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.
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?
Retired 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!
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.
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.
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.
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
Cortez Masto (D-NV)
NAYs —36: These senators voted with Senator Paul not to table his amendment
Van Hollen (D-MD)
Not Voting – 3
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.
One 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:
“You 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.
However, 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:
“My 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 to 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:
“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.
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.
Former 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.”
UPDATE: Full text now available here.
My essay, “The Drone [Assassination] Assault on Democracy,” appears with several other provocative pieces in issue #4, “State of Control”, of ROAR magazine:
This new publication is produced, edited and mailed from the Netherlands. Hoping one day to see the drone assassins standing trial for crimes against humanity at The Hague.
Very happy to be a contributor to ROAR magazine. My essay, “The Drone Assassination Assault on Democracy,” appears in issue #4, “State of Control”, of this exciting new publication.
Check it out, and subscribe if you can:
The US Air Force has been busy doling out US taxpayer cash, not only for the production of 30 more MQ-9 Reaper (read: death) drones by General Atomics, but also in the hopes of retaining drone operators willing to fly and fire missiles from them. The latest “incentive” being offered to RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) operators is $35,000 each year for the next five years. That’s about $100 a day, on top of their current salary. All that they have to do is not quit their job once their first contract term has expired. Sounds like a good deal, right?
Not so good to the drone and sensor operators who have abandoned the profession as a result of their profound regret (in some cases they suffer from PTSD) for having ever agreed to serve as government assassins in the first place. Brandon Bryant was offered more than $100K to continue on, and he declined. Rather than attempt to understand the moral basis for drone operator discontent, the USAF has decided that really what the operators preparing to bolt need is more money. Who could resist?
If $100 a day as a retainer fee seems like enough of a bonus to continue serving as an on-call government assassin, then perhaps some of these people will stay on. But it is extremely important for them to be fully aware of what they are agreeing to do for the next five years of their lives. President Barack Obama, the current commander in chief, will be leaving office soon. In all likelihood either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will assume the presidency and carry on the Obama tradition of dispatching terrorist suspects by drone. It’s much easier, politically, than conventional warfare (no flag-wrapped coffins, no condolence letters to write), and Obama has effectively normalized assassination by rebranding it as “targeted killing”.
In truth, “targeted killing” using Predator or Reaper drones differs from assassination in only two ways. First, missiles are being used to kill targets, rather than other implements of homicide (pistols, poisons, strangulation wires…). Second, unlike most black op assassinations carried out by hit squads in the twentieth century, drone strikes produce collateral damage alongside the obliterated target. Remarkably, many people have not recognized that those are the only two ways in which the stalking, hunting down and execution of human beings by governments has changed in the Drone Age.
“This is war,” allegedly, because “weapons of war” are used to effect the deaths, and unintended deaths of civilians are caused at the same time. Never mind that, in contrast to regular combat situations, the soldier who pushes the button to launch a missile is not in any direct danger of physical harm, least of all at the hands of his target, who is usually located thousands of miles away and has no idea that he is about to die. Drone operators and sensors might develop carpal tunnel syndrome, but their lives are never on the line when they follow orders to kill.
Given the reality of what they are doing, the drone and sensor operators who accept the latest bribe are in effect agreeing to execute anyone designated by either President Clinton or President Trump as worthy of death. The new US president won’t have to say why, because Barack Obama never did. The drone program has always been secretive and opaque, under cover of national security. The release of the “playbook” (Presidential Policy Guidance or PPG) did nothing to assuage the concerns of critics who have for years been demanding transparency.
All that we know with certainty now is that President Obama was wrong when he told a group of listeners during a GoogleTalk chat in January 2012 that “it’s not a bunch of folks in a room just making decisions.” That is, indeed, precisely what Barack Obama’s version of “due process” is. A massive, secretive, bureaucratic institution of killing, with no checks and balances and zero provision for revisiting death sentences handed down by anonymous officials (“folks in a room”) from behind closed doors, primarily on the basis of analysis (by “folks in a room”) of signals intelligence (SIGINT): metadata from cellphones and SIM cards, and drone video footage. Looks like a terrorist. Walks like a terrorist. Talks like a terrorist. Guilty as charged: send out the drones.
In some cases, bribed intelligence from informants on the ground (human intelligence or HUMINT) is used to supplement the electronic sources of “evidence” that the people being slaughtered truly deserve to die, along with anyone at their side at the time—the dreaded “associates”: taxi drivers, family members and friends, funeral or wedding attendees, first responders, the list goes on and on…
The problems with bribed intelligence from human sources are just as bad as the racial profiling inherent to SIGINT-based “signature strikes” or “crowd killing” of brown-skinned Muslims wearing turbans and carrying guns—or not. Hundreds of strikes have been carried out “outside areas of active hostilities” under Obama’s authorization. Today we know what happened when HUMINT was used to round up suspects for detention at Guantánamo Bay prison: most of the men incarcerated (86%) were innocent. “The worst of the worst” they were called at the time.
It is therefore very important for any drone operators and sensors considering the possibility of continuing on in their role as a professional assassin to recognize that they are agreeing to kill people who in many cases will be innocent of any wrongdoing—certainly any capital offense. Even worse, they are agreeing to serve as the henchman of a future president whom they may or may not believe to be either moral or good.
Many Americans have expressed concern that the Republican and Democratic parties have nominated candidates for the presidency who are wholly ill-suited for the task. In Trump’s case, we really have no idea what he will do. He’s the classic case of a “known unknown”. Some days he sounds like an isolationist ready and willing to put an end to US meddling in the Middle East; other days he sounds like Dr. Strangelove.
In Clinton’s case, we know precisely what she will do: send out the drones and expand and multiply the wars already raging in the Middle East. Amazingly, Hillary Clinton appears to believe that “third time’s a charm,” as she is calling for a repetition in Syria of the regime-change policy which failed so miserably in both Iraq and Libya.
On the drone front, Clinton surrogates have suggested that even nonviolent dissidents such as Wikileaks’ Julian Assange should be added to the US government’s hit list. Perhaps Clinton will try to outdo Obama (who executed US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki without trial), and Edward Snowden’s name will be added to the list as well. Not so far-fetched, given her evident antipathy toward technologically savvy whistleblowers…
Trump or Clinton? Who will the next US president be? Once having signed on the dotted line, drone operators and sensors will be expected to follow the orders of the commander in chief, whoever it may be. Maybe $100 a day as a retainer fee to serve as an on-call assassin isn’t such a good deal after all.