CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, NV - AUGUST 08: An MQ-9 Reaper flies by on a training mission August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Reaper is the Air Force's first "hunter-killer" unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and is designed to engage time-sensitive targets on the battlefield as well as provide intelligence and surveillance. The jet-fighter sized Reapers are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for as long as 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. They can fly twice as fast and high as the smaller MQ-1 Predators reaching speeds of 300 mph at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet. The aircraft are flown by a pilot and a sensor operator from ground control stations. The Reapers are expected to be used in combat operations by the United States military in Afghanistan and Iraq within the next year. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone © Getty

A former head of GCHQ has urged foreign secretary Philip Hammond to publish secret guidelines governing how ministers share intelligence that helps US forces kill militants with drone strikes.

In a letter seen by the Financial Times, Sir David Omand, the former director of the government monitoring agency, urged Mr Hammond to release the guidelines, the existence of which has never been formally acknowledged.

Sir David said that publishing such information would help allay concerns among British citizens that ministers were breaking the law by assisting lethal US drone strikes outside traditional battlefields.

The letter said: “We believe there is an increasing public interest in the disclosure of the guidance and restrictions concerning the passing or use of UK intelligence.”

It was also signed by Tom Watson, the Labour MP; David Davis, the Conservative MP; Michael Clarke, the head of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank: and Lady Stern, a prison reformer who is interested in drones.

Intelligence-sharing arrangements between Britain and the US have been under scrutiny since the revelations of Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor. Documents stolen and leaked by Mr Snowden showed the extent of co-operation between the two countries under the so-called “five eyes” agreement, where the US makes a contribution towards the costs of some GCHQ operations.

The US has collated a “kill list” of individuals who are potential targets for drone attacks and it believes pose a threat and cannot be dealt with by other means.

Such strikes have been the default tool in the “war on terror” during Barack Obama’s presidency. According to figures collated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the charity Reprieve, Mr Obama has ordered 352 drone strikes since taking office, resulting in up to 3,278 deaths.

Ben Emmerson QC, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and terrorism, this year warned about the legal ambiguity surrounding the use of drones, saying it created “dangerous latitude” for states to adopt different practices. In a report to be released on Thursday, MPs on the foreign affairs committee will urge the government to give a written response to Mr Emmerson explaining why it believes using drones to kill does not contravene international law.

Experts think the US will increase its use of drones to attack jihadis from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, in northern Iraq and Syria. British drones are already flying over Syria but only for reconnaissance missions.

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The intelligence agency reportedly provides the US with information from intercepted telephone conversations that helps the Pentagon pinpoint the hiding places of drone targets.

British officials have refused to confirm or deny such reports, but they triggered a legal case when a Pakistani man began proceedings against the foreign secretary over his father’s death in a drone strike in 2011. The case was inconclusive, with the two judges ruling that they did not have jurisdiction to rule on the matter.

Sir David’s signature on the letter suggests that the former GCHQ chief believes that not only do British operatives pass on such information but that there are formal guidelines dictating when they can do so.

Sir David could not be reached for more comment. But the letter read: “Setting out the principles which govern intelligence-sharing consistent with UK domestic and international law, in the context of the US covert drone programme, would serve to safeguard the important work of UK intelligence officers pursuing their statutory functions.”

It added: “Disclosure would reassure an anxious public that the UK government will protect personnel from inadvertent collusion in counter-terrorism operations contrary to our understanding of the law.”

Legal advice provided to Mr Watson’s all-party parliamentary group on the use of drones suggests that British assistance to the programme may be illegal. A paper written by Jemima Stratford QC and Tim Johnston, a barrister, said: “If the UK government knows that it is transferring data that may be used for drone strikes against non-combatants (for example in Yemen or Pakistan), that transfer is probably unlawful.”

The Foreign Office has received the letter and said it would respond in due course. It added: “We do not comment on intelligence issues. Our intelligence agencies operate under the law and in accordance with our values.”

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