“You Cannot Kill Your Way Out of This”: The CIA’s Lethal Lack of Imagination

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The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs (2015) is an engaging Showtime documentary in the spirit of Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (2003) and Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers (2012). Directors Jules Naudet and Gedeot Naudet use the same technique of interviewing former government officials to determine what they take themselves to have been doing as they participated in or directed what came to be highly controversial tactics rationalized in the name of national defense. The Spymasters features former directors and officials of the CIA who share their perspectives on “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “targeted killing” carried out during the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

By telling the story of the war on terror from its beginnings, the film helpfully illuminates how the US government arrived where it is today, executing unidentified military-age men located thousands of miles away and in countries where war was never officially waged. The 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) has been held up at each stage along the way to explain why the US president is allegedly free to fire missiles on anyone he chooses and anywhere he believes there to be potential danger on the horizon—whatever his standards and evidential criteria may be.

It’s always good to find out what the perpetrators of state homicide think about what they have done, even though they have an evident interest in forging a positive image of themselves for posterity. Still, reading between the lines of their sometimes diaphanous attempts to exculpate themselves from any moral wrongdoing—even if they own that mistakes were occasionally made—one discovers a wealth of insight into what has transpired over the course of the last sixteen years.

georgetenetOne of the most significant citations, though a statement of the obvious, is former CIA director George Tenet’s frank acknowledgment that “We’re all human beings,” which serves as a blanket apology for all parties involved, for everything that they did. However, there is lots of blame to go around, and most of the directors, including Tenet, are more than willing to point the accusatory finger at somebody else once the details of the various episodes are looked at more closely. The film covers four major intelligence failures and presents a short history of what transpired in the lead up to and during the Drone Age.

Big Mistake #1: Failure to Stop the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.

The officials interviewed in this film who were in place before the attacks of September 11, 2001, deny that what happened was due primarily to Agency intelligence failures. Cofer Black is especially adamant that it was the Bush administration which refused to act on the warnings presented to them by the CIA in a July 2001 report:

coferblackYou know what really does piss me off? When people call this an intelligence failure. We knew this was coming: American interests going to be attacked, could very well be in the United States. It’s serious, it’s coming.”

Others seem more convinced that the primary failure was the lack of communication between the CIA and the FBI. Had the two agencies only communicated with one another, then some of the suicide bombers might have been apprehended and the attacks thwarted.

The result of this mistake, no doubt the collective fault of many individuals, was the destruction of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, and the deaths of some 3,000 Americans. Even worse, it led to the Global War on Terror, still going strong sixteen years later, destroying country after country, across the Middle East.

Big Mistake #2: Support of the 2003 War on Iraq, Waged on False Pretenses

The next big Agency blunder was to produce an intelligence briefing in support of the Bush administration’s 2003 war on Iraq. George Tenet, who infamously used the phrase “slam dunk” to George W. Bush when discussing the Agency’s confidence in the case for the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), insists that the orders for war had already been signed and the decision already made:

Now the way it was portrayed, was: this was the seminal moment in the president’s life in terms of deciding whether to go to war or not. That’s not what happened at all. The decision to go to war, orders to send troops had already been signed. I mean, we were way down the road here.”

Tenet may be right about that, but, in retrospect, everyone recognizes that the administration was publicly bolstered by the apparently enthusiastic support of the invasion by the nation’s top intelligence analysts.

The result of this colossal blunder was a brutal war in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Westerners—including soldiers, aid workers, and journalists—died. Part of the widespread chaos was a result of the fact that Muslim men from other lands were galvanized to travel to Iraq to take up arms against what they quite rightly regarded as the unjust invaders of Iraq. Many of those men were killed, while many survivors were radicalized, coming to ally themselves with Al Qaeda or ISIS.

Big Mistake #3: Use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques—Later Denounced by the Senate as Torture

From 2001 to 2006, the CIA ran a secret rendition and detention program in which harsh interrogation techniques were used. The program was later denounced by a Senate committee and President Obama as unacceptable torture, both wrong and ineffective at stopping attacks in the US homeland and abroad.

michaelhaydenHowever, in The Spymasters, both former director George Tenet and former head of counterterrorism José Rodríguez vehemently reject the characterization of what they did as torture, insisting that they stopped short of torture in their use of a variety of techniques intended to, as Michael Hayden puts it, “move individuals from a zone of defiance into a zone of cooperation.”

George Tenet refuses to relent:

I’m not going to ever accept the use of the word ‘torture’ in front of what happened here. I’m not going to fall to that.”

Interestingly enough, although Rodríguez insists that he and his colleagues did nothing wrong, he explains his decision to destroy videotapes of interrogations in this way:

joserodriguezMy primary motivation in destroying the tapes was to protect the people who worked for me. They showed people naked, being waterboarded, and going through the enhanced interrogation techniques… I knew that the tape would play as if, you know, we were all, you know, psychopaths, and that’s something that we didn’t want to…”

The result of the enhanced interrogation program was to thoroughly tarnish the image of the United States, but, even more devastatingly, to produce recruiting material (such as the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison) taken up by Al Qaeda and related groups, which have continued to thrive and spread to other countries beyond Afghanistan and Iraq.

Big Mistake #4: The Lethal Turn in Intelligence. Obama’s Kill Don’t Capture Policy

Former director Leon Panetta shares his experience and grief—and feeling of guilt—for the December 30, 2009, killing of seven CIA agents at Camp Chapman, where they believed themselves leonpanettato be meeting with a new asset who would lead them to Osama bin Laden. In fact, the supposed double agent, Jordanian doctor Humam Al-Balawi, was a suicide bomber intent on retaliating against the US government for its killing of Muslims. In describing his reaction after his officers were killed, Panetta laments:

What went through my mind was the families out there, who within a few hours were going to be informed that someone who they loved had been killed.”

Panetta sheds a good deal of light on the human desire on the part of the drone killers to retaliate to terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, he does not use his own experience to comprehend what those opposing the US government’s war on terror feel. Instead, he opts to kill the suspect whom he believes to be responsible for the deaths at Camp Chapman, along with his family, who are written off as “collateral damage”. Panetta feels vindicated nonetheless:

I passed on the word, I said: If you can isolate the individual and take the shot without impacting on women and children, then do it. But if you have no alternative, and it looks like he might get away, then take the shot…. And it did involve collateral damage, but we got him.”

He then goes on to explain that he is fighting a war against the perpetrators of 9/11, but he appears not to recognize that the terrorists who went after the analysts at Camp Chapman were outraged by the CIA’s own drone strikes in Pakistan, which had killed civilians, including women and children. In fact, Humam al-Balawi makes explicit reference to his intended targets’ drone killing activities in the suicide tape he recorded before the attack:

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We will beat you CIA team. Inshallah, we will beat you down. Don’t think that you just pressing a button killing mujahideen you are safe. Inshallah, death will come to you… and you will be sent to the hell.”

Panetta, who talks repeatedly about his Catholicism and is depicted fondling a rosary during part of the interview for this film, expresses his feeling of apparent happiness when Osama bin Laden is finally hunted down and slain:

Hearing people outside of the gates of the White House, chanting USA, USA, CIA,.. it was something that will be a memory that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”

The result of all of this premeditated, intentional homicide has been arguably to radicalize even more Muslim men, ever younger, and even to extend the summary execution without trial to citizens of Western nations. Men such as Anwar Al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussain have been intentionallly hunted down and executed by their own government rather than being captured and allowed to stand trial.

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Judging by the concerns expressed repeatedly by the drone warriors in the CIA, every suspected terrorist is now regarded as potentially a future Osama bin Laden, even though many of the targets are quite young and have explicitly expressed their anger at the US war on terror, in which millions of Muslims have been killed, maimed, terrorized, or driven to flee their homeland in search of safety and security and to avoid being destroyed by missiles and bombs.

Especially noteworthy is that the officials involved in the “enhanced interrogation program” are highly skeptical of the Obama administration’s drone program and what was effectively a decision to call a halt to detention, and instead to summarily execute all military-age males suspected of possible complicity in terrorism or association with radical jihadist groups. For their part, the drone killers interviewed—above all, John Brennan and Leon Panetta—decry the enhanced interrogation program as having involved torture, which, they insist, Americans should not be perpetrating.

johnbrennanFormer director John Brennan once again repeats his familiar refrain that the Agency always attempts to capture suspects, but nothing could be further from the truth. Case in point: Anwar Al-Awlaki was released from a Yemen prison, where he was being detained without charges at the US government’s request. After being released, he was then hunted down and slain. QED. (It is worth observing here that in the three years prior to his appointment to the Obama administration as drone killing czar, Brennan was running a private company, The Analysis Corporation, which generated and analyzed intelligence for terrorist watch lists.)

A number of the earlier directors, who served before 9/11, express discomfort and even dismay that the CIA has become primarily concerned with covert lethal action, which is a paramilitary function not a part of the original Agency mission to gather and analyze intelligence in order to provide the executive with the means to forge sound policy. George Tenet expresses his profound reservations about what his successors have been doing:

Killing people, no matter how bad they are, is not something that should ever rest easily in anybody’s soul or in anybody’s brain. Sometimes I think we get ourselves into a frenzy, into believing that killing is the only answer to a problem. And the truth is it’s not.”

The Biggest Strategic Mistake of All, or: Why the Middle East is Now in Shambles

The underlying problem with the conflict in the Middle East, which is not treated in the film, can be traced back to the 1991 Gulf War on Iraq. Unfortunately, no one among the interviewees seems to know or care that Osama bin Laden explicitly claimed to be retaliating, in particular, against the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children in the aftermath of Desert Storm, when draconian sanctions prevented access to medications needed to address the illnesses caused directly by the obliteration of water treatment facilities by the US military.

Bin Laden made no secret of the source of his rage, but the US government preferred to promote soundbites such as “They hate us for our freedom,” rather than imagining what it would be like to witness the slaughter of innocent civilians by the US military.

There seems to be little awareness indeed on the part of America’s “Top Spies” that the terrorists are in fact retaliating in precisely the manner in which US officials felt the need to do so in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11. This inability to imagine what it is like to live under the constant threat of death by US bombs and missiles is shared by all of the directors but perhaps most graphic in the case of Cofer Black, who indignantly intones:

These are our people. Nobody comes to our town and messes with our people.”

All of that said, the fact that some of the directors are willing to express reservations about the US government’s current lethal and short-sighted approach to the problem of factional terrorism offers a modicum of hope that one day the Agency will be reined in again after having administered both George W. Bush’s horrific detention and torture program and Barack Obama’s revved-up drone killing machine.

This thought-provoking film, which I highly recommend, ends with an unforgettable and stunning sequence of directors each articulating this same important truth:

You can’t kill your way out of this.”

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US Drone Killing Machine Now on Autopilot

For years now I have been pointing out that Obama’s lasting legacy would be his ill-advised decision back in 2009 to normalize assassination, which his administration successfully rebranded as “targeted killing”. This was supposed to be the latest and greatest form of “smart war”: the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), or lethal drones, to go after and eliminate evil terrorists without risking US soldiers’ lives.

It all sounds so slick and, well, Obama cool. The problem is that any sober consideration of Obama’s foreign policy over the course of his eight years as president reveals that the reality is altogether different. Judging by the murder and mayhem being perpetrated all across the Middle East, “smart war” was not so smart after all.

It’s not easy to tease out how much of the mess in the Middle East is specifically due to Obama’s accelerated use of lethal drones in “signature strikes” to kill thousands of military-age men in seven different lands. For he also implemented other, equally dubious initiatives. Planks of Obama’s bloody “smart power” approach included deposing Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and massively arming (from 2012 to 2013) a group of little-understood “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria.

Adding fuel to the fire, Obama oversaw the largest exportation of homicidal weapons to the Middle East ever undertaken by a single US president. Saudi Arabia wasted no time in using its US (and also UK) military provisions to lay Yemen to waste. Conjoined with Obama’s use of drones in that land, the result has been a horrific civil war in which many civilians have been killed and many civilian structures destroyed.

As if all of this were not bad enough, Obama also managed to drop more than 26K bombs in 2016, after having dropped more than 23K in 2015. Given all of this very warlike behavior in undeclared wars, no one can truly say precisely how much drones are to blame for the ongoing carnage throughout the Middle East. What is beyond dispute is that together these measures culminated in a huge expansion and spread of ISIS and other radical jihadist groups.

At the same time, given the tonnage of bombs dropped by Obama in seven different countries, the use of drones does seem to have led directly to a willingness of the president to use also manned combat aerial vehicles, notably in countries with which the United States was not at war when Obama assumed his office. While his predecessor, George W. Bush, can be properly credited with the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama managed to contribute heartily to the destruction of Libya, Yemen, and Syria, while attacking the people of Somalia as well.

Enter Donald J. Trump, who became the new US president on January 21, 2017. On that same day, two drone strikes in Yemen killed a slew of people, three of whom were said to be “suspected Al Qaeda leaders”. The US government has not confirmed that it launched the strikes. It is the policy of the CIA, put in charge by Obama of the drone program “outside areas of active hostilities” (in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, et al.), not to share the details of its covert operations. This would seem to imply that the drone strikes on January 21, 2017, were not the doings of the Pentagon, now under the direction of General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who was sworn in on the same day as the new president.

Trump’s choice for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has not yet been sworn in, as his confirmation process is still underway. In other words, the drone strikes carried out under the auspices of the CIA this past weekend were done so without a director in place. Obama therefore succeeded not only in normalizing assassination as “targeted killing” when the implements of homicide used are missiles, and they are launched under the direction of the CIA, but he also left the killing machine on autopilot. Note that the former CIA director, John Brennan, who first served as Obama’s drone killing czar, before being promoted to director, has spent his time in recent days bashing the new president, not serving as Trump’s interim adviser.

The incineration of military-age men using missiles launched from drones has become so frequent and commonplace that US citizens, including legislators, did not blink an eye at the fact that the killing machine set in motion by President Obama is now effectively on autopilot. It’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, acts of war were to be approved by the congress. Now even acephalic agencies such as the directorless CIA are permitted to use weapons of war to kill anyone whom they deem to be worthy of death. All of this came about because Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack “no boots on the ground” Obama wanted to be able to prosecute wars without appearing to prosecute wars. Fait accompli.

Note: above photo credit mikechurch.com

Exception or Precedent? The remote-control killing by police of a suspect on US soil

RobotKilledMicahJohnson

On July 8, 2016, a robot was used for the very first time to blow up a criminal suspect in the United States. Five Dallas city policemen had been slain, and several others injured. The perpetrator, Micah Xavier Johnson, was involved in a conversation with the police for a while, but when he began shooting again, the decision was taken to blow him up. The opportunity was there, the bomb-disposal robot was already in the possession of the police, and who could complain, given what this particular suspect had already done?

The robot used to blow up Micah Johnson was not a lethal drone, but it may as well have been. One might wonder how the police devised the idea of using a bomb-disposal robot to blow up a human being, but certainly the US drone program offers plenty of examples of the use of remote-control technology to incinerate, rather than capture, terrorist suspects.

US citizens have grown accustomed to their government killing people abroad, but the decision to kill by remote control in the homeland was extraordinary in that no attempt was made to incapacitate the suspect instead. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that policemen in dangerous scenarios often opt to shoot to kill, aiming for the heart or head, not the suspect’s foot or hand. However, it is not the role of the police to execute but to take into custody suspects so that their guilt can be determined by a jury of peers and, if convicted, an appropriate penalty applied.

Despite the grisly nature of what was done to Micah Johnson, many commentators have insisted that the police chief made the right call in deciding to blow the man up. But was this in fact his call to make? The precedent set by this action would seem to be yet another step down an ever-more lethal continuum rendered considerably more so by the current US president, Barack Obama, whose policy it is to kill rather than capture suspected terrorists located abroad.

The US administration continues to claim that in all of its thousands of targeted killings, capture has been infeasible and the premeditated, intentional acts of homicide have been necessary in national self-defense, all part of the Global War on Terror. Obama’s authority to kill suspects anywhere he chooses to do so—both inside and outside areas of active hostilities—is said to derive from the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) conferred by the US congress upon President George W. Bush about fifteen years ago.

As technology has become more and more sophisticated, it is highly ironic that the restraints on killing wrought over millennia, and the great advances in institutions of justice, beginning with the 1215 Magna Carta, have been forgotten or set aside. The suspects killed in the Global War on Terror by lethal drone are presumed guilty until proven innocent, but they are denied the right to demonstrate their innocence. They are denied even the right to surrender and usually have no idea that they are about to be killed. They are simply eliminated from the face of the earth at the behest of the US president’s henchmen at a time of their choosing, as the “opportunity” arises.

MicahJohnson

The blowing up of Micah Johnson by the police was triply ironic. Not only was he trained as a sniper by the US military, but the young African American was apparently protesting against police brutality against black men in the homeland. Johnson’s desire to “kill white people” arose out of anger at the police killings of a series of black men brought to the attention of the public by the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years. But the response of the police to Johnson’s obviously misguided mission to target policemen was to ratchet up the brutality against black men yet another notch.

Rather than being riddled with bullets, the body of Micah Johnson, a black man, was blown up in a manner befitting a condemned building, not a human being. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that shooting to kill unarmed persons is somehow less objectionable, but only that the degree of sheer violence is much greater and the denial of the victim’s personhood highlighted by the use of a bomb to eliminate him.

After the use of a robotic device to obliterate the suspect, several Dallas officials made public statements to the effect that there was no other way to neutralize the threat posed by Micah Johnson. I can think of several. How about bombing the place where he was located with tear gas? SWAT teams certainly have gas masks in their arsenal of equipment, so the place could have been literally fumigated with gas using the same robot to deliver not explosives but agents of lachrymation. Or how about bombing the place with a gaseous form of sedative to knock him out so that the place could be secured and accessed by a team who would then be able to take the man into custody?

In this regard, the case of Micah Johnson bears comparison to that of Osama bin Laden, who was also executed when in fact he might have been shot with tranquilizer plugs rather than bullets. His unconscious body could have been lifted out of Abbottabad just as his corpse was, but the decision was taken by Obama to kill him instead. Bin Laden was widely reviled as the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and if not the architect, he was at the very least their inspiration, given his enthusiastic exhortations that Al Qaeda members wage jihad against the United States in retaliation to what he regarded as inexcusable war crimes, especially in the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath in Iraq.

The execution of Bin Laden and Micah Johnson are similar in another, even more significant, way. Both acts of killing look like exceptions, which took place in extraordinary circumstances. However, as precedents, both can be seen to set in motion a series of future actions modeled on them, because the exception swiftly transforms into the rule once initial inhibitions against intentional, premeditated homicide have fallen by the wayside. Under Obama’s greatly expanded drone program, which began in January 2009, shortly after the new president assumed his office, assassination of suspects has been rebranded as “targeted killing” and carried out primarily through the use of Hellfire missiles delivered by Predator drones.

The drone program and the execution of Bin Laden were mutually reinforcing. If lower-level “foot soldiers” whose names are not even known may be eliminated by drone, then why wouldn’t Bin Laden be fair game for elimination as well? Both the drone program and the execution of Bin Laden served to inform a further escalation of lethality when US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was executed in Yemen by his own government.

Was Al-Awlaki anything like Bin Laden? Of course not. But Al-Awlaki was mythologized as an execrable bogeyman in the mainstream media to the point where most Americans came to believe that he was morally equivalent to Bin Laden. To this day, most people have no idea that Al-Awlaki spoke out against the crimes of 9/11. He was a voice of moderation at the time, calmly counseling the government not to make the mistake of acting in ways which could easily be misconstrued as waging a war on Islam.

That was precisely what the US government proceeded to do. They invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, despite the fact that most of the perpetrators of 9/11 hailed from Saudi Arabia, the government of which was given a free pass. Rather than focusing on those ultimately responsible for 9/11, the US government set out to harass Muslims such as Anwar al-Awlaki to such an extent, using both the FBI and foreign governments (in his case, President Saleh of Yemen), that in some cases the targeted suspects transmogrified into self-avowed enemies.

Was Anwar Al-Awlaki an operational terrorist, or was he a propagandist and cheerleader of sorts for jihad? Whatever source of inspiration some of the apprehended perpetrators of terrorist plots may have drawn from Al-Awlaki’s sermons, the fact remains that they and they alone chose to carry out violent acts. The evidence supposedly convicting Al-Awlaki of the capital crimes allegedly justifying his summary execution without trial continues to be withheld on grounds of State Secrets Privilege under a pretext of national security.

Exceptions quickly transform into rules when more and more agents agree to follow suit. Case in point: only a few years after Obama’s 2011 decision to execute Al-Awlaki by lethal drone, then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron chose in 2015 to eliminate two British nationals located in Syria using lethal drones. Now, apparently, this is what the US government and its allies do. Find people, even fellow citizens, who appear to be up to no good, and if they are located in a Third World country or war zone, then it’s supposed to be perfectly fine to execute them without trial. Just make sure that you use a missile so that you can call it an “act of war”.

In the case of Micah Johnson, the Dallas cop killer who was blown up by a robotic device operated by remote control, people may say that he obviously deserved to die and the police had no intention of risking the lives of any more of their comrades. But there were other “suspects” identified at the time of the crime as well, who might also have been blown up using robots, were they available, and had those suspects been located.

One fellow’s face was spammed all over Twitter. It turned out that he was not involved. What if some vigilante had taken him out, under the assumption that he needed to be neutralized? What if the angry Dallas police force had located that suspect and blown him up for the very reason that he adamantly denied having done anything wrong? He would have become the homeland analogue to collateral damage, now that the weapons of war are being used by law enforcement.

The risk aversion of war makers steadily increased over the course of only a couple of decades to the point where sacrificing the lives of civilians on the ground “outside areas of active hostilities” has come to be considered perfectly acceptable among US leaders. These are places where deadly missiles are being directed toward suspected terrorists even though they are not threatening anyone with death at the time when they are killed, and least of all US citizens. Indeed, the targets are usually unarmed, located as they are “outside areas of active hostilities”.

Given how the drone program inclined administrators toward killing rather than capturing Bin Laden, and given how the killing of Bin Laden then inclined administrators to kill even US citizen suspects by lethal drone, I predict a similar lethal turn in law enforcement in the homeland in the aftermath of the obliteration of Micah Johnson by remote control. It does not matter that his case was exceptional. The case of Bin Laden was exceptional, too.

The same risk aversion seen among the “light footprint” war makers led by Obama will begin to infect police departments all over the United States as the commanders of men in blue become less and less willing to allow them to die, even when the risk of killing innocent bystanders will obviously increase. It is of course rational to attempt to protect soldiers and policemen. But is it not finally time to reconsider the infinite price in innocent life being paid in the quest to kill allegedly evil people, whose importance is given higher priority than anything else? Is this focus on death to the exclusion of all other considerations not the ultimate expression of nihilism?

What is most remarkable of all about the myopic, glaucomic, and amnesiac paradigm of lethal centrism is that given the never-ending series of mass killings being perpetrated all over the place—in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice, Dallas, Baton Route, Munich—we now have ample evidence that this single-minded focus on lethality is not keeping people in the West safe.

As a matter of fact, “Kill don’t capture” and “Strike first, suppress questions later”, the Obama administration’s signature policy, serves as an incredibly destructive example to lone wolf killers, would-be jihadists, and angry activists alike who emulate governments when they decide to take up arms and perpetrate mass homicide as a way of expressing their grievances.

 

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2016 paperback edition with a new foreword available for pre-order at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Kill-Because-Can-Soldiering-Assassination/dp/1783605472?ie=UTF8&qid=&ref_=tmm_pap_swatch_0&sr=

 

Suspects versus Combatants: How Self-Styled Drone Warrior US President Barack Obama Normalized War Crimes (Part 2)

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It’s official: the US government has now confessed to having intentionally and premeditatedly killed at least 2,372 persons in places where US force protection was not the reason for the acts of homicide. They also admit to having unintentionally killed at least another 64 persons who were doing nothing other than going about their lives in their civil societies. These are remarkable admissions. Why? Because the approximately 2,400 acts of homicide are openly and unselfconsciously acknowledged to have taken place not where the lives of US military personnel or other citizens were at stake, but “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”.

Persons killed “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities” were living in places which were not war zones. There were no “active hostilities” underway. The targets slain by lethal drones in such places were not directly threatening any other human being with death at the moment when they were killed. The more than 2,400 recently confessed homicides were committed in the victims’ civil societies. In other words, the stalking and hunting down of these people constituted acts of assassination, not acts of war. These were extrajudicial executions, authorized by the US president in the name of national self-defense.

The equivocation between criminals and soldiers began under the Bush administration, which waged full-scale wars on Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the crimes of September 11, 2001, instigated by a relatively small group of persons most of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia, which strangely (or not) received a “get out of jail free” pass from the US government.

In the case of the targeted killing program using lethal drones, the US government under Obama also wishes to have it both ways, treating the targets as convicted criminals whose just desert is death, while simultaneously invoking Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and a state’s “inherent right to self defense” as the reason for killing all of these people, with the innocents written off as “collateral damage”.

Scholars of international law have repeatedly observed that Article 51 is only relevant when the nation against which military action is taken has actively initiated hostilities against the nation claiming to defend itself. In other words, Article 51 is inapplicable to these acts of homicide, because, by the US government’s own acknowledgement, they have taken place “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”. A war zone is a site of active hostility. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are identified as “areas of active hostilities” in the US government’s recently disseminated “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities.”

The persons reported on in the July 1, 2016, document were killed between January 20, 2009, and December 31, 2015, and resided in remote territories of tribal regions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, and possibly other places as well—the countries are not named because the homicides perpetrated outside of active war zones are being carried out under the authority of the CIA, not the Pentagon, and so count as covert operations.

The transparency infamously championed by Obama ends up amounting to this:

We will admit to having killed these people, but we won’t tell you who they were, when they were killed, or why (beyond the fact that we have decided that they were enemies of the state). All of that sort of information is classified. Just trust us, we know what we’re doing.

Even if the US government somehow became willing to divulge the names of their targets, it turns out that most of the names are not known anyway. The question, therefore, most be posed: How did the US government know that they were terrorists? The answer, I regret to say, is: They did not.

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The victims were all suspected terrorists, just like the persons interned at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, 86% of whom were later determined to have had no connections to terrorist groups. They may have looked like terrorists. They may have dressed like terrorists. Their comportment may have matched the “disposition matrix” of behaviors typical of terrorists—carrying weapons, wearing turbans, hollering out in anger at the invaders of their land—but most of those men, incarcerated under the authority of President George W. Bush, were not terrorists at all. They were suspects who turned out to be innocent.

The Obama administration’s manner of dealing with persons suspected of complicity with terrorist groups has been summarily to execute them all: “Kill don’t capture” or “Take No Prisoners” is, sad to say, the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy initiative. Once the persons killed by drone strikes are dead, they are categorized as “enemy killed in action”, or EKIA, which we know not from the July 1, 2016, report but from classified US government documents made public by The Intercept thanks to a whistleblower.

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this fact, so let me reiterate it as plainly as I can: The persons killed by Obama “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities” have precisely the same status as the persons imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. Obama’s terrorist suspects have been executed rather than rendered to secret torture facilities and held without charges for many years, but that certainly does not imply that they were guilty. Instead, it implies that Obama has committed war crimes. He has executed thousands of human beings on suspicion of their potential for possible complicity in future possible terrorist plots.

When will the Obama apologists finally open their eyes to the atrocities committed by him in their name?

 

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2016 paperback edition with a new foreword available for pre-order at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Kill-Because-Can-Soldiering-Assassination/dp/1783605472?ie=UTF8&qid=&ref_=tmm_pap_swatch_0&sr=

The False Dichotomies of Drone Warfare: Drone Strike (2013), directed by Chris Richmond

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I have long believed that well-made films offer a rich source of moral insight, and Drone Strike, directed by Chris Richmond, is no exception to the rule. It’s a very short film, less than twenty minutes long, but like a carefully crafted short-story, it packs a mighty punch. The primary means of conveying its message is to switch back and forth between two families in two very different contexts: a white-skinned family living amidst all of the modern conveniences in the United Kingdom, and a brown-skinned family living with hardly any modern conveniences in Afghanistan.

The father and husband in the UK, Will Brydon, is a Royal Air Force (RAF) drone operator. He dons a uniform, grabs a quick breakfast with his family, kisses his wife goodbye, and drives his car off to work, dropping his son off at school along the way.

Brydon’s office is a trailer, not unlike those at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Like his analogues in the United States, he spends his day sitting before a screen, joystick in hand, ready to “engage” targets as orders are transmitted to him by a radio dispatcher. Brydon has no direct access to the intelligence being used by analysts and commanders to determine whom to kill, but he is able to see the targets before firing on them. When he and his comrade, the laser operator, are given clearance to eliminate a target, they go through a series of steps to lock on with a laser before taking the shot.

The father and husband in Afghanistan is a brown-skinned adult male, empirically indistinguishable from an “evil terrorist”, as far as the drone program analysts are concerned, although they have no idea who he really is. He is about to be made the victim of the latest “signature strike”, the targeting of a brown-skinned male of military age whose behavior coincides with a “disposition matrix” of known terrorist behaviors.

On the fated day depicted, the “suspicious-looking” man has driven his truck to a place thought to be frequented by “evil terrorists” and is on his way home. What was he doing, rubbing elbows with suspected terrorists? He was filling up the bed of his truck with rocks to use back at his dirt-floored home. Judging by their somewhat surly exchange, he was not on particularly good terms with the men from whom he was buying the rocks. Clearly his “association” with these people involved no more than a simple business transaction.

On his way home, the loud sound of a missile strike off in the distance disrupts his concentration, causing him to drive over a gaping hole in the road. As a result, one of his tires goes flat, and he needs to fix it in order to continue his journey.

The rest of the story is all too familiar to anyone who has read NGO and human rights reports on the drone campaigns: the British father and husband uses the latest and greatest military technology to obliterate the Afghanistan father and husband, who is out in the middle of nowhere fixing a flat tire. He had the misfortune of being spotted by analysts behind the scenes whose job it is to locate suspected terrorists to kill. To do their job well, they must deliver. Better safe than sorry! they decide on the basis of their drone footage, in some cases supplemented by the bribed testimony of locals.

The RAF drone operator initially questions the identification of this man as a terrorist, and vocalizes his impression that it just looks like a guy with a broken-down truck. The laser operator scoffs at his comrade, crowing “Guilty as Charged!” and seems excited about the opportunity to “get some”. Together the two soldiers fire on the suspect, and the laser operator cheers when the missile obliterates the target, calling him a “mother fucker”.

Later, after returning home to his family, Bryson begins to reflect upon what he may have done, as doubts are bubbling up again in his mind. Perhaps the man by the truck really was an innocent husband and father out gathering rocks to shore up the walls of his crumbling home. The naggings of conscience begin to creep into Bryson’s consciousness, likely never to be fully expunged. Over time, his skepticism may develop into regret and feelings of guilt and shame about the day when an innocent man’s life was ended because he capitulated to peer pressure and suppressed his skepticism in the moments prior to launching the missile.

The British family has no idea what the soldier has done, but the survivors in Afghanistan are plunged into grief upon the loss of the head of their household. If the drone operator continues on in this profession, he may eventually develop PTSD.

In the final shot of the film, the young son of the slain father is shown in a visible state of rage, his face illuminated by light on one side, and shrouded by darkness on the other. The implication is clear: this is precisely how fledgling terrorists are made. They are reacting to their own experience or witness of crimes by the enemy against which they vow to retaliate.

A car destroyed by a US drone strike in Yemen

The power of Drone Strike inheres in its ability graphically to display a number of undeniable truths which are violated by the drone warriors each and every day:

  1. “Signature strikes” involve explicit racial profiling. If the man with the flat tire had been white-skinned, he likely would not have been killed.
  2. White-skinned people are not more valuable than brown-skinned people. To sacrifice a brown-skinned person in order to save a white-skinned person is racism pure and simple.
  3. Wearing a uniform and following orders does not preclude a soldier’s commission of crimes. Orders in violation of the Geneva Conventions should not be followed. Unarmed persons do not pose an immediate and direct threat to anyone.
  4. Following the orders handed down by an anonymous authority does not absolve the agent from responsibility for what he has done.
  5. Following even legal orders does not insulate a soldier from the psychological trauma of having to live with the memory of what he has done for the rest of his life.
  6. If suspects are innocent until proven guilty, then this applies no less to brown-skinned persons in Third World countries than it does to white-skinned persons in First World countries.
  7. Brown-skinned fathers and husbands are no less important to their children and spouses than are white-skinned fathers to theirs.

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This short but thought-provoking film can be watched through Amazon Prime. It might also be on YouTube somewhere, but I was unable to find it, given the preponderance of videos which come up upon searching for “Drone Strike”…

 

Navigating the Christine Fair-Glenn Greenwald “Debate” on Al Jazeera, or: Why I Wrote We Kill Because We Can

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Having seen so many mentions of the recent exchange between Christine Fair, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University, and Glenn Greenwald, the founder of The Intercept, I decided to give it a listen. To be honest, most of the broadcast struck me as more of a pissing contest than a debate. The opening question posed by the moderator was this: “Do drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill?

Greenwald, invoking the recently released Drone Papers, including documents which indicate that 9 out of 10 persons killed over a five-month period by lethal drones in Afghanistan were not the intended targets, pointed to what he took to be the obvious effect of killing so many innocent people: to fuel terrorism. Fair, for her part, protested vehemently to the characterization of the persons slain as innocent. According to her research, the people being killed are primarily militants. She also insisted that Pakistan is not Afghanistan is not Yemen and that it is a mistake to conflate the various contexts where drone strikes have been carried out.

What is funny about disputes over statistics on first-order collateral damage—civilian body count—is that they do not typically scratch the surface of the fundamental moral and political problems with targeted killing. Greenwald did identify drone killing as a form of terrorism and spoke of the rage among locals in communities where strikes have been carried out. But the focus of these sorts of altercations is typically the proportion of persons killed by drone strikes who were civilians.

Greenwald assumes that the nontargets killed were innocent, though they are classified in the documents as EKIA or “enemy killed in action”. Fair essentially agrees with the US government’s retroactive classification of the persons unintentionally killed as unlawful combatants and therefore fair game for annihilation. This approach depends on a very broad conception of “associates” as virtually anyone who may be brushing elbows with persons deemed suspicious by drone program analysts.

Needless to say, I am inclined to agree with Greenwald. However, I feel that focusing on the statistics of people killed with lethal drones distracts attention from the much larger and more profound problems with the drone killing program. It is true that Greenwald asserted that terrorists are created by drone strikes, given that new recruits react specifically to the slaughter of innocent people. In support of his position, he cited published reports and statements by US military officials.

We certainly have an abundance of testimony from jihadists themselves about what they are doing and why. Why the US government has persisted in ignoring the testimony of Al Qaeda spokespersons—from Osama bin Laden up to the present day—remains unclear. Surely people who take up arms have reasons for doing so, yet slogans such as that “They hate us because of our freedom” continue to be parroted by politicians with little if any heed paid to the words of jihadists themselves.

Greenwald also took issue with drone killing from a judicial perspective, as the summary execution without trial of persons denied the right to defend themselves. Because these people are killed with missiles, rather than poisons or pistols or strangulation wires, the self-styled drone warriors are unmoved by such concerns. Indeed, administration lawyers drew up the lengthy White Paper precisely in order to explain why what the US government had already decided to do—to kill US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki—was in fact just and permitted under US and international law. Whether the document succeeded in its quest is a matter of dispute, but drone program supporters invariably defer to the legal experts working for the US government, rather than figures such as UN special rapporteurs Philip Alston and Christof Heyns, also attorneys, who issued reports in 2010 and 2013, respectively, contesting the legality of drone strikes under international law.

Little attention was paid in this exchange between Christine Fair and Glenn Greenwald to the trauma and degradation of the quality of life of the people living under drones. Fair rejected Greenwald’s assertion that the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan oppose drone strikes. She dismissed the appeal made by Malala Yousafzai to President Obama, saying that the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate had never visited FATA and did not know what she was talking about. Fair also insisted that all of the reports by Reprieve and related groups, in addition to the testimony of US military officers, were either advocacy or opinion. Does being a defender of human rights mean that Reprieve cannot collect data? Surely not. By the same argument, Fair, who reportedly has received hefty government grants for her work, would be disqualified for being a US government “advocate”.

Somewhat bizarrely, Christine Fair’s most unequivocal assertion on the polling data ended up being a profession of skepticism: that the many published polls are untrustworthy and ultimately we cannot know what to conclude, because hardly anyone has journeyed into the dangerous FATA territory, and most of the people polled do not answer the questions being asked anyway. She proceeded from there simply to assume that the official story is the best account we have of what is going on in FATA.

Near the end of the short program, in a surprise—and welcome—turn to civil discourse, Fair expressed a view with which Greenwald wholeheartedly concurred: that the drone program is primarily being used to remove local militants with no international aspirations to attack the people of the United States. Fair and Greenwald appeared to agree on the most disturbing political problem with lethal drones: that by collaborating with the United States, central government authorities are able to eliminate their rivals by characterizing them as “terrorists” and taking them out—going far beyond the authority granted to the US president by congress in the original AUMF (Authorization of Use of Military Force) in 2001. Why, then, does Fair continue to offer vocal support to the drone program?

Having found at least some common ground, what is really needed now to adjudicate the heated dispute between lethal drone advocates and opponents is not more polls and infinitely contestable empirical data, but an examination into the inner workings, the logic, of the drone program. Are drone proponents prepared to move beyond shouting matches about opinion polls and statistics? Are they ready to consider the morality of drone killing and what this practice logically implies? Will they finally acknowledge that long-term cultural and political costs must be considered along with short-term tactical benefits? Presenting lethal drone enthusiasts with more and more data from NGO reports and quotes from military experts has clearly not diminished their faith in targeted killing as a form of “smart war”, a view shared by much of the populace and nearly all politicians as well.

The Drone Papers were not so much a revelation as a confirmation of what had already been reported by various other sources. It’s helpful to have documents backing up the now familiar (and unsettling) fact that the unnamed men of military age (from about 16 to 50 years old) killed by lethal drones—whether in signature strikes or crowd killing or TADS or simply by mistake—are indeed being written into history by US officials as having been justly killed. Now we need to move forward and investigate the nature and basis of these people’s dissidence and militancy.

Throughout the twenty-first century, terrorists, insurgents, and militants have been conflated, as though these categories were interchangeable. Many of the men killed in Afghanistan and Iraq after the US invasions regarded themselves as defending their homeland from the foreign occupiers. In considering the use of lethal drones in places such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Syria, we need seriously to entertain the possibility that some of the men being slaughtered might very well be closer to Nelson Mandela than to Osama bin Laden.


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; and Conclusion

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.

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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