The Winchester Plan That Worked

This isn’t a “buy my book” post but I do have a book out this week, that includes a chapter on the Reyaad Khan strike, and I’m sure my publisher would be a bit miffed if I didn’t take the chance to point this out. It’s available from Amazon. Post mirrored at Medium.com

It’s been just over a year and a half since David Cameron, then Prime Minister, announced the existence of the 2015 strike, conducted by the UK’s armed forces, that killed Reyaad Khan. Reading the frustration of the Intelligence & Security Committee in its report on the strike published today, it probably comes as a relief to those involved on the planning side. After all, the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ report on the strike pointed out that legal uncertainty meant that everyone involved could be complicit in murder. The ISC’s report, on the other hand, provides an intelligence-informed assessment that the submissions made to Ministers were vital to understanding the role of intelligence in the strike, and therefore it’s rather annoying that the government refused, point blank, to hand them over.

If Cameron and co. did come up with a plan for managing the predictable political consequences of “the first time outside participation in a military campaign that the UK had conducted a lethal drone strike against a terrorist target” (ISC, p.1), then it looks remarkably like Simon Pegg’s “Winchester plan” out of Shaun of the Dead: Order the killing of a British citizen, say it’s legal, go to the pub, and wait for it to all blow over.

That said, there was some attempt at public dialogue. For example: the Attorney General’s speech at IISS earlier this year, The modern law of self-defense, took a stab at outlining a full public legal rationale for the strike, over and above name-checking basic principles of international law. What stopped the Attorney General from saying that in, say, September 2015, as opposed to January 2017? One can only guess.

For sheer political bravado, hats off to Cameron et al: stalling worked. The ISC’s report is important, but thanks to unholy union of Brexit and Trump and yet another bloody election, it’s unlikely that the ISC’s report will get much play. That’s a problem. As I write this, it’s not even on the front page of the Guardian or the Telegraph (in fairness to the Guardian, it makes the third row of the UK news page).

The headline for the ISC report will, undoubtedly, focus upon the bits and pieces of the report that fill in some of the detail about why the government decided to kill Reyaad Khan, but for my money, this is the most important bit of the report (I’ve only read it once so far, so this may change). The ISC’s job, the reason it exists, is to give assurance to Parliament and the public that things the government and government agents do in secret (for good reason) are being done for the right reasons, and being done within the law. As it stands, it can’t really give such an assurance with regard to British targeted killings, and it appears that the government’s willing to run with the fall-back plan of “Take our word for it.” The simplest way for the government to increase the oversight and accountability for the use of force would be to permit the ISC to see the documents that go before ministers making decisions with intentionally lethal consequences.