds a photo of his father, who was killed by a US drone in 2011. A relative, Kareem Khan, holds a photo of his son and brother, both killed in American drone strikes (via)
If England hadn't whispered to its ally, it's likely the US wouldn't have ever pulled the trigger on the drone strike that killed Malik Daud Khan. That's presuming the intelligence handoff actually happened--Noor Khan, Malik's son, insists that it did, and is behind a lawsuit that accuses British officials of being "secondary parties to murder" in the hit that took out the elder Khan and dozens of others in Pakistan in March of 2011.
The incident has drawn the ire of critics of both country's weaponized drone programs. They believe the 40-some odd victims, who were attending a tribal meeting in North Waziristan, were innocent civilians mistaken for a gaggle of militants. But setting aside whether this all played out on questionable intelligence or not, the case foregrounds not just the nature of some of the longer-standing Western intelligence-sharing pacts, but how those pacts may shape the technological and ethical contours of future conflicts.
Of course, British-American intelligence sharing traces back to at least World War II. And if anything, recon swaps between the two powers have only increased. According to Richard Aldrich, an international security professor at the University of Warwick, it's this relatively free flow of a lot of sensitive information that makes it difficult to say how, precisely, every single strand of intelligence could eventually be woven into cases that either country feels compelling enough to warrant death from above.
“There’s a very high volume of intelligence shared, some of which is collected automatically," Aldrich, who's also a historian of the British signal-intelligence agency otherwise known as the Government Communications Headquarters, tells The New York Times. "So it’s impossible to track what every piece is potentially used for."
What's clear, though, is that the US is using what Britain knows to compound its own intelligence, the sort of stuff that goes into the decision process governing where and when drones should strike. Current and former British government and intelligence officials, some of whom claimed to have worked intimately with the US after its drone program begain in earnest in 2004, tell the Times that Britain does indeed pass along intelligence to the US, who then "almost certainly" use the information "to target strikes."
Making England's intelligence in Af-Pak and surrounding tribal regions all the more in demand, Aldrich adds, is its "history and expertise" in South Asia.
Recently, the British-US arrangement seems to have sharpened in light of increasing friction between the US and Pakistan. Britain, in response to Khan's case, is now following the American rulebook in neither confirming nor denying the existence of what it adroitly calls "any such allged activities." So nevermind that Britain, along with the US and Israel, is the focus of a new UN inquiry into the legality and rationale of its droning on across the the Middle East and Horn of Africa. Intelligence relations laid bare by the Khan case could suggest that Britain is making some sort of effort to distance itself from the American drone program, which is widely rebuked on the international stage as run amok and having already established troubling precendents in terms of extrajudicial killings.
But it could be too little, too late. One official, who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity due to his "detailed knowledge of internal discussion," claims that many in Britain’s intelligence community are losing sleep over the thought of being prosecuted for involvment in lethal dromne strikes.
“The policy on drones and torture is clear: We don’t do any of it,” the unnamed former British counterterrorism official tells Times. Yet the line is murky. And until more comes of both Khan's case and the UN special inquiry, that line may well remain murky. "[If] we pick up on some hostile phone chatter," the official continues, "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?”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org. @thebanderson