The EU has always prided itself on its commitment to human rights, the rule of law, and the role its institutions have played in fostering peace. Yet when the EU’s diplomatic service organized a meeting in June 2018 with corporate interests to discuss the EU’s new Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategy, the doors were kept closed to outsiders – effectively keeping human rights organizations in the dark on highly controversial issues such as the development of lethal autonomous weapons.
To get a better sense of what was discussed at this secretive meeting, which was dominated by corporate interests, journalists from EUObserver used a Freedom of Information request (FOI) to gain more information. However, they were told that no minutes of the meeting had been kept, and received only a few heavily redacted yet informative letters which the head of the EU’s External Action Service, Federica Mogherini, had sent to the panel members.
This lack of transparency also plagued this year’s European Defence Agency’s (EDA) annual conference. The conference, opened by Mogherini who is also the head of the EDA, focused on the military use of unmanned and autonomous systems, who’s military use has been very controversial and has raised serious political, legal and ethical concerns. Despite these issues, the conference was carried out in near-secrecy, and several requests of civil society members to attend in order to foster transparency and information-sharing were flat-out denied.
The obscurity with which such important discussions are held and decisions are being made, highlights the importance of carrying out FOI requests. This article aims to set out the ways in which FOI has been used particularly related to the use of armed drones, and provides recommendations for others to do so too.
The EU should know better when it comes to the use of unmanned military systems, as the same thick veil of secrecy has surrounded the development and use of armed drones since the US launched its first strike in Afghanistan, in 2001. The clandestine drone-war waged by the US against suspected terrorists has cost thousands of lives, and paved the way for wide-spread remote controlled killing with unmanned systems. Since then, the number of countries using drones has skyrocketed, and the world witnessed many new ways of delivering lethal force through drones by States, armed groups, and terrorists.
However, transparency regarding the deployment of drones, be it by the military or by intelligence agencies for targeted killings has remained on the same level at best. Targeting procedures, legal justifications, post-strike assessments and other raw data are kept away from public view. This has made it difficult to assess the strategic effectiveness of drone strikes in achieving foreign policy goals, the scale of their use, the possible issues related to the targeting process, or the effects of the drone program on human rights, international law, and international security. What we do know comes largely from investigative journalists and civil society actors in the field, and the findings are worrying: among the drone strike victims are hundreds of innocent civilians, including children. Targeting can take place on the basis of meta-data, (so-called “signature strikes”) and all men above the age of fourteen (military-aged males) are automatically considered legitimate military targets. These grave issues are so widespread that journalists and NGO’s have had to resort to Freedom of Information (FOI) request to get more information on which they can base comprehensive policy recommendations.
FOI Requests and Drones
Over a hundred countries have Freedom of Information legislation, each with their own separate procedure. These laws allow citizens to ask for information and, if the request meets certain requirements, forces public authorities to release such information. Chris Cole, founder of Drone Wars UK has used FOI extensively for the past 9 years in his effort to bring greater transparency to the UK’s use of drones. As a member of EFAD, Chris was willing to share his expertise with the network to bolster the work of civil society groups in other European countries that are close to acquiring and using drones too. Information that he has sought to receive through FOI include:
- Raw data in the form of the number of drones deployed, the location of their deployment, and their cost. The numbers of strikes and weapon releases by drones.
- Data about the accuracy of strikes, and the ways in which mission reports are written.
- Policies surrounding the use of drones, and associated documents.
- Information further explaining statements made by officials.
- Presentations, handouts, speeches and reports of events at which Defense officials have spoken.
- Future plans for drone use.
- Communication and operational agreements with other countries.
Such requests can take a considerable amount of time, be denied in full, or the eventual information will be heavily redacted. Still, through persistent requests Drone Wars UK has managed to uncover valuable information regarding the UK’s drone program, including numbers on usage, cost, and strikes; that the UK has used thermobaric missiles; that a large degree of drone strikes are not pre-planned; that unlike previous claims about the drones being primarily intelligence gatherers, they were firing more weapons than conventional aircraft; and that the Royal Air Force has taken over US drones to carry out strikes without reporting these to the British parliament. The list goes on.
The secrecy surrounding the use of drones, and the revelations laid bare by FOI requests, highlight the importance of doing such work. So how can others use these procedures?
TIPS for doing FOI requests
Despite differences in FOI procedures amongst countries, there are some general tips that will be useful to keep in mind when carrying out FOI requests:
- Start with small requests and work from there; build it up over time.
- Be precise in definitions. e.g. Sorties, strikes, and weapon-releases are all different.
- Asking a question that is too narrow creates space for the other party to avoid handing over critical information. However, posing a very broad question might take a very long time to answer, and be more easily rejected.
- The responsible civil servant might give you an answer to a question you had not asked, delay answering or reject the request altogether. Repeatedly chase after the request, and file a complaint if the request has been denied wrongfully. If the provided answer is very limited or unclear, continue to ask for clarification.
- Filing the same request at a later stage might mean it ends up on the desk of a different person, who can take a different approach to the request.
- To learn more about procedures without being refuted on grounds of confidentiality, you can try asking for blank copies of any forms that have to be filled in.
- Ask further if you spot inconsistencies in the answers provided, or in relation to publicly released information.
- You generally do not have to be a lawyer to start an FOI procedure, and in many countries, legal guidance will be available.
It is possible that one government might unwittingly release information that inadvertently reveals something about other governments. Transparency has spill-over effects. We at EFAD would therefore encourage other organizations to push for open and objective debate about the use of armed drones and their impacts in their respective countries to use FOI requests where necessary. If help is needed, please contact us at info (at) efadrones.org.