Hunting Human Beings is not The Good Life: Brett Velicovich’s Drone Warrior

 

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I saw reported somewhere that 50% of books purchased are never actually read—at least not to the end. I have also noticed in my own reading of contemporary books that many of them start out strong but eventually fall off a cliff. My best guess is that the authors of such works managed to secure generous advances for agreeing to deliver a finished manuscript according to a strict deadline. With a looming due date, authors hoping to obtain future contracts may be more concerned with retaining good relationships with their agent and publisher than with taking the time necessary to produce a satisfying finish to a book filled with promise, at least judging by the query letter and opening chapter used to woo acquisitions editors. Many writers also know, however, deep down inside, that the best books, the ones which stand the test of time, rather than achieving momentary popularity as a result of dizzying marketing blitz campaigns, are not constrained by deadlines. They are finished when they are finished and not one moment before.

Why, you may be wondering, is any of this relevant to Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier’s Inside Account of the Hunt for America’s Most Dangerous Enemies, by Brett Velicovich? Primarily because the glowing endorsements of this book by military professionals and administrators of the drone program such as Michael Hayden (who serves on the boards of multiple kill-for-profit companies) suggest that they may never have finished reading the book. Skimming through the opening chapters may well give the impression that Drone Warrior offers a defense of remote-control killing. The epilogue, however, tells a quite different story.

I wanted to read Drone Warrior, despite its endorsement by targeted killing profiteers, because I think that it is important to attempt to understand how anyone (sane) could possibly believe that hunting human beings is a worthy profession, and how, in particular, well-adjusted drone operators, sensors and analysts, those who do not suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), regard what they do. In many interviews over the past several years, we have heard the heart-wrenching testimony of drone program whistleblowers, and we know from a variety of sources that many operators and sensors do not renew their contracts, even when offered enticing bonuses to continue on. But this is not only (as the US military would have us believe) because the job involves long, eye-glazing hours of staring at a screen in a dark room.

Films such as Good Kill (2014) and National Bird (2016) have offered some excellent anti-recruitment advice to would-be enlistees. Eye in the Sky (2015), in contrast, attempts to defend the practice of hunting down and killing even nationals abroad by the British government (though capital punishment is prohibited under UK and EU law), and that film may have succeeded in persuading some young people to believe that contract killing can be a noble profession—or at least that it is not obviously murder.

PredatorsWilliamsCoverA number of books, mostly by authors troubled by US foreign policy more generally, have offered scathing critiques of the rebranding of assassination as “targeted killing” and “just war” in places “outside areas of active hostilities” simultaneously (and illogically) deemed by the powers that be “battlefields” because of the perceived threat posed by some (usually a tiny fraction) of the residents. A few books have attempted unsuccessfully to defend the practice of remote-control killing (Brian Glyn Williams’ Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda [2013] leaps to mind), but books written by drone operators, sensors, and analysts themselves have been few in number, no doubt in part because the works must be vetted by military bureaucrats before publication.

PredatorCoverMartinMatthew J. Martin’s Predator: The Remote-control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan (2010), offers eye-opening but extraordinarily disturbing insights into how the people who spend the best hours of the best years of their lives hunting down and incinerating human beings by remote control manage to sleep at night. I discuss Martin’s memoir in some detail in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, especially in chapter 7, “The Operators,” and Chapter 8, “From Conscience to Oblivion.” Martin killed men in Iraq whom he repeatedly ridicules and refers to in his memoir as rodents:

“Insurgents were like having a house infested with rats; the more of them you killed, it seemed, the more they bred.” (Predator, p. 252)

Martin cultivated a palpable disdain for his targets, even while acknowledging that many of them were “angry poor people” incensed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US military in 2003. At the same time, in diaphanous attempts to rationalize what he was doing, Martin compares himself to the US troops who traveled to France to save its people from the German occupation in the 1940s. In fact, a more nuanced consideration of the two cases (beyond “USA! USA!”) reveals the role of the US invaders of Iraq to be much closer to that of the Germans than to the US troops during World War II.

Drone Warrior opens provocatively, with the author, a drone program analyst, explaining that this memoir has been approved by the US military, which censored some parts prior to publication. To my mind, the most surprising omission is the section where Velicovich briefly describes his encounter with “Mr. White” (not his real name), a recruiter who persuades him to go behind “a black door”. Velicovich proceeds, with an air of mystery, to explain that he is not permitted by those vetting his work to reveal how it was that he was converted to the hunter/killer life. His inability to explain what happened to him cannot help but evoke memories of Jason Bourne’s induction into the class of assassins who kill on command—no questions asked.

Whatever may have happened (if it wasn’t illegal, why in the world should it be classified?), Velicovich accepted the invitation, and from there set off for life in “The Box,” where, fueled by a steady diet of Rip It® energy drinks and Frosted Flakes, he spent long days spying on potential terrorist suspects from afar. He developed “pattern of life” folders on the men he surveilled and, ultimately, gave “his” Delta operators the green light when “a bad guy” had been confirmed as such (found and fixed) by him and his drones. That 90% of his targets were, as he claims, captured rather than killed stretches credulity, to put it mildly, given the near absence of detainees taken prisoner under President Barack Obama during the later years when Velicovich plied this trade.

While working for President George W. Bush, Velicovich, like Matthew J. Martin, never seemed fully to grasp that the ever-intensifying insurgency in Iraq was a direct result of none other than the US troops’ presence, and especially their increasingly brutal raids, interrogations, and executions of persons, some of whom proved to be undeniably innocent—not even being identifiable as military-age males. Perhaps it was a combination of sleep deprivation and excessive consumption of energy drinks and sugar-coated cereal which induced in Velicovich an inability to grasp that many of the able-bodied Iraqi males deemed “fair game” by the US invaders wanted nothing more than for them to leave their land.

Disturbingly, as the occupation of Iraq was winding down, Velicovich and his buddies received an order from on high to eliminate as many people on their hit lists as swiftly as they could—a murderous form of “scorched earth”. This “green light” from (dare I say?) Corporate headquarters inspired something of a killing spree as the hunter-warriors attempted to wipe out “the enemy” while they still had the chance. Even while acknowledging that the military-age men being killed were community members—sons, husbands, fathers and brothers—Velicovich leapt at the chance to eliminate them, having convinced himself that they were “bad guys”.

What I find most interesting about this memoir is that Velicovich openly acknowledges the effect that living as a hunter of human beings had upon his mind, his body, his relationships and, ultimately, his life. He became obsessed with his targets, and when he returned to the United States after a prolonged period in “The Box” abroad, working grueling hours, suffering bouts of insomnia and sleep deprivation, and losing 40 lbs as a result, his girlfriend frankly informed him that he had changed:

“Your eyes, they don’t look the same,” she said. … “They’re like stones. They just sit there.” (Drone Warrior, p. 151)

Velicovich freely owns that as a result of his profession he stopped experiencing emotions at the news of anyone’s death, and his relationship with his girlfriend ultimately fell apart. While working an office job stateside, the analyst wanted to feel the same rush he got from hunting his targets, and he attempted to mimic it through online gambling, but with no success. Velicovich returned to “the battlefield,” this time in Somalia, having found life as a civilian too humdrum. One is certainly reminded here of Staff Sergeant William James, the lead protagonist (played by Jeremy Renner) of Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film, The Hurt Locker.

In Somalia, Velicovich shared his “expertise” with locals in a very different context and one in which he himself faced significant danger, given the reigning instability in that land and what he perhaps rightly portrays as an environment ripe for a “Black Hawk Down” redux. His new girlfriend is distressed that he should prefer the hunter-killer life over their relationship, and eventually he renounces his position, though he insists in this memoir that, if given the choice, he would do it all over again.

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The epilogue of Drone Warrior is not at all the paean to remote-control killing which one might have expected from a book lauded as “the definitive account of our nation’s capacity and capability for war in the modern age.” In fact, it reads more like a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) infomercial. Velicovich, who became obsessed with his targets and returned to “the life” after having abandoned it once, finally decided to take a very different path. Inspired by animal rights activists in Kenya, he left the military and embarked on an entirely new career, establishing a company in which his prowess as a drone analyst can be used to stop poachers from destroying endangered species such as elephants and rhinos. Through this new venture, Velicovich appears to have achieved a kind of redemption, but in his own eyes, he is and always was one of the “good guys.” It surely takes some mental gymnastics to believe that elephants and rhinos have more significant rights to life than do human beings in a land under illegal occupation. (What did go on behind that black door?)

To be honest, I am somewhat surprised that this memoir was published, for the undeniable conclusion of the work—to anyone who makes it through the all-important epilogue—is that serving as a hunter-killer of human beings is not a tenable path to The Good Life. While deployed, and throughout his memoir, Velicovich takes great pains to to convince himself (as did Matthew J. Martin in Predator) that he is a worthy warrior doing what must be done. The bereft survivors of the raids and drone strikes carried out in Iraq on the basis of his analyses would no doubt beg to differ—particularly in cases where the “bad guy” in question was attempting only to defend his territory from the invaders.

At one point, Velicovich details his benevolent use of drones to help a doctor whose wife had been kidnapped by ISI (the Islamic State in Iraq—before it expanded into Syria). But he declines to offer details on any of the cases where “mistakes were made” and never consciously faces up to the cold, hard, and grisly truth: that had he and his comrades not been in Iraq, then ISI would never have morphed into what became its murderous and virulent form. Following the call of Al Qaeda, Muslim men did indeed flock to Iraq for the opportunity to kill the heathen invaders, but all that the US soldiers needed to do to prevent most of the locals from attempting to kill them was to leave.

The fact that Velicovich needed to find a new profession in order to rehydrate his human capacity to feel emotion strikes me as just as important as the testimony of apostate drone program personnel suffering from PTSD that this frenzy to maximize lethality and to make body counts the be-all and end-all of US foreign policy was a horrendous mistake from the very beginning. As drone killing spreads around the globe, with petty despots following the lead of the self-styled “beacon on the hill,” defining their political enemies as “evil” before summarily executing them with drone-delivered missiles, the normalization of assassination by the sole military superpower must be recognized for what it is: a tragedy for humankind and a hideous assault on not only democracy and the rule of law but also simple decency.

 

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US Drone Policy Goes from Bad to Worse: The Stimson Center Report 2018

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Every two years, the Stimson Center Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, directed by Rachel Stohl, issues a pamphlet of recommendations to the U.S. government on the use of weaponized UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft). Over the course of the past six years, it has become all too clear that no one in the government actually reads these reports, and the tone of the latest installment in the series, “An Action Plan on U.S. Drone Policy: Recommendations for the Trump Administration,” understandably conveys frustration.

The first report, issued in 2014, seemed to be filled with optimism and congeniality, and the second report (actually called by the Task Force a “Report Card“), issued in 2016, offered a gentle admonition of the Obama administration for its failure to make its policies and practices transparent or to produce anything even approaching international norms for the use of the new technology.

Now the task force seems to have thrown caution to the wind, recognizing that the Trump administration could not care less what the Stimson Center has to say. Despite the failures of the Obama administration to heed most of the recommendations of the first report, as reflected in that administration’s poor “grades” in the second report, it has become increasingly clear that the Trump administration has no intention even of showing up for school: “U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration has thus far been defined by uncertainty coupled with less oversight and less transparency.”

Critics of the U.S. government’s drone program (myself included), have explained in meticulous detail how the entire institution of premeditated, intentional, extrajudicial assassination of persons (usually able-bodied Muslim males) suspected of possibly plotting possible future terrorist attacks–or simply being potentially capable of doing so–rests upon a lamentable framework of linguistic legerdemain. People may despise President Trump, but no one with any familiarity with the history of the use of lethal drones can deny that the “killing machine” is President Obama’s lasting legacy.

What is good about the 2018 Stimson Center report is that the authors explicitly articulate criticisms diplomatically skirted in the earlier reports, particularly the first one, which was produced under the guidance of a variety of industry and military experts and expressed general agreement with them that the use of lethal drones was morally and legally permissible.

Four years later, perhaps out of exasperation, the Stimson Center has finally decided to voice some serious objections to what has been going on for the past sixteen years. Consider these examples:

Currently, the U.S. drone program rests on indistinct frameworks and an approach to drone strikes based on U.S. exceptionalism. Ambiguity surrounding U.S. drone policy has contributed to enduring questions about the legality, efficacy, and legitimacy of the U.S. drone program.

This one is buried in a footnote (#1), but is noteworthy:

Although not included in this report, the lethal targeting of U.S. citizens is a critical aspect of this conversation. In 2014, the Obama administration released a Justice Department memo articulating its legal justification for targeting an American citizen abroad, Anwar al-Awlaki. The memo, released to the public following lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times, argues that U.S. citizenship did not make Anwar al-Awlaki immune from the use of force abroad and that the killing of a U.S. citizen by the U.S. government is authorized by the law of war under a public authority exception to a U.S. statute prohibiting the foreign murder of U.S. nationals.

Or consider this zinger:

By requiring some connection to an imminent threat, a “near certainty” of the presence of the targeted subject, and no perceived risk of civilian casualties, the PPG [Presidential Policy Guidance] was at least intended to minimize civilian harm. Nevertheless, some elements of the PPG — such as the requirement that a threat be both continuing and imminent — seem inherently contradictory, and many critics of U.S. drone strikes have questioned whether strikes outside areas of active hostilities are lawful.

Another one:

The U.S. government’s refusal to release information about the targets of its drone attacks and the difficulty in accessing the locations where U.S. drone strikes have occurred have made it difficult for third parties to assess the legality of specific attacks.

While there is consensus that the United States is engaged in an armed conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, critics of U.S. policy and practice argue that U.S. drone strikes to conduct targeted killings outside these areas should be governed not by the law of armed conflict but by the stricter requirements of international human rights law, which permits killings of individuals only to prevent an imminent threat to life.

I am not sure why Syria is included in the list as a U.S. war zone, alongside Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is good to know that the Stimson Center is at least considering criticisms brushed aside by everyone in the government and given short shrift in the 2014 report. Better late than never. Perhaps they have been reading some of the critical books which have been rolling out in a steady stream since 2015?

Another possibility is that they no longer feel the need to hold back as they did during the Obama administration because, well, Trump is president. They may as well express all of their concerns so that at least they will seem to have been on the right side of history, even if no one in either administration took seriously anything they ever said. That may sound harsh, but I cannot help thinking that if the 2014 report had been less conciliatory, then perhaps it would have garnered more attention from the press, and there might have been some sort of public debate over the abysmal practice of assassination by remote control.

By now, euphemistically termed “targeted killing” is considered perfectly normal by nearly everyone (save radical book authors, antiwar activists, and libertarians), and rolling back Obama’s radical expansion of executive power will be all but impossible to effect, except, perhaps, if “The Resistance” somehow succeeds in removing Trump from office. But wait: then Mike Pence will be president! Does anyone truly believe that Pence would be more willing than Trump to cede power? No, it is the nature of power-seeking individuals (above all, politicians) to amass power until it is taken from them.

Given that “The Resistance” recently acquiesced in the bestowal upon Commander-in-Chief Trump of a $700+ billion defense budget, I don’t see the practice of drone assassination being curtailed anytime soon.  Particularly since the Pentagon produces projections for funding which extend ahead for the next twenty-five years, effectively locking in place what they have done and are doing, thereby ensuring that there will be even more of the same. As missile-equipped UAVs continue to be produced and distributed in a dizzying flurry, and more and more operators are trained to kill, enticed by lucrative salaries and benefits packages, the hit lists will grow longer as well. Given the nature of lethal creep, I predict that some of the unarmed military UAVs already hovering in US skies will be weaponized for use in the homeland. Recall the case of Micah Johnson, who was blown up by the Dallas police using an explosive-equipped robot.

So, yes, things have predictably gone from bad to worse, for lethal creep leads to further lethal creep, with no real end in sight. The 2018 Stimson Center report observes that the Trump administration is currently rolling back “restraints” and “guidelines” said to have been implemented during the Obama administration. Among the changes being considered are:

  1. Expanding the targets of armed strikes by eliminating the requirement that the person pose an “imminent threat,”

  2. Loosening the requirement of “near certainty” that the target is present at the time of the strike to a “reasonable certainty,” and

  3. Revising the process through which strike determinations are made by reducing senior policymaker involvement and oversight in such decisions and delegating more authority to operational commanders.

Hooah! MAGA! USA! USA!

In all seriousness, the Obama administration’s “restraints” were never anything more than an effort to quell criticism. Smile politely and gush about “just war theory,” and people will leave you alone, Obama learned from his targeted killing mentor, John Brennan. “Infeasibility of capture” was always a farce (see the cases of Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden). And “near certainty”? Why don’t we ask Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto about that one? Or, for that matter: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki?

The fundamental point cannot be overstated: by redefining “imminent threat” as no longer requiring “immediacy” and asserting the right to kill anyone anywhere deemed dangerous by a secretive committee of bureaucrats using deliberations conducted behind closed doors and never shared with the public (invoking State Secrets Privilege), the Obama administration paved the way to the latest slide down a slippery slope to even more wanton state homicide.

During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Obama has been reveling in portrayals of himself as some sort of saint by “The Resistance” and the adoration of throngs of people who find him dignified and “presidential” next to his successor. But Obama’s own erection of a U.S. killing machine, and normalization of the insidious policy of summary execution by lethal drone outside areas of active hostilities, even of U.S. citizens, will haunt humanity for decades to come.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump hugs a U.S. flag as he takes the stage for a campaign town hall meeting in Derry

 

Sting of the Drone: A fictional work filled with truths about drone warfare

 

 

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I recently finished Richard A. Clarke’s Sting of the Drone (2014), which is a modern military thriller filled with fictional characters who are all apt metaphors for the players involved in drone warfare, including bureaucrats, operators, victims, angry survivors, mercenary opportunists, and young men lured into becoming jihadi foot soldiers. The book is quick-paced and portrays a world in which drone assassination is perpetrated by a group of professionals who view themselves as fighting “the bad guys” and defending their country, even when they accidentally wipe out a group of young boys or an American citizen at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, among other mistakes. The notion of “collateral damage” is used to absolve the killers from any true responsibility for what they do, but some among the perpetrators occasionally indulge in a bit of soul-searching.

Without revealing the major plot points or dénouement, I will say that I applaud Clarke’s willingness to tackle this topic in what appears to be something of an act of contrition, given the confessional quality of the author’s note at the end of the book. It turns out that Clarke himself first agitated most forcefully for the arming of the Predator drone, way back in the twentieth century, when it was used strictly for surveillance, but he was repeatedly rebuffed. All that changed with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, after which, of course, an entire program of assassination was instigated.

The critical tone of much of Sting of the Drone makes clear that Clarke now disagrees with what the drone program has become. The former chief counter-terrorism security adviser on the National Security Council appears to believe that Osama bin Laden could have been taken out early on, in which case 9/11 would have been averted, and the Drone Age would then perhaps never have come about. I am not so sure, given the lethal centrism of US foreign policy and the lethal creep of the military, fueled by a fascination with the latest and greatest–and most deadly–DARPA technologies.

In any case, Clarke competently covers a range of important topics ignored by the all-too-sanguine headlines regularly reporting “victories” in the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT), above all: What happens when drones are hijacked, or commandeered, by angry converts to jihadism who wish to exact revenge against the bureaucrats serving on “kill committees” and the operators who act on orders arising out of “kill calls”?

Clarke offers plenty of nitty-gritty detail, explaining how in reality such retaliations could be carried out, which is sure to interest technology buffs and readers of military thrillers alike. It should also be of interest to ordinary citizens, who will no doubt bear the brunt of the blowback attacks of the future, orchestrated in direct response to the US government’s summary execution of thousands of military-age men, along with unintended “collateral damage”, in countries all over the Middle East and Africa, among other places.

This book offers a fine introduction to the manifold problems with the US drone program and the proliferation of remote-control killing currently underway all over the globe, thanks to the precedent set by the US government, especially under President Barack Obama, who opted to kill rather than capture suspected terrorists. The lawless and counterproductive drone killing of such persons abroad has, predictably, continued and grown worse under President Donald Trump. But the normalization and rebranding of suspect assassination as “targeted killing” and an act of “war” will surely go down in history as Obama’s biggest blunder. Executive power, once seized, is seldom renounced, and it is difficult to imagine why targeted killing would be curtailed by any future president without a significant popular movement to call a halt to the practice. Unfortunately, most of the citizenry has been hoodwinked into believing that drone assassination is a form of “smart war”.

Give this easy-to-digest but thought-provoking book a read, or a listen, and see what you think…

Drone (2017): Are private contractors killing people using drones at the request of the CIA?

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It’s probably about time for film makers to stop naming their critiques of drone warfare Drone. But that’s just a quibble—more a piece of practical advice than a substantive criticism. This latest installment in the “movies called Drone” series is directed by Jason Bourque and manages to offer some new twists on the many trenchant works created by thinking people appalled by the “lethal turn” in US foreign policy since September 11, 2001.

Assassination has been normalized as a standard operating procedure, a feat accomplished not by President Trump but by his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose administration mounted and implemented a complex bureaucratic institution of intentional, premeditated homicide of persons (usually of color) who are either suspected of complicity in terrorism, or suspected of association with persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. That’s right: the people being intentionally killed under the auspices of the US drone program outside areas of active hostilities fall into one of two categories: guilty until proven innocent, or guilty by association of being guilty until proven innocent.

Nearly all of the victims of drone strikes have been brown-skinned and of Muslim origin. It’s really quite astonishing that the first black US president could preside over such a flagrant program of racial profiling, which denies persons of color not only their right to life but also their rights to defend themselves against the charge that they deserve to die, without indictment much less trial, for hypothetical crimes to which only the killers are privy. One can only hope that future historians will be suitably shocked by the total discombobulation of Western administrators in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

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In Drone (2017), a recent film version of the We Kill Because We Can story, many aspects of the US killing machine and how it has been used throughout much of the twenty-first century are highlighted, in the hope of provoking the viewer to reflect upon the significance of a paradigm of war which, despite being not only morally and legally, but also strategically dubious, has come to be accepted by Western politicians and their voting constituents alike.

Sure, the drone warriors have managed to incinerate thousands of persons, mostly of unknown identity, but what have they really accomplished, beyond mass homicide and the enrichment of war profiteers? The Middle East is in shambles, Al Qaeda franchises have spored and spread, and the United States is fighting wars in at least seven different lands, while threatening others in various ways. Any sober assessment of US foreign policy over the past seventeen years can only conclude that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has been an unmitigated failure. The primary tool of GWOT has been none other than the weaponized drone, which helped to usher in an era of executive war (formerly known as monarchic depredation, or tyranny) by allowing leaders both to wage war and deny that they are engaged in war at the same time and in the same place (for more on this, see the Libya intervention of 2011—or the bombing of Syria in 2018).

NotFlourishingThe drone operators whom we have learned about in a variety of films, not only in documentaries such as National Bird (2015) and Drone (2014), but also in works of fiction based on reality, such as Good Kill (2015) and Drone Strike (2013), have for the most part been young people recruited right out of high school or in their early twenties. In Drone (2017), however, the central protagonist, Neil Wistin, is a middle-aged man with a teenage son who spends a good deal of time playing hunt-and-kill video games and would in fact be a prime candidate for recruitment into the military as a drone operator. Instead, it’s his dad who spends his days stalking and snuffing out “bad guys” located on the other side of the planet. Wistin, a civilian, works as a contract killer for the CIA. He is not a soldier; he is an assassin. He is paid to eliminate persons nominated to kill lists by other private contractors based on circumstantial evidence (aka SIGINT) and bribed hearsay (aka HUMINT). His family has believed for years that he works in IT for a nonexistent company, but they eventually come to learn that Wistin spends his days not programming but hunting down and killing human beings in Pakistan at the behest of the CIA.

Along with the intended targets, Wistin has killed some unintended targets, which he and his co-workers perfunctorily label “collateral damage”. But the notion of collateral damage, dubious enough as it is, cannot truly be said to apply to cases of assassination. And no, it does not matter in the least that the implement of homicide is a military weapon. For in genuine combat contexts, where the lives of soldiers on the ground are at stake, collateral damage is said to be permissible because it is unavoidable, given military exigencies. The use of the category of “collateral damage” to excuse the people being mistakenly killed by weaponized drones outside areas of active hostilities is tantamount to asserting the right to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, for whatever reasons the killers themselves deem sufficient. It is also a categorical denial of human rights.

The utter lawlessness of this paradigm will become more and more apparent as lethal drones spread around the globe and are used by leaders according to their discretion and caprice after kill committee meetings conducted behind closed doors and with neither transparency nor due process, following the example of mentor governments Israel and the United States. The drone killers act with complete impunity, for they are physically protected by their geographic distance from the places they fire on, and the secrecy of the program ensures that they remain anonymous, not only to their victims, but also to their family members and friends, as in the case of private contractor Wistin, who essentially leads a double life like any regular spy.

But is it really true that there are private contractors serving as drone operators and firing missiles upon people? If there were, we would not be told, for the citizens paying for this institution of death know as little as possible about the facts on the ground and the inner workings of the killing machine. This carefully maintained state of ignorance among the very people paying for the drone program is rationalized under State Secrets Privilege.

In a series of carefully plotted scenes, Drone (2017), like other films produced on this controversial topic in recent years, illuminates some of the lesser known and morally unsavory aspects of what has been going on:

  • Wounded survivors of initial strikes are taken out in double tap strikes, what can only be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Of course the “quaint” idea that unarmed persons may not be summarily executed is ignored in the first strikes as well.

  • Persons are being spied on as though they had no rights or dignity whatsoever—whether or not they are suspected of terrorism.

  • The persons left bereft after strikes mourn the loss of their loved ones, who were, in reality, fathers, brothers, sons and, in the case of collateral damage victims not even suspected of complicity in terrorism: altogether innocuous women and children.

  • The killers are themselves never at risk of death when they fire on targets thousands of miles away, rendering dubious the rationalization used by combat soldiers throughout the history of warfare: that they must kill or else be killed.

  • The rebranding of assassination as targeted killing in warfare (dismissing innocent victims as collateral damage) but not really warfare (when it comes to oversight and congressional mandate) makes it nearly impossible for the citizens paying for this institution of premeditated homicide to understand what is going on. They are told that this is all a matter of national defense, and naturally throw their support behind anything carrying that label.

  • The military-age men killed—whether intentionally or unintentionally—are assumed to be terrorists, while the cases of collateral damage killing of women and children are systematically denied as “unconfirmed”, when not outright dismissed as terrorist propaganda.

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These features of the drone program are variously highlighted in the film when a Pakistani businessman, Imir Shaw, whose wife and daughter were destroyed by a drone strike, travels to the United States to confront their killer. The unsavory truths being conveyed in Drone (2017) are easily verified, but the specific scenario devised to press these points is highly implausible for a variety of reasons. First, the Trump administration immigration gatekeepers would be unlikely to admit through the golden arches a military-aged male from Pakistan. Second, the man manages to locate his wife and daughter’s killer through hacking into the drone intelligence network, which, while possible, would be very difficult. Third, the layers of secrecy used to protect the perpetrators, including the very use of private contractors, makes it not at all obvious how such a victim could identify the precise person who pushed the button in any given case. The use of private military companies in the real-life drone program—if not in the acts of killing, at least in the generation of kill lists—makes it improbable that the name of the killers of any given victim will ever be revealed, even if the system is hacked (which is far more likely to be done by a whistleblower within the system than an outsider), and information is shared via an outlet such as Wikileaks.

DeathDinnerBut Drone (2017) is a work of fiction, which admirably attempts to reveal what is invisible to people in the West: the reality of the drone program for the victims and their bereft survivors. The story explores what could happen if one of the grieving victims ever encountered the person physically responsible for his grief. Imir Shaw shows up at Neil Wistin’s home, feigning interest in the boat with a “for sale” sign in the driveway. He then proceeds to befriend the Wistin family, having been invited to stay for dinner, before explaining that his own family, a wife and daughter, were destroyed by a US drone. As the evening progresses, the conversation becomes strained when Shaw and Wistin begin to wrangle over the US drone program and the war on terror. Ultimately, the Pakistani dinner guest spills his guts, explaining that it was Wistin himself who killed Shaw’s wife and daughter.

Shaw also informs Wistin that his wife has been having an affair, which he has learned by spying on her prior to the visit, and that the wife and son have no idea what it is that Wistin does for a living. By pretending that his briefcase contains a bomb which he plans to detonate right there and then, Shaw ultimately drives Wistin to attempt to save his wife and son, which culminates in Shaw’s death.

DinnerDroneViewIn some ways, this is a disappointing turn in the story, for it follows the standard Hollywood template according to which the Americans always prevail. But the twist here is that Wistin finally undergoes a conversion to become a whistleblower and make public the true workings of the drone program, including the use of private contractors as assassins. Drone (2017) ably predicts what would in all likelihood be the administration’s response to such a “defection”, which is to denounce Wistin as a traitor, along the lines of the whistleblowers tried and convicted of crimes under the Espionage Act in recent years.

The first half of Drone (2017) runs very slowly and seems a bit meandering, but serves to set the stage for the second half, which becomes more and more suspenseful as the viewer is drawn into the tense conflict between the American drone operator and the grief-stricken Pakistani man. The admittedly heavy-handed points made as the rather contrived plot unfolds are nonetheless important and need to be stressed, which is why I would like to see more people watch this film, despite its cinematic flaws. For the creators of this film are absolutely right about this: Until US taxpayers come to understand the reality of what they are funding under the label of “national defense”, these sorts of abominable crimes will continue to be committed.

The fact that the drone program has been so thoroughly shrouded in secrecy is not, as its administrators claim, itself a matter of national defense, but a means by which to secure compliance when, if presented with the facts, many proponents of drone warfare would withdraw their support. In the case of the US government’s killing machine, the American people have been hoodwinked to the point of coercion, which has undermined the democratic basis for the government’s alleged authority to act on their behalf. The apparent support of a policy or practice which is garnered through the use of deception willfully intended to sow ignorance is devoid of any legitimacy whatsoever. Nearly everyone opposes murder and supports justice, so when people are told by government officials that acts of murder are not acts of murder but instead “just war”, they have been horribly duped, no less than the drone operators seduced to enlist in the military using mythic images of the “noble warrior”, when in fact they will be transformed into contract killers.

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Trump administration to ease restrictions on military drone exports–what does it mean?

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For some time now, military advisors to President Trump have been floating the idea that the exportation of military drones should be stepped up in order to keep the United States “in the game”, so to speak. Obviously, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are part of a growth industry, with drones of all shapes and sizes being produced and sold to people all over the world.

Under Obama, lethal drone exports were strictly limited in accordance with what is perhaps best characterized as a policy of American Exceptionalism: Do as we say, not as we do. The technology has been spreading nonetheless all over the globe, with both China and Israel as major players ready and willing to furnish drones to countries not on Obama’s very short list of trustworthy customers. The Obama administration approach was to operate with a presumption against the exportation of lethal drones, but governments seeking this technology no longer need the United States to acquire it. To suppose that lethal drones would not eventually be hovering all over the globe, with or without the blessing of the executive branch of the US government, was shortsighted, to put it mildly. The dangerous precedent was set by the US government itself for the use of drones in wars on “battlefields” paradoxically “outside areas of active hostilities”, and now we can expect to see the true globalization of remote-control killing, across all borders, as lethal creep seeps into the protocol of governments large and small, democratic and monarchic alike.

MadDogMattisOne of the figures promoting the expansion of drone exports has been, predictably, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who, like so many other influential advisors to the president, has financial incentives for seeing to it that this facet of US military industry flourish. Initial indications suggest that the exports will be primarily of surveillance, not weaponized drones, but it is the very nature of a drone to be modular, so lethal delivery systems can be snapped on facilely by the customer. Needless to say, there will be no way to control how these machines are deployed by the end user, and at some point, the thin edge of the wedge will become the thickest, with untrammeled exports of fully weaponized drones as the norm–the argument being, again, that “if we don’t provide the lethal add-on, some other country will.” No one sells guns without ammunition and it seems predictable that drones will be regularly produced and shipped prêt-à-tuer in the not-too-distant future, given that the weaponized drone has already been successfully marketed as a tool of “smart war” in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

DavidCameronDroneFormer US president Barack Obama and former UK prime minister David Cameron intentionally and premeditatedly hunted down and killed their own compatriots in acts of summary execution without indictment, much less trial. What reason can there be for believing that other political leaders will not also follow suit? If two of the most stable democratic governments on the planet have opted to substitute assassination for judicial process, why would the leaders of nondemocratic nations not take this as a license to kill anyone whom they perceive to be threats?

People who see lethal drones as a growth industry are right: the market potential has only just begun. Who knew that Western democracies would revert to pre-Magna Carta times in their desperation to stem the tide of terrorism? That the use of this tactic, the summary execution without trial of suspects, along with whoever happens to be at their side, has failed spectacularly is evidenced by the very fact that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) continues to expand as terrorists proliferate and move to new places, sometimes seeking refuge in the West–which is of course the safest place for them to hide out at this point in history. Certainly jihadists concerned to retaliate to lethal drones hovering above their own neighborhoods in homelands in the Middle East have prudential reasons to pitch a tent somewhere else.

The move to increase drone exports undoubtedly appeals to Trump, not because he himself is in cahoots with the lethal drone industry (at least not to my knowledge), but because he proudly proclaims that his primary mission is to Make America Great Again. Being first and foremost a businessman, Trump naturally measures “greatness” in economic terms. This explains why he has been exporting military weapons and technologies in a dizzying flurry all over the world, especially to the Middle East, but also to Southeast Asia. President Obama had set new records for military exports to Saudi Arabia but Trump, never to be outshined by Obama, has taken weapons exports to a whole new level.

It is possible that Trump’s unabashed quest to out-do Obama on all fronts is a motivating factor in his increased use of lethal drones, the proliferation of hunt and kill missions, and also the decision to ramp up all military exports, including drones. I am inclined, however, to interpret all of this as following from Trump’s monolithic desire to make America economically great again.  The more of these “tools” which are expended, whether in military missions abroad or in exports to other governments, the more there will be a perceived need to produce even more of them, using American capital and American labor. Greater production of weapons by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and the many other American firms whose wealth derives from the sale of implements of mass homicide will mean more profits. It seems safe to say that Trump does care more about the nation’s economic well-being than the fact that the number one US export has become, sad to say: death. But Trump’s heartfelt desire to revive the US steel industry and, ultimately the US economy, is merely aided by his massive increases in weapons exports. The end justifies the means. Let the missiles fall where they may.

The way was paved for Trump’s increase in military drone exports by the resplendent success on the part of the previous administration in normalizing assassination and, remarkably, convincing people to believe that drone operators may in fact commit what would obviously be war crimes, if perpetrated by uniformed soldiers on the ground. For drones are used to kill suspects without providing them with the opportunity to surrender, even when they are unarmed and not threatening anyone with death, least of all the drone operator incinerating the target. As much as Trump detractors would like to blame the current president for the marked increase in drone-perpetrated carnage to come, the formidable feat of normalizing assassination was accomplished not by Donald Trump, but by Barack Obama. This was a landmark, paradigm-shifting, even revolutionary, rebranding of assassination as targeted killing, said to constitute perfectly legitimate warfare.

No one should be surprised that, like US politicians, foreign leaders find lethal drone technology to be highly seductive. Targeted killing has proven easy to sell. More and more leaders will likely follow the US example, by insisting that lethal drones save the lives of compatriots, and obviate the need to sacrifice soldiers. But unscrupulous politicians and the leaders of nations where democracy has yet to take hold can use the very same rationalizations for killing suspects as did their mentors: political dissidents will be denounced as intrinsically evil terrorists and therefore fair game for summary execution.

The myopia of the Obama administration in normalizing assassination without thinking through what were sure to be the ultimate consequences of insisting that the executive branch of a government has the right, in national self-defense, to execute suspects where and when it pleases, will emerge clearly in the years to come. For now, it seems safe to say that “strike first, suppress questions later” will characterize the approach to dissidents by more and more political leaders, all over the globe, thanks to the nearly boundless potential for profits in the death industry. The use of lethal drones to assassinate suspects will be limited only by the imaginations of politicians as they decide, behind closed doors, who does and who does not deserve to be extinguished by remote control.

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Peoples Internet Radio: US Kills Because it Can

In this 50-minute interview, April Watters asks Laurie Calhoun to explain what she means by “The Drone Assassination Assault on Democracy”:

 

 

The discussion focuses on issues raised in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, but also an essay published in ROAR magazine, which can be read here.

Who. What. Why. America’s Culture of Killing: It Doesn’t Begin at Home

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In this 31-minute interview, host Jeff Schechtman asks guest Laurie Calhoun to explain what she sees to be the connection between mass killings in the homeland (such as occurred in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017) and US foreign policy. Both the audio and a full transcript are available here.

The Lethal Foreign Policy of Military Experts

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Libya was bombed by the US government yesterday, but you wouldn’t know it because the media have been obsessed with the #TakeAKnee dispute between the president and the NFL. Trump may not even be aware that Libya was bombed under his authority, because he has put his trusty “Mad Dog” on a very long leash, in the hopes that he’ll be able to figure out how to clean up the mess in the Middle East.

I’ve picked on General James “Helluva Hoot to Shoot Some People” Mattis before, pointing out, among other things, the fact that he’s part of the revolving door of military officers and war profiteers. Was the Fallujah siege of 2004 a splendid show of US military prowess? I beg to differ. Perhaps it was for his moniker alone that General Mattis was called out of semi-retirement by Trump to serve as the Secretary of Defense. But rather than revisit my particular concerns about Mattis’ ability to solve the crises in the Middle East—or elsewhere—given the demonstrated failures of the US military since 2001, while he was running large parts of the show, I’d like to consider a more general question:

Should generals be diplomats?

ColinPowellRetired General Colin Powell was appointed US Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and you may recall his colorful powerpoint presentation before the UN General Assembly in the run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq—yellow cake, aluminium tubes, mobile chemical laboratories (think: Breaking Bad). Powell did not convince very many of his colleagues at the UN that Iraq needed to be invaded in order to thwart Saddam Hussein’s allegedly imminent transfer of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) to Al Qaeda, but the US government went to war anyway. Why? Because the Bush administration wanted to, and UK Prime Minister Tony “Poodle” Blair had pledged that he was “absolutely” with Bush, “no matter what”. (See the Chilcot Report and its implications.) Even more important than having a tiny “coalition of the willing” was the congressional conferral on Bush of the 2002 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), giving him the liberty to wage war on Iraq as he saw fit and at a time of his choosing. The rest is history.

The Middle East is in shambles, and the same pundits and so-called foreign policy experts (including MIC revolving door retired military officers) are regularly trotted out to opine about the latest international crises: in Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and of course the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How did Libya become a part of the War on Terror? That was Obama’s idea or, rather, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s. She and a few others managed to persuade Obama that “Gaddafi must go.” Obviously, Hillary Clinton is not a general, so I am not going to focus on her specific reasons for wanting to repeat, in Libya, the mistake she made in supporting the overthrow of the government of Iraq. As a matter of fact, Clinton has characterized the 2011 Libya intervention as an example of “smart power at its best”. Of course, she also believes that she lost the 2016 election because of misogyny and the Russians (not sure where antiwar voters fit in there), and (assuming she really wrote What Happened) that the point of Orwell’s 1984 was to bolster our trust in “leaders, the press, experts”. May HRC eventually retire from public life in peace.

People have wondered why the United States was at war for every single day of the eight years of Obama’s presidency. Some were disillusioned by Obama’s hawkish foreign policy and decision to normalize assassination, even of US citizens, using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) or lethal drones. Others were naturally elated, and the antiwar voters whose support Obama had lost by 2012 were more than made up for by the gain in people impressed by the fact that he had hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden.

Trump, too, sounded to some voters like the least bellicose of the two viable presidential candidates, once the DNC had completed their coronation of Clinton. He railed against interventionism, nation building, and fighting wars abroad when our own infrastructure is crumbling. Sound familiar? Bush and Obama did more or less the same. No nationbuilding! the candidates cried. US Marines do not walk children to school!

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The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred under Bush’s watch, and his subsequent policies appear to have been largely crafted by Vice President Cheney, former CEO of military contract behemoth Halliburton, along with a contingent of chomping-at-the-bit neocons, who had been scheming about invading various countries in the Middle East for years. Obama and Trump seemed, refreshingly to antiwar voters, not to be swamp denizens but outsiders, who would not fall prey to the Deep State war-making apparatus. So what happened?

Trump, even more so than Obama before him, has depended upon the expert opinions of military personnel in deciding what to do next. Surprise: decorated generals tend to think that more military resources should be poured into the Middle East and the war machine should be expanded to new, uncharted territories as well. That’s because, in the infamous words of George W. Bush: “Our best defense is a good offense.” (National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2002).

It would be difficult for anyone seriously to deny that military experts have been trained primarily to do one thing: destroy things, including people. The most ambitious of the lot rise in the ranks through obedience to their superior officers and their readiness and willingness to carry out deadly missions. Which is not to say that military officers do not also sometimes exhibit courage, early in their careers, before having been deemed important enough to watch war on a big screen far from the bloody fray.

Now imagine that you were a general called upon to advise Obama or Trump about what to do in Afghanistan or Iraq. Because you’re an ambition-driven human being, you’re probably not going to deny that those wars can be won. You’re highly unlikely to apologize for your abject failure to craft a winning strategy over the course of the past fifteen years. Instead, you’ll ask for more and better tools so that you can, at last, get the job done, which no one else, including you, were able to before. The excuse for your prior failure, then, becomes that you did not have enough missiles, planes, drones; or else your hands were tied, making it impossible for you to achieve victory because the president was too involved in short-leash micromanagement and had no idea what the battlefield is like. Or something along those lines.

The point of the military corps is to serve the foreign policy aims of the executive, but when the military is given a say in, or even allowed to determine, what those aims should be, then we should expect to see more death and destruction, not less. So there you have it: the explanation of why the US military budget was recently increased by $80 billion, bringing the total to $700 billion. After consulting closely with military experts, Trump asked for the increase, and Congress gave it to him, despite the fact that Democrats continue to claim that they are part of some sort of anti-Trump Resistance movement.

You might nonetheless suppose that the executive will still be constrained by the legislative branch, given the US Constitution. You would be wrong, as the Congress has left the crusty and arguably misinterpreted 2001 AUMF in place, forsaking yet again its responsibility, right, and duty to decide when and where the United States should go to war. (NB: if the 2001 AUMF had been sufficient to permit the president to bomb anywhere on the planet, then there would have been no need for the 2002 AUMF. QED)

Viewed from the outside, this massive increase in the US military budget looks like the biggest con job in history. The Pentagon, which incidentally has “lost track” of trillions of dollars, is never held accountable, and has done nothing but sow chaos throughout the Middle East, disrupting the lives of millions of persons by killing, maiming, and traumatizing them, in addition to directly causing a massive refugee crisis. Induction on Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria might lead a rational person to be wary about following the advice of military experts in crafting appropriate responses to tensions with Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria (Trump, like Obama before him, cannot seem to decide whether the enemy is ISIS or Assad!), possibly Russia, and who knows where the next hot bed of conflict requiring US intervention will be found! Yet Congress has been persuaded to believe, because its members believe that voters have been persuaded to believe, that not only does the US military deserve their support, but it should be given even more money than before.

The ultimate problem here is a colossal failure of strategic intelligence. Stated starkly: homicide is not a strategy but a tactic. Foreign policy involves resolving conflicts with other members of the international community. Your nation is said to have a problem with another nation, so you can talk it out with the source of the problem, attempt to craft some sort of compromise solution, or explain to other members of the international community why you are right and they are wrong, in the hope that those nations will be able to exert some helpful influence in resolving the dispute. The military is called in when all of that sort of work, formerly known as “diplomacy”, has failed. Unfortunately, the US foreign policy of the twenty-first century has become more and more lethal because civil servants continue to depend upon military experts (again, often with ties to military industry) for advice on how to proceed. But this is not purely a matter of mercenary corruption, though that does play a role. The military mindset is itself geared toward achieving victory, not to retreat or compromise, which can be perceived of, and is often painted as weak.

The approach since September 11, 2001, has been to attempt to erase the problem of factional terrorism, to raze from the face of the earth the evil terrorists, wherever they may be. There has been no motivation for anyone in the administration to take seriously questions of etiology because they know that they can use their trusty drone killing machine in even the remotest corners of the world to incinerate the alleged enemy, wherever he may be said to hide. Advocates of drone killing retort, of course, that radical jihadists are beyond the reach of reason, but that has been intoned reflexively of every enemy against whom missiles have ever been deployed.

In truth, a number of suicide and would-be suicide bombers have quite lucidly articulated the source of their outrage: it is US foreign policy itself, what from the receiving end of missiles looks just like a vicious war on Muslim people. Ask yourself sincerely: What would a vicious war on Muslim people look like? Now take a look at the Middle East. The answer to the question “Why do they hate us?” could not be clearer to anyone who has paid any attention to US foreign policy in recent decades. But so long as the words of jihadists themselves are ignored, and slogans such as “They hate us for our freedom” are mindlessly parroted as the explanation for what they do, the killing machine will continue on in high gear. When the killing machine fails to eradicate the problem, then the constraints will be loosened, as under Trump, generating even more “collateral damage”, which will be used to recruit more and more jihadists to the cause, thereby keeping the killing machine in perpetual motion.

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No one being killed by US missiles today had a hand in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of the younger and younger jihadist recruits being eliminated have lived in countries under continuous bombing for as long as they can remember. Lots of other people have died as well. In 2011, Obama killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman; in 2017, Trump killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter—both were in Yemen. Surely the solution to the turmoil in the Middle East is not the annihilation of every Arabic-speaking person of color born abroad. All of them do have the potential to become terrorists one day, but none of them were born that way.

Even former directors of the CIA have acknowledged that “You cannot kill your way out of this.” (Unfortunately persons in positions of power tend not to arrive at such enlightened views until after they retire.) And yet that is the logical endpoint of an approach whose only real goal has been to eliminate potential threats to the US homeland. Kill them all before they have the chance to make it to US shores! It’s an offensive policy, in both senses of the word, for it values the lives of people in the United States above all other human lives. Now that the lethal scepter has been handed off to Trump, he has not changed anything so much as made patent what US foreign policy has been about all along. Make America Great Again! Even if it involves eliminating everyone else on the planet.

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Obama’s Gift to Trump: Monarchic War Powers

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Senator Rand Paul is to be commended for forcing his colleagues to address the endless wars in the Middle East and proposing that they sunset the 2001 and 2002 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force). This past week, Senator Paul incisively observed in multiple addresses before the Senate body that lawmakers have not debated the topic of war for fifteen years, despite the fact the US constitution vests the war powers of the United States of America not in the president but in the US Congress, the legislative, not the executive branch of government. The Congress may have granted the president permission to take the nation to war in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, but they never explicitly authorized five of the seven wars currently underway.

The 2002 AUMF, which passed in October 2002 and opened the way to a war waged on the false pretense of non-existent WMD (weapons of mass destruction) and an equally nonexistent connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, specifically granted the US president the liberty to take the United States to war in Iraq. Being country specific, the 2002 AUMF cannot be reasonably interpreted to provide authorization for the ongoing US military missions in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Pakistan. (Not to mention Nigeria or Cameroon, where US drones hover and Special Forces “advise” as well.)

One might with good reason wonder whether any AUMF should not be specific to the president to whom it was granted, but President Barack Obama repeatedly insisted that the 2001 AUMF provided him with all the authorization he needed to lob missiles where and when he pleased. It was in fact the primary basis for his expansion of the war on terror to include the use of lethal drones, or unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), to kill persons suspected of terrorism anywhere on the planet. Here is the text of the 2001 AUMF resolution:

The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

This Authorization of Military Force grants the executive the power to pursue anyone associated in any way with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It does not, however, authorize the killing of persons who were small children or, in some cases, not even born at that time. Nonetheless, given how they have been used, the two AUMFs have proven to be tantamount to the relinquishment by lawmakers of any responsibility or duty to decide when and whether the United States should take the extreme measure of warfare, perpetrating acts of state homicide against persons located abroad. Throughout the Obama presidency, from 2009 through 2016, the 2001 AUMF was repeatedly invoked by the administration in defense of its expansion of the war on terror to include the virtually nonstop bombing of several countries and the erection of drone bases in support of a full-fledged drone killing machine used to eliminate thousands of suspects throughout the Middle East and Africa.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were of course started by the Bush administration, but Obama, despite having campaigned on the promise to end the “stupid” war in Iraq, presumed the validity of the AUMF granted to his predecessor as he stepped up the killing of terrorist suspects in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and carried out mass bombing in both Libya and Syria. Obama’s use of military force in Libya in 2011—which he remarkably claimed was not an act of war and therefore did not require congressional approval—effected a regime change no less than had Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

It has been obvious for some time that Obama’s primary legacy would be his ill-fated decision to normalize assassination by drone—rebranding it as an act of war, even outside areas of active hostilities—and opting to kill nearly all terrorist suspects identified as such in the Middle East, rather than throw them into Guantánamo Bay prison, which he promised to close but never did. The practices at GITMO and other prisons (including Abu Ghraib and Bagram) involved atrocious violations of human rights against the mostly innocent suspects, who found themselves in a Kafkaesque, justice-less labyrinth, but surely summary execution by drone of innocent men such as Shaker Aamer would have been even worse. Forty-one of the early GITMO detainees remain locked up without charges today, despite having been cleared for release years ago in some cases. Declining to add further detainees to the tally, Barack Obama opted instead to execute thousands of suspects never indicted or tried with any crimes and identified as suspects using the very same tools used to round up the detainees under Bush: HUMINT, or human intelligence (provided by bribed informants), and SIGINT, or signals intelligence (video footage from drones and metadata derived from cellphone and SIM card analysis).

How are we now, in 2017, to understand what has transmogrified into the perpetual motion US war machine, encompassing not only recognizable acts of war against armed combatants but also acts of assassination against persons outside areas of active hostilities who are not armed and therefore not threatening anyone with harm at the time of their incineration by missile in their own civil societies? Something did change since September 11, 2001, but something even more dramatic took place with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

For Obama was granted an unprecedented amount of interpretive charity by leftists, who wished for various reasons to give him the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, Obama managed to avoid criticism also from many on the right, perhaps because he surprised them with his willingness to kill rather than capture Osama bin Laden in 2011 and proved to be much friendlier toward the military industrial complex (MIC) than anyone might ever have imagined from the eloquent antiwar rhetoric of his 2008 election campaign.

It seems fair to say that Obama’s normalization of assassination by drone was a gift to everyone involved in the killing machine, including the firms privately contracted to produce the analysis used to construct kill lists, such as The Analysis Corporation, whose former president and CEO was none other than John Brennan himself, whom Obama promoted to be the director of the CIA in 2013. Of course the companies who produce the drones and the missiles launched from them against suspects have also been enriched enormously by Obama’s embracement of the drone as a primary counterterrorism tool.

But Obama’s war-friendly policies did not stop with the drone killing machine. Instead, the assassination industry proved to be his first step onto a rather slippery slope, leading ultimately to the mass bombing of seven different countries simultaneously, only two of which, Afghanistan and Iraq, were wars instigated by George W. Bush. Under Obama’s authority (again, he presumed with no effective protest from Congress the validity of the AUMF), more than 23K US bombs were dropped on the Middle East in 2015, and more than 26K in 2016.

In 2012, Obama exported record numbers of weapons to the government of Saudi Arabia, which proceeded to prosecute a horrific war in Yemen, still underway to this day, and has been further aided and abetted by the United States through refuelling and help with analysis. The tons of US weapons furnished to the Saudis have been used to devastate large swaths of Yemen, directly causing a humanitarian crisis including both mass starvation and a cholera epidemic. Interestingly enough, in early 2017, some leftists finally began to complain about US weapons exports when they saw that Trump was selling billions of dollars of weapons to the Saudis. Yet the deals he oversaw had been in the works under Obama and likely would have received little criticism from Democrats, had they been completed during his presidency.

This brings us, at last, to a vexing question:

Why did 13 Democratic Senators just grant Donald J. Trump Monarchic War Powers?

Predictably enough, the Senators called to vote on the possibility of debate over the AUMFs rallied to keep the perpetual motion war machine up and running with no pause for reflection about such questions as:

  • Is the war in Afghanistan winnable? What would victory look like?
  • Why are US soldiers still being killed in Iraq? Isn’t it time to let Iraq determine its own destiny?
  • Why is the US government aiding and abetting a vicious civil war in Yemen? What is our national interest in that conflict supposed to be?
  • Should we not reflect upon and learn from the consequences of disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011? Does it make any sense to repeat the same mistake in Syria?
  • Why are there more radical jihadist terrorists, including the ISIS franchise in both Syria and Iraq, than there were in 2001?

In fact, the list of debate questions could go on and on. But instead of addressing these pressing matters of national security, the Senate once again kicked the can down the road, evading responsibility for whatever the president may do by letting him do whatever he wants. I am puzzled, however, as should anyone who has been watching the news since November 2016. I still cannot help wondering what in the world could motivate a group of Democratic senators, who claim vehemently to oppose the Trump agenda, to grant him unlimited, essentially monarchic, war powers.

Perhaps the senators who voted to table Senator Rand’s resolution are on the take. Some Democratic senators, like many of their Republican colleagues, may receive hefty campaign funding from one or more of the many tentacles of the MIC, which in the 21st century has become the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. Many parties today stand to profit from US government-inflicted homicide abroad, so the answer to my question may be as simple as that. In states whose economic well-being derives from companies with military contracts and subcontracts, senators may also fear that they will be electorally ousted if they do not unequivocally support war at every turn.

There is another possibility. Perhaps by acknowledging that the AUMFs of 2001 and 2002 do not provide the needed authorization for five of the seven wars currently underway, the Democratic senators fear that they would be admitting, too, that Barack Obama prosecuted illegal wars and assassinated suspects in violation, not only of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter, but also the US Constitution. Perhaps the decision to side with most Republicans against Senator Paul and in favor of the assumption of monarchic war powers on the part of the president was their latest unfortunate effort to give Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt. For to deny that Trump has the right and authority to bomb Yemen, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Somalia, would be to assert that Obama also lacked that right and authority. Would such an admission not immediately open Obama to charges of having committed war crimes?

Whether any of these ideas surfaced to consciousness as the thirteen Democratic senators cast their vote, it cannot be denied that Barack Obama has ended up bestowing upon President Trump the gift that keeps on giving: unlimited, endless, monarchic war powers. Bravo.

Maybe I am overthinking all of this. Perhaps the thirteen Democratic senators who voted not to sunset the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs in six months so that Congress could properly debate the seven wars underway—plus whatever wars the Trump administration may decide to add to the list—North Korea, Iran, Venezuela,… the sky is the limit!—did so for the simple reason that they do not believe the anti-Trump media. They do not believe that Trump is Hitler, as antifas have been screaming since the election. They do not believe that Trump is a Russian agent, a theory which Rachel Maddow of MSNBC appears to continue to embrace. They do not believe that Trump is unhinged and ultimately unfit to be the president of the United States. In fact, if actions betray beliefs, then these Democratic senators truly believe that, far from needing to be impeached, Trump should be King!

Whatever their contorted and possibly incoherent rationalizations may have been, the Democratic senators who voted to table Senator Paul’s resolution are simple cowards who doubtless believe that they will escape blame in the event of foreign policy catastrophes authorized not by them but by the president. That certainly seems like a sound explanation for Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s abstention. But if these senators’ vote (or refusal to vote) was a simple matter of shirking responsibility, I am afraid that those who abstained, and the thirteen Democrats who sided with Republicans to defeat Senator Paul’s resolution, are all dead wrong. Refusing to debate war, a Congressional responsibility written into the US Constitution, is the same as tacit assent. The senators who effectively agreed to leave the AUMFs in place will now be directly responsible for every dead US soldier henceforth, and for every terrorist attack instigated in retaliation to US war crimes abroad.

 

The Vote Breakdown on the Motion to Table Senator Rand’s Amendment

YEAs —61: These senators voted to table Senator Paul’s amendment, in other words, not to debate the AUMFs during a six-month period before they would expire without positive Congressional action
Alexander (R-TN)
Barrasso (R-WY)
Blunt (R-MO)
Boozman (R-AR)
Burr (R-NC)
Capito (R-WV)
Carper (D-DE)
Casey (D-PA)
Cassidy (R-LA)
Cochran (R-MS)
Collins (R-ME)
Corker (R-TN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Cortez Masto (D-NV)
Cotton (R-AR)
Crapo (R-ID)
Cruz (R-TX)
Daines (R-MT)
Donnelly (D-IN)
Enzi (R-WY)
Ernst (R-IA)
Fischer (R-NE)
Flake (R-AZ)
Gardner (R-CO)
Graham (R-SC)
Grassley (R-IA)
Hassan (D-NH)
Hatch (R-UT)
Hoeven (R-ND)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Johnson (R-WI)
Kennedy (R-LA)
Lankford (R-OK)
Manchin (D-WV)
McCain (R-AZ)
McCaskill (D-MO)
McConnell (R-KY)
Moran (R-KS)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Perdue (R-GA)
Portman (R-OH)
Reed (D-RI)
Risch (R-ID)
Roberts (R-KS)
Rounds (R-SD)
Sasse (R-NE)
Schatz (D-HI)
Scott (R-SC)
Shaheen (D-NH)
Shelby (R-AL)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Strange (R-AL)
Sullivan (R-AK)
Thune (R-SD)
Tillis (R-NC)
Toomey (R-PA)
Warner (D-VA)
Whitehouse (D-RI)
Wicker (R-MS)
Young (R-IN)

NAYs —36: These senators voted with Senator Paul not to table his amendment 
Baldwin (D-WI)
Bennet (D-CO)
Blumenthal (D-CT)
Booker (D-NJ)
Brown (D-OH)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Cardin (D-MD)
Coons (D-DE)
Duckworth (D-IL)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feinstein (D-CA)
Franken (D-MN)
Gillibrand (D-NY)
Harris (D-CA)
Heinrich (D-NM)
Heitkamp (D-ND)
Heller (R-NV)
Hirono (D-HI)
Kaine (D-VA)
King (I-ME)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Leahy (D-VT)
Lee (R-UT)
Markey (D-MA)
Merkley (D-OR)
Murphy (D-CT)
Murray (D-WA)
Paul (R-KY)
Peters (D-MI)
Sanders (I-VT)
Schumer (D-NY)
Tester (D-MT)
Udall (D-NM)
Van Hollen (D-MD)
Warren (D-MA)
Wyden (D-OR)

Not Voting – 3
Menendez (D-NJ)
Nelson (D-FL)
Rubio (R-FL)

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

spymasters

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:

humamalbalawi

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.

dronecrosshairs

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.”

ciaspymasters