“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

Remembering the Magna Carta

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It took a long time for human societies to come up with the idea of universal human rights and the equality of persons under the law. Before 1215, monarchs could capriciously decree “Off with their heads!” and dispatch anyone with impunity. In the short term, leaders were the equivalent of terrestrial gods, acting with the divine right of kings, according to the received wisdom of the times. If mistakes were made, they would be dealt with in the afterlife.

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Only in the thirteenth century did the absolute authority of the monarch begin seriously to be questioned. Admittedly, the first attempts were not driven by pure quests for morality or justice on the part of leaders themselves. The first steps taken were rather practical in nature, and there were many false starts before the notions of liberty and human dignity began to take hold. The earliest kings to begin the process of forging what would eventually come to be embraced as human rights were amenable to negotiation on contentious matters, including the meting out of justice, for the self-interested or prudential reason that they needed the cooperation of other people in order to govern their domains smoothly.

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Full rights were not extended to all people everywhere for many, many centuries, but it all started with the Magna Carta and the path-breaking idea that the arbitrary justice handed down by monarchs up until that time needed to be moderated. Small concessions led to larger ones and were incorporated in the government constitutions of many Western democratic states, including the United States of America. The ideas continued to be developed and expanded until finally, in the mid-twentieth century, universal human rights were codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the twenty-first century, the idea of universal human rights has taken some serious hits. Ironically, it is the ultramodern technology used to annihilate persons by remote-control which has caused a regression to pre-Magna Carta times in matters of justice. George W. Bush was the first US president to dispatch persons with this technology, but he used it primarily in connection with the already waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of the use of drones during Bush’s terms of office involved the protection of forces on the ground. Not all, however, for Bush also used drones, albeit selectively, in places such as Yemen and Pakistan, in a quest to hunt down and eliminate alleged Al Qaeda terrorists.

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President Barack Obama deserves even more censure than Bush on the drone front, having effectively normalized the practice of assassination at a distance. Obama thought that he was being a technologically savvy “smart warrior”, but the most cursory glance at the situation in the Middle East reveals that he was sorely wrong. Much of the US populace regards Obama as a cautious warrior, because he has done most of his killing quietly and covertly, characteristically refusing to share his lethal practices and policies with the public under cover of State Secrets Privilege said to be necessitated by national security.

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Obama’s decision to execute thousands of suspects without warning or trial using Predator drones is particularly disturbing in the light of the statistics on Guantánamo Bay prison, where the majority of the prisoners were discovered after years of detention to have been erroneously apprehended. The intel just wasn’t that good. Bribed informants are obviously subject to mercenary corruption, and this fact was starkly confirmed by the plight of terrorist suspects incarcerated under the authority of George W. Bush.

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One might have hoped that this lesson would be taken to heart by the subsequent US administration, but it was not. Instead, Obama dealt with the problem of suspects by defining them as guilty until proven innocent. Sound familiar? That would be the pre-Magna Carta template of justice. The sovereign power decrees “Off with their heads!” and that is the end of their story.

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It was shocking to many people when, in 2011, Obama opted to assassinate even US citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan and, two weeks later, Al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, in Yemen. Unfortunately, many people wanted to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, so impeachment proceedings were never carried out. In truth, what he started is bound to grow worse under the most likely successors to the US throne. But we did not even have to wait until the end of Obama’s term to see the nefarious potential for harm set by his precedent rolling back the progress made by republican governments over hundreds of years.

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Ironically, it was during the year of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, penned in Runnymede, West of London, that UK Prime Minister David Cameron decided to strap on his drone warrior holster and whack a couple of his own countrymen, Ruhal Amin and Reyaad Khan. The British Parliament had already explicitly voted against war in Syria, and yet that was precisely where Cameron carried out the assassinations using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), better known as “lethal drones”.

It is depressing that the tendency of people to accord Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt has ended by undoing so much good done by so many people who toiled over so many centuries to establish basic protections for all people under the law. When the leader of a nation chooses to execute his compatriots on the basis of secretive intelligence to which only he and his henchmen are privy, then it is difficult to see how this differs at all from what went on before 1215.

Every monarch throughout history who decreed “Off with their heads!” believed that he was doing the right thing. Often they felt entirely justified in what they were doing, primarily protecting their own domain and shoring up their power against threats. What reason can the US and UK governments possibly have for not observing the most basic protections guaranteed by the laws of the land, and codified in Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

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The claim made by Obama has always been that capture is “infeasible”, but the cases of the unarmed Osama bin Laden, who was shot and killed in cold blood, and Anwar al-Awlaki, who was released from a prison in Yemen only to be hunted down and slain, reveal that “infeasibility” has now come to mean “undesirability”. In some ways the execution of British nationals authorized by David Cameron is even more shocking, because the death penalty is prohibited under both British law and the EU Charter. (Oddly enough, Cameron himself opposes Brexit!)

Political leaders can generally be depended on to try to outdo their predecessors, just as Obama did vis-à-vis Bush on the drone front. That is precisely why the legacy of Barack Obama will be none other than the increased propensity to “strike first, suppress questions later,” to prove that whoever the new president ends up being is “tougher” on terrorism than Obama was.

Let no one be fooled by the fact that for most of his eight-year term Obama resolutely recited “no boots on the ground” in the manner of a mantra. After years of covert operations, drone strikes, and weapons provisions to “appropriately vetted moderate rebel forces”, the Middle East is a morass of lawlessness and homicide. We reap what we sow. Now even Obama has sent combat troops to most of the several lands where he has ruthlessly used drones to kill persons whose names are not even known, along with “high-value” targets who became enemies of the state only because of the US invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria using implements of mass homicide, Special Forces, intelligence operatives, and regular combat soldiers.

The Magna Carta was the beginning of the full recognition of human liberty and dignity, and an acknowledgement that no mere mortal possesses the divine powers of omniscience. Mistakes are made. Politicians and bureaucrats are sometimes corrupt and sometimes amoral. That is precisely why we have laws to guard against the very tyranny which Obama and Cameron have chosen so myopically to embrace and hold up as an example for leaders all over the world, in both democratic and nondemocratic states.

The road to liberty and universal human rights was long and tortuous. The road to tyranny, thousands of victims have now learned at the hands of the US and UK governments, is short and direct, rather like driving down a street which terminates off the edge of a cliff. The fact that most US and UK citizens have not suffered summary execution has persuaded many to believe that nothing has really changed. In fact, everything has changed, but not in the way which any of the early supporters of Obama might have hoped.

To freely forsake one’s right to be indicted and tried for a capital crime before being annihilated by the state is a luxury enjoyed only by already free people. To condone the drone warriors’ willful denial of the historical and political significance of the Magna Carta is to prevent that same liberty from being shared by all people everywhere.

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Caveat Emptor, Canada: What Lethal Drones Will Bring

 

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been shopping around for lethal drones for the Royal Canadian Air Force. The prospective acquisition is being downplayed as intended primarily for surveillance purposes. Of course, that’s how it always begins. The first step toward joining the bloody ranks of the avid drone killers—the United States, Israel and, increasingly, Britain—is obtaining the means to conduct surveillance. But these sophisticated machines were developed for use by the military, which is why they have the modular capacity to be armed. As their names have always implied, Predator and Reaper drones can be used not only for surveillance but also to kill by remote control. Snap on a couple of Hellfire missiles, and you’re good to go.

It all starts so simply—and seems so very rational. Why not have a fleet of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) in one’s arsenal, so that they can be used in place of manned combat aerial vehicles when the need arises? Who in the world does not want to save brave soldiers’ lives?

Canadian policymakers may well believe that in order to best defend their country they need to make sure that the Air Force has the latest and greatest flying machines. Isn’t the purpose of having a military to be able to win wars? But if every other country has or is about to acquire lethal drones, then any military made to forego the technological breakthrough will be at a decided disadvantage. Even worse, come wartime, they will sacrifice soldiers needlessly. Given such manifestly rational considerations, it may not be clear why any Canadian in his right mind would oppose the government’s purchase of lethal drones.

However, the story does not end there. The problem is that the seemingly irrefutable argument for lethal drones shrouds the truth about what political leaders are likely to do once they have their fingers on the buttons of remote-control killing machines. The mere possession of lethal drones transforms what were previously the remote tribal regions of sovereign nations into “battlefields” where a seemingly endless list of “unlawful combatants” are waiting quietly to be “engaged”. Suddenly missiles can be fired any- and everywhere, because the entire world has become a battlefield.

Lethal drones not only provide militaries with the means to fight wars, they also provide leaders with the capacity to wage what are characterized as “wars” in places where war would otherwise never have been waged. In other words, the possession of lethal drones serves to expand the domain of state-inflicted homicide, at the discretion of the executive. This expansion of executive power is, needless to say, appealing to leaders themselves. In purely political terms, the ability to appear strong by wielding deadly force generally increases the popularity of leaders at home—so long as they are not sacrificing soldiers abroad. Lethal drones therefore provide a win-win arrangement for politicians: they can wage and fight wars without having to write condolence letters to the families of fallen soldiers.

Once the machines are at arm’s length, and intentional, premeditated homicide is but a push-button away, the argument for using lethal drones is propelled forward by the need to demonstrate to the populace that taxpayers’ money has not been squandered on boondoggles. “What’s the point of having X, if you’re not going to use X?” is the guiding logic which suddenly kicks in. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright posed a variant of this question to Colin Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?”

It may sound repulsive to peace-loving people for someone to be fishing around for reasons to wage wars, but that is precisely what happens in the case of lethal drones—albeit one act of homicide at a time. Case in point: Britain. Before British Prime Minister David Cameron possessed lethal drones, the idea of dispatching his compatriots without indicting much less trying them for crimes would have been unheard of. As a matter of fact, capital punishment is prohibited by both British law and the EU Charter. But with a large fleet of Reaper drones and missiles at his disposal, Cameron suddenly awakened to the possibility of executing suspects using the weapons of war. Because he used missiles, rather than pistols or poisons or strangulation wires, to destroy Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin in Syria in August 2015, Cameron was able to portray the assassinations as acts of national self-defense. Who could argue with that depiction, when it had already been accepted with open arms by the American public for years, in hundreds of drone strikes authorized by US leaders?

Canada is moving down the same literally fatal path. Without first undertaking a serious public debate about the costs and benefits of drone killing, before acquiring the means to stalk, hunt down and kill targets suspected of wrongdoing, the sheer possession of the technology leads irresistibly to its use by leaders keen to exercise their authority and avail themselves of their newly bestowed capacity to kill by remote control.

Induction on the cases of other lethal drone-armed political leaders to date suggests that it is only a matter of time before Canadian officials will seek to track down and eliminate Canadian nationals located in places far away. The logic is seductive but corruptive, and Canada will be only one among many other countries to succumb, having been lured down the path to extrajudicial execution by the example set by the United States government for nearly fifteen years.

Caveat emptor, Canadian taxpayers. When your government begins to conduct itself in the manner of your neighbor to the south, you should expect to see retaliatory blowback within the borders of your own land as well. The recent attacks on Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels were carried out by extremists angry about military intervention abroad targeting the Muslim people of several different lands. The suspects killed in drone strikes are never warned, and mistakes have often been made. Many undeniably innocent people have been harmed in the drone campaigns—grandmothers, children and, yes, “military-age males” defined as unlawful combatants but who had nothing whatsoever to do with radical jihadist groups.

The victims are facilely written off by the killers as “collateral damage”. Military killing of innocent people leads naturally to a vicious cycle of violent retaliation. The current quagmire in the Middle East extends all the way back to the 1991 Gulf War. Far from being surprising, it is in fact predictable that some of those outraged will choose to retaliate, as in New York, Madrid, London, Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels… They will continue to do so, for so long as they perceive their communities to be under attack.

That, however, is only a pragmatic or prudential argument against blindly following the lead of the drone warriors. There is also a more profound, moral, argument. Do the peaceful citizens of Canada really want their leaders to join the ranks of the likes of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, and David Cameron, who “strike first and suppress questions later”? Do Canadians want to live in a world where disputes are resolved through the launching of missiles, rather than through the use of institutions of criminal investigation and justice developed and defended over many centuries precisely in order to avoid the awful scourge of war, and to fend off the danger of tyranny in an executive armed to kill at his caprice?

Do Canadians want their young people to be trained as professional assassins who are empirically indistinguishable from paid contract killers or hitmen? Now is the time to address the reality of what lethal drones will bring with them to Canada, before it is too late and the Canadian government makes the tragic mistake of following Bush, Blair, Obama, and Cameron down the path to targeted killing, what is tantamount to summary execution without trial, better known as “assassination” before the Drone Age.

            ReaperFiring

 

 

Drones and Death in the 8th Republican Presidential Debate, February 6, 2016

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Lethal drones have come to symbolize “smart power” to Democrats. In the first Democratic presidential debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to characterize the “no boots on the ground” 2011 intervention in Libya as “smart power at its best”. Judging by their campaign trail rhetoric, Republican candidates tend to believe the opposite: drones are not a symbol of smartness and savvy, but of weakness. Usually drones are not mentioned at all, but at last night’s Republican debate in New Hampshire, they were positively “dissed”.

TedCruzSenator Ted Cruz has enthusiastically proclaimed that he will “carpet bomb” ISIS strongholds and make the sand “glow”, suggesting his readiness even to use nuclear weapons against the latest bearers of the Al Qaeda torch. When asked whether he knows that ISIS is embedded among civilian populations, Cruz did not back down from his hawkish plans, essentially replying to the question that it doesn’t matter where the members of ISIS live. He will crush them, wherever they may be, and whomever they may be with. Cruz’s answer had a familiar ring because whenever Republican candidates are asked about rules of engagement (ROE), they afford themselves of the opportunity to complain that President Barack Obama has diminished the military, not only through budget cuts, but also by “tying their hands”. The explanation for the chaos in the Middle East, according to Republicans, is that Obama has not permitted the US military to do what needs to be done.

The general Republican disdain for military “half-measures” came out explicitly in last night’s exchange among the seven remaining contenders of what once was a slate of seventeen. The word ‘drone’ was uttered during a discussion about the prospect of bringing back waterboarding, which moderator Martha Raddatz creepily enough seemed to be promoting, goading the candidates on to proclaim that they, like George W. Bush, would “do what needs to be done”. None of the waterboarding advocates appears to have any recollection of the case of Ibn al Shiekh al-Libbi, who confessed under torture that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, thus providing a pretext for the war on Iraq.

JebBushFormer Florida Governor Jeb Bush (and brother of W, “The Decider” who embroiled the United States in what has become never-ending war in the Middle East) criticized drones as not being sufficient to win the war against ISIS, and in fact not a “smart” strategy at all. Jeb suggested that suspects should be captured and made to give up information. Other candidates then chimed in, including Senator Marco Rubio, who recited his familiar refrain that he would not only keep Guantánamo Bay open, but send more terrorists there! Granted, the fact that 86% of the men detained at the prison were cleared of any terrorist connections whatsoever is not the greatest talking point for wooing voters. Marco Rubio, however, appears to believe, like W, that all terrorist suspects are by definition terrorists.

MarcoRubioIt is abundantly clear that if one of the more bellicose candidates is elected, he or she will not hesitate to unleash massive air power on the Middle East, the effect of which will be to make Barack Obama look like the Peace President many voters in 2008 were hoping for. This would be highly ironic, for Obama’s secret drone campaigns and JSOC assassination missions, his removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power, and his provision of hundreds of tons of weapons to the rebels in Syria, all undeniably contributed to the massive increase in the strength and reach of ISIS. Obama’s “smart warrior” façade, his refusal to put “boots on the ground” while running non-stop covert ops, has served only to provoke more murder and mayhem in the Middle East and to galvanize support for violent radical Islamist groups.

Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, who campaigns on a socialist platform of domestic political and economic revolution, has repeatedly indicated that, as president, he would follow Obama’s foreign policy example by continuing drone assassination as the primary means of military intervention abroad. Unbeknownst to Sanders, the revolution that is really needed is a commitment to halt US military intervention and greatly reduce military spending, beginning with a full line-item audit of the profligate Pentagon. If only Bernie understood that all of his big-ticket items—universal health care, free college, rebuilt infrastructure, and energy independence leading to massive job production—could be paid for with a tiny fraction of the military budget. What needs to be done to save what remains of the US republic is drastically to slash the bloated military budget, rein in executive power, and resolve never again to serve as the world’s biggest bully. Sanders opposes capital punishment, but his focus on an ambitious domestic program has clouded his judgment about Obama’s use of deadly force abroad.

What is most striking about the way in which the 2016 candidates for the presidency all talk about foreign policy is that they ignore the true causes of the mess in the Middle East: US intervention. It’s as though the candidates have all conspired in a secret pact to pretend that the facts are not the facts. The 9/11 attacks were retaliation for the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath. To his credit, Bernie Sanders opposed the First Gulf War, but even he does not see fit to connect the dots for prospective voters. Instead, he politely acquiesces to the mainstream media’s preposterous insistence on painting Hillary Clinton as an accomplished foreign policymaker with the experience needed to serve as commander in chief.

As sad as it may be to admit, Obama’s foreign policy appears always to have been focused on securing his legacy. Despite the fact that his ghastly “kill don’t capture” policy has normalized assassination all over the globe, Obama will end up looking pacific next to anyone who comes after him, including Hillary Clinton, who remarkably vaunts endorsements from Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger. Most, if not all, of the Republican candidates have gone on record to say that they will immediately shred the negotiated deal with Iran to limit that country’s nuclear capacity.

What will remain of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, once he has left the White House? Renewed and emboldened intervention in the Middle East, along with the image of the 44th president as a peace maker etched into history. Surely he will look better than his successor in body count tallies, and few people will view Obama as the proximate cause of what he in fact wrought.

“Nous Sommes Tous George W. Bush”: The Government of France follows Obama down the Bush-Cheney Rabbit Hole

 

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Does anyone else remember back when members of the US congress proclaimed that fried potato sticks should henceforth be referred to as “Freedom fries”? Some self-styled patriots, who apparently believed that the impending 2003 war on Iraq would have something to do with defending our liberty, went even so far as to pour bottles of French wine into the gutter!

I for one fondly recall French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s vocal and vehement expression of his nation’s opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq still in the planning stages under the administration of George W. Bush. Today we know that the French were right, that the invasion of Iraq was a colossal mistake, which keeps getting worse as its consequences ramify in so many different ways and all over the Middle East.

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Unfortunately, France suffered some bad blows by extremist groups in 2015. On January 7, one year ago today, murderous thugs attacked and killed members of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly newspaper known for lampooning everyone and everything, including religious fanatics of all stripes. Twelve people were killed, and another eleven injured.

Even more frightening to average citoyens were the considerably more arbitrary and coordinated attacks carried out at multiple venues on November 13 by a group of nine individuals. About 130 people were killed and nearly 400 others injured. In the aftermath of the attacks, the entire city of Paris was paralyzed with fear.

Nine EU citizens, as all of the perpetrators on November 13 were, do not a state make, any more than did the nineteen perpetrators of the attacks on US symbols of power on September 11, 2001. Sadly, the French response to the November 2015 attack has been all too familiar, beginning with the proclamation by President Hollande that “Nous sommes en guerre” [“We are at war”].

It is disheartening that the government of France, which was derided by the Bush administration for its resistance to US plans to invade Iraq in 2003, has now essentially aligned itself with W, redefining crimes as acts of war and using that as a pretext for launching missiles wherever they may be launched—that is, wherever the US has already been doing so.

In mid-December 2015, it was reported that France had ordered three new Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles. The timing was right: France had recently been attacked—by nine persons NOT located in the Middle East—yet who would object to further military expansion, under the circumstances?

I recall in late 2002 and early 2003 when George W. Bush and his associates—Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz, and the others—derided the French opposition to invading a sovereign nation at peacetime without first seeking the authority of the UN Security Council. The Bush clan called the United Nations a “debate club” and brushed off France as irrelevant—a part of “Old Europe”.

Now France has joined the ranks of the modern, techno-savvy warriors, led by US President Barack Obama, who know how to kill but know nothing about how to quell conflict. None of the drone warriors seems to have any interest in the etiology of the particular societal ill which plagues the Middle East. Why should they? Now they all have their lethal drones. In the twenty-first century, “When in doubt, kill!” has become a widely shared principle of foreign policy.

Time and time again, experts have stepped forward to air concerns that the perpetual motion killing machine has no more obvious effect than to generate more ill-will against the taxpayers funding the warriors and to cause young people to flock to the cause of radical Islamist groups.

We have decorated veterans who have made this claim. We have UN Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial Execution who have explained this in detailed reports. We have former drone operators who have stood down to protest and issue warnings about what is being done. We have the US government-appointed Stimson Center Task Force. We have numerous NGOs and Human Rights groups who have issued damning studies of the deleterious effects on human security of the drone killing campaigns.

However, the people with their fingers on the triggers of Hellfire missiles are all politicians who insist that they must do something, do anything! “We are at war!” they continue to chant. Facts be damned, the people with the power to stop killing have proven incapable of leaping out of the lethality box. When killing people does not resolve the problem, they steel themselves to kill even more. These leaders, of the United States, France, Britain—and more and more are joining the Drone Warrior club each day—are trapped on the killing treadmill, incapable of facing up to the gravity of their mistake.

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Within three days of assuming office, in January 2009, Barack Obama had authorized several different drone strikes in tribal regions. Many of the victims were innocent. Loud and angry protests by locals affected by the US government’s savage drone campaigns were ignored by the US media.

Unfazed by the human costs of their political expediency—they could hide domestically under cloak of “State Secrets Privilege”—the administration declined for years to acknowledge, must less apologize for the terrorism ruthlessly exacted on entirely innocent people abroad, generating extremists outraged at being made the subjects of US leaders whom they never appointed.

Obama denounced Bush’s preemptive war on Iraq, but he became the protector and perpetuator of the Bush legacy by expanding the drone program and waging preemptive war all over the Middle East, not only through the use of drones, but also in a vast array of other covert operations. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)—essentially a squad of professional killers—were granted the authority by Obama to eliminate targets selected for them on the basis of sketchy intelligence presented by privately contracted analysts (with financial interests at stake) of bribed hearsay and circumstantial data culled from shadowy film footage, cell phone and SIM card records.

Far worse, Obama normalized the summary execution without trial of citizens, which transcends even the wrongs done to random unnamed non-national targets. All of these victims, under both Bush and Obama, have been denied their rights under domestic and international law, including protocols such as the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the US citizens killed under Obama’s authority have furthermore been denied their rights under the US Constitution.

As the Drone Age forges on, fewer and fewer people seem to remember why any of the documents were penned in the first place—not even the leaders of France. As difficult as it may be for his supporters to accept, Obama has done more to promote the George W. Bush worldview than did the 43rd US president himself. Obama claims to champion gun control in the United States, but his generosity in arming dictators and factions abroad appears to know no limits. Cameroon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt…?

In late 2012 and 2013, Obama furnished rebel forces in Syria with 600 tons of weapons. The result was a massive expansion of ISIS, the takeover of large swaths of territory, and the killing of countless innocent civilians. Obama may shed tears for schoolchildren shot dead in the homeland, but where are the tears for the victims destroyed abroad under his direct authority or as a result of his signature policy, Kill don’t capture?

 

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; Chapter 10: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

War on Terror? War on Truth.

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? It’s sad to say, but if the US war makers had only listened to Osama bin Laden when he complained about the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of whom were children, then they would have recognized that the worst possible response to 9/11 was to attack Iraq all over again. Stating the facts decried by Osama bin Laden is in no way to condone his response to them. It is to acknowledge the source of his “shock and awe” retaliation campaign, perpetrated by jihadists outraged by US military policies abroad.

Undeterred by the dictates of rationality, George W. Bush waged an outright war of aggression on the already suffering people of Iraq. The Iraqis had been living under a dictator empowered by the US government during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, but their conditions were rendered considerably more miserable by the bombing of water treatment facilities by the US military in 1991.

The subsequently imposed international sanctions prevented access to materials needed to purify the drinking water, and also medications needed to address the diseases caused by the lack of clean water. Remarkably, when Barack Obama became president, he awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor to George H.W. Bush, whose 1991 Gulf War led directly to the blowback attack of 9/11.

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During the occupation of Iraq, the poor policies of US government officials, including the dismissal of the Iraqi army and the blacklisting of Ba’ath party members, produced thousands of angry insurgents, who vowed to expel the invaders. Rather than admit that the strategies were not working, the occupiers doubled down with surges, more JSOC raids, more missile strikes, and more privately contracted “security forces”, some of whom behaved quite scandalously.

Another grievance aired by Bin Laden was the establishment of military bases in Muslim lands such as Saudi Arabia. Obama has dramatically increased the number of drone stations from which deadly sorties are launched, and continues to deliver Hellfire missiles to an ever-lengthening list of countries in a zealous effort to eliminate an ever-lengthening list of targets in his “war without borders”.

Under President Obama, who had campaigned on an anti-preemptive war platform, drone killing in lands where war was never formally waged came to be viewed as a standard operating procedure for dealing with suspected terrorists, wherever they may be said by a bribed informant to hide.

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US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, once a moderate Islamist cleric, was radicalized in the years after 9/11, coming to advocate jihad in response to what he regarded as war crimes committed against his brethren. Again, Al-Awlaki was right that the US government slaughtered many Muslims who never threatened any US national in the least. Al-Awlaki was himself harassed by the US government, and he was thrown into jail for more than a year in Yemen, without charges, at the request of the US government. After that, he was released, hunted down and summarily executed.

In addition to slaughtering Muslims, “We tortured some folks,” as President Obama put it. Unfortunately, the ever-charitable Obama opted not to prosecute the torturers, seemingly on the grounds that their misguided tactics were intended to keep the US homeland safe. They meant to do the right thing! They were just confused about the best way of going about doing that.

In fact, the means used by the warriors post-9/11 had exactly the opposite of the intended effect, causing a massive mobilization of jihadists in response—including the creation of new groups such as ISIS and AQAP, and a renewal and expansion of interest in radical Islam in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, where its presence had been minor—before US intervention.

The torturers and invaders and orchestrators of covert ops of many kinds undeniably endangered the citizens who funded the many initiatives, as should have been obvious from the global response to the crimes at Abu Ghraib prison. As a matter of fact, the Pentagon has taken great pains to withhold thousands of the ghastly photos taken of abused prisoners, on the grounds that they may endanger American lives. QED.

These gross mistakes have obviously made Westerners vulnerable to retaliation and revenge attacks, yet the failures were not viewed as grounds for dismissing those responsible, many of whom were retained by Obama in his not-so-new administration. Most notably, John Brennan, who condoned torture during the Bush administration, became Obama’s closest counterterrorism advisor.

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In 2013, Brennan was amazingly promoted to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). One wonders what Mr. Brennan would have to do to get fired by Obama. No matter how many times Brennan changes his stories, Obama continues to trust him as one of his closest confidantes. When concern was expressed that the CIA had violated US law by penetrating the computers of US Senators in the period preceding the release of the torture report, Brennan indignantly reproached his accusers:

“Nothing could be further from the truth… that’s just beyond the scope of reason… some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts.”

Two months later, Brennan was issuing a public apology for the CIA’s having done precisely what it had been accused of doing. So which is it: is Brennan a pathological liar, or is he flagrantly incompetent?

According to Gregory Johnsen, the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia (2013), it was none other than John Brennan’s “theory” that Anwar Al-Awlaki was the operational leader of AQAP. We have never been provided with any of the alleged evidence of his guilt in actually perpetrating violent acts—as opposed to inspiring or inciting them.

It was recently made public that the very administration which redacted the evidence in its response to a court order to release the memos leading up to Al-Awlaki’s summary execution without trial is calling for all of the cleric’s sermons—whatever they may contain—to be taken down from the internet. Here is the opening line of the New York Times “report” on the call for the blanket censorship of everything ever said by Al-Awlaki, including his early sermons:

“In case after terrorism case, from the Fort Hood, Tex., shootings to the Boston Marathon bombing and now to the slaughter in San Bernardino, Calif., the inflammatory videos and bomb-making instructions of Anwar al-Awlaki, easily accessible on the Internet, have turned up as a powerful influence.”

Talk about specious reasoning. Indeed, precisely the sort one would expect to issue from the mouths of torture advocates and graduates of the fact-challenged George W. Bush School of Strategy. The New York Times serves here, as so often, as a megaphone for officials of the US government. This call for censorship is a frightening development, and surprising even for a government which redefined terms in truly Orwellian ways in order to legalize “targeted killing” against “imminent threats” which are said not to imply immediacy.

The undeniable truth is that some of what Anwar Al-Awlaki said was true. Let’s consider a couple of examples. In an interview with National Geographic News on September 28, 2001, he said:

“My worry is that because of this conflict, the views of Osama bin Laden will become appealing to some of the population of the Muslim world. Never in the past were there any demonstrations raising the picture of Osama bin Laden–it has just happened now. So Osama bin Laden, who was considered to be an extremist, radical in his views, could end up becoming mainstream. That’s a very frightening thing, so the US needs to be very careful and not have itself perceived as an enemy of Islam.”

 In an interview on October 31, 2001, by Ray Suarez for PBS, Anwar al-Awlaki clarified his criticism of the US government and reiterated his opposition (at that time) to violent retaliation:

“Our position needs to be reiterated, and needs to be very clear. The fact that the US has administered the death and homicide of over 1 million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the US is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians, does not justify the killing of one US civilian in New York City or Washington, DC.”

How would preventing people from knowing what Al-Awlaki said protect the people of the United States? Obviously it would not. Censorship serves the purpose, instead, of shielding people from the truth, in this case, that there may indeed be a substantive answer, grounded in historical fact, to the question Why do they hate us?

If words spoken by people about crimes inspired young people to undertake jihad, then would that not imply that Shaker Aamer, who has been talking openly about the abuse which he endured while imprisoned for years without charges at Guantánamo Bay, should be silenced as well?  Jeremy Scahill, the author of Dirty Wars (2013), has also chronicled US war crimes and examines the case of Anwar al-Awlaki quite closely. Should Scahill be censored?

What about the brave drone operators who have stepped forward to denounce what they were persuaded to do and now deeply regret? Will such persons, who dare to share the grisly news about what the US government has been up to, be next in line for censorship? As a matter of fact, former drone sensor Brandon Bryant has revealed in social media that some of his interviews have already been removed from the internet.

There are plenty of recipes around for making bombs, and no one needs the words of Anwar Al-Awlaki to be incited to jihad. What radicalizes young men and women are not calls for homicide in the name of justice—for that they have the clear and ever-present example of the US government’s various killing campaigns. If both Osama bin Laden and Anwar Al-Awlaki were radicalized by US war crimes, then the only way to prevent the radicalization of other people just like them will be for the offending actions to stop.

Without halting the bombing which drives young people to seek retaliation, the tide of angry jihadists will never come to end. The persons being slaughtered are becoming younger and younger, as “high value” targets are destroyed and replaced in some cases by persons who have known nothing but war for most or all of their lives. The perverse insistence upon annihilating brown-skinned persons for their future potential to commit future possible crimes is no more and no less than a recipe for genocide. Regardless of whether Americans remain in a blithe state of ignorance about what is being done in their name, the people at the receiving end of missiles know very well what is being done, and some of them, like the perpetrators of the crimes of 9/11, vow to seek revenge.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, Muslims in lands far away, beginning with Iraq, have been treated as though they had no rights whatsoever. They have been systematically slaughtered at the caprice of US warmakers. Under Obama, suspects are denied even the opportunity to surrender. Nothing should be more obvious than that we cannot continue to do the same things over and over again, and then expect men such as Osama bin Laden not to emerge from the ashes left behind by US missiles and bombs.

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Strike First, Suppress Questions Later; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do