Use of armed drones increasing under Trump: study

This MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone aircraft, armed with Hellfire missiles, was developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems for the US Army. (Shutterstock photo)
Updated 08 June 2018
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Use of armed drones increasing under Trump: study

  • US President Donald Trump has given battlefield commanders greater leeway to authorize drone strikes without first seeking approval from the White House or Washington security officials.
  • Study author Rachel Stohl has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s drone policy, which she said was already shrouded in too much secrecy.

WASHINGTON: America’s use of armed drones is increasing under President Donald Trump just as oversight of the lethal technology appears to be dwindling, a study released Thursday found.
The report by the nonpartisan Stimson Center think tank looks back at Trump’s drone actions during his first year in office, when he moved quickly to loosen some of the constraints put in place by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Trump has given battlefield commanders greater leeway to authorize drone strikes without first seeking approval from the White House or Washington security officials.
The Pentagon says this gives commanders better ability to make real-time decisions and insists the looser restrictions have not lowered the threshold at which it is prepared to execute a drone strike that could risk civilian deaths.
The Stimson report found that Trump is on pace to dramatically intensify America’s use of lethal drones, which already had seen a rapid increase under Obama.
For instance, in the eight years from 2009-2016, Obama authorized more than 550 strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, as well as other countries where the United States was not technically at war.
“President Trump reportedly authorized at least 80 strikes in his first year in office in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and is on pace to surpass the strike tempo of both of his predecessors, which perhaps signals a greater willingness to use lethal force,” the Stimson study states.
The study also notes that the CIA reportedly wants to expand its power to conduct covert drone strikes in war zones such as Afghanistan, where such actions are usually led by the military.
“Should such a policy proposal be adopted, it would mark a shift in CIA activities in Afghanistan and represent an expansion of the agency’s authority to conduct covert strikes in counterterrorism operations, thereby decreasing levels of transparency,” the report states.
Study author Rachel Stohl has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s drone policy, which she said was already shrouded in too much secrecy.
But she said she was now “wistful” for even Obama’s limited attempts to provide some sort of public accounting of the US drone program.
“US drone policy under the Trump administration has thus far been defined by uncertainty coupled with less oversight and less transparency,” Stohl said.
The report outlines a series of recommendations including for the Trump administration to publicly release and explain any new drone policies and standards.


Microsoft uncovers more Russian attacks ahead of midterms

Updated 8 min 50 sec ago
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Microsoft uncovers more Russian attacks ahead of midterms

  • The hacking attempts mirror similar Russian attacks ahead of the 2016 election
  • The company is offering free cybersecurity protection to all US political candidates, campaigns and other political organizations

Microsoft said Tuesday it has uncovered new Russian hacking attempts targeting US political groups ahead of the midterm elections.
The company said that a hacking group tied to the Russian government created fake Internet domains that appeared to spoof two American conservative organizations: the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute. Three other fake domains were designed to look as if they belonged to the US Senate.
Microsoft didn’t offer any further description of the fake sites.
The revelation came just weeks after a similar Microsoft discovery led Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is running for re-election, to reveal that Russian hackers tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate her Senate computer network.
The hacking attempts mirror similar Russian attacks ahead of the 2016 election, which US intelligence officials have said were focused on helping to elect Republican Donald Trump to the presidency by hurting his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
This time, more than helping one political party over another, “this activity is most fundamentally focused on disrupting democracy,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, said in an interview this week.
Smith said there is no sign the hackers were successful in persuading anyone to click on the fake websites, which could have exposed a target victim to computer infiltration, hidden surveillance and data theft. Both conservative think tanks said they have tried to be vigilant about “spear-phishing” email attacks because their global pro-democracy work has frequently drawn the ire of authoritarian governments.
“We’re glad that our work is attracting the attention of bad actors,” said Hudson Institute spokesman David Tell. “It means we’re having an effect, presumably.”
The International Republican Institute is led by a board that includes six Republican senators, and one prominent Russia critic and Senate hopeful, Mitt Romney, who is running for a Utah seat this fall.
Microsoft calls the hacking group Strontium; others call it Fancy Bear or APT28. An indictment from US special counsel Robert Mueller has tied it to Russian’s main intelligence agency, known as the GRU, and to the 2016 email hacking of both the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
“We have no doubt in our minds” who is responsible, Smith said.
Microsoft has waged a legal battle with Strontium since suing it in a Virginia federal court in summer 2016. The company obtained court approval last year allowing it to seize certain fake domains created by the group. It has so far used the courts to shut down 84 fake websites created by the group, including the most recent six announced Tuesday.
Microsoft has argued in court that by setting up fake but realistic-looking domains, the hackers were misusing Microsoft trademarks and services to hack into targeted computer networks, install malware and steal sensitive emails and other data.
Smith also announced Tuesday that the company is offering free cybersecurity protection to all US political candidates, campaigns and other political organizations, at least so long as they’re already using Microsoft’s Office 365 productivity software. Facebook and Google have also promoted similar tools to combat campaign interference.