What’s worse than the Department of PreCrime? The US Drone Program

MinorityReport

I have seen Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report mentioned in the writings of a few different people, so when the opportunity presented itself to me recently, I decided to find out why it is still being talked about 14 years after its release. Not being much for science fiction, it’s not surprising that I did not see the film back when it first came out. Added to that, some fairly dramatic events took place in 2002. Most obviously, a concerted propaganda campaign was launched by the US government in the run-up to its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Remarkably, some people, in a post-9/11 cognitive fog, were persuaded to believe that Saddam Hussein not only possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but was poised to transfer them to Osama bin Laden and his buddies in Al Qaeda.

Around that same time, on November 3, 2002, the Drone Age effectively began with the CIA’s extrajudicial execution of six men driving down a road in Yemen using a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator drone. The act went virtually unquestioned and was praised by nearly everyone who heard about it, having been told that the US government was working hard to keep all of us safe.

Since 2002, the line between science fiction and reality has become thinner and thinner with the rapid proliferation and refinement of automated systems in an inexorable quest to produce more and more lethal weapons ever faster—and to export them all over the world. The fact that lethality has not worked to stop terrorism is matter-of-factly accepted by most lawmakers as evidence that we need to kill even more. Meanwhile, the morass of moral questions raised by the remote-control assassination of persons suspected of possibly conspiring to carry out future terrorist attacks continues to be ignored. Now homicide is being committed in apparently good conscience all over the Middle East and in Africa, too, by many different parties, under bogus pretexts of national defense, and in spite of the fact that the world has grown more, not less, dangerous since the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began.

The story of Minority Report is set in 2054 and involves a police officer who works in the PreCrime Department, the mission of which is to determine who is going to commit a murder in the near future, so that they can be arrested and incarcerated before they do. The primary philosophical question raised by the film is free will versus determinism. Do human beings choose to do what they do? Can they alter their choices, by sheer act of will, so as to follow a different trajectory than what might have seemed to be the path dictated by fate?

In Minority Report, the persons who are being arrested and locked up on suspicion for future crimes are said to be known to be future murderers. If the police did not intervene, then the suspects would indeed commit murder–or so the program executors claim. People believe the administrators—touted as heroes—because the pilot PreCrime program has proven to be a resounding success. In six years, murder in the Washington, DC, area has come to a lurching halt.

Precog

The details of how the murders will be carried out—if nothing is done to stop the would-be perpetrators—are derived from mental images conjured by PreCogs, which are akin to humanoid psychics of sorts, with the notable distinction that they are said to be infallible. If the three PreCogs identify a person as a future murderer, then he is. The PreCogs do not make mistakes. They have never been wrong!  is the PreCrime company line. Given the undeniable success of the pilot program, a new campaign is underway to expand the initiative so that murder can be eradicated from all cities everywhere.

Whatever may be one’s feelings on the question of free will versus determinism, which philosophers have been arguing about for millennia, there are a number of complicating epistemological factors to the story—as there always are in reality. Once Police Chief John Anderton (the Tom Cruise character) appears to be framed for a future murder, he begins to investigate the “scientific” basis of the program and discovers that the simple success story fed to the public is a pleasing fiction used to garner support for the PreCrime initiative.

Anderton, who is a true believer and enthusiastic program advocate up until his own liberty is jeopardized, discovers that the program administrators have carefully hidden a key feature of the process by which the PreCog unanimity is achieved: whenever one of the three PreCogs (the most “gifted” of the three, Agatha), disagrees with the interpretation of the images shared by the other two PreCogs, her “Minority Report” is destroyed. The PreCogs appear to agree on the final verdict of the future criminal’s guilt because the dissenting opinion has been erased!

PrecogAgatha

Given how the apparent “unanimity” is in fact achieved, there is a very real chance that some of the people who have been arrested and incarcerated for future murders were not really going to commit the murder after all. It seemed as though they were going to, but a closer look, a different perspective on the visual data, would reveal that in fact they would never have committed the murder, had they been permitted to carry on with their lives uninterrupted by the police. As a result, some of the people locked up are in fact innocent. The program administrators who know the truth may be of a utilitarian bent, believing that the sacrifice of a few souls is perfectly acceptable in the quest to defend everybody else. Or perhaps they are simply amoral agents who seek success in society as their highest goal and will do any- and everything to protect their own reputation.

I do not want to go into too much more detail about Minority Report, because the film is long and labyrinthine, with many characters and subplots, and I am not prepared to recommend that anyone watch it for any reason other than the philosophical questions which it raises. What I would like to do instead is to consider how the US Drone Program, which exists in reality, differs from the Department of PreCrime, a science fiction creation based on a short story by Philip K. Dick.

  1. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the PreCrime Program, the persons thought by analysts to be planning to commit possible future terrorist acts are not arrested and incarcerated but incinerated.
  2. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the Department of PreCrime, the evidence is not subject to review by anyone but the people who decide whom to kill.
  3. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the Department of PreCrime, the persons targeted for elimination do not usually have known identities. In many cases, they have no names associated with them.
  4. In the Drone Program, as opposed to PreCrime Program, targets are identified by behaviors said to match a “disposition matrix” of known terrorist behaviors. It is not that they have been witnessed perpetrating a crime, but that they “walk the terrorist walk”. They turn out nearly always to be brown-skinned Muslims.
  5. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the PreCrime Program, hearsay and circumstantial evidence are used exhaustively as the basis for ending not only suspects’ lives, but also the lives of people associated with them, including family and community members.
  6. In the Drone Program, the evidence used to “convict” the suspects is both generated and assessed by the same analysts. In the PreCrime Program, the PreCogs provide an independent source of evidence, which, while fallible, is not subject to mercenary corruption. In stark contrast, HUMINT or human intelligence is derived from paid informants, and the analysts who compile kill lists are rewarded financially for finding people to kill. “Successful strikes” are confirmed on the ground by the very locals who provided the HUMINT leading up to the strikes.
  7. In the Drone Program, when missiles are fired from drones, all of the inhabitants of the area under fire are simultaneously terrorized because they do not know who or why individuals have been singled out for death. In the PreCrime Program, when suspects are apprehended, it is a standard police operation. The persons sought are not being executed on the spot, which means that persons who happen to be located nearby are not inadvertently threatened with death at the same time.
  8. The PreCrime Program has eliminated the problem of murder at the price of the wrongful incarceration of some of the suspects. The Drone Program, in stark contrast, has only caused the problem of terrorism to expand over ever vaster expanses of land. ISIS, once a minor force in Iraq, has spread to Syria and Libya. Drones were fired on Yemen for many years, culminating in civil war, and now the US government has sent combat soldiers to that land as well, proof positive that lethal drones made the problem worse rather than better.
  9. In May 2013, President Barack Obama announced that missiles were fired on targets only when there was “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed. In early 2016, the Pentagon announced that the magnitude of acceptable “collateral damage” had been increased for strikes aiming at ISIS members. Innocent people are being knowingly sacrificed in the process of targeting persons believed to be guilty but who in some cases are militants with no international aspirations whatsoever.
  10. In the PreCrime Program, the persons apprehended falsely, being alive, retain the possibility of exoneration once the truth about the fallibility of the PreCogs is revealed. No such possibility exists for the victims of the US Drone Program.

Technology has come to dictate policy like never before in history thanks to the effusive enthusiasm of leaders such as President Barack Obama, the first self-styled “Drone Warrior”. Unfortunately, the blind worship of technology has led to the mass homicide of thousands of human beings who would not have been killed in centuries past. But rather than being “smart war”, the Drone Program has proven to be quite dumb. It has failed to stabilize any of the countries in which it has been deployed: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Syria all lie in shambles. “No Boots” Obama has now forsaken even his promise not to send combat troops into many of these places. But rather than draw the logical conclusion, that the Drone Program is an abject failure, the killing machine has cranked into high gear, slaughtering dozens of persons at a time, using both manned and unmanned bombers.

There is no available moral defense of the Drone Program, for it violates human rights across the board. It furthermore represents a flagrant assault on the foundations of Western democratic societies, including due process and transparency. The Drone warriors have instituted a program which rolls formerly republican governments back to pre-Magna Carta times, transforming the president into a monarch with the authority to decree “off with their heads!” with impunity. It is not only “suspicious-looking characters” (some of whom are innocent) who are being harmed. Just as surely terrorized by the Drone Program are entirely innocent children, some of whom vow to seek revenge on the craven remote-control killers, as did Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, among many other, mostly nameless, young Muslim people.

The only possible practical defense of the ongoing slaughter of lists of human beings generated by paid analysts would have to be utilitarian in nature: that despite the occasional “blunder”, lethal drones have made the world a safer place. But anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills must recognize that it has not, given the quagmire throughout the Middle East, and the attacks on Paris and San Bernardino in 2015, and Brussels in 2016.

The Drone Program is both morally outrageous and criminally inept, leading as it does to the reckless endangerment of those who pay for it, along with the obviously innocent people destroyed, traumatized, and /or maimed. Many young people are being corrupted along the way, persuaded either to become professional assassins or to seek revenge by linking up with radical Islamist extremist groups.

 

Advertisements

Michael Hayden’s Pro-Drone Propaganda Piece in the Sunday New York Times

 

NYTCover

I have long been disturbed by the New York Times’ coverage of the drone campaigns. Particularly appalling was the President-as-Godfather feature published on May 29, 2012. Many conservative pundits have complained that the so-called “liberal” newspaper serves as a mouthpiece for the current administration, which is shameful in and of itself. But how and why did the New York Times become an organ of state-funded propaganda? Whatever happened to fact-based, interest-free, objective journalism?

 “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will”

That was the title of the ghastly 2012 feature extolling the virtues of “Terror Tuesdays”, with Obama and his fellow “kill committee” members deciding the fate of human beings located on the other side of the planet. I found the title especially egregious in view of the fact that many readers only scan headlines, automatically digesting them as “news”.

To depict as honorable Obama’s handwringing over whether to order strikes against suspects (better known in nongovernmental organized crime as “hits”) in violation of the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even the US Constitution, struck me as a very sorry reflection of the state of the mainstream media in the United States.

In yesterday’s Sunday edition, the New York Times published yet another pro-lethal drone piece, this time an op-ed by former CIA director and seasoned killer Michael Hayden. Bear in mind that, while serving as the head of the CIA, Hayden authorized 48 drone strikes resulting in 532 deaths, at least 144 known to be civilians. Those abysmal statistics, like all mass media reports of what transpires in the drone campaigns, ignore altogether the nonlethal harm to the survivors, both the psychological trauma and the physical maiming. The title of the op-ed?

 “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare”

Many Americans may be inclined to sympathize with US administrators who have killed so many people, including obviously innocent civilians, while attempting to keep the homeland safe. Officials such as Michael Hayden certainly have psychological and emotional reasons to convince themselves that what they have done is right—if only in order to be able to sleep at night. But before automatically according interpretive charity to cheerleader-for-assassination Hayden, it is essential for any reader of his propaganda piece to know that he now profits from the drone killing campaigns as a principal or board member of a few different drone program-affiliated companies.

Hayden boldly asserts that we should all support drone killing because it keeps us safe, but he offers absolutely no evidence to substantiate that claim. He briefly alludes to, but then chooses to forget, some of the criticisms aired by book authors, human rights organizations, the United Nations special rapporteurs on extrajudicial execution, former drone operators, and the government’s own commissioned Stimson Center report. Don’t drone strikes create more terrorists than they destroy? What will the world be like when China, Russia, and every other country on the planet begin dispatching their avowed enemies through the use of lethal drones wherever and whenever they please?

Hayden waves aside all of the many very real concerns about the inefficacy of drone warfare in quelling terrorism, insisting instead (and without documentation of any kind) that the strikes are “proportional” and “discriminate”. He chooses those words carefully, talking, as warriors always do, the “just war” talk about their own missions of mass killing. But assassination, the hunting down and killing of specific human beings, did not suddenly become warfare because of the development of unmanned aerial systems. Why should the implement of homicide matter, when the intent is clearly the same? Hayden writes:

 “Targeted killing using drones has become part of the American way of war. To do it legally and effectively requires detailed and accurate intelligence. It also requires some excruciatingly difficult decisions.”

Hayden here simply assumes what the title of the op-ed suggests that the author will set out to prove. In logic, the fallacy is known as “begging the question”, assuming as a premise the conclusion at which one wishes to arrive.

Since he brought up the topic of legality, it’s worth pointing out what Hayden omits, that the experts on extrajudicial execution at the United Nations have repeatedly expressed concern that the US drone campaigns violate international law. But this is not a mere case of “he said, she said.” There are laws, they are written in words, and words have meanings. To redefine “imminent threat” as no longer requiring “immediacy”, as was done in the US Department of Justice White Paper, is to indulge in Orwellian newspeak, no more and no less.

Like many other advocates of drone warfare, Hayden assumes that collateral damage is exhausted by body count. He naturally expresses the requisite regret at the civilians killed but proceeds to conclude his pro-drone manifesto by reiterating, rather than defending, his personal opinion, that drone warfare is effective:

 “Civilians have died, but in my firm opinion, the death toll from terrorist attacks would have been much higher than if we had not taken action.”

Again, no evidence, just personal opinion, from a man who profits financially from the drone program. At the opening of his manifesto, Hayden offers personal “insight” into the kill chain, using a fictional dialogue constructed so as to assuage NYT readers’ fears:

 “We’ve got good Humint. We‘ve been tracking with streaming video. Sigint’s checking in now and confirming it’s them. They’re there.”

Those techno acronyms, HUMINT and SIGINT, may impress the untutored masses, but what do they mean in the vernacular? Bribed hearsay and circumstantial evidence. These forms of intelligence are being used exhaustively and exclusively as the basis for strikes which end human beings’ lives. Oh well, what’s wrong with a little bribery and circumstantial evidence among friends? Especially when the targets in question are suspected of terrorism!

Every educated person alive should know by now that, throughout history, desperate and/or amoral, mercenary people offered generous bribes to surrender “bad guys” have been ready and willing to rat on their personal enemies or even hand over randomly selected and entirely innocent people. In the Drone Age, it suffices for those “suspects” to be located in a “hostile” territory, that is, somewhere which can plausibly be interpreted as a terrorist safe haven.

ShakerAamer

Recall that 86% of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison were found, years after having been locked away without indictment, to be entirely innocent. They were turned over to US officials by mercenary bounty hunters, aka bribed informants. Under Obama’s bloody “kill don’t capture” watch, innocent men just like Shaker Aamer, who was finally released after years of deprivation and torture, are instead summarily executed. All of the military-age men killed under Obama’s authority have been defined as guilty until proven innocent, as though we had not already learned from Guantánamo Bay prison how preposterous and deeply unjust such an assumption can be. Is this mere stupidity? Or is it time to admit that the killing machine is intrinsically evil?

In reply to complaints that unnamed men of military age are indiscriminately targeted, Hayden incomprehensibly replies:

“They were not. Intelligence for signature strikes always had multiple threads and deep history. The data was near encyclopedic.”

What does that even mean? If the people being killed are of unknown identity, then how in the world can knowledge of them be “encyclopedic”?

Pretending to acknowledge, while never truly answering, such criticisms is all part of the marketing blurb not only for Hayden’s forthcoming book, but also for the tools and analysis used in drone killing. We are supposed to conclude on the basis of this “reasoned” defense, that more and more drones and missiles should be produced, and more and more operators trained to fire them. Which means that more and more analysis will be needed to locate suitable targets.

Enter The Cherthoff Group, of which Hayden is a principal. According to Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations, Hayden also serves on the board of directors at Alion Science and Technology, Motorola Solutions, and Mike Baker International, all of which appear to enjoy Pentagon contracts relating to drone warfare. Zenko rightly points out the deception involved in penning an op-ed using the credential of having served as the director of the CIA, without also acknowledging the financial interests the author has in promoting drone killing.

What Hayden has written is sophistry, pure and simple. Even worse, it is to promote a policy which has never been publicly debated by the people paying for the practice. Any serious consideration of the situation in the Middle East by persons who do not stand to profit from drone killing can only conclude that the range of covert operations instigated under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have failed miserably, not only morally but also politically.

Americans and other Westerners are not being kept safe by policies which lead to the endless sporing of terrorist groups over ever-greater expanses of land. Who cares if the CIA eliminated most of what they claim to have been the “high value” targets of the Al Qaeda brand of extremist jihadism? Now we have ISIS.

 

“Nous Sommes Tous George W. Bush”: The Government of France follows Obama down the Bush-Cheney Rabbit Hole

 

FreedomFries

Does anyone else remember back when members of the US congress proclaimed that fried potato sticks should henceforth be referred to as “Freedom fries”? Some self-styled patriots, who apparently believed that the impending 2003 war on Iraq would have something to do with defending our liberty, went even so far as to pour bottles of French wine into the gutter!

I for one fondly recall French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s vocal and vehement expression of his nation’s opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq still in the planning stages under the administration of George W. Bush. Today we know that the French were right, that the invasion of Iraq was a colossal mistake, which keeps getting worse as its consequences ramify in so many different ways and all over the Middle East.

dominiquedevillepin

Unfortunately, France suffered some bad blows by extremist groups in 2015. On January 7, one year ago today, murderous thugs attacked and killed members of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly newspaper known for lampooning everyone and everything, including religious fanatics of all stripes. Twelve people were killed, and another eleven injured.

Even more frightening to average citoyens were the considerably more arbitrary and coordinated attacks carried out at multiple venues on November 13 by a group of nine individuals. About 130 people were killed and nearly 400 others injured. In the aftermath of the attacks, the entire city of Paris was paralyzed with fear.

Nine EU citizens, as all of the perpetrators on November 13 were, do not a state make, any more than did the nineteen perpetrators of the attacks on US symbols of power on September 11, 2001. Sadly, the French response to the November 2015 attack has been all too familiar, beginning with the proclamation by President Hollande that “Nous sommes en guerre” [“We are at war”].

It is disheartening that the government of France, which was derided by the Bush administration for its resistance to US plans to invade Iraq in 2003, has now essentially aligned itself with W, redefining crimes as acts of war and using that as a pretext for launching missiles wherever they may be launched—that is, wherever the US has already been doing so.

In mid-December 2015, it was reported that France had ordered three new Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles. The timing was right: France had recently been attacked—by nine persons NOT located in the Middle East—yet who would object to further military expansion, under the circumstances?

I recall in late 2002 and early 2003 when George W. Bush and his associates—Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz, and the others—derided the French opposition to invading a sovereign nation at peacetime without first seeking the authority of the UN Security Council. The Bush clan called the United Nations a “debate club” and brushed off France as irrelevant—a part of “Old Europe”.

Now France has joined the ranks of the modern, techno-savvy warriors, led by US President Barack Obama, who know how to kill but know nothing about how to quell conflict. None of the drone warriors seems to have any interest in the etiology of the particular societal ill which plagues the Middle East. Why should they? Now they all have their lethal drones. In the twenty-first century, “When in doubt, kill!” has become a widely shared principle of foreign policy.

Time and time again, experts have stepped forward to air concerns that the perpetual motion killing machine has no more obvious effect than to generate more ill-will against the taxpayers funding the warriors and to cause young people to flock to the cause of radical Islamist groups.

We have decorated veterans who have made this claim. We have UN Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial Execution who have explained this in detailed reports. We have former drone operators who have stood down to protest and issue warnings about what is being done. We have the US government-appointed Stimson Center Task Force. We have numerous NGOs and Human Rights groups who have issued damning studies of the deleterious effects on human security of the drone killing campaigns.

However, the people with their fingers on the triggers of Hellfire missiles are all politicians who insist that they must do something, do anything! “We are at war!” they continue to chant. Facts be damned, the people with the power to stop killing have proven incapable of leaping out of the lethality box. When killing people does not resolve the problem, they steel themselves to kill even more. These leaders, of the United States, France, Britain—and more and more are joining the Drone Warrior club each day—are trapped on the killing treadmill, incapable of facing up to the gravity of their mistake.

NOPE

Within three days of assuming office, in January 2009, Barack Obama had authorized several different drone strikes in tribal regions. Many of the victims were innocent. Loud and angry protests by locals affected by the US government’s savage drone campaigns were ignored by the US media.

Unfazed by the human costs of their political expediency—they could hide domestically under cloak of “State Secrets Privilege”—the administration declined for years to acknowledge, must less apologize for the terrorism ruthlessly exacted on entirely innocent people abroad, generating extremists outraged at being made the subjects of US leaders whom they never appointed.

Obama denounced Bush’s preemptive war on Iraq, but he became the protector and perpetuator of the Bush legacy by expanding the drone program and waging preemptive war all over the Middle East, not only through the use of drones, but also in a vast array of other covert operations. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)—essentially a squad of professional killers—were granted the authority by Obama to eliminate targets selected for them on the basis of sketchy intelligence presented by privately contracted analysts (with financial interests at stake) of bribed hearsay and circumstantial data culled from shadowy film footage, cell phone and SIM card records.

Far worse, Obama normalized the summary execution without trial of citizens, which transcends even the wrongs done to random unnamed non-national targets. All of these victims, under both Bush and Obama, have been denied their rights under domestic and international law, including protocols such as the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the US citizens killed under Obama’s authority have furthermore been denied their rights under the US Constitution.

As the Drone Age forges on, fewer and fewer people seem to remember why any of the documents were penned in the first place—not even the leaders of France. As difficult as it may be for his supporters to accept, Obama has done more to promote the George W. Bush worldview than did the 43rd US president himself. Obama claims to champion gun control in the United States, but his generosity in arming dictators and factions abroad appears to know no limits. Cameroon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt…?

In late 2012 and 2013, Obama furnished rebel forces in Syria with 600 tons of weapons. The result was a massive expansion of ISIS, the takeover of large swaths of territory, and the killing of countless innocent civilians. Obama may shed tears for schoolchildren shot dead in the homeland, but where are the tears for the victims destroyed abroad under his direct authority or as a result of his signature policy, Kill don’t capture?

 

cropped-img_20150814_065628.jpg

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 9: Death and Politics; Chapter 10: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

“Chew ‘em up and Spit ‘em out”: The Drone Operator Edition

CianWestmoreland

Any sober look at the recent history of veterans in the United States can only lead one to wonder why men and women continue to enlist in the armed forces in the twenty-first century. There was Agent Orange in Vietnam, the effects of which were denied for decades by military administrators, despite an abundance of scientific evidence that many veterans’ illnesses were linked to exposure to the poison. Then there was the Gulf War Syndrome, a horrifying range of problems, many neurological, which arose among veterans subsequent to the 1991 Gulf War. Soldiers in that mission were told to bomb chemical factories, after which everyone on the ground was assured that when toxin alarms went off, they were malfunctioning.

During the protracted occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, many troops were redeployed against their will and in spite of the fact that they had already been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of them took their own lives. National Guardsmen, who had enlisted to defend the homeland in the homeland, were sent abroad as well, and record percentages of them also committed suicide.

The problems suffered by veterans engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan persist. The PTSD victims continue to be plied with in some cases deadly cocktails of drugs officially intended to alleviate their psychological troubles but which have not in fact stemmed the tide of suicides. It is plainly written in black and white on the labels of many of the antidepressants and SSRIs being prescribed by the VA that such drugs lower the threshold to violence, yet possible connections between the drugs and the epidemic of veteran suicides are doggedly ignored.

StephenLewis

The latest episode in this scandalous chronology involves the young persons enlisted to work as assassins at a distance, lured in by generous salaries to kill people who never threatened them with death, under cover of what is dubiously claimed to be “just war”. There is currently a recruitment crisis in the drone program. Why? Because the US government cannot find enough people ready and willing to kill on command by pushing buttons on computer consoles on the other side of the planet from the so-called battlefields where the allegedly evil targets—suspected of possibly plotting a future possible terrorist attack—are said by anonymous analysts to hide.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: in Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, 86% of the detainees were eventually exonerated of any connection whatsoever to violent extremist groups. How many of the suspects dispatched under authorization by President Barack Obama, whose policy it is to “kill don’t capture”, have also been innocent? They are fingered by the same forms of intelligence: HUMINT and SIGINT. Bribed hearsay and circumstantial evidence. You do the math.

The government makes it sound as though the sole reason for the shortage of drone operators is that the job itself is taxing: the “long hours” and “fast pace” of the job are supposed to be the explanation for why remote-control killers are not re-enlisting once their initial contract term has expired. Needless to say, the government ignores claims to the effect that the true reason for some of these operators’ refusal to reenlist is that they have painfully learned what the job really entails and want nothing further to do with it. Some now claim that they wish they had never enlisted. If only they could travel back in time…

Thanks to the testimony of brave men such as Michael Haas, Stephen Lewis, Cian Westmoreland, and Brandon Bryant, future prospective drone operators have been warned in no uncertain terms: you, too, may later conclude that you made an irrevocable mistake in doing what you were persuaded to do by commanding officers under cover of “just war”. (Remember the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority?) Nothing is free, and if not now, perhaps later, the next generation of drone operators may, too, pay a heavy toll for acting against their conscience and suppressing the questions which arose in their minds before killing people who did not deserve to be summarily executed without trial.

Given all of this, each and every young person who is considering the career of professional killer in the service of the US government needs to view the below video before signing a contract which they may come later deeply to regret. Friends don’t let friends sign contracts which may burden their conscience for the rest of their lives:

MichaelHaas

http://player.theplatform.com/p/2E2eJC/nbcNewsOffsite?guid=a_orig_dronepilots_151207

 

cropped-img_20150814_065628.jpg

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 7: The Operators; Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion; and Chapter 11: The Death of Military Virtue

The Drone Operator Recruitment Crisis and the Status of Women in the US Military

The Pentagon recently announced that all combat positions in the US military will henceforth be open to women. It took quite some time for “the fairer sex” to be granted this arguably dubious achievement. As offensive as some may find this suggestion, it appears that the admission of women into the ranks of military killers has come about in the Drone Age only because superior physical strength is no longer a requirement for active “combat” duty.

FemaleDroneOperator

Women are now pushing buttons to erase from the face of earth men who they have been told harbor evil intentions to destroy the people of the United States. If one accepts the definition of drone operators and sensors as “soldiers”—even though they work in trailers located thousands of miles away from the so-called battlefields where they kill—then these female drone operators are already combatant troops and have been for quite some time.

The fact that the Pentagon made a public announcement to this effect, letting young women everywhere know that they, too, are welcome to enlist as professional killers—and earn handsome salaries and benefits packages for doing so—reflects the administration’s recognition that, in the future, lethal drones will be used more and more, and ground troops less and less, in conflict zones. Why? Because in the Drone Age, politicians can paint themselves as strong on defense without having to write condolence letters to families, and without having to pay hospital visits to maimed survivors of the US government’s various military misadventures abroad.

Now that lethal drones have made it possible for women to kill just as many “unlawful combatants” as do men in uniform, I dare to ask the politically incorrect question: Is serving as a remote-control killer something which young women should aspire to do? In even articulating this question, I will no doubt be met with the ire of feminists who believe that women should be free to do anything which men are free to do. And there is a certain logic to that argument.

If women are truly equal to men, then should they not be able to do everything which men do? Should not women, too, be allowed to commit horrific mistakes such as slaughtering their fellow human beings under order when the commander-in-chief declares that “We are at war”? Don’t women have every bit as much of a “right” as do men to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? As a matter of fact, PTSD is now found as frequently among drone operators as among ground troops from wars past. Shouldn’t women be entitled to their “fair” share of the ills of war?

I am not going to try to argue that women should be protected from themselves, but I will venture boldly to propose (once again) that perhaps young women and men alike should be protected from recruiters who lure them into a profession—that of paid assassin—which some of them are sure to regret later on down the line. Because of the testimony of a few brave drone operators and sensors, we know that the vocation of remote-control killing weighs heavily on the conscience of at least some of those involved in the drone program, who now wish that they had never followed orders to kill, given that their own lives were not on the line when they pushed buttons to annihilate targets on hit lists compiled by anonymous analysts.

That heavy drinking has been widespread among drone killing squadrons, having become necessary for them to be able to carry on with their jobs for as long as they do, is another clue that something is morally awry. If employees must drown their sorrows every night after work, then is this not an unequivocal sign that they know, deep down inside, that what they are doing is not right?

It requires no more physical strength to work as a push-button killer than it does to play a video game—or to send email or shop online. And yet, the drone program has had difficulty holding onto its recruits, many of whom opt not to reenlist once their initial contract has expired. One solution hit upon has been to offer operators more and more lucrative bonuses, also known as “bribes”.

Faced with the drone operator recruitment crisis, the question arises: why has the Pentagon not tapped into an obvious source of employable persons: senior citizens? Why not enlist retirees who are still of sound mind? They may be too frail to fight in hand-to-hand combat, but the average sixty-year-old—or even seventy-year-old—is certainly sturdy enough to push a few buttons and manipulate a joystick while sitting in an air conditioned trailer within driving distance of Las Vegas.

The most obvious reason for not recruiting—or even attempting to recruit—older persons as remote-control killers is that they cannot be hoodwinked into committing moral atrocities in the name of the state. Senior citizens and recent retirees remember from the twentieth century, before the Drone Age, lofty concepts such as the Geneva Conventions and the post-World War II reasons which drove the leaders of states to craft documents such as the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In contrast, young people fresh out of high school and looking for a job are highly vulnerable to the marketing campaigns of military recruiters, and they may know absolutely nothing about international law. Shouldn’t they be able to trust a commander-in-chief who holds a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Harvard University?

LyndieEngland

It isn’t often that I am reminded of Lyndie England, the ignominious young woman whose eternal claim to fame is to have participated in the inhumane treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The proof that she believed that there was nothing wrong with what she and her comrades were doing was captured for posterity on film: Lyndie England exultantly posed for photographs while holding a prisoner on a leash and standing next to a body pyramid of naked detainees. The general revulsion to the images disseminated swiftly around the globe served to intensify anti-American sentiment among those who had opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but it also caused even staunch military supporters to pause.

Now that the Drone Age is well underway, young women not unlike Lyndie England are being asked, not to torture, but to incinerate suspects, and some of them appear to be doing so, too, in good conscience, at least judging by a recent feature on “Sparkle”, a female drone sensor operator who works out of Creech Air Force Base. Here’s what Sparkle says about the “bejeweled” headset she wears while dispatching targets:

“I use it to emasculate the enemy in the afterlife. Many radical jihadists believe that being killed by a woman means they will not enter heaven.”

She then adds a bit of a feminist twist:

“Considering how they treat their women, I’m OK with rubbing salt in the wound.”

One can only wonder how many radical jihadists Sparkle has ever conversed with, given that she works in a trailer located in Nevada.

Comparing the case of Lyndie England to that of drone operators killing in lands where there are no soldiers on the ground (rightly or wrongly) to protect, one must ask: is it really worse to torture people than to strip them of their lives, and at the same time all of their rights? This is puzzling, to say the least, and yet that is precisely what is transpiring in the Drone Age.

Very few prisoners have been captured abroad under President Barack Obama, and anyone who is not being detained is obviously not being tortured. Instead, suspects are summarily executed, as though they were all guilty, and in spite of the documented fact that 86% of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba had no connections whatsoever to terrorist organizations.

The modes of intelligence used to round up suspects (HUMINT derived from bribed informants, and SIGINT from electronic sources such as cell phones) are the same as those used in hunting down targets and ending their lives. Nonetheless, the drone operators such as Sparkle who carry on do not appear to bat an eye at the fact that they have no access to the intelligence used to add names to the list of people whom they are ordered to dispatch. Here is how she describes how she must steel herself for her role in the drone program:

“When you hit a truck full of people, there are limbs and legs everywhere. I watched a guy crawl away from the wreckage after one shot with no lower body. He slowly died. You have to watch that. You don’t get to turn away. You can’t be that soft girly traditional feminine and do the job. Those are the people who are going to have the nightmares.”

I submit that Sparkle is morally equivalent to Lyndie England. Both of them were persuaded by agents of their government to believe that what they did and are doing is perfectly just. One hopes that, in the fullness of time, Sparkle and all of the drone sensors and operators like her—men and women alike—will be forced to find alternative employment, when US taxpayers finally wake up to the moral atrocity of what is being done in their name.

cropped-img_20150814_065628.jpg

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 7: The Operators; Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion; and Chapter 9: Death and Politics

 

Spain Wants in on the Drone Killing Game: Has Franco Been Forgotten?

FranciscoFranco

It was recently reported that the government of Spain will be acquiring four MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) along with one ground control station (GCS) from the US firm General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. The US company won out over the competitor, Israel Aerospace Industries, which was ready to furnish its Hero TP to the Spanish government as well. Maybe they’ll secure a contract from Spain later on down the line. Never say never: there’s always room for another shiny new implement of homicide in a political leader’s arsenal, particularly when one of its crowning virtues can be said to be to make it possible to spare soldiers’ lives. That Spanish soldiers would never have been deployed to the drone zones anyway is a nicety best brushed aside.

The Reapers will eventually be weaponized, but for now the Spanish Air Force will simply play around with them, familiarize themselves with the advanced technology, and prepare for the day when they, too, will be able to dispatch human beings by remote control, just as the US and the UK governments have been doing for some time, and Italy is preparing to do as well.

The Spanish Air Force may be thrilled about what will be their enhanced capacity to execute suspects without trial, but one can only wonder what Pablo Q Pueblo, the average citizen in Spain, thinks about this development. Perhaps the Spanish public would rather forget their twentieth-century history, but was not Spain ruled by a brutal dictator, Generalísimo Francisco Franco, from 1936 until his death in 1975? His longevity was assured by the US government’s support, rationalized by the tried and true maxim of US foreign policy, that “the enemy of our enemy is our friend.” That’s right: the only thing Franco hated more than republicanism was communism.  

To the dismay and peril of liberty-loving Spaniards, Franco became a dreaded “president for life” through brute force and the elimination, by hook or by crook, of an estimated 200,000-400,000 Spanish citizens. Let us be perfectly frank: weaponized drones would have been right up Franco’s alley: the capacity to vaporize political enemies with no due process and no provision for appeal. All those pesky dissidents could be perfunctorily written off as enemies of the state.

I think that it is fair to say that congratulations are in order once again to US President Barack Obama for having ushered in a new era of secrecy and opacity along with the capacity to draw up hit lists through the use of advanced surveillance techniques (such as the mining of cellphone data) against any- and everyone one who might be potentially dangerous in the future. These Obama-era practices have gained wide acceptance among politicians and will surely lead to summary executions by governments the world over, including now Spain, both at home and abroad.

Who needs republicanism when every government’s leader will soon be able to squelch dissent and eliminate “annoying” adversaries with the push of a button while watching the targets “splashed” on high-definition television screens? Of course, the technology alone was not enough to herald in the full-fledged, robust Drone Age. The practice of summary execution without trial needed also to be normalized by the leader of the greatest nation on the earth, which President Barack Obama in fact did. In a self-serving effort to convey an image of strength, remote-control killing became drone warrior Obama’s claim to fame and will be his lasting legacy, to the detriment of liberty-loving people the world over.

WeKillBecauseWeCanLaurieCalhoun

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 9: Death and Politics; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

A Letter from Four Former Drone Operators with Echoes from the Stimson Center Report

 

Former drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant has given interviews all over the world about his involvement in the US government’s drone program or “killing machine”, as it has been aptly labeled by some. He has not always met with sympathy from interviewers and commentators. I was especially struck by the antagonistic stance of one BBC reporter, Stephen Sackur, whose questions often hinged on questionable facts which he had accepted as the gospel truth. Here’s a YouTube video of the interview:

Where, for example, did the notion that Anwar al-Awlaki gave advice to the 9/11 attackers come from, if not from a myth fabricated for the public to rationalize the US citizen’s summary execution without trial in Yemen? For those who missed it, including Stephen Sackur, here’s what Anwar al-Awlaki said in an interview with National Geographic News on September 28, 2001:

“My worry is that because of this conflict, the views of Osama bin Laden will become appealing to some of the population of the Muslim world. Never in the past were there any demonstrations raising the picture of Osama bin Laden–it has just happened now. So Osama bin Laden, who was considered to be an extremist, radical in his views, could end up becoming mainstream. That’s a very frightening thing, so the US needs to be very careful and not have itself perceived as an enemy of Islam.”

 In an interview on October 31, 2001, by Ray Suarez for PBS, Anwar al-Awlaki said:

“Our position needs to be reiterated, and needs to be very clear. The fact that the US has administered the death and homicide of over 1 million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the US is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians, does not justify the killing of one US civilian in New York City or Washington, DC.”

It is possible, of course, that this was all a part of a grand and sneaky scheme on the part of Al-Awlaki to pretend to condemn the attacks which he “in fact” helped to orchestrate. It is also logically possible, I suppose, that the 9/11 hijackers attacked the United States because “they hate us for our freedom.” Far more probable—and logically tenable—is that 9/11 was blowback for the 1991 Gulf War and related US interventions, especially in Muslim lands, abroad.

Likewise, more probable than the conspiracy theory according to which Al-Awlaki was only pretending to denounce the attacks of 9/11 is the version of the story ably relayed by Jeremy Scahill in Dirty Wars: that the Muslim cleric was radicalized by the actions of the US government itself, which in aftermath of 9/11 did precisely what Al-Awlaki counseled against, by waging what could be reasonably interpreted as a war on Islam.

By executing Al-Awlaki, rather than indicting him and allowing him to stand trial, the US government effectively etched its own version of what transpired onto the tablets of history. Reporters such as Stephen Sackur simply assume that the US government version of the story is true, without doing so much as a cursory Google search to find out what Al-Awlaki was doing and saying back in 2001.

It is more than a little disturbing that so many journalists and reporters have uncritically parroted, replicated and disseminated whatever the US drone warriors say, even as they regularly contradict themselves and completely re-write the story of what they have done as circumstances dictate. Was Osama bin Laden armed when he was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan? The initial official story was that he was killed by Navy SEALS in legitimate self-defense, armed as the mastermind was with an AK-47. Later versions—some from the US government—have offered very different accounts of what transpired.

The obdurate refusal on the part of mainstream journalists to go beyond the official stories shared (and often “leaked”) by the government reveals that the Fourth Estate has effectively forsaken its democratic raison d’être–just as surely as US congresspersons did when in October 2002 they renounced their right and responsibility to check the power of the executive to wage war at his caprice. The result? The 2003 invasion of Iraq, and everything to ensue, up to and including the ongoing ISIS-driven quagmire in Syria.

When brave men such as Brandon Bryant step forward to share the ghastly reality of what is being done in the drone program, they are naturally met with skepticism and sometimes ire. Why? Because if what they are saying is true—and there is no compelling reason for thinking that they lie—then the US government has gone morally awry in its politically driven effort to convince citizens that they are being kept safe through a concerted and wide-ranging program of “targeted killing” (formerly known as “assassination”) abroad.

In assessing the credibility of this witness, it is important to bear in mind that Brandon Bryant was not fired from his position. He quit his job and declined even to accept a generous bonus (aka “bribe”) for staying on. Why? Because he could no longer continue in good conscience to do what he had come to believe was wrong.

Here is a recent letter sent to the powers that be by Bryant and three kindred spirits, Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis, and Michael Haas:

    
 
 (source: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2515596-final-drone-letter.html — Contributed by: Ed Pilkington, The Guardian)

 

It is worth pointing out that in the first paragraph of the letter these admirable souls have clearly articulated some of the very concerns aired by the Stimson Center task force in its US government-commissioned report of 2014. One rarely hears mention of it these days, but the administration agreed to subject the drone program to scrutiny by an independent group of academics, industry experts, and former military officers. Unfortunately, no one in power appears to have read the report, which, in addition to advising that lethal drones be taken out of the hands of the CIA, also clearly warns in its Executive Summary:

Blowback: Civilian casualties, even if relatively few, can anger whole communities, increase anti-US sentiment and become a potent recruiting tool for terrorist organizations. Even strikes that kill only terrorist operatives can cause great resentment, particularly in contexts in which terrorist recruiting efforts rely on tribal loyalties or on an economically desperate population. UAV strikes by the United States have also generated a backlash in states not directly affected by the strikes, in part due to the perception that such strikes cause excessive civilian deaths, and in part due to concerns about sovereignty, transparency, accountability and other human rights and rule of law issues.”

Sound familiar? Military and drone program supporters may dismiss out of hand the testimony of former drone operators—writing them off as PTSD victims, disgruntled employees, or simply “bad apples”. But can any of those terms be applied to the Stimson center committee, the members of which were appointed by the US government?

Perhaps Obama, Brennan & Co. (literally) were hoping for a report which would conclude by patting the drone warriors on the back and exhorting them to continue on in their quest to kill brown-skinned suspects wherever they may be said to hide, working from “evidence” furnished by privately contracted analysts with strong reasons of financial self-interest to generate longer and longer kill lists–as long as they can.