The Pentagon Now Dispatches Hackers by Drone: Caveat Edward Snowden

The Pentagon first announced back in 2011 that they would regard cyberattacks as bona fide acts of war, to which a military response would be appropriate. That sounded like a policy statement to me, which educated citizens of a constitutional republic might have thought should be issued by political leaders, not warriors. Everyone in the mainstream media pretty much yawned and went on with whatever they were doing, mostly parroting Pentagon announcements about “suspects reportedly slain” touted as “victories” in the eternal “war on terror”.

The Pentagon recently boasted that they had eliminated twenty-one-year old Junaid Hussain, a British national and “top” hacker for ISIS—a “high-value target”—so now they have put their missiles where their mouth is and demonstrated that they meant what they said: hackers, too, are “unlawful enemy combatants” and therefore legitimate targets for annihilation. Here’s hoping that Edward Snowden heeds the dictates of prudence and stays put, under the circumstances.

It all started with the attacks of September 11, 2001, which were responded to as though acts of war waged by a formal state, even though they were planned and carried out by a relatively small group of people, most of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia, not from Afghanistan or Iraq. Once Osama bin Laden and most of the perpetrators had been killed, the military set its sights on other people, who looked a lot like Bin Laden but possessed nothing like his power to orchestrate attacks on US soil.

Unfortunately, Barack Obama, despite having been elected on the promise of “hope and change”, has essentially signed-off on whatever the Pentagon and the CIA want. The US has been sliding down a very slippery slope since the events of September 11, 2001, waging preemptive wars, rendering suspects to torture-friendly countries and no-law zones, and redefining the meanings of previously well-understood terms such as defense, imminent, and last resort.

Obama, going well above and beyond the call of MIC duty, transformed his own authority to wage war into a blanket power of summary execution, and then proceeded to confer it on the self-styled czar of targeted killing, John Brennan, before appointing him director of the CIA in 2013. Under Brennan’s drone warfare watch, Anwar al-Awlaki had been successfully branded as “the Bin Laden of the internet”, and many Americans concluded that the extrajudicial execution of a US citizen, too, was therefore just. No matter that Al-Awlaki’s complaints about the US war on Islamists were not without substance. No matter that Al-Awlaki appears to have shared the US government’s conviction that death is the solution to political conflict and revenge killing fully justified.

As the probability of big inter-state wars à la World War I and World War II has become ever more remote, given the disproportionate size and wealth of the US military, and as 9/11 fades from memory, dwarfed by the carnage committed in retaliation to those crimes, it should start to seem obvious why unbridled military responses are being made to any- and everything. Financial supporters of dissident groups have been targeted, as have “propagandists”, and now hackers. In the olden days, such persons would be considered criminals, not warriors, for they bear no arms. In the Drone Age, they are being executed without trial. Presumption of innocence is so twentieth century.

Playing the Bin Laden card may work politically as a public relations strategy for the people paying for drone strikes. It is much less effective for the people of other lands who witness the extent of damage caused and are traumatized by the killing machines hovering above in the sky. But there’s no need for policymakers to regroup and, say, read the Stimson Center report. Why not? Because killing people is much easier than doing anything else. Simple, satisfying and, above all, excellent for politicians’ ratings.

Junaid Hussain was about six years old on September 11, 2001. He was about eight years old when the United States, with Britain’s blessing, waged a preemptive war on a sovereign nation at peace. Somehow during his adolescence, Junaid Hussain became an accomplished hacker and allied himself with ISIS, a group which did not even exist until after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Clearly this young man was intelligent and talented—that’s why he was labeled a “high-value” target. But why did he direct his considerable talent to the cause of ISIS?

The same question can be asked of Anwar al-Awlaki, who publicly decried the attacks of 9/11. A decade later, he was taken out by a drone, as was his son, Abdulrahman, just after his sixteenth birthday. No one claimed that Abdulrahman was a “high-value target”, so perhaps he was killed preemptively, to avoid his transformation over the next five years (when he would have been Junaid Hussain’s age) into a sympathizer with radical Islamist groups such as ISIS. Or maybe it was just a mistake. “Mistakes are made.” “This is war.” Well, sort of.

The reasoning of the people running the US drone program appears to be that, if killing innocent people in attempts to kill evil people ends by causing the ranks of terrorists and their sympathizers to swell, then so be it. They will be killed as well. There will always be plenty of Hellfire missiles to go around, so long as someone profits from their production. Many people have issued warnings about what has grown to be the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. I would suggest that we have now moved beyond oligarchy and plutocracy to something closer to necrocracy: rule by death.

Not satisfied with simply eliminating the architects of 9/11, the Pentagon continues to cast about for more and more people to kill. Why? Because that’s what they do: kill people. Hackers? Been there, done that. Who will be next? Antiwar protestors? Or perhaps they’ll come over to William Bradford’s way of seeing things and target legal scholars who step out of line.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 5: Strike First, Suppress Questions Later; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; Chapter 10: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do

The Lethal Drone Industry Cluster Bomb Effect


The lethal drone industry is beginning to exhibit effects not unlike those of a cluster bomb, which releases deadly bomblets from a central core. Two core nations started it all, the United States and Israel, by developing and deploying UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) to kill their declared enemies—or not, in the case of unnamed persons taken out for behaving suspiciously or being in the company of other people regarded as suspicious.

The full economic force of the drone industry boom is everywhere on display—perhaps most graphically at the recent arms trade fair in London—and lots of other governments want in on the game. In emulation of the US executive, British Prime Minister David Cameron recently “took out” two British nationals in Syria. In all honesty, would he ever have done so, if Barack Obama had not authorized the execution of Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen back in 2011? It seems highly unlikely. In Britain, lest we forget, capital punishment is illegal. It is also forbidden by the Charter of the European Union. Is Brexit, then, imminent? Perhaps. For now, Cameron and his cronies will continue to insist that “This is war.” The sophomoric assumption appears to be that missiles are used only in acts of war, unlike strangulation wires and poisons, which are used in acts of assassination or extrajudicial killing.

It seems unlikely that the British Parliament will permit their new drone warrior overlord to “splash” unarmed British nationals on British soil. Even the US government has acknowledged that they cannot dispatch unarmed US citizens on US soil. Why nationals should be more dangerous on foreign soil than in the homeland remains to be explained.

The truth, I am afraid, is that summary execution without trial is simply much easier to get away with in places on the other side of the planet. Who can really say what transpired, whether it was indeed a last resort, whether capture was truly “infeasible”? The killers pen the short story of what was done, with evidential details withheld under State Secrets Privilege. “The official (short) story” is then reaffirmed by media parrots, producing a perfect piece of political theater. The populace and pundits join in as the chorus expressing gratitude to their leaders for protecting all good people by taking the battle to the evil enemy abroad.

The acquisition of lethal drones has become even more politically worrisome in other lands. Nigeria has used lethal drones against Nigerians on Nigerian soil; Pakistan has used lethal drones against Pakistanis on Pakistani soil. The drone “warriors” in these countries, like David Cameron, have emulated the US government, which used lethal drones against US citizens, albeit far from the homeland.

Now the cluster bomb-like effect of what started out as “targeted killing” in the declared war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, claimed to be necessary in contending with “insurgents” (which were conflated with “evil terrorists”), is becoming and more marked. The latest reported lethal drone acquisition is by India from Israel. What will India do with its lethal drones? Would Pakistan permit the Indian government to kill freely in Pakistani territories? That seems unlikely, given the danger of sparking a nuclear conflagration.

Much more likely will be the use of their new toys by the Indian government against Indian nationals on Indian soil. History attests that leaders find the use of military power once acquired nearly irresistible. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright phrased the question, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” The possession of lethal drones leads directly to the penning of kill lists, and kill lists lead to longer kill lists, as suspects’ contacts are mined.

There is a disturbing pattern here. The use of lethal drones snuck in the back door as a counterterrorism measure. The practice was never debated in any hall of congress. The US and Israeli executives merely decreed the right to dispatch suspects by remote control. With the spread of these new “tools” around the globe, targeted killing is bound to be used by more and more governments against their own citizens in acts of summary execution without trial.

Lethal drones provide leaders with the power of a tyrant to take human life at their caprice. With the capacity to kill by remote control, political reality can be frozen in place by eliminating the very possibility of dissent. Democratic reform can easily be blocked by denigrating all dissidents, armed and unarmed alike, as terrorists and lighting them up with Hellfire missiles.

How will Western governments such as those of the United States and Britain ever be able to complain? In addition to serving as the role models for this mode of conflict resolution, they furnish the technology which makes it possible through the lucrative arms trade.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 10: Death and Politics; Chapter 11: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

“The Drone Queen”: Carrie Mathison in Homeland season 4, episodes 1-6


NB: Spoiler alert!!!!!!

Having renounced network television last century out of a mixture of boredom and disgust, I viewed the first three seasons of Homeland on DVDs checked out from the public library. That is how I have watched all of the “big” television productions of the twenty-first century: The Wire, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, MI5 (Spooks), and others, with no doubt more to come. Not every boxed set makes the cut, of course. I axed Oz and others early on (not sure yet whether I’ll be returning to Breaking Bad…). Apologies to devoted fans of Downton Abbey, but I threw in the tea towel near the end of season 3. The disappointments have not diminished my faith that future quality productions will achieve the heights of HBO’s finest fare and be worthy of my time.

Despite Homeland’s evident popularity and inadvertent endorsement by President Obama, who reportedly watches the show (perhaps fishing for foreign policy ideas?), this production, from Showtime, is not in my estimation top-tier. The gaping logical holes with which the plot is riddled make it sometimes a tough slog. The worst of the worst was the dirty trick in season 3 played on viewers—major spoiler alert!—who are asked to believe that Carrie’s neglect of her meds and subsequent institutionalization for an entire month were all a part of an elaborate and ingenious scheme, even when she feigned outrage while sitting before her television all alone watching her discreditation nationally broadcast. Problem: the inchoate ruse could not have lured the Iranians into bugging Carrie’s apartment before the ruse! In reality, she would not have needed to playact any outrage at all while sitting all alone within the privacy of her own home. Indeed, she should have been smiling with glee.

Notwithstanding such preposterousness, I stuck it out through the bitter end of season 3 because of my special interest in the subject matter: the CIA’s big and ugly role in the war on terror. When Carrie Mathison made ridiculous blunders of tradecraft, such as sneakily effecting a mirrored compact switcheroo with Lynne Reed before proceeding to speak with her à haute voix in the middle of a public place in graphic detail about the asset’s coming mission, I told my ever-charitable self that such incompetence could be read as a subtle critique of the CIA. Were the producers not intimating that the people who work for this organization may be marginally smarter than the average person walking down the street, but they are also a lot more concerned with their careers and success in contemporary society?

This explanation for Carrie’s questionable competence may have the added virtue of being true: given the historical record, it is quite plausible that many intelligence agents’ aspirations far exceed their talents. (See Timothy Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA for much, much more on this topic, with examples drawn from reality—not made up for the pleasure of Showtime viewers!) The tangible advantage of spies derives not, as they may wish to believe, from their scintillating intelligence but from their capacity to act with impunity under cover of State Secrets Privilege. To err is human, so Mistakes are made, but the victims end up written off as natural deaths or accidents. Even in the best case scenario, when those sacrificed are US government employees, they wind up as anonymous stars on the wall at Langley. Whoops. Oh well, another person (or dozen!) bites the dust thanks to yet another of the caustic incompetence agency’s “brilliant” schemes.

With the ghastly demise at the end of season 3 of Sergeant Nicholas Brody, who was executed by hanging—ostensibly by the Iranian government but essentially at the US government’s request—I was not at all sure that I’d be taking up Homeland season 4. Having now discovered that these twelve episodes are all about lethal drones, I feel obliged to see the series through to the end, come what may. I have been immeasurably enabled in this quest by Soho-pop up (available at the place where I am staying in New Zealand), which is binge broadcasting the complete series of Homeland before season five begins in October. The whole shebang, from season 1, episode 1, through season 4, episode 12, lasts only twenty-four evenings!

I cannot say that the loss of Nicholas Brody from Homeland was anywhere near as devastating as the departure of Stringer Bell from the end of season 3 of The Wire—Damien Lewis is no Idris Elba—but there was a considerably more horrific quality to Brody’s exit. Watching him slowly strangle to death dangling from a noose before a hate-spewing crowd was repulsive in its own right, but the reason for his death was also pretty tough to stomach. According to a superficial reading of the script, Brody’s sacrifice was “necessary” to eventually be able to achieve a détente with Iran over their nuclear program. In reality, there were plenty of other ways to achieve a more normal relationship with Iran, as the recently concluded negotiations in reality have revealed.

Brody’s death was instead symbolic. He was killed, in effect, for having considered blowing up a group of political elites responsible for sowing endless misery and death abroad. The former marine had been persuaded to believe that he should carry out an act of revenge on behalf of innocent victims killed in the US drone wars. During his time as a prisoner of war over eight grueling years, he had been indoctrinated (by Abu Nazir, his captor) to believe that he needed to avenge the deaths of 82 children killed in a drone strike authorized by the man whom Brody intended above all to kill, the vice president of the United States. One of the children had become near and dear to the prisoner, who had been serving as the boy’s English tutor. The boy, Issa, was also Abu Nazir’s son.

In fact, the reason for Brody’s plan to assassinate the group of political elites was virtually indistinguishable, in moral terms, from the logic driving two full-scale wars and occupations in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The warmongers and terrorists alike all believe that something must be done, that the acts of homicide committed by their enemies cannot go unanswered. Both resolve to retaliate, not by singling out the individual perpetrators, but by shooting in the dark, using any and every available means.

Sergeant Brody did not go through with the plan, although he did eventually manage to aid and abet the killing of Vice President Walden, who had ordered the drone strike on the school even while knowing that children would be killed. Walden had reasoned to the other members of the “kill committee” in the room—as sanguinary technocrats always do—that if any innocent people were killed, that would only be because the evil terrorists had evilly embedded themselves among civilians.

The deaths in such cases are invariably written off as “collateral damage” and regarded as nowhere near excessive, given the intended über-evil high-value target of the strike. The right to launch missiles against civilian targets in their homelands is blithely assumed by US elites, who claim to be acting in the defense of their own compatriots, located thousands of miles away. “Why do they hate us?” I’m afraid that it does not take a foreign policy genius to answer that question. It does require a modicum of common sense, which, alas, is not so common among the people who run the drone program.

Fast-forward to the end of season 3. Brody is dead, and Carrie Mathison—who does not lie when she tells a protégé that recruitment is “seduction”—is pregnant with Brody’s child. She has second thoughts about the pregnancy rather late in the day, around her eight month, but in the end decides to keep the child—or so it seems…

Season 4 begins with Carrie working not as the station chief in relatively pastoral Istanbul, as she had been promised at the end of season 3, but in Kabul, a war zone where children are not allowed. Because Carrie’s career comes before all else, her sister is now in the position of having to care for the baby back home. In some ways, this seems unsurprising. Throughout the entire story of Homeland, beginning with day one of episode one of season one, Carrie Mathison has been a mess. Indeed, this is a rare case where I would be willing to go so far as to wield the phrase hot mess.

She suffers from a bipolar personality disorder which she manages through the use of clozapine, a drug which for years she has been procuring illegally from her sister, a medical doctor. The reason why Carrie has hidden the truth about her “illness” is because she would not be allowed to work in sensitive intelligence matters and would indeed lose her security clearance if anyone found out. Except of course that they do, and she doesn’t. Even lithium gets thrown into the mix and nobody bats an eye! (Lest anyone forget: when Tony Soprano’s therapist, Dr. Melfi, decided to supplement his Prozac with Lithium, he came to believe that his hallucinations were real.) No, Carrie Mathison continues to work for the CIA through thick and thin, ‘til death do she and every person she recruits depart. Lynne Reed? The professional girlfriend of a Saudi prince? Whoops. Nicholas Brody? The war hero and former POW? Whoops. A Pakistani medical student whom Carrie seduces to lead her to an evil terrorist who was supposed to be present at the wedding disrupted by a Hellfire missile launched under her authority? Whoops.

Carrie’s sister gets to change the diapers of the red-haired Brody baby and supply her sister with drugs. Meanwhile “The Drone Queen”, as she has been christened by her comrades, spends her work days “making the call” from a command center in a secure bunker. Carrie Mathison, a career CIA professional with analogues in reality, has been conferred the authority to decide when Hellfire missiles should be launched to extirpate evil terrorists from the face of the earth, and how much collateral damage is “reasonable”.

She is ruthless and singleminded in her quest to eliminate evil. She is also clueless when it comes to the beauty and goodness which she is ready and willing to destroy at the very same time. Terrorists to Carrie are the most important persons in the universe. If killing them requires annihilating countless people who might have gone on to become great forces of good in the world, had they not been “lit up”, then so be it. In fact, that possibility simply does not register in her mind. People are either evil, or they are expendable. There is no place in Carrie’s anthropology for sources of positive morality and value. The world is black and white for Carrie Mathison. There are no shades of gray, much less color.


No matter that Carrie’s brain has become infused with so many chemicals that it is hard to believe that she can even remember her name. In addition to both clozapine and lithium, in season 4, Carrie is now also taking clonazepam, nortriptyline, and Ambien. All of these pills are washed down with huge gulps of Chardonnay swallowed from mega-goblets. The woman’s brain is literally saturated with psychotropic substances, and yet she is still being allowed to “make the call”, to order drone strikes when she deems fit. This authority has been delegated to her by the director of the CIA, who in turn has been delegated the authority by the president of the United States. In the just war tradition, the “legitimate authority” has been specially selected by God almighty to decide whom to kill, where and why, in “wars” which he (God’s delegate) deems to be just.

In some ways, Carrie’s addled psychological state merely muddies the moral waters of what could otherwise be an incisive critique of the drone program. The questions raised throughout Homeland about the authority to kill and the alleged necessity of doing so, as determined by the CIA, are all valid questions in their own right. We don’t really need to have the complicating factor thrown in that Carrie Mathison is a walking medicine chest.

The problems with what Carrie, “The Drone Queen”, is doing are much more general, and apply to every person involved in the drone program. What is the CIA doing in other countries killing people who never set foot in the United States and never would have, even if they had been permitted to live? What is most interesting about the constructed character of Carrie Mathison is that her pathological state perfectly reflects what has become akin to an institutional pathology verging on paranoia.

A small group of men planned and carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001. Since then, people who look like those men, but otherwise bear very little similarity to them, have been systematically hunted down and killed in the name of national defense. Along the way, plenty of other people have also been destroyed, and the members of every community over which lethal drones lurk have been terrorized. Strategy has been supplanted by crude and savage tactics. What’s worse, those tactics are manifestly counterproductive, as the surging ranks of ISIS in Iraq and Syria attest. Jihadists often claim to have been specifically galvanized to act in retaliation to US drone strikes.

Homeland makes an admirable effort to show both sides of the conflict, offering pithy and fully comprehensible monologues from the terrorists permitted to explain the injustice of what is being done to their people. None of their words, however, are capable of shaking the steadfast determination of Carrie Mathison and her ilk, who have killed so many people that they could not possibly own up to the magnitude of their mistake.

The institutional killing program continues to expand as more and more people complicit seek to prove to themselves that what they have already done is right. Only the most courageous of perpetrators are capable of facing up to the enormity of this type of error. Bureaucrats do not typically number among them, and yet bureaucrats call the shots. Literally, in the drone program.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion

Bribery and the Unraveling of Moral Fiber in the Drone Age, Part II: “Compensated” Survivors

Part I: The Perps


The vast majority of the bereft survivors of US drone strikes are never acknowledged. On rare occasions, the US government has attempted to offer money to compensate for the loss of innocent life. When it became undeniable that harmless civilians were annihilated en route to a wedding in Yemen on December 12, 2013, $800,000 was delivered anonymously to the bereft survivors. Faisal bin Ali Jaber, two of whose family members were destroyed in a separate strike, also in Yemen, describes the $100,000 which he was given as “blood money”. The intention is clear: to admit without admitting that these people have been wronged and hope that through this gesture they will be persuaded not to press the matter further.

I have sometimes pondered whether this may have happened in the case of Nasser al-Awlaki, who lost not only his son, Anwar, but also his grandson, Abdulrahman, both US citizens, to drone strikes. For years, the outspoken senior Al-Awlaki pursued legal channels to oppose the US government’s plan to execute his son without trial. When the nightmare finally came to pass, the grieving father mysteriously dropped the lawsuit, even though what transpired was far worse than what he had feared. Both his son and his grandson were destroyed by Predator drones, in strikes separated by only two weeks.

Why did Nasser al-Awlaki abandon his lawsuit against the US government rather than appeal its disappointing outcome? The official line is that he became “disillusioned” with or “lost faith” in the system. Would that not be a reason to press on for justice? If in fact he stopped pressing the case because he was “compensated” with a large sum of cash in exchange for agreeing to drop the lawsuit, then I’m afraid that he, too, was bribed.

It is impossible to fathom the profound sorrow which this man has endured. I am deeply sorry for his loss and do not fault him for giving up out of despair, if that is what he did. My intention is only to illuminate the phenomenon of bribery and its key role in both prosecuting and perpetuating the US drone program. Declining to challenge these actions leads to the commission of many more, most of the victims of which are never even acknowledged. By accepting “blood money”, bereft survivors tacitly accept the program through which many wives dependent upon their husbands for support have been rendered widows, and their children fatherless.

The reasoning on the part of the grieving persons who accede is easy enough to understand: nothing will or can ever bring back the loved ones killed, but at least life can be made a bit easier to bear with some extra cash on hand. Nonetheless, anyone who agrees to stop talking about the wrong done to them and their missing relatives in exchange for money has been bought, and sadly ends by condoning a fundamentally unjust program of summary execution. The presumption of innocence has been replaced by a presumption of guilt, provided only that the suspect is a brown-skinned male of military age unfortunate enough to be situated in a territory deemed ‘hostile’ by the current “kill committee”. What’s more, countless entirely innocent people not even suspected of wrongdoing are being continuously terrorized by the threat of death hovering above their heads.

Bribery is a way of getting what one wants but at the price of people’s integrity. Only a few brave souls have inveighed against the insulting suggestion that the slaughter of their loved ones can somehow be forgotten, if only they are given a large enough bag of money. When bereft survivors succumb to the lure of bribes, the moral degeneracy and banality of killing in full evidence among analysts and operators come to be shared and transmitted to people who truly oppose what is being done. Those who agree to suffer in silence in exchange for remuneration inadvertently support the very program through which they themselves have been wronged.

It is important to acknowledge here as well that some of the people on the ground have also been threatened with harm if they speak about the events which they have witnessed and through which they have been victimized. The persons thus threatened are acting prudentially in declining to speak out about the crimes.

As a result of this elaborate system of “carrots and sticks”, the aptly named “killing machine” forges on, generating more and more victims, in part because there have not been enough people to stand up and say “No!” Of course, some of the persons living under drones who refuse to prostrate themselves before the killers of their community members decide to take action by allying themselves with violent dissident groups to undertake jihad in what become campaigns of revenge.

Both the jihadis and the “compensated” but silenced victims ensure in this way that the Global War on Terror will continue on. New “No 2” factional leaders emerge as others are dispatched because some among these people will not agree to pretend that what is obviously wrong is not wrong. Therein lies the appeal of terrorist groups for young people who have yet to be corrupted. They are angry at what they have seen and feel that they must fight back. They take up the jihad cause and pledge not to relent until the slaughter stops. They are ready and willing to die in the process.

Unfortunately, the new converts to violent extremist groups—Al Qaeda, ISIS, AQAP, whatever label they adopt—too, perpetuate the cycle of moral corruption and violence by fighting fire with fire. Righteous anger has impelled these people, many of whom were children on September 11, 2001, to take up arms, and more and more of them continue to be executed under the assumption that terrorists can be killed faster than they emerge, which is obviously false, given the recent spread of ISIS throughout Syria and Iraq. The slaughter of so many courageous and talented young people, who have been lured to associate with terrorist groups out of righteous anger over what is being done to their communities, is both a human and a moral tragedy.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; Chapter 6: The New Banality of Killing; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do

Drone Swarms Now Ready to Deploy: How will they be used by the US Military?


The first swarm of fifty drones managed by a single operator was successfully tested this past week. “Gee, that’s neat.” Techies seem pretty excited about the news. Others might wonder: “Why would anyone want to launch and manage fifty drones simultaneously?”

Swarms have been developed for the US Navy and are touted as important for providing 360 degree situational awareness in the theater of combat. Of course, today’s “no boots battlefields” have no US soldiers on them at all. In fact, one of the main reasons for the development of robotic and semi-robotic means of warfare is to spare human soldiers the risk of death.

The most likely immediate application of these new swarms will therefore be to have them sweep in and provide a better look at the buildings and groups about to be taken out by missiles launched from larger drones. Perhaps they will offer badly needed assistance in avoiding the slaughter of women, children, and hostages. Unfortunately, greater “situational awareness” will do nothing to circumvent the problem of distinguishing innocent suspects from empirically indistinguishable evil terrorists.

The current approach, simply defining all military-age males as fair game for slaughter, ignores the possibility of nonthreatening men such as journalists, doctors, farmers, storekeepers, teachers, and many others, in so-called hostile areas. The assumption appears to be that all of those men are leading dual lives. Deep down inside, they must all terrorists. Why else would they be located in hostile territories?

The journalists who courageously penetrate these areas to investigate the depredation caused by drone strikes are all propagandists and “Al Qaeda media fronts”. The farmers and shopkeepers are “associates” who feed the terrorists. The doctors are “associates” who treat the terrorists. The teachers are “associates” who recruit children to take up the jihad cause, often to avenge the deaths of their fathers “splashed” by Hellfire missiles.

Previous generations of drones were not initially weaponized, but later they came to be. Given the lethal centrism of the US government, the next logical step for swarms will be to weaponize them for combat deployment. Now that the killing of human beings is sought as an end in itself, and a “take no prisoners” stance has been wholeheartedly embraced by political elites, it’s hard to believe that swarms will not be armed and deployed to kill. The only real question is: How?

The size of Zephyr drones is quite small relative to the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones, to which Hellfire missiles are conveniently affixed. Will tiny micro-missiles be developed? Or will swarms be weaponized to disperse chemicals or perhaps cluster bombs? The sky is the limit, given the development of so many creative means of homicide by the ever-innovative weapons industry. Configurationally, drone swarms bear some similarity to cluster bombs, which fire deadly chain-reaction munitions over large areas, killing or maiming numerous people with a single launch. Perhaps the swarms will be weaponized with chemical agents of some sort.

Whatever the ammunition to be fired from swarms of drones, it seems safe to say that somewhere in the dark entrails of DARP someone with a hefty grant is working on it right now. About the lethal future of drone swarms, there can be little doubt.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; and Chapter 11: Death and Taxes

Is Germany Still a Member of the European Union? The Case of Ramstein Air Force Base

Germany houses Ramstein Air Force Base, from which lethal drone strikes have been and continue to be carried out by the US government in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among other places. Why is this problematic? First, because Hellfire missiles launched from drones are being used to eliminate persons in lands where war was never waged, in violation of the United Nations Charter, which requires that member states secure the approval of the Security Council before penetrating the territory of a sovereign nation with the weapons of war.

Until the recent coup in Yemen and the resultant chaos—arguably precipitated by the US drone program—most of the missiles there were being fired at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), an ostensibly civilian, not military organization. Only this past weekend, four more unnamed “suspected Al Qaeda members” were taken out by a US drone in Jawf province, in the southern part of Yemen. The deaths in such cases—whether of suspects or so-called collateral damage—are by all appearances extrajudicial executions, what in the twentieth-century would have been carried out covertly, in black ops. Only in the Drone Age has assassination been rebranded as an act of war, in an unfortunate frenzy on the part of US policy makers to appear strong in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

We now know that many of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay were innocent. They were rounded up as terrorist suspects, but later determined not to have been terrorists at all. The Bush administration “tortured some folks,” as Obama put it, and he vowed to call a halt to the mistreatment of detainees. This was accomplished, remarkably, by ceasing altogether to take any prisoners in territories deemed hostile, opting instead to kill them all. US administrators infamously decreed that due process and judicial process are not one and the same and proceeded to act according to a new principle, “kill don’t capture”, under the obviously erroneous assumption (given the findings at Guantánamo Bay) that all terrorist suspects are in fact terrorists.

In none of the drone killings have the suspects been granted, as is required by Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the opportunity to defend themselves against the determination by the reigning “kill committee” that they deserve to die. According to the Department of Justice White Paper, US citizens intentionally killed in drone strikes, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, who was annihilated in Yemen on September 30, 2011, are not denied “due process”, even when they have never been indicted for crimes, much less allowed to stand trial.

US officials have also insisted that the strikes are permitted under Article 51, the self-defense clause, of the UN Charter. However, that the strikes in Yemen have been acts of self-defense is belied by the fact that, until 2015, the US government sought the permission of the central government before killing on Yemen soil. No political leader can grant or withhold an inherent right to self-defense.


The complicity of Germany in such extrajudicial executions bears special scrutiny. Even if the executions from Ramstein Air Force Base had been carried out at the conclusion of a robust judicial process, fully respecting the rights of the suspects, the European Union prohibits its members from imposing the death penalty even on convicted murderers. In other words, Germany, by permitting such acts of killing to be carried out from German soil, would seem to be violating the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights, which clearly states in Chapter 1, Article 2(2):

No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed.

The statement is categorical. There are no exceptions. It does not say

No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed, except by remote-control.


No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed, except when deemed worthy of death by the US government.


No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed, except when accidentally killed by the US government as they attempt to kill somebody else.

Three plaintiffs recently filed a suit alleging Germany’s culpability in the drone killing in Yemen of two innocent men, Salim bin Ali Jaber and Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber. The plaintiffs argued that Ramstein Air Force Base, located on German soil, is an integral part of the US “kill chain”, without which the victims would not have been slain.

The judge sided with the German government, which argued that it cannot control what other sovereign nations do. But is this true? Is it right? If Germany has granted the US government to operate on German soil, does this imply that within the space where they operate “Everything is permitted”? That sounds like a non sequitur to me. The judge in the case, Hildegund Caspari-Wierzoch, stated that the plaintiffs are welcome to appeal the case, and it appears that they intend to do so.

If the United States has committed war crimes in Yemen, and they were perpetrated from German soil, then the German government was a culpable collaborator. The only way to avoid such complicity would be to expel the wrongdoers or prohibit them from violating international law while operating in Germany.

Does anyone deny that the Vichy regime was complicit in the crimes committed on French soil by the Third Reich? The cases are not so very different, it seems to me.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 2: From Black Ops to Standard Operating Procedure; Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; and Chapter 12: Tyrants Are As Tyrants Do

It’s Official: David Cameron is now Barack Obama’s Poodle

By ordering drone strikes against British nationals, Prime Minister David Cameron has followed in the ignominious footsteps of Tony Blair by effectively becoming the “poodle” of the current US president. Blair notoriously went along with the Bush administration scheme to wage a preemptive war against a sovereign nation at peace in 2003, violating international law, directly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the exodus of millions of others, and wrecking Iraq, which remains in shambles still today.

Self-styled “drone warrior” Obama’s signature policy, “Kill don’t capture”, was implemented when he found it politically difficult to house detainees suspected of complicity in terrorism. Never troubled by the high proportion of innocent suspects found among the men imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Obama decided to deal with the problem of suspects “lawyering up”—as former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney used to say—by killing them all, and inverting the burden of proof.

Terrorist suspects, in the Obama administration world view, are guilty until proven innocent, which no one is able to do pre-posthumously because targets are not informed that their names have been placed on secret kill lists. The Obama approach is slick, simple and politically satisfying: light them up with a Hellfire missile! No more embarrassing human rights issues arise over detainees mistreated and held without charges. No more nagging lawyers, no more hunger strikes.

Not content with simply “taking out” suspected militants/insurgents/terrorists (all of which have been conflated for years, following Bush) in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya, where war was never formally waged, Obama went one step further. He authorized the extrajudicial execution of Anwar al-Awlaki and other US nationals, including Al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was assassinated two weeks after his father. According to bureaucratically crafted rules of engagement (ROE), Abdulrahman was a “military-age male” and therefore fair game for slaughter in any territory labeled “hostile” by the “kill committee”. Painting himself as “strong on defense,” Obama proudly revealed himself to be a member of that committee during his 2012 election campaign.


British Prime Minister David Cameron has consistently stood by Obama during his various bellicose initiatives. Cameron was ready and willing to support Obama when he called for war on the Syrian government in 2013, and then again on the Syrian government’s worst enemies (ISIS) in 2014.

DavidCameronPoodleHowever, Cameron no longer simply applauds the Obama administration’s calls for war, including the drone strikes used to dispatch suspects who might possibly pose an imminent danger (though it need not be immediate). Now Cameron, too, selects British citizens for summary execution according to unknown criteria determined in secret proceedings, all said to be necessary for state security. Cameron, who authorized the drone killing by the RAF of Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan, is now a card-carrying member of the “kill committee”.

And, yes, Barack Obama’s poodle.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 5: Strike First, Ask Questions Later; Chapter 6: The New Banality of Killing; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

Pakistan “Kill Committee” Office Now Open for Business on “Terror Tuesdays”

The US government has been dispatching people in Pakistan for years now, both in JSOC raids—as in May 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed—and in drone strikes. Now the Pakistan government has decided to form its own “Kill Committee” and execute suspects without trial, following its role model, the US government.

Is it war? That’s supposed to be the pretext for drone strikes. “This is war.” It starts to look much closer to extrajudicial execution when citizens are “taken out” by their very own government, as were Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan (and Al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, two weeks later) on Yemeni soil during the fall of 2011. The claim by government officials is that killing becomes permissible when capture is not possible.

When a home government such as Pakistan opts to eliminate people on sovereign soil using drones, what can the rationalization be? How can it be the case that capture is impossible? The security forces, the army, the police, all a part of the Pakistan government, are there, ready and willing to be deployed. Under such circumstances, to call a drone strike “necessary” on domestic soil becomes even less plausible than when the US government opted to kill rather than capture citizens located abroad.


And so the ugly legacy of Barack Obama continues to unfold. Not long ago, the Nigerian government was reported to be using lethal drones in Nigeria to take out whoever their “Kill Committee” deemed fair game. Now the Pakistan government is doing the same. All of this was entirely predictable to anyone with a modicum of an understanding of history and, in particular, the precedent set by the United States in matters military. The peace and security of the people of more and more countries are being undermined by weaponized drones flying over their heads and threatening death from above.

What’s more, in the Drone Age, the people in the corners of the world in most need of political change will be the least likely ever to achieve it. How can democratic reform of a country possibly succeed, when the reigning regime possesses the power and the blessing of the US government to follow in its stead by summarily executing anyone it deems to have stepped out of line?


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 6: The New Banality of Killing; Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

The simple, one-size-fits-all principle of US foreign policy

I’ll never forget the evening of September 10, 2014, when I googled to find Obama’s public address calling for war on ISIS in Syria. I accidentally pulled up his address from September 11, 2013, and was trying to understand it. After a few minutes, I realized my mistake: I was watching the speech where Obama was calling for war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, not his most fearsome opponents.

September 11, 2013, speech:

September 10, 2014, speech:

After watching both short YouTube films of the 2013 and the 2014 speeches consecutively, I came up with this simple theory of US foreign policy:

If X, then bomb. If not-X, then bomb. Therefore, bomb.

Recall the Bush principle according to which X & not-X are mutually exclusive and exhaustive:

You’re either with us, or you’re with them.

All of this translates as follows in the current Syria crisis, where X = pro-Assad

If pro-Assad, then bomb. If anti-Assad, then bomb. Therefore, bomb.

The last time Obama called for war against the Syrian government, Raytheon stock jumped 20% over the course of a few days. I’m sure that the company execs will be happy with whatever pretext is offered next.

As for the people of Syria trapped in the midst of this quagmire? Refugees are understandably flowing in a steady stream to Europe, despite the mainstream media’s insistence over the past year that evil ISIS was luring new converts, both Americans and Europeans, to join the cause and strike in the West. Political leaders who support laying Syria to waste in a scenario starting to look more and more like Fallujah don’t really have answers to the question what to do when all of the Middle East has been evacuated because of Western bombing.

Can anyone truly deny that the record of this approach to US foreign policy is abysmal? Witness: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. Next up: Syria.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 9: Death and Politics