Sin-eaters or Sociopaths? Thoughts on watching The Bourne Legacy again

 

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I believe that I have now watched The Bourne Legacy (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2012) four times. I have undoubtedly watched the other entries in the Jason Bourne series at least that many times as well, but the opening scenes of The Bourne Legacy, in particular, are rich in lethal drone content and invariably impel me to begin formulating the plan to compose an essay, though it usually gets shunted down my list of things to make and do for a later date. Not this time.

Last night I watched The Bourne Legacy again and recalled why the film seems so important to me. It depicts a very frightening world, not unlike that of You Can Leave, where the US government has grown several layers of shadow bureaucracies beyond the ability of any individual to attempt to penetrate and expose without paying the ultimate price–and in all likelihood for naught, given the fail-safe security mechanisms firmly in place.

DroneOperatorsBourneLegacyThe reason why this film is so important in the Drone Age is not merely the obvious fact that drones are used in the early part of the story to home in on and extrajudicially incinerate people in the US homeland. The eerily clinical demeanor of the drone operators depicted and the assiduousness with which they hunt down their human targets in not just double-tap but triple-tap strikes are certainly a cause for pause–wherever the victims happen to be located. But even granting that unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) have as much (or little) legitimacy as manned aerial combat vehicles, drones do seem to possess a peculiar potential for abuse, given that they can be deployed without implicating the killers–or those who hire them to kill.

It has already been established that persons in the position to nominate targets to US government “kill lists” (of which there are at least three) are fully prepared to include Americans among their quarry, denying them not only their right to life but all of their civil rights as well. Anwar al-Awlaki may or may not have deserved to die, but those on high who killed him believed that he did, and that alone sufficed for them to be able to take his life with little protest from the citizens who paid for the hit. We still do not know why his son, Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, was also killed by a drone, for the story was effectively buried under a thick blanket of “State Secrets Privilege”.

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It is beyond dispute that the US government has covert doings underway, as evidenced by the very existence of the CIA and also the Black Budget, about which many US citizens appear to be ignorant. Generously funded covert programs, being conducted in near total secrecy, with participants apprised only of information on a “need to know” basis, effectively furnish a small group of zealous bureaucrats with the ability to commit murder and mayhem at their behest, and according to their caprice, eliminating anyone anywhere who strikes them as threatening–in any sense. The Bourne Legacy, along with all of the other Jason Bourne films, underscores how such programs can remain in the shadows, metastasizing in pernicious ways because they are not subject to oversight and are completely opaque, impenetrably protected by a pretext of national security.

Once established, such programs easily elude any possible control, because those who run the programs–invariably self-proclaimed “patriots”–regard themselves as defending the institution qua organ of the US government. They do not seem to recognize that, in fact, kill squads and assassinations painted as suicides, heart attacks, strokes, and accidents of various sorts have no place in any government which claims to be a constitutional republic with democratic underpinnings. Instead, these are the means and methods of autocrats, despots and degenerates, and they come to be wielded by banality of evil-types who appear actually to believe that “Everything is permitted,” for they are, as the Edward Norton character explains, self-styled “sin-eaters” and regard themselves as doing what is “morally indefensible” but “absolutely necessary”. Of course, they are deeply mired in self-delusion, but who in the world could convince them of that?
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Anyone who attempts to criticize such systems is painted as a traitor, which is precisely why the plight of whistleblowers in recent times has been dire. The inevitable corruption of such systems makes matters even worse, given the fallible nature of human beings, who are easily lured into complicity and then forever shackled to the crimes of their past, which the perpetrators will commit further crimes in order to cover up. When “Everything is permitted,” in the mind of a person empowered to act in secrecy and with absolute impunity, there are no limits to what can and will be done, all on the taxpayer’s dime. It’s really quite remarkable.

All of the Jason Bourne movies offer trenchant criticisms of the CIA and the types of persons who rise to lead such an organization (torturers, pathological liars, and despicable human beings more generally), but The Bourne Legacy presents an especially unsettling scenario because the people being eliminated have not in fact posed any threat to the system of which they are a part. They have given no indication whatsoever of any potential for whistleblowing or other forms of what may be regarded as “treachery” but are considered dangerous in virtue of their knowledge alone, despite its compartmentalized nature. Even when there seems little likelihood that they would divulge any of what they do know to anyone, they are determined by the powers that be to require “elimination” in order to preclude that possibility in the future.

This approach, the preemptive thwarting of potential future threats is highly relevant to the Drone Age. In the US drone program, thousands of suspects have been killed preemptively in order to fend off the very possibility that they might perpetrate terrorist acts in the future. Meanwhile, all of the bereft and maimed survivors–millions of persons living under lethal drones–have been terrorized not potentially but actually, in reality, by the US killing machine.

In The Bourne Legacy, the corrupt administrators, like those in all of the earlier Jason Bourne films, view themselves as “tying off” programs with the potential for implicating themselves in  malfeasance. They opt to whack everyone involved rather than take the chance that any one of the participants might decide to testify before Congress about the latest executive branch overreach. As shocking as such an idea may seem, in fact, combat soldiers are regularly sacrificed in similar ways for wars which never needed to be waged.

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A terrifying array of crimes are committed under the aegis of the US government in The Bourne Legacy: the distribution of lethal “supplements” to operatives who suddenly and “inexplicably” die shortly thereafter; the planting of stories in the mainstream media to discredit possible future whistleblowers; the attempted “suiciding” of a research scientist who has worked in an innocuous capacity, measuring operatives’ bodily changes as they are “redesigned” using drugs and viral modifications of DNA; the commandeering of one member of the research group to “go postal” and kill all of the rest of the members of the group (himself included) in what is made to seem to be some sort of equally “inexplicable” psychotic break from reality (though it was obviously drug-induced or otherwise provoked). All of these crimes are made possible by the government’s techniques of mass surveillance.

The Bourne Legacy is a work of fiction, but all of these appalling ploys are available options to persons in high places with access to covert means and a black budget, and who are, in virtue of the fact that they agree to run such programs, apparently of the opinion that they occupy a space “beyond the pale” of morality. As more and more persons of conscience and integrity decline to participate in such morally unsavory institutions, we should expect the percentage of sociopaths at the highest levels of government to continue on its ascendant path, making the world not more but less safe for everyone else.

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Obedience to Authority: The Relevance of the Milgram Experiments in the Drone Age

Why do people ever agree to torture? A propos of the Gina Haspel nomination, you should watch this film.

We Kill Because We Can

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I recently watched Experimenter (2015), a film directed by Michael Almereyda, which relays the story of social psychologist Stanley Milgram and his quest to understand how human beings could be brought to do things which they would never have thought to do, left to their own devices. Being Jewish, Milgram was keen to comprehend what happened in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. What was it that made possible the establishment of concentration camps under the Third Reich, and the slaughter of millions of human beings?

The rationalization that “I did as I was told” was given all along the chain of command, or what would be called the “kill chain” in the Drone Age. Even high-level Nazi officials such as Adolf Eichmann claimed that they were doing their duty in facilitating the extermination of millions of people. Ordinary Germans from all walks of life helped to build the camps…

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War on Terror? War on Truth.

Just to make sure everyone is clear on this point: CIA officers who ascend to the directorship are, without exception, seasoned liars. It’s their profession, after all.

We Kill Because We Can

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, US President George W. Bush proclaimed that “We are at war,” and we have been at war ever since. The world’s most powerful military was not apt to the task of bringing the perpetrators to justice, as evidenced by the fact that it took nearly a decade to apprehend the man believed to be behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of persons were slaughtered, most of whom were innocent. Thousands of others were detained without charges and mistreated in a variety of appalling ways. Millions were driven to leave their native lands, and the refugees of war-torn countries continue to flow out in a steady stream, as peace-loving people quite rationally attempt to defend themselves from the arbitrary termination of their lives by warriors of all stripes.

How could all of this murder and mayhem have been avoided?…

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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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Level Talk. Ominous Development of the US Drone Program

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In this 27-minute interview on Sputnik Radio International, host John Harrison, author Laurie Calhoun, and peace campaigner Russell Whiting discuss the recently proposed changes to the US drone program, including the request by the CIA to be given strike autonomy in Afghanistan, and modifications to the Obama administration’s Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) in the forthcoming Trump administration’s Principles, Standards, and Procedures (PSP). What will the consequences of these changes be? Will people finally begin to consider the legal, moral, and strategic implications of the US government’s policy of targeted killing outside areas of active hostilities?

Is Trump’s Delegation of Drone Killing Capacity to the CIA New?

1036088368In this short interview, Laurie Calhoun takes issue with the recent report in the Wall Street Journal to the effect that Trump has turned the CIA into a killing machine. No, that is Obama’s legacy.

https://sputniknews.com/us/201703151051619733-trump-reaffirming-cia/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Tenet refuses to relent:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t kill your way out of this.”

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US Drone Killing Machine Now on Autopilot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: above photo credit mikechurch.com

“We Murdered Some Folks”: How Self-Styled Drone Warrior US President Barack Obama Normalized War Crimes (Part 3)

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I doubt that anyone would or could have predicted it a century ago, but today the US government has a generously funded program for hunting down and killing human beings. The program’s aim is not to stop aggressors in their tracks, to trap or apprehend them and thereby prevent them from causing harm to others. No, the aim is to annihilate these people on the spot before they have the chance to act on ideas in their mind, to hatch what teams of analysts believe may be evil schemes.

The personnel who identify targets for obliteration do this by looking at signals intelligence (SIGINT), video footage taken from drones and metadata from cellphone and SIM card use. When there are assets in the vicinity of the prospective targets, SIGINT is sometimes supplemented by human intelligence, or HUMINT, information provided by bribed informants on the ground. Using a variety of algorithms and heuristics such as “disposition matrices” of typical terrorist behaviors, lists are drawn up of people to be eliminated by lethal drones.

This is a remarkable development in the history of humanity, not because the intentional, premeditated killing of human beings with the aim of annihilation is somehow new—that’s just the definition of murder, after all. Nor is political murder somehow unique or new to the Drone Age—it is not. The targeted killing of thousands of human beings who did not pose a threat to their killers nor to any other person when they were destroyed is surprising because the practice is being championed by a government which claims to defend human rights.

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It is in some ways even more shocking that so few people appear to be shocked—or even mildly bothered—by the fact that their tax dollars are being used to stalk, hunt down, and kill persons for reasons as vague as that they appear to be associated with radical Islamist groups.

The US government’s “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities,” released on July 1, 2016, openly admits to killing thousands of these persons located “outside areas of active hostilities”, which is to say, nowhere near US troops. They are said to pose “imminent” threats, where “imminent” no longer implies “immediate” (see the Department of Justice White Paper of June 2010), but rather connotes a type of potential future threat which may materialize, if the person is permitted to continue to live.

When missiles are fired on these places, which are usually remote and difficult to access territories inhabited by tribal groups, they suddenly become “battlefields”—well, sort of. The reason why the CIA runs the drone program in countries not under occupation is because they are protected by the covert status of the operations and have no obligation to explain much of anything to anyone, as is well illustrated by the recently released report.

At the same time, the only way the killers can excuse as collateral damage the deaths of innocent people who perish during missions intended to kill “bad guys” is to redefine “outside areas of active hostilities” to mean “war zones”. This is flatly a contradiction. A place cannot both be and not be a war zone at the same time. As though to insulate the killers from logic mongers and critics more generally, the report claims that only a tiny proportion of the civilian casualties found by independent sources—human rights groups, activists, investigative journalists—were in fact civilians. The explanation is supposed to be that these well-meaning advocacy groups have all been taken in by terrorist group propaganda. No matter that many of the victims have been named—the US government stands firm in denying that most of those civilians were in fact civilians.

One reason for the large difference in the numbers appears to be the ongoing categorization of military-age males in targeted areas as “Enemy Killed in Action” or EKIA, which was revealed in classified government documents made public by the Intercept. There is a footnote near the opening of the July 2016 report denying this to be the case, but the assumption underlying the government’s ongoing use of “signature strikes”, that is, the targeting of persons of unknown identity, would provide the best explanation for the fact that so few civilian casualties are acknowledged by those running the US drone program.

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Without being provided with a list of the names of the civilians destroyed, it is impossible to know whether, for example, Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, who was killed two weeks after his father (Anwar Al-Awlaki), was considered a “combatant” or not. The younger Al-Awlaki was killed with a group of friends, who, if admitted to be civilians would have used up a fair proportion of the estimated range of from 64 to 116 noncombatant casualties during the period from January 20, 2009, to December 31, 2015. The Al-Awlakis were killed in 2011.

In any case, the disturbing conflation of “insurgents” and “dissidents” with “terrorists” persists, as though there were not a world of difference between a rifle-bearing tribesman with the potential to rise up against his central government authority and someone like Osama bin Laden, whose aspirations were clearly international. But these subtleties are brushed aside as so much nitpicking, with all “evil-seeming people”generally dark-skinned, able-bodied Muslim maleslumped into the same category of “enemy combatants” to be eliminated from the face of earth before they have the chance to harm somebody in the United States.

The likelihood that any of Obama’s victims would ever have made it to US shores seems miniscule. Instead, persons already located in the West who sympathize with Obama’s victims—in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Orlando—are far more likely to perpetrate revenge attacks against what they rightly regard as the US government’s “vicious, calculated, and despicable” campaign of murder.

The more such terrorist attacks are undertaken in response to the US government’s revved-up killing machine, the more lethal drone advocates claim that we need to kill even more. No need to win over “hearts and minds” when each new No 2 ISIS or Al Qaeda or Al Shabaab leader who emerges from the ranks of younger and younger foot soldiers can be incinerated with a Hellfire missile.

One hopes that, with time, more and more people will begin to awaken to the execrable nature of what is being done in their name. If the species still exists in 100 years, perhaps the president of the United States will eventually own up to the truth: “We murdered some folks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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