In this 31-minute interview, host Jeff Schechtman asks guest Laurie Calhoun to explain what she sees to be the connection between mass killings in the homeland (such as occurred in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017) and US foreign policy. Both the audio and a full transcript are available here.
Libya was bombed by the US government yesterday, but you wouldn’t know it because the media have been obsessed with the #TakeAKnee dispute between the president and the NFL. Trump may not even be aware that Libya was bombed under his authority, because he has put his trusty “Mad Dog” on a very long leash, in the hopes that he’ll be able to figure out how to clean up the mess in the Middle East.
I’ve picked on General James “Helluva Hoot to Shoot Some People” Mattis before, pointing out, among other things, the fact that he’s part of the revolving door of military officers and war profiteers. Was the Fallujah siege of 2004 a splendid show of US military prowess? I beg to differ. Perhaps it was for his moniker alone that General Mattis was called out of semi-retirement by Trump to serve as the Secretary of Defense. But rather than revisit my particular concerns about Mattis’ ability to solve the crises in the Middle East—or elsewhere—given the demonstrated failures of the US military since 2001, while he was running large parts of the show, I’d like to consider a more general question:
Should generals be diplomats?
Retired General Colin Powell was appointed US Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and you may recall his colorful powerpoint presentation before the UN General Assembly in the run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq—yellow cake, aluminium tubes, mobile chemical laboratories (think: Breaking Bad). Powell did not convince very many of his colleagues at the UN that Iraq needed to be invaded in order to thwart Saddam Hussein’s allegedly imminent transfer of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) to Al Qaeda, but the US government went to war anyway. Why? Because the Bush administration wanted to, and UK Prime Minister Tony “Poodle” Blair had pledged that he was “absolutely” with Bush, “no matter what”. (See the Chilcot Report and its implications.) Even more important than having a tiny “coalition of the willing” was the congressional conferral on Bush of the 2002 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), giving him the liberty to wage war on Iraq as he saw fit and at a time of his choosing. The rest is history.
The Middle East is in shambles, and the same pundits and so-called foreign policy experts (including MIC revolving door retired military officers) are regularly trotted out to opine about the latest international crises: in Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and of course the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How did Libya become a part of the War on Terror? That was Obama’s idea or, rather, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s. She and a few others managed to persuade Obama that “Gaddafi must go.” Obviously, Hillary Clinton is not a general, so I am not going to focus on her specific reasons for wanting to repeat, in Libya, the mistake she made in supporting the overthrow of the government of Iraq. As a matter of fact, Clinton has characterized the 2011 Libya intervention as an example of “smart power at its best”. Of course, she also believes that she lost the 2016 election because of misogyny and the Russians (not sure where antiwar voters fit in there), and (assuming she really wrote What Happened) that the point of Orwell’s 1984 was to bolster our trust in “leaders, the press, experts”. May HRC eventually retire from public life in peace.
People have wondered why the United States was at war for every single day of the eight years of Obama’s presidency. Some were disillusioned by Obama’s hawkish foreign policy and decision to normalize assassination, even of US citizens, using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) or lethal drones. Others were naturally elated, and the antiwar voters whose support Obama had lost by 2012 were more than made up for by the gain in people impressed by the fact that he had hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden.
Trump, too, sounded to some voters like the least bellicose of the two viable presidential candidates, once the DNC had completed their coronation of Clinton. He railed against interventionism, nation building, and fighting wars abroad when our own infrastructure is crumbling. Sound familiar? Bush and Obama did more or less the same. No nationbuilding! the candidates cried. US Marines do not walk children to school!
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred under Bush’s watch, and his subsequent policies appear to have been largely crafted by Vice President Cheney, former CEO of military contract behemoth Halliburton, along with a contingent of chomping-at-the-bit neocons, who had been scheming about invading various countries in the Middle East for years. Obama and Trump seemed, refreshingly to antiwar voters, not to be swamp denizens but outsiders, who would not fall prey to the Deep State war-making apparatus. So what happened?
Trump, even more so than Obama before him, has depended upon the expert opinions of military personnel in deciding what to do next. Surprise: decorated generals tend to think that more military resources should be poured into the Middle East and the war machine should be expanded to new, uncharted territories as well. That’s because, in the infamous words of George W. Bush: “Our best defense is a good offense.” (National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2002).
It would be difficult for anyone seriously to deny that military experts have been trained primarily to do one thing: destroy things, including people. The most ambitious of the lot rise in the ranks through obedience to their superior officers and their readiness and willingness to carry out deadly missions. Which is not to say that military officers do not also sometimes exhibit courage, early in their careers, before having been deemed important enough to watch war on a big screen far from the bloody fray.
Now imagine that you were a general called upon to advise Obama or Trump about what to do in Afghanistan or Iraq. Because you’re an ambition-driven human being, you’re probably not going to deny that those wars can be won. You’re highly unlikely to apologize for your abject failure to craft a winning strategy over the course of the past fifteen years. Instead, you’ll ask for more and better tools so that you can, at last, get the job done, which no one else, including you, were able to before. The excuse for your prior failure, then, becomes that you did not have enough missiles, planes, drones; or else your hands were tied, making it impossible for you to achieve victory because the president was too involved in short-leash micromanagement and had no idea what the battlefield is like. Or something along those lines.
The point of the military corps is to serve the foreign policy aims of the executive, but when the military is given a say in, or even allowed to determine, what those aims should be, then we should expect to see more death and destruction, not less. So there you have it: the explanation of why the US military budget was recently increased by $80 billion, bringing the total to $700 billion. After consulting closely with military experts, Trump asked for the increase, and Congress gave it to him, despite the fact that Democrats continue to claim that they are part of some sort of anti-Trump Resistance movement.
You might nonetheless suppose that the executive will still be constrained by the legislative branch, given the US Constitution. You would be wrong, as the Congress has left the crusty and arguably misinterpreted 2001 AUMF in place, forsaking yet again its responsibility, right, and duty to decide when and where the United States should go to war. (NB: if the 2001 AUMF had been sufficient to permit the president to bomb anywhere on the planet, then there would have been no need for the 2002 AUMF. QED)
Viewed from the outside, this massive increase in the US military budget looks like the biggest con job in history. The Pentagon, which incidentally has “lost track” of trillions of dollars, is never held accountable, and has done nothing but sow chaos throughout the Middle East, disrupting the lives of millions of persons by killing, maiming, and traumatizing them, in addition to directly causing a massive refugee crisis. Induction on Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria might lead a rational person to be wary about following the advice of military experts in crafting appropriate responses to tensions with Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria (Trump, like Obama before him, cannot seem to decide whether the enemy is ISIS or Assad!), possibly Russia, and who knows where the next hot bed of conflict requiring US intervention will be found! Yet Congress has been persuaded to believe, because its members believe that voters have been persuaded to believe, that not only does the US military deserve their support, but it should be given even more money than before.
The ultimate problem here is a colossal failure of strategic intelligence. Stated starkly: homicide is not a strategy but a tactic. Foreign policy involves resolving conflicts with other members of the international community. Your nation is said to have a problem with another nation, so you can talk it out with the source of the problem, attempt to craft some sort of compromise solution, or explain to other members of the international community why you are right and they are wrong, in the hope that those nations will be able to exert some helpful influence in resolving the dispute. The military is called in when all of that sort of work, formerly known as “diplomacy”, has failed. Unfortunately, the US foreign policy of the twenty-first century has become more and more lethal because civil servants continue to depend upon military experts (again, often with ties to military industry) for advice on how to proceed. But this is not purely a matter of mercenary corruption, though that does play a role. The military mindset is itself geared toward achieving victory, not to retreat or compromise, which can be perceived of, and is often painted as weak.
The approach since September 11, 2001, has been to attempt to erase the problem of factional terrorism, to raze from the face of the earth the evil terrorists, wherever they may be. There has been no motivation for anyone in the administration to take seriously questions of etiology because they know that they can use their trusty drone killing machine in even the remotest corners of the world to incinerate the alleged enemy, wherever he may be said to hide. Advocates of drone killing retort, of course, that radical jihadists are beyond the reach of reason, but that has been intoned reflexively of every enemy against whom missiles have ever been deployed.
In truth, a number of suicide and would-be suicide bombers have quite lucidly articulated the source of their outrage: it is US foreign policy itself, what from the receiving end of missiles looks just like a vicious war on Muslim people. Ask yourself sincerely: What would a vicious war on Muslim people look like? Now take a look at the Middle East. The answer to the question “Why do they hate us?” could not be clearer to anyone who has paid any attention to US foreign policy in recent decades. But so long as the words of jihadists themselves are ignored, and slogans such as “They hate us for our freedom” are mindlessly parroted as the explanation for what they do, the killing machine will continue on in high gear. When the killing machine fails to eradicate the problem, then the constraints will be loosened, as under Trump, generating even more “collateral damage”, which will be used to recruit more and more jihadists to the cause, thereby keeping the killing machine in perpetual motion.
No one being killed by US missiles today had a hand in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of the younger and younger jihadist recruits being eliminated have lived in countries under continuous bombing for as long as they can remember. Lots of other people have died as well. In 2011, Obama killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman; in 2017, Trump killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter—both were in Yemen. Surely the solution to the turmoil in the Middle East is not the annihilation of every Arabic-speaking person of color born abroad. All of them do have the potential to become terrorists one day, but none of them were born that way.
Even former directors of the CIA have acknowledged that “You cannot kill your way out of this.” (Unfortunately persons in positions of power tend not to arrive at such enlightened views until after they retire.) And yet that is the logical endpoint of an approach whose only real goal has been to eliminate potential threats to the US homeland. Kill them all before they have the chance to make it to US shores! It’s an offensive policy, in both senses of the word, for it values the lives of people in the United States above all other human lives. Now that the lethal scepter has been handed off to Trump, he has not changed anything so much as made patent what US foreign policy has been about all along. Make America Great Again! Even if it involves eliminating everyone else on the planet.
Eye in the Sky (2015) is the first feature-length film about drone warfare to have received a decent amount of mainstream attention. This no doubt has something to do with the high-caliber cast, including lead roles by Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, and Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Big names imply big budgets. But there’s another reason why this movie, directed by Gavin Hood, has been discussed more than National Bird (2016), Good Kill (2015), Drone (2014), Drones (2013), Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013), or Dirty Wars (2013).
None of these films is entertaining. Eye in the Sky, like some of the others in this growing genre, presents itself as a work of historical fiction, grounded in what is supposed to be a realistic portrayal of the contemporary practice of drone warfare against persons suspected of association with radical jihadist groups. But rather than condemning the remote-control killers, as the other films unequivocally do, Eye in the Sky portrays the protagonists wrestling with the complexities of morality before launching missiles and then congratulating one another on their success.
The “evil enemy” here, in Nairobi, Kenya, is Al Shabaab, and the fate of one of their cells is the subject of lengthy and sophistic “just war” debate among the drone warriors. A contingent of US and British military and civilian officials communicate with one another from different parts of the world over Skype-like video feed, and after arguing over the course of the workday, they ultimately decide to execute the suspects, who appear to be preparing to carry out a suicide attack in the proximate future or, as the drone warriors would say, “imminently”.
One of the suspects is a US citizen, recently recruited from Minnesota, and two are British nationals. The white woman, Susan Danford—nom de guerre Ayesha Al Hady—has been tracked by Colonel Powell for a remarkable six years. Powell is keen to kill Danford, even after having summarized her life’s story as that of a person who came from a troubled household, married a terrorist, and was converted to the jihadist cause as a result of her vulnerability.
The mission is supposed to culminate in capture, not killing, but when the group of suspects convenes at a house where a suicide vest is being assembled and a video message filmed, the military officials immediately call for a missile strike, to the initial protests of the civilian political officials in attendance, who insist that they are there to witness a capture, not a targeted assassination.
The rest of the film is essentially an extended consideration of a version of what professional analytic philosophers call “The Trolley Problem,” a thought experiment wherein people are persuaded that they must kill some people in order to save others. Such hypothetical scenarios—like the proverbial ticking bomb, which is said by some to illustrate the necessity of torture under certain circumstances—involve an eerie desire on the part of some thinkers to persuade others to condone what, left to their own devices, they would never have agreed to do. As David Swanson has correctly observed, there is no known case in reality of drone warriors who kill a person and his entourage as they strap a suicide vest onto the martyr’s chest. That is why singling out this wildly implausible and entirely hypothetical scenario as representative of drone warfare in general is a consummate expression of pro-military propaganda.
Eye in the Sky attempts to portray the dilemmas involved in drone warfare but ultimately serves to promote the drone warriors’ all-too-sophistic modes of reasoning. Rather than ask deep and important questions such as how Al-Shabaab became such a powerful force in, first, Somalia and, later, places such as Kenya, the film allows the viewer steeped in New York Times headlines touting “Six Suspected Militants Slain” to float along blissfully in his or her state of ignorance regarding what precisely the US and British governments have been doing in the Middle East for the past sixteen years.
No indication is made of the fact—and frankly I’d be surprised if Director Hood himself were aware—that the US-backed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia led directly to a massive increase in local support for Al-Shabaab. It’s all-too-easy and comforting to swallow the official line that the members of local militias being targeted by drone strikes are “bad guys” who need to be extirpated from the face of the earth, even when it is likely that many of the people intentionally destroyed have been dissidents (or their “associates”) seeking to challenge the central government authority. (See Yemen for another example.)
It is abundantly clear from the very fact that new recruits from the United States and Britain—indeed, the very targets of the mission in this story—have been primarily either troubled youths or persons outraged at the Western devastation of the Middle East, and now Africa. Yet the film blithely allows the viewer to persist in puzzlement over the perennial question: Why do they hate us?
Colonel Powell wants to kill people, as is obvious by her calling for a missile strike even before explosives are seen at the meeting place. (Do the director and screenwriter win points from feminists for making the most ruthless military killer and her radical jihadist quarry both women? Or from progressives for making them white?)
Both Colonel Powell and General Benson consider Susan Danford’s allegiance with Al-Shabaab to be, essentially, a capital offense. They don’t bother with niceties such as the fact that capital punishment has been outlawed in the United Kingdom. Instead, the military personnel seek refuge in and parrot the simpleminded terms of just war theory which they learned in first-year ethics class at the military academy.
The missile strike is said to be a military necessity, proportional, and a last resort. It has furthermore been authorized by the legitimate authority, aka the US president, to whom the British continue to defer, even after the scathing Chilcot report in which Prime Minister Tony Blair was taken to task for embroiling Britain in the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq. As though none of that ever happened, when President Barack Obama normalized the targeted assassination of anyone in any place on the planet where radical jihadist terrorists are said by some anonymous analyst to reside, Prime Minister David Cameron, too, followed suit. In August 2015, he authorized missile strikes from drones against British nationals in Syria, despite the Parliament’s having voted down his call for war in 2013.
Perhaps Cameron was impressed by Barack Obama and drone killing czar John Brennan’s oft-flaunted fluency in just war rhetoric. Unfortunately, in Eye in the Sky, the sophomoric facility of the assassins with the terms of just war theory may, too, be taken as evidence to ignorant viewers that these people in uniform know what they are talking about and should be trusted with the delicate decision of where, when, and why to summarily execute human beings who have not been charged with crimes, much less permitted to stand trial.
The question how a missile strike in a country not at war can be conceived of as a military necessity is altogether ignored in this film, as though it were already a settled matter. Someone in the US government (President Obama under the advisement of John Brennan, former president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation, the business of which is terrorist targeting analysis) decreed that the entire world was a battlefield, and this opened up every place and other governments to the delusive casuistry of just war theorists, including their most strident advocates for war, the self-styled “humanitarian hawks”.
No matter that in this case there are no military soldiers from either the United States or Britain on the ground to be harmed. No matter that their collaborators are local spies who do in fact commit acts of treachery against their compatriots and are indeed brutally executed when this is discovered. Despite the complete absence of any of the aspects of a war which might warrant a missile strike as a military necessity—above all, that soldiers on the ground will otherwise die—the itchy trigger drone warriors point to their version of the dreaded Trolley Problem and a false and misleading application of utilitarianism to convince the naysayers that they must approve the launch of a missile in order to avert an even worse tragedy.
The military personnel are more persuasive than the sole civilian dissenter, and no one seems to be bothered in the least by questions of strategy. The word ‘blowback’ is never even mentioned in this film. But judging by the growth of ISIS and Al-Shabaab over the past decade, and the testimony of suicide bombers such as Humam Al-Balawi (the Jordanian doctor who blew up a group of CIA personnel at Camp Chapman in 2009—in direct retaliation to US missile strikes on Pakistan), the tactic of drone assassination can reasonably be expected to cause the ranks of jihadists to continue to swell. No one denies that during the occupation of Iraq, an effective recruiting tactic of factional groups was to point to the civilians harmed by the Western infidels as confirmation that they were indeed the evil enemy. Knowing all of this, it does not seem unfair to ask: Is “military necessity” now conceived by the remote-control killers as whatever will ensure the continuation of a war?
In Eye in the Sky, the drone warriors are more than willing to risk the life of a little girl who has set up a table where she is selling loaves of bread because, they say, if they do not act immediately then perhaps eighty little children just like her will be killed instead. No mention is made of the psychological trauma suffered by the people who do not die in drone strikes, but witness what has transpired. (When was the last time one of your neighbors’ houses was cratered by a Hellfire missile?) Instead, the collateral damage estimate (CDE) so conscientiously calculated by a hapless soldier pressured by Colonel Powell to produce an estimated likelihood of the girl’s death at less than 50% altogether ignores the 100% probability that she and everyone in the neighborhood will be terrorized.
But even focusing solely on the likely lethality of the strike, the drone warriors in Eye in the Sky display what is in reality a lethal lack of imagination, an utter failure to conceive of counter measures such as warning the people in nearby markets and public places of the impending danger. That is because, in the minds of the drone warriors, if one terrorist attack is thwarted, then another will surely be carried out later on down the line. By this mode of reasoning, they have arrived at the depressing and nihilistic conclusion that they must kill all of the suspects. What would be the point of doing anything else?
Recruits from Western societies, young people such as Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, are assumed to be beyond the reach of reason, despite the glaring fact that their recent conversion to the jihadist cause itself reveals that they have changed their view before and could, in principle, change it again. Nonetheless, the drone warriors persist in their worship of death as the be-all and end-all of foreign policy. They are literally trapped in the lethality box, because they cannot conceive of any other way of dealing with factional terrorism than by killing people. When obviously innocent persons are destroyed, maimed, terrorized and left bereft by Western missiles, these acts of so-called military necessity end by galvanizing support for the Anti-Western jihadist cause, both near the strike site and in lands far away.
Realistically, what self-respecting father would not wish to avenge the death of his young child at the hands of the murderous drone warriors who are so despicable as to kill without risking any danger to themselves? Instead of thinking through the likely implications of what they are doing, the drone warriors persist in invoking delusive just war rhetoric to promote what they want to do: kill the evil enemy. But the use of lethal drones in what has been successfully marketed to taxpayers as “smart war”, eliminates soldierly risk only by transferring it to civilians on the ground. No matter that new recruits continue to flock to the jihadist cause, seems to be the thinking of our great military minds, missiles are in ample supply.
It is a depressing view of humanity indeed which sees homicide as the solution to conflict when in fact it is its primary cause. But the delusion of the drone assassins is even worse than the corruption of criminal contract killers because they emetically congratulate each other, as in this film, for pushing buttons to eliminate their fellow human beings from the face of the earth, as though this were some kind of accomplishment, rather than the worst of all possible crimes.
New recruits such as Susan Danford will never stop arising from the ashes of drone strike sites until the drone strikes have come to a halt. Indulging in a false and Manichean division of people into black and white categories of good and evil, the killers corrupt more and more young people to collaborate with them, both informants and drone operators. Those who perform well in their jobs rise in the ranks to become the commanders of future killers, until at last the entire society is filled with people who upon watching a film such as Eye in the Sky end by sympathizing not with the victims but with those who destroyed them.
Focused as they will be upon this simpleminded “Trolley Problem” portrayal of drone warfare, Western viewers will likely miss altogether the obscene hegemonic presumptions of the killers who use beetle- and bird-sized drones to penetrate the private homes of people in order to stop them from wreaking havoc in countries where there are no US or British soldiers on the ground to harm. To pretend that all of this killing is for the benefit of the locals is delusional to the point of insanity.
If serial Western military interventions had not destroyed country after country across the Middle East, beginning with Iraq in 1991, then there would be no “evil enemy” to confront in the first place. To continue to ignore the words of jihadists themselves when they rail against the savage butchery of millions of Muslim people by the US military and its poodles is but the most flagrant expression of this smug hegemony. No, I am afraid, they do not hate us for our freedom.
In Eye in the Sky, anyone who opposes the use of military weapons against people living in their own civil society thousands of miles away is painted as a coward and a fool, as though there were some sort of moral obligation to launch missiles to save a hypothetical group of eighty people. The very same killers do not feel any obligation whatsoever to provide food, shelter, and potable water to the people living in such societies, even when the $70K cost of a single missile could be repurposed to save many more than eighty lives, in addition to winning over “hearts and minds”.
Here is the ugly truth shining through the willingness to kill but not to save lives in nonhomicidal ways: Peace does not pay. The drone killing machine is the latest and most lucrative instantiation of the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. That Westerners continue to be taken in by this hoax is tragic for the people of Africa and the Middle East mercilessly terrorized (when they are not maimed or incinerated) while the killers gloat over what they take to be their moral courage.
Near the end of the film, Lieutenant Colonel Benson sanctimoniously admonishes the sole remaining dissenter among the witnesses to the mission, which she has denounced as “disgraceful”. He smugly retorts to her suggestion that he is a coward: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” But the cost of the remote-control elimination of persons suspected of complicity in terrorism is not merely the tragic loss of human life. It is the destruction of such killers’ souls and the concomitant creation of even more killers who feel the need to retaliate in turn. It is the fact that they have rolled back all of the moral progress in procedural justice made by human societies since the 1215 Magna Carta. It is the fact that their dogged insistence on perpetuating and spreading this practice to the darkest and least democratic corners of the planet represents a categorical denial of human rights.
The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs (2015) is an engaging Showtime documentary in the spirit of Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (2003) and Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers (2012). Directors Jules Naudet and Gedeot Naudet use the same technique of interviewing former government officials to determine what they take themselves to have been doing as they participated in or directed what came to be highly controversial tactics rationalized in the name of national defense. The Spymasters features former directors and officials of the CIA who share their perspectives on “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “targeted killing” carried out during the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
By telling the story of the war on terror from its beginnings, the film helpfully illuminates how the US government arrived where it is today, executing unidentified military-age men located thousands of miles away and in countries where war was never officially waged. The 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) has been held up at each stage along the way to explain why the US president is allegedly free to fire missiles on anyone he chooses and anywhere he believes there to be potential danger on the horizon—whatever his standards and evidential criteria may be.
It’s always good to find out what the perpetrators of state homicide think about what they have done, even though they have an evident interest in forging a positive image of themselves for posterity. Still, reading between the lines of their sometimes diaphanous attempts to exculpate themselves from any moral wrongdoing—even if they own that mistakes were occasionally made—one discovers a wealth of insight into what has transpired over the course of the last sixteen years.
One of the most significant citations, though a statement of the obvious, is former CIA director George Tenet’s frank acknowledgment that “We’re all human beings,” which serves as a blanket apology for all parties involved, for everything that they did. However, there is lots of blame to go around, and most of the directors, including Tenet, are more than willing to point the accusatory finger at somebody else once the details of the various episodes are looked at more closely. The film covers four major intelligence failures and presents a short history of what transpired in the lead up to and during the Drone Age.
Big Mistake #1: Failure to Stop the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.
The officials interviewed in this film who were in place before the attacks of September 11, 2001, deny that what happened was due primarily to Agency intelligence failures. Cofer Black is especially adamant that it was the Bush administration which refused to act on the warnings presented to them by the CIA in a July 2001 report:
“You know what really does piss me off? When people call this an intelligence failure. We knew this was coming: American interests going to be attacked, could very well be in the United States. It’s serious, it’s coming.”
Others seem more convinced that the primary failure was the lack of communication between the CIA and the FBI. Had the two agencies only communicated with one another, then some of the suicide bombers might have been apprehended and the attacks thwarted.
The result of this mistake, no doubt the collective fault of many individuals, was the destruction of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, and the deaths of some 3,000 Americans. Even worse, it led to the Global War on Terror, still going strong sixteen years later, destroying country after country, across the Middle East.
Big Mistake #2: Support of the 2003 War on Iraq, Waged on False Pretenses
The next big Agency blunder was to produce an intelligence briefing in support of the Bush administration’s 2003 war on Iraq. George Tenet, who infamously used the phrase “slam dunk” to George W. Bush when discussing the Agency’s confidence in the case for the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), insists that the orders for war had already been signed and the decision already made:
“Now the way it was portrayed, was: this was the seminal moment in the president’s life in terms of deciding whether to go to war or not. That’s not what happened at all. The decision to go to war, orders to send troops had already been signed. I mean, we were way down the road here.”
Tenet may be right about that, but, in retrospect, everyone recognizes that the administration was publicly bolstered by the apparently enthusiastic support of the invasion by the nation’s top intelligence analysts.
The result of this colossal blunder was a brutal war in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Westerners—including soldiers, aid workers, and journalists—died. Part of the widespread chaos was a result of the fact that Muslim men from other lands were galvanized to travel to Iraq to take up arms against what they quite rightly regarded as the unjust invaders of Iraq. Many of those men were killed, while many survivors were radicalized, coming to ally themselves with Al Qaeda or ISIS.
Big Mistake #3: Use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques—Later Denounced by the Senate as Torture
From 2001 to 2006, the CIA ran a secret rendition and detention program in which harsh interrogation techniques were used. The program was later denounced by a Senate committee and President Obama as unacceptable torture, both wrong and ineffective at stopping attacks in the US homeland and abroad.
However, in The Spymasters, both former director George Tenet and former head of counterterrorism José Rodríguez vehemently reject the characterization of what they did as torture, insisting that they stopped short of torture in their use of a variety of techniques intended to, as Michael Hayden puts it, “move individuals from a zone of defiance into a zone of cooperation.”
George Tenet refuses to relent:
“I’m not going to ever accept the use of the word ‘torture’ in front of what happened here. I’m not going to fall to that.”
Interestingly enough, although Rodríguez insists that he and his colleagues did nothing wrong, he explains his decision to destroy videotapes of interrogations in this way:
“My primary motivation in destroying the tapes was to protect the people who worked for me. They showed people naked, being waterboarded, and going through the enhanced interrogation techniques… I knew that the tape would play as if, you know, we were all, you know, psychopaths, and that’s something that we didn’t want to…”
The result of the enhanced interrogation program was to thoroughly tarnish the image of the United States, but, even more devastatingly, to produce recruiting material (such as the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison) taken up by Al Qaeda and related groups, which have continued to thrive and spread to other countries beyond Afghanistan and Iraq.
Big Mistake #4: The Lethal Turn in Intelligence. Obama’s Kill Don’t Capture Policy
Former director Leon Panetta shares his experience and grief—and feeling of guilt—for the December 30, 2009, killing of seven CIA agents at Camp Chapman, where they believed themselves to be meeting with a new asset who would lead them to Osama bin Laden. In fact, the supposed double agent, Jordanian doctor Humam Al-Balawi, was a suicide bomber intent on retaliating against the US government for its killing of Muslims. In describing his reaction after his officers were killed, Panetta laments:
“What went through my mind was the families out there, who within a few hours were going to be informed that someone who they loved had been killed.”
Panetta sheds a good deal of light on the human desire on the part of the drone killers to retaliate to terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, he does not use his own experience to comprehend what those opposing the US government’s war on terror feel. Instead, he opts to kill the suspect whom he believes to be responsible for the deaths at Camp Chapman, along with his family, who are written off as “collateral damage”. Panetta feels vindicated nonetheless:
“I passed on the word, I said: If you can isolate the individual and take the shot without impacting on women and children, then do it. But if you have no alternative, and it looks like he might get away, then take the shot…. And it did involve collateral damage, but we got him.”
He then goes on to explain that he is fighting a war against the perpetrators of 9/11, but he appears not to recognize that the terrorists who went after the analysts at Camp Chapman were outraged by the CIA’s own drone strikes in Pakistan, which had killed civilians, including women and children. In fact, Humam al-Balawi makes explicit reference to his intended targets’ drone killing activities in the suicide tape he recorded before the attack:
“We will beat you CIA team. Inshallah, we will beat you down. Don’t think that you just pressing a button killing mujahideen you are safe. Inshallah, death will come to you… and you will be sent to the hell.”
Panetta, who talks repeatedly about his Catholicism and is depicted fondling a rosary during part of the interview for this film, expresses his feeling of apparent happiness when Osama bin Laden is finally hunted down and slain:
“Hearing people outside of the gates of the White House, chanting USA, USA, CIA,.. it was something that will be a memory that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”
The result of all of this premeditated, intentional homicide has been arguably to radicalize even more Muslim men, ever younger, and even to extend the summary execution without trial to citizens of Western nations. Men such as Anwar Al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussain have been intentionallly hunted down and executed by their own government rather than being captured and allowed to stand trial.
Judging by the concerns expressed repeatedly by the drone warriors in the CIA, every suspected terrorist is now regarded as potentially a future Osama bin Laden, even though many of the targets are quite young and have explicitly expressed their anger at the US war on terror, in which millions of Muslims have been killed, maimed, terrorized, or driven to flee their homeland in search of safety and security and to avoid being destroyed by missiles and bombs.
Especially noteworthy is that the officials involved in the “enhanced interrogation program” are highly skeptical of the Obama administration’s drone program and what was effectively a decision to call a halt to detention, and instead to summarily execute all military-age males suspected of possible complicity in terrorism or association with radical jihadist groups. For their part, the drone killers interviewed—above all, John Brennan and Leon Panetta—decry the enhanced interrogation program as having involved torture, which, they insist, Americans should not be perpetrating.
Former director John Brennan once again repeats his familiar refrain that the Agency always attempts to capture suspects, but nothing could be further from the truth. Case in point: Anwar Al-Awlaki was released from a Yemen prison, where he was being detained without charges at the US government’s request. After being released, he was then hunted down and slain. QED. (It is worth observing here that in the three years prior to his appointment to the Obama administration as drone killing czar, Brennan was running a private company, The Analysis Corporation, which generated and analyzed intelligence for terrorist watch lists.)
A number of the earlier directors, who served before 9/11, express discomfort and even dismay that the CIA has become primarily concerned with covert lethal action, which is a paramilitary function not a part of the original Agency mission to gather and analyze intelligence in order to provide the executive with the means to forge sound policy. George Tenet expresses his profound reservations about what his successors have been doing:
“Killing people, no matter how bad they are, is not something that should ever rest easily in anybody’s soul or in anybody’s brain. Sometimes I think we get ourselves into a frenzy, into believing that killing is the only answer to a problem. And the truth is it’s not.”
The Biggest Strategic Mistake of All, or: Why the Middle East is Now in Shambles
The underlying problem with the conflict in the Middle East, which is not treated in the film, can be traced back to the 1991 Gulf War on Iraq. Unfortunately, no one among the interviewees seems to know or care that Osama bin Laden explicitly claimed to be retaliating, in particular, against the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children in the aftermath of Desert Storm, when draconian sanctions prevented access to medications needed to address the illnesses caused directly by the obliteration of water treatment facilities by the US military.
Bin Laden made no secret of the source of his rage, but the US government preferred to promote soundbites such as “They hate us for our freedom,” rather than imagining what it would be like to witness the slaughter of innocent civilians by the US military.
There seems to be little awareness indeed on the part of America’s “Top Spies” that the terrorists are in fact retaliating in precisely the manner in which US officials felt the need to do so in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11. This inability to imagine what it is like to live under the constant threat of death by US bombs and missiles is shared by all of the directors but perhaps most graphic in the case of Cofer Black, who indignantly intones:
“These are our people. Nobody comes to our town and messes with our people.”
All of that said, the fact that some of the directors are willing to express reservations about the US government’s current lethal and short-sighted approach to the problem of factional terrorism offers a modicum of hope that one day the Agency will be reined in again after having administered both George W. Bush’s horrific detention and torture program and Barack Obama’s revved-up drone killing machine.
This thought-provoking film, which I highly recommend, ends with an unforgettable and stunning sequence of directors each articulating this same important truth:
“You can’t kill your way out of this.”
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
Anyone who has never watched “Collateral Murder”, video footage of a ghastly incident in 2007 when Reuters journalists and other civilians in New Baghdad, Iraq, were mistaken for terrorists and slaughtered by US forces, should do so immediately.
Celebrate the courage of Private Manning, thanks to whom we have this insight into US war crimes carried out throughout the Global War on Terror. “Why do they hate us?” Watch this film, and you’ll never again wonder.
On July 6, 2016, the Report of the Iraq Inquiry, better known as the Chilcot Report, was finally published after more than six years of work by Chair of the Inquiry, Sir John Chilcot. The aim of the study, which began in 2009 and was initiated by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was to consider the UK’s policy on Iraq from 2001 to 2009 and to “identify lessons for the future” by answering two key questions:
- Whether it was right and necessary to invade Iraq in 2003, and
- Whether the UK could—and should—have been better prepared for what followed
The study ended up taking four years longer than the projected two years, and it cost more than £10 million to carry out. The conclusions have been widely affirmed as damning of Tony Blair, the prime minister who chose to ally the United Kingdom with the United States in its invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.
The report spans multiple volumes, but The Guardian has put together a nice summary of the most important points, a few of which I’ll paraphrase here:
–The war was not a last resort. The UK joined the war effort before peaceful options had been exhausted.
–PM Tony Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. There was no imminent threat. Furthermore, Britain’s intelligence agencies produced “flawed information”, skewed by a confirmation bias that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD (weapons of mass destruction). Essentially, British intelligence accepted the burden of proof put forth by the US government: that Iraq needed to demonstrate that it had no WMD. (NB: such negative proofs are logically impossible. Try proving the nonexistence of Santa Claus–or God, for that matter.)
–Blair assured US President George W. Bush that he would join the war effort without fail: “I will be with you, whatever.”
For the most part, the six year, £10 million+ study basically concluded what millions of antiwar protesters had no difficulty recognizing back in 2002.
Now that the UK government itself has concluded that Blair made serious errors while acting in the capacity of prime minister, many people have called for his criminal indictment. The most promising charge would have to be that he misled, and therefore coerced, the British people into participating in a war against their own national interest. In the wake of the report, Blair has stood by his decision to embroil the UK in the war in Iraq, claiming that he meant well. Once again we find that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” (See: just war theory for more on that…)
One topic which has not been addressed by any of the many commentators on the Chilcot Report—at least not to my knowledge—is whether it does not also mandate a reconsideration of the treatment of Britain’s allegedly treasonous enemies, young men who have turned against the UK government as a direct result of its complicity in the destruction of the country of Iraq, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and the harm to millions more, many of whom were forced to flee their homeland as a result of the postwar violence and insecurity.
I am interested specifically in the cases of three young British nationals, Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussein, all of whom were incinerated by lethal drone while living in Syria, to which they fled in order to join the ISIS effort. The reason why the stories of these young men, denounced by the UK government as “evil terrorists” and threats to national security, trouble me is because they were deliberately destroyed by their own government without ever having stood trial or even been indicted for their alleged crimes.
Two of the targets, Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan, were taken out on August 21, 2015, by missiles fired from drones by the RAF under the authorization of then-Prime Minister David Cameron. The third target, Junaid Hussein, was eliminated on August 25, 2015, by a US drone with the help of British intelligence. (Other persons were killed in a previous strike aiming for him.) All in all, August 2015 was a precedent-setting month for Britain, a nation in which capital punishment has been outlawed and which was not officially at war in Syria, where these British nationals were hunted down and killed.
Two of the three alleged enemies of the state were 21 years of age at the time of their death; the third was 26 years old. They all died in late 2015, which implies that two of the targets were 9 years old when the UK government joined the ill-advised war on Iraq; the third was 14 years old. This means that they were children or young adolescents at the time of the invasion of Iraq. Their entire worldview was obviously affected by the war on Iraq, for they later decided to team up with whoever was fighting those responsible.
In other words, if Britain had not joined forces with the United States, which would have made it very, very difficult for the war to proceed, as there would not have been a “coalition of the willing” but only a rogue aggressor state, then in all likelihood Iraq would not have been destroyed, and the group which came to be known as ISIS would not have grown and spread from Iraq to Syria.
These are all counterfactual conditionals, of course. My point is only that if ISIS never came to be in its present form, because the people of Iraq were not subjected to oppression and lawless aggression—night raids, summary executions, detentions and torture—then the British drone strike targets destroyed with the blessing of David Cameron could not and would not have joined forces with the group now known as ISIS.
I therefore find that, in addition to being responsible for all of the death and destruction in Iraq, Tony Blair bears responsibility not only for the deaths of Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussain, but also for Prime Minister David Cameron’s summary execution without trial of these men. In saying this, I do not mean to absolve Cameron for his mistake, for he himself identified his victims as enemies of the state and arguably violated both British and international law by assassinating them. Cameron should never have followed US President Obama’s misguided precedent in summarily executing without trial his fellow citizens.
However, Tony Blair is equally culpable, in my view, for having contributed to this return to a medieval, pre-Magna Carta framework of justice being perpetrated by unjust warriors as necessary only because of their own prior crimes and the existence of a sophisticated modern technology, the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), without which none of these deaths would have occurred (see: We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age).
It is tragic that so many young Muslim men are being annihilated for reacting violently to what they correctly identify to have been atrocious crimes committed in a misguided war (see: Chilcot Report). The state warriors and the factional terrorists sadly all embrace the same confused premise: that conflict can be resolved by obliterating anyone who disagrees. Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain are graphic illustrations of how young people are being molded into jihadists by their witness of state-perpetrated war crimes, and their heartfelt desire to stop them.