Bribery and the Unraveling of Moral Fiber in the Drone Age, Part I: the Perps

Historically, bribery has been associated with unscrupulous persons and corruption. That’s because a bribed person agrees to do something morally unsavory—which he would not otherwise have done—in exchange for favors or money. In the Drone Age, bribery occurs at every link of the “kill chain”, though it is not recognized as such because many of the persons involved are salaried employees: analysts and drone operators whose professional job description it has become to locate and execute terrorist suspects.

Operators and analysts are told that military-age males (from 16 to 50 years of age) in “hostile” areas are “fair game” for annihilation under current rules of engagement (ROE), and they agree to spend their work days finding such people to kill. In doing so, they liaise with other people, on the ground, thousands of miles away, who have also been bribed to do what they would otherwise never have done, left to their own devices.


There have always been people willing to murder people in exchange for thick wads of cash, but in centuries past, they were generally considered to be disreputable hitmen. Consider the example from Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors of Judah Rosenthal (played by Martin Landau), a successful ophthalmologist who hires a complete stranger (commissioned for him by Judah’s brother, who is a criminal) to eliminate his mistress (played by Anjelica Huston).

MartinLandau in Crimes and Misdemeanors

The contract killer is paid a lump sum to travel to Judah’s city and carry out the task. The next thing Judah knows: Voilà! all of his mistress troubles have evaporated—along with his former mistress, whose cold corpse lies in a puddle of blood on the floor of her home.

No one, I presume, would regard the hitman who accepted the contract to destroy this woman as somehow praiseworthy. Yet it was authorized by someone who, by all appearances, is a perfectly respectable member of society. As viewers of the film, we have privileged access to the stark distinction between moral image and moral reality. In the world in which we live, the only way we can find out the truth about such characters is when they slip up, incriminating themselves in some way which can be demonstrated in a court of law to the satisfaction of a jury of their peers.

What has arisen in the Drone Age is a frightening inversion of the burden of proof. “Kill committees” are assumed, under cover of national security, to be justified in ending the lives of other people on the basis of information to which only the killers are privy. For the sake of argument, let us charitably assume that the persons involved in the Predator drone program are not careerists driven by a concern to excel at what they have been asked to do: kill as many terrorists (= suspects) as possible (see Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty, and MI5 or Spooks for colorful examples of such aspirational agents).

There remains another, in some ways even worse, problem: in the unoccupied lands where drone strikes are carried out, people on the ground provide the HUMINT (human intelligence), what comes to be regarded as “actionable intelligence” and is in fact the primary basis for targeted killing. Such persons must be locals, because they need to have the linguistic ability to act as spies, infiltrate communities and find some “bad guys”, as they are so often labeled. The very informants who furnish the actionable intelligence for drone strikes in remote tribal regions are, of necessity, the people who report back after strikes to confirm that the “bad guys” were in fact killed. What’s wrong with this picture?

For one thing, there are legitimate grounds for skepticism about the individuals who, enticed by bribes, would be willing to spy on their neighbors with the aim of finding persons for the US government to kill by remote control from thousands of miles away. The moral constitution of such people is suggested by the analogous use of informants by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Many of the terrorist convictions in the United States in recent years have been of people who never came in contact with any real terrorists but only people posing as terrorists, some of whom are con artists and career criminals. (See Trevor Aaronson’s 2013 book, Terror Factory, for details.)

Anticipatory conviction of terrorists in the homeland and execution of suspects abroad both bear similarities to the Bush administration’s notorious preemptive war. This “pro-active” approach to conflict has been wholeheartedly embraced by Barack Obama in his massive expansion of targeted killing campaigns to take out “suspected violent extremists” before they have the chance to realize their potential—whatever that may be. The question which self-respecting thinkers must ask about the information-gathering in these cases is whether it has any juridical—or even epistemic—value whatsoever.

In lands under drone surveillance, when obvious mistakes are made and children and nonthreatening men and women are slain, it seems likely that the “paid informants”, as the bribed spies are termed, are themselves simple mercenaries or “bad guys”, whose aim was to earn some money or to shore up their power and eliminate rivals in their domain. In other cases, analysts keen to find “opportunities” to kill and laboring under a confirmation bias—former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was once described as seeing a terrorist training camp wherever he saw a group of men doing jumping jacks—opt to strike on hunches. What have they got to lose? In this system of absolute impunity akin to that of the tyrants of the pasts, the perpetrators can always cover their tracks by invoking State Secrets Privilege.

Part 2: “Compensated” Survivors


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

A Card Game about Drone Warfare and Collateral Damage?

I recently learned about the existence of Bycatch, which is described by its creators as “A card game about flawed surveillance, impossible decisions, and the people caught in between, for 3-5 players.”


At first, I was appalled by the idea of yet another game mimicking the game-like process of remote-control killing. Drone operators now destroy people using the same physical movements as those used in playing video games, but also in sending email and shopping online. Many video games along these lines already exist, and are no doubt being used to train future drone operators. Bycatch uses a deck of cards and the players’ camera-equipped cellphones, not a computer or gaming console, and so enlarges the domain of people able to play drone warfare games.

With Bycatch, it seemed, the sphere of the new banality of killing was expanding yet again, to include even more people. Now anyone with a cellphone (= almost everyone) could get in on the act, making life and death decisions about suspects on the other side of the planet whom they never met, and who certainly never threatened them with death. Is Bycatch just another game capitalizing on the decadence, ignorance and misdirected zeal found among the YouTube viewers of “Predator porn” or clips of “Kill TV”?


UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) operators have been lured into becoming paid assassins under the aegis of the military, with all of the pomp and circumstance, alleged legitimacy, and respect and honor associated with World War II veterans and the many soldiers who have died fighting throughout history. But operators do not risk their lives as they kill, so they do not need the classical and indispensable military virtue: courage. It is arguable, therefore, that they are not soldiers at all. They kill other people without risking any physical harm to themselves.

As I looked for further information about this game, I began to surmise that the creators of Bycatch were intending (though they have denied this) in their own way to criticize the US drone program, and perhaps that of Israel as well. The figures on the cards are just ordinary people, from a range of professions, and the people playing the game are tasked with eliminating the terrorists while sparing as many civilians as possible. Of course, that’s how it really works in a world in which suspects identified as such by bribed informants may or may not be guilty, and may or may not be devising nefarious schemes against the people of the United States. In fact, because these people typically inhabit the remote tribal regions of Third World countries, they are among the least likely to have the means to act out whatever fantasies for revenge against the US government they may harbor, and yet they are the most likely to be killed.

The game is claimed to be didactic, both by the creators and by reviewers, in that it reveals to players how cavalier these decisions become after a time. One death leads to another, similar perhaps to the case of the hitman who started out as just an average guy who knocked off some bloke but then realizes “What the hell? I’ve already fallen,” and makes this his line of work. That may sound facetious, until one pauses to reflect upon how a non-hitman becomes a hitman. How else might this transformation come about?

Some hitmen are no doubt amoral sociopaths from the get-go, so even their first kill never bothered them in the least. It seems likely, however, that others have been corrupted. They have been bribed to do what they would not otherwise be doing. They agree to kill complete strangers at the behest of the persons paying them to do so. Sound familiar? That would be the US drone program in a nutshell.

Under orders from their commanders, drone operators kill people who do not threaten them personally with death. Analysts make “tough calls” in deciding which places should be hit with missiles, and so they are probably closer to the players of the game Bycatch than are the operators. The concept of last resort simply does not apply in a situation where drone strikes are openly admitted to be carried out as “opportunities arise”. Call it a last resort if it will make you feel better before giving the go-ahead for a strike, but when you discover that the intel was all wrong or stale, then you will be made acutely aware—as was Pentagon attorney Jeh Johnson in late 2009, after approving a massive assault on a Bedouin camp mistaken for an Al Qaeda training facility—that, in fact, your so-called last resort was nothing of the sort.

The scoring rules of Bycatch are intended to reveal an uncomfortable truth: by hitting a terrorist, one acquires 100 points; by accidentally killing a civilian, one loses 10 points. In other words, the asymmetry between “warriors” and civilians is similar to that in war more generally. Countless innocent civilians are said to be expendable in wars waged against “evil enemies”, whose importance therefore obviously dwarfs that of everyone else.

I would suggest that, if the US drone program is truly the object of this “performance critique” of sorts, then the scoring rules of Bycatch are not quite what they should be. In truth, the civilians being killed and traumatized in regions under drone surveillance are given nearly no heed. Most of the time the innocent people slain are simply ignored, or labeled militants, or defined as combatants by definition (all military-age males). But infants are not military-age males, under any conceivable interpretation, and so linguistic contortionism and neologism does not always work.

Slain babies are written off as collateral damage. However, the second- and third-order victims of collateral damage, the grieving parents, children, siblings, and community members who survive to live another day under drones, and are terrified that they may be next in line, are regarded as nonexistent, for their plight does not even enter into the equation of whether or not to strike.

There will be people who find this game enjoyable to play, which is a distasteful thought, but no less than that of the people who watch silhouettes on screens being splashed by operators in “Predator porn”. Because Americans are so devoid of a clue as to what they are paying for in lands where war was never even waged, perhaps Bycatch is a positive development and will help to spark the long overdue debate on this topic which all thinking people must finally agree to undertake before it is too late.

From a drone warfare critic’s perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of Bycatch is that the sought-after “terrorist” is identified at the outset of a game by the arbitrary flip of a card, suggesting how easy it is for suspects and terrorists to be conflated. This an entire extra layer of fallibility inherent to the drone program because the alleged terrorists are first and foremost suspects.


In both the game and the real world, “victories” are scored or vaunted not when actual terrorists are taken out, but when suspected terrorists are. In the game, they are defined as terrorists. In reality, they are sometimes determined to have been innocent post mortem. Will Bycatch help people finally to awaken to the reality that suspects and terrorists are not one and the same? One might have thought that this was the obvious lesson of Guantánamo Bay and the CIA’s torture program, but somehow drone warfare supporters are loath to connect the big black dots.

Westerners may not care so much about the people of countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria. But drone warfare threatens to degrade the security of everyone everywhere, not just the hapless inhabitants of Third World nations in chaotic and anomic post-war contexts, nor those ruled by iron-fisted autocrats who cede their compatriots’ rights (as if they were their own) and permit the US government to strike with impunity in exchange for bribes.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 6: The New Banality of Killing; and Chapter 11: The Death of Military Virtue