In this 27-minute interview on Sputnik Radio International, host John Harrison, author Laurie Calhoun, and peace campaigner Russell Whiting discuss the recently proposed changes to the US drone program, including the request by the CIA to be given strike autonomy in Afghanistan, and modifications to the Obama administration’s Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) in the forthcoming Trump administration’s Principles, Standards, and Procedures (PSP). What will the consequences of these changes be? Will people finally begin to consider the legal, moral, and strategic implications of the US government’s policy of targeted killing outside areas of active hostilities?
It’s official: the US government has now confessed to having intentionally and premeditatedly killed at least 2,372 persons in places where US force protection was not the reason for the acts of homicide. They also admit to having unintentionally killed at least another 64 persons who were doing nothing other than going about their lives in their civil societies. These are remarkable admissions. Why? Because the approximately 2,400 acts of homicide are openly and unselfconsciously acknowledged to have taken place not where the lives of US military personnel or other citizens were at stake, but “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”.
Persons killed “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities” were living in places which were not war zones. There were no “active hostilities” underway. The targets slain by lethal drones in such places were not directly threatening any other human being with death at the moment when they were killed. The more than 2,400 recently confessed homicides were committed in the victims’ civil societies. In other words, the stalking and hunting down of these people constituted acts of assassination, not acts of war. These were extrajudicial executions, authorized by the US president in the name of national self-defense.
The equivocation between criminals and soldiers began under the Bush administration, which waged full-scale wars on Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the crimes of September 11, 2001, instigated by a relatively small group of persons most of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia, which strangely (or not) received a “get out of jail free” pass from the US government.
In the case of the targeted killing program using lethal drones, the US government under Obama also wishes to have it both ways, treating the targets as convicted criminals whose just desert is death, while simultaneously invoking Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and a state’s “inherent right to self defense” as the reason for killing all of these people, with the innocents written off as “collateral damage”.
Scholars of international law have repeatedly observed that Article 51 is only relevant when the nation against which military action is taken has actively initiated hostilities against the nation claiming to defend itself. In other words, Article 51 is inapplicable to these acts of homicide, because, by the US government’s own acknowledgement, they have taken place “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”. A war zone is a site of active hostility. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are identified as “areas of active hostilities” in the US government’s recently disseminated “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities.”
The persons reported on in the July 1, 2016, document were killed between January 20, 2009, and December 31, 2015, and resided in remote territories of tribal regions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, and possibly other places as well—the countries are not named because the homicides perpetrated outside of active war zones are being carried out under the authority of the CIA, not the Pentagon, and so count as covert operations.
The transparency infamously championed by Obama ends up amounting to this:
We will admit to having killed these people, but we won’t tell you who they were, when they were killed, or why (beyond the fact that we have decided that they were enemies of the state). All of that sort of information is classified. Just trust us, we know what we’re doing.
Even if the US government somehow became willing to divulge the names of their targets, it turns out that most of the names are not known anyway. The question, therefore, must be posed: How did the US government know that they were terrorists? The answer, I regret to say, is: They did not.
The victims were all suspected terrorists, just like the persons interned at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, 86% of whom were later determined to have had no connections to terrorist groups. They may have looked like terrorists. They may have dressed like terrorists. Their comportment may have matched the “disposition matrix” of behaviors typical of terrorists—carrying weapons, wearing turbans, hollering out in anger at the invaders of their land—but most of those men, incarcerated under the authority of President George W. Bush, were not terrorists at all. They were suspects who turned out to be innocent.
The Obama administration’s manner of dealing with persons suspected of complicity with terrorist groups has been summarily to execute them all: “Kill don’t capture” or “Take No Prisoners” is, sad to say, the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy initiative. Once the persons killed by drone strikes are dead, they are categorized as “enemy killed in action”, or EKIA, which we know not from the July 1, 2016, report but from classified US government documents made public by The Intercept thanks to a whistleblower.
It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this fact, so let me reiterate it as plainly as I can: The persons killed by Obama “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities” have precisely the same status as the persons imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. Obama’s terrorist suspects have been executed rather than rendered to secret torture facilities and held without charges for many years, but that certainly does not imply that they were guilty. Instead, it implies that Obama has committed war crimes. He has executed thousands of human beings on suspicion of their potential for possible complicity in future possible terrorist plots.
When will the Obama apologists finally open their eyes to the atrocities committed by him in their name?
It’s hard to know where to start in addressing the US government’s “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities,” released on Friday, July 1, 2016, before the long holiday weekend, in the apparent hope that no one would read it.
Some of us did. The report claims, preposterously, that in 473 drone strikes “against terrorist targets outside of active hostilities,” a total of from 2,372 to 2,581 combatants were killed, along with from 64 to 116 noncombatants. These numbers are shockingly low, given the many detailed reports on drone killing issued by NGOs and human rights groups since 2009.
Even Senator Lindsey Graham claimed back in 2013 that drone strikes had, by then, already taken out some 4,700 “terrorists”. That’s about twice the number the administration is claiming were killed during a period of time even two years longer, from January 20, 2009, when Obama killed a slew of innocent people in Pakistan in a series of missile strikes which provoked mass protests in Islamabad (captured for posterity on film, so, no, they cannot be denied), and December 31, 2015.
Should anyone care what Lindsey Graham says? Maybe not, but given that he is a foreign policy insider, and longtime member of the Committee on Armed Services, there is some reason for believing that when he boasts that nearly 5,000 “terrorists” were killed, then at least that many suspects have certainly been slain.
One possibility for the discrepancy is that Graham was including “areas of active hostilities” along with the places covered by the recently reported numbers. The July 1, 2016, report excludes the death tallies from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, where Obama has lobbed thousands of missiles. In fact, in 2015 alone, Obama authorized more than 23,000 bombings of Muslim majority nations, which suggests that, unless the bombs are being dropped by blindfolded pilots and drone operators, at least 23,000–and likely many more–people were killed by the US government that year.
Let us set aside the somewhat disturbing discrepancies between the recently issued report and the likely death toll of Obama’s many lethal initiatives, and focus today on the simple numbers detailed in the July 1, 2016, report. I’ll follow up with everything else wrong with the report, including how it flagrantly denies what transpired in January 2009, in the series of posts to follow.
First, if the range of combatants killed is said to be greater than the total possible number of noncombatants reportedly killed, then this alone suffices to demonstrate that the latter number can only be erroneous. The reason why there is a range for combatants is because the administration does not know how many they have killed. It could be 2,372 or 2,373 or 2,374, or anywhere up to 2,581, assuming charitably that these numbers are based on some form of attempted analysis and not merely pulled out of a hat or produced using a random number generator by someone in the public relations wing of the Pentagon or the CIA.
Suppose that the lowest number of the range of “combatants” were killed, that is, 2,372. This means that another 209 people who might have been combatants killed either were not combatants, or they were persons who were not killed at all. That’s either 209 corpses of unknown identity or 209 possible corpses. Either way, the fact that the US government does not know whether those 209 people were really killed and, if so, whether they were combatants, already reveals that the highest number of noncombatant deaths reported is false.
What the report should say, if it hopes to be taken seriously by anyone at all with even the most rudimentary understanding of arithmetic, is that between 64 and (116 + 209) = 325 noncombatants have been killed. Instead, the report pretends that the range of uncertainty on combatant deaths does not imply anything about the likely range of noncombatant deaths, when it obviously does. The reason why the government cannot decide whether 2,372 or some number up to 2,581 combatants were killed is because they were unable to confirm that the 209 people purportedly slain were in fact slain or else that they were in fact combatants.
This brings us to the next, much more serious problem, elaborated in Part 2 of How Self-Styled Drone Warrior US President Barack Obama Normalized War Crimes: “Suspects versus Combatants”.
to be continued…
Drone warriors have been redefining words from the very beginning, and they have sadly persuaded a fair portion of the populace to accept that the formerly taboo practice of assassination is now legal, provided only that it be labeled “targeted killing”. It’s supposed to be perfectly permissible for the US president (Obama) or UK prime minister (Cameron) to annihilate some of their compatriots without indictment or trial, much less conviction of capital crimes, so long as the hired guns use missiles rather than bullets to dispatch targets on the government’s hit list. Everyone knows that missiles are weapons of war. Ergo, drone strikes are acts of war. As sophomoric as that little piece of reasoning may be, far too many people have fallen for it, including political elites.
In the United States, 9/11 appears to have induced an effect on citizens’ capacity for criticism akin to the concussion caused by a blunt blow to the cranium. That was fifteen years ago, Osama bin Laden was slain five years ago, and yet the damage to US citizens’ critical faculties appears in some cases to have been permanent. Most politicians continue to line up to support any- and everything labeled “national defense”, even when it obviously degrades the security of the people paying for it. Arming ISIS? Deposing more dictators to create power vacuums perfect for the flourishing of terrorists? Really?
The thousands of targets taken out by drone strikes have been denied all rights under international law. The governing assumption among US administrators has been that suspects are always and everywhere evil terrorists à la Osama bin Laden. Guilty until proven innocent, not the other way around, as Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires. As difficult to believe as it may be, the drone warriors have succeeded in rolling back “justice” to pre-Magna Carta times. But the false analogies, faulty reasoning and linguistic léger-de-main certainly do not stop there.
Article 51 of the UN Charter has been interpreted by the drone warriors to mean that they (anyone?) may fire missiles anywhere in the world they want. All that is needed is to define “hostile” areas as “battlefields” and claim that killing this particular tribesman, whose identity is unknown, who does not even possess a passport, and who inhabits a hut in a remote region of a Third World country, is an imminent threat to the existence of the United States. I have to wonder what historians will say about all of this in a hundred years or so…
Take the battle to the enemy! the drone warfare enthusiasts cheer each time they read another headline regurgitating the Pentagon’s latest report of having attempted to take out another suspected militant. It does not even appear to matter to the cheerleaders for lethal drones that the vast majority of strikes have been undertaken against persons of unknown identity. What matters is that the pile of ashes formerly known as a human being and identified as potentially (not immediately!) threatening by savvy analysts at the CIA (or their private military company (PMC) affiliates) will never make it to US shores.
So what if the Middle East is a morass of murder and mayhem? So what if radical Islamic jihadist franchises continue to proliferate and spread to new territories? So what if the lives of millions of human beings have been destroyed or severely degraded? So what if no one on the planet but the self-deluded warriors themselves believes that they have been selected to do God’s will?
Safe and smug in their belief that none of this could harm them, and might even be keeping them safe, Americans have gone about their shopping as usual, as though they had nothing to worry about, their blithe state of complacency punctuated only by the occasional lunatic mass killing in the homeland. But those nutcases have nothing whatsoever to do with the US government’s ever-more lethal policy. Do as we say, not as we do! The current Democratic party leadership insists that we need to implement strict background checks before selling guns to people on the terrorist watch list in the homeland. Meanwhile, they continue to condone President Obama’s record levels of weapons exports to the rest of the world. It’s the American way.
A recent development, the vote by the US senate to require women in the United States to register for the Selective Service and be prepared to step forward to defend the nation, should the need be said by politicians to arise, represents another instance of the fallacious reasoning and linguistic sleight of hand so deftly deployed by the drone warriors up to now. How did it come about? As usual, the first steps were highly surreptitious and sneaky. Under Obama, light footprints abound, invariably leaving deep pools of blood on the ground.
About the time that the drone operator recruitment crisis began to worsen, with enlisted persons abandoning the profession in droves once their initial contract term had elapsed, the Pentagon suddenly announced that all combat positions would henceforth be open to women. Feminists naturally rejoiced. Hurrah! What a victory! Shouldn’t women who are ready and willing to fight alongside men be permitted to do so, if they choose? The key word was of course ‘choose’. Women in the military were thrilled that they could now ascend to the heights of the top brass, able to break that pesky glass ceiling at last. So far, so good.
The next step was to transform the “choice” of some women to become combat troops, probably a very small minority even of those already enlisted, into a “responsibility” to defend the nation. If the government is willing to grant women the privilege of being able to fight alongside men, then shouldn’t women correlatively shoulder the responsibility of defending the nation, when called upon to do so?
If you are scratching your head about now, that’s because you have knocked into a serious non sequitur. From ‘may’ no ‘must’ follows. (David Hume would be appalled.) Stated simply for any non-philosophers who may be reading this post:
Permission does not imply obligation.
The fact that the small number of women who would in fact choose to serve as combat soldiers may now do so in no way implies that all of the rest of the “military age” women in the United States must present themselves on the battlefield when called up to serve.
This instance of fallacious reasoning fits right in with the rest of the drone warriors’ Orwellian approach to foreign policy, pseudo-morality and so-called justice. Let us be as clear and unequivocal as possible:
No one has a duty to serve as a government assassin.
No one. Neither men nor women can be compelled to act in ways which flagrantly violate the Geneva Conventions, even setting aside for a moment all of the other protocols being ignored or creatively reinterpreted. The targets of drone strikes are usually unarmed and not directly threatening any other person with harm, least of all the operator who incinerates them.
The suspects (I repeat, suspects) are not warned that they are about to be killed, and they are denied the opportunity to surrender or to explain how their phone number ended up in the contact list of another suspected terrorist’s cell phone. These homicides are, therefore, violations of international law, and no US citizen is obliged to follow illegal orders. As the many brave veterans who have spoken out against “targeted killing” continue to protest, it is a violation of the “laws of war” to follow unlawful orders.
All drone operators firing on targets residing in countries not at war (except in the minds of the drone warriors), should immediately cease and desist from following these unlawful orders. Mark my words: the drone assassination of thousands of suspects and their “associates” will eventually go down in history along with the Nuremberg trials. I regret that it is taking so long for the rest of the international community to awaken to the acrid scent of the charred flesh of so many innocent persons presumed guilty until proven innocent before being hunted down and killed with impunity by the drone warriors.
Young women and men alike: do not be fooled. You have no obligation to serve as a hired assassin for your government. Save your soul: just say “no”.
In 2009, a reported 27,000 people were employed in the public relations wing of the Pentagon (AP). I presume that there are even more today. Their job, as is true of every state-funded Ministry of Propaganda, is to win over “hearts and minds”, while the rest of the institution focuses on homicide.
Only the extraordinary number of persons working in the capacity of propagandists for the US government can explain odd news reports such as the recent announcement that the Department of Defense attempted to kill Somalian Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, said to be a senior member of Al-Shabaab. The Washington Post’s Pentagon-parroting report then proceeds to clarify that the killers do not actually know whom they killed:
The United States carried out a drone strike last week in Somalia, targeting Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, a senior leader in the al-Shabab militant group, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.
The Defense Department is still assessing whether the May 27 strike killed Da’ud.
Remarkably, the report continues on to tout the drone strike as a victory, under the provisional hypothesis that the strike did in fact kill the intended target:
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement that, if confirmed, his [Abdullahi Haji Da’ud’s] death “will disrupt near-term attack planning, potentially saving many innocent lives.”
The reason why this is remarkable is because, as Reprieve has documented, in strikes aimed at 41 named targets, 1,147 people were killed. Given the shocking findings of that study, it seems safe to conclude that it’s easier said than done to eliminate named terrorist suspects (who, as a reminder, are suspects).
Most of the victims of US drone strikes—both intended and unintended—have likely been military-age males, whom the US government defines as guilty until proven innocent. This is how the myth among the populace that targeted killing using drones is “smart war” continues to prevail. The categorization as “evil terrorists” of all military-age males in the remote tribal regions where missiles are fired (the “suspect” part appears to be elided by most people’s minds), is blithely accepted by everyone who praises the drone program. The only true requirement for conviction of “guilt” by the drone warriors is that a man be located in a zone where drone strikes are targeting suspected terrorists, whether named or unnamed. More often than not, the victims are brown-skinned Muslims.
Needless to say, there is no discussion in the article about the consequence of the drone strike intended for Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, if in fact it killed someone else altogether. What if it killed a child, who has a father? What if it killed a male adolescent’s teenage brother? What would be the consequences then?
As though the consequences of collateral damage had no strategic relevance whatsoever, the US government proceeds to kill suspects as fast as they can “finger” them in at least seven different countries, denying all of the inhabitants of those lands any rights, in a flagrant violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It’s hard for most Westerners to grasp exactly how scandalous this situation is for people on the ground, but we can begin to understand the ever-more vexing quagmire in the Middle East by taking a look at this short video of a protest in Pakistan, where many “military-age males” have gathered to vow to fight back against the United States if they do not cease killing Pakistanis using lethal drones:
It’s not as though this sort of reaction to US military aggression is somehow new or unexpected. What is amazing is that no lessons appear to have been learned by the warriors from the fiascoes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, the drone campaigns have expanded, spreading across several different lands, terrorizing countless innocent people and inspiring the very same kind of outrage which was witnessed during the occupations when innocent persons were slain by US military personnel and private contractors.
Is it supposed to be wrong for a person to be incensed by the slaughter of his child or neighbors’ children because some analyst at the Pentagon has concluded on the basis of cellphone data that someone in their neighborhood was in cahoots with a radical Islamic group? Are all of the people depicted in the above video now on the US government’s hit list?
What is beyond doubt is that the direct connection between cause and effect in drone strikes—a catalyst to radicalization—continues to be ignored, as though the failure of the killing machine to secure Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Syria somehow implies that it needs only to be cranked into high gear to kill even more.
The above sort of report, exulting over a victory where there is none, when in fact the strike may have galvanized even more men to join forces with radical extremist groups to fight back, demonstrates that the Pentagon needs to halt the public relations machine, which serves only to deceive Americans into believing that they are being kept safe, and start engaging in some serious strategic analysis. (Better late than never!)
Drone strikes are a tactic which has failed to solve the problem for which UCAVs are allegedly being deployed. Even worse, they have exacerbated the problem of factional terrorism. Witness the proliferation of Al Qaeda franchises throughout the Middle East.
As President Obama’s term in office draws to a close, he has been scurrying about in a diaphanous attempt to convey the impression that he has accomplished a lot. Will he leave any significant legacy beyond having served as the country’s first Assassin-in-Chief, who normalized targeted killing—the Hannibal Lectoresque stalking and hunting of human beings—through the use of drones?
Despite shedding tears for gun violence victims in the United States, Obama managed to spread deadly weapons all over the world and provoked renewed militarism in Eastern Europe and the Far East by presiding over untold numbers of covert actions and military exercises. Remarkably, Obama even convinced Japan to renounce its anti-militarist stance spanning the decades since World War II. How about that trillion-dollar, thirty-year-plan nuclear weapons program upgrade in violation of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty? (I have to ask: has Obama himself been replaced by a machine?) In a bizarre and ironic twist, Obama plans also to be the first sitting US president to pay a visit to Hiroshima, the city entirely razed by the first atomic bomb to be deployed in history, by the United States, on August 6, 1945. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, Nagasaki suffered the same fate.
In recent weeks, Obama has been busy issuing executive actions—from public school bathroom initiatives for transgender students (was this a problem?), to extensions of overtime pay, to opening up arms trade with Vietnam (motivated by concerns about China and the TPP?). At the same time, Obama has stepped up his efforts to demonstrate that he has the terrorism situation under control. It wasn’t that surprising when two days ago he made a big show of the fact that he had authorized the execution without trial by lethal drone of Mullah Akhtar Mansur in Pakistan.
Once again, as in the case of the operation in which Osama bin Laden was slain by a group of Navy SEALS, the Pakistani authorities were not informed about the mission until after the fact. Obama claimed that the authority to assassinate Mansur derived from the tried-and-true “legitimate self-defense” pretext. The “evil” Taliban leader was said to be responsible for planning attacks on US forces in Kabul, Afghanistan.
“Today marks an important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan. With the death of the Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammed Mansur, we have removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and Coalition forces, to wage war against the Afghan people and align itself with extremist groups like al Qa’ida.”
What Obama omitted was that the US force presence in Afghanistan had been increased at his behest in order to provide support for killing operations in Yemen back in 2015, when President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was overthrown by a Houthi coup, and US personnel were evacuated from that country. In other words, it was Obama’s own insistence on continuing his drone campaign in Yemen which led him to send more soldiers to Afghanistan, where they met with the ire of the Taliban, the members of which naturally sought to eject the invaders from their land.
We’ve seen this all before. In fact, it has been going on since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But rather than heeding the lessons of history—or even the dictates of common sense—the US government persists in its killing campaigns, as though they were accomplishing something. So now Mullah Akhtar Mansur, said to be an obstacle to the peace process between the Taliban and Afghan authorities, is dead. Does it matter in the least? This morning the Taliban announced that Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada has been named the new No. 1 leader.
A variation on this theme has played like a broken record throughout the absurdist Global War on Terror, during which most of the people killed are said to threaten “our interests” on the other side of the world. Other victims just happen to be located in the same neighborhood. US citizens have become so accustomed to the narrative according to which our good leaders are saving us from people just like Osama bin Laden, that they have lost all ability to consider the reality of what they are paying for.
I recently watched the film American Sniper (2014), directed by Clint Eastwood, which offers a perfect illustration of the foggy lens through which most Americans, including politicians and government bureaucrats, view military intervention abroad. US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is depicted as a hero for killing more than 200 “enemy forces”, 160 of which were confirmed by the Department of Defense. In reality, Kyle was killing people attempting to kill the invaders of their own land, Iraq.
Does anyone seriously believe that if hordes of armed warriors made their way to US shores that residents would stand by and let them round up “suspects” and torture them, or assassinate them point blank, along with anyone who happened to be with them at the time? Is it at all plausible that no one in the United States would retaliate? Would anyone accept the “self-defense” pretext of the invaders for killing US residents in their own homeland?
The US invasions and occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq, the removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya, and the drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia have all proven to be disastrous, as evidenced by the predictably surging ranks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and AQAP and Al-Shabaab and ISIS and Daesh in direct response to US counterterrorism initiatives. Even setting aside the gross moral and legal violations inherent to the US drone program, it simply does not work. It never worked, and it will not work when Obama hands over the drone warrior holster to the successor of his throne.
It has been two years since the US government-commissioned Stimson Task Force on US Drone Policy issued its first report in 2014. I found the text of that document rather gentle on the drone warriors, but was not too surprised to find the group affirming the right of the US government to use remote-control killing technology in its counterterrorism initiatives. After all, some of the task force members were involved in the drone industry and so could not be expected to object to the very idea of targeted killing. Given that the authors of the report were selected by the government to assess the government’s own program, it was something of a relief to find that there was any significant criticism at all. There seemed to be hope that the Obama administration would take appropriate actions in response to the Stimson Report recommendations:
1. Conduct a strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of the role of lethal UAVs in targeted counterterrorism strikes
2. Improve transparency in targeted UAV strikes:
a. Acknowledge use of lethal force in foreign countries, both to Congress and to the American Public
b. Release information on:
i. Approximate number of strikes carried out by the military
ii. Approximate number of strikes carried out by the CIA
iii. General location of strikes
iv. Number of those known to have been killed
v. Number of civilians known to have been killed
vi. Identities of civilians known to have been killed
c. Order preparation and public release of a detailed report explaining legal basis under domestic and international law of U.S. lethal drone program
3. Transfer general responsibility for lethal drone strikes from the CIA to the military
4. Develop more robust oversight and accountability mechanisms for targeted strikes outside of traditional battlefields
a. Create a nonpartisan independent commission to review lethal UAV policy
5. Foster the development of appropriate international norms for use of lethal force outside of traditional battlefields
6. Assess UAV-related technological developments and likely future trends, and develop an interagency research and development strategy geared toward advancing U.S. national security interests in a manner consistent with U.S. values
7. Review and reform UAV-related export control rules and FAA rules
8. FAA should accelerate its efforts to meet the requirements of the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Bill
The recently released “report card” finds that the drone warriors have done nearly nothing to address the concerns expressed in the original report.
1. Strategic Review and cost-benefit analysis? Grade: U. Stimson Center finds that there is no evidence that anything has been done on this front.
2. Improve Transparency? Grade: D. Stimson Center finds that only Congressional intelligence committees have been able to review strikes, with continued reluctance to publicly acknowledge the use of UCAVs abroad. The administration has made nearly no information available on the details of strikes. Little information has been released regarding evidentiary basis for strikes, and usually only under court order.
3. Transfer of responsibility for drone program from CIA to DoD? Grade: D. Stimson Center finds that the administration has done little on this front, and appears to be discussing a dual command structure incorporating both CIA and DoD–in other words, not following the recommendation.
4. Develop robust oversight and accountability? Grade: F. Stimson Center finds that the culture of secrecy continues on, obstructing any efforts at achieving either oversight or accountability. There is no evidence that the administration has worked toward creating an independent commission to review UCAV policy.
5. Develop international norms? Grade: D. Stimson Center finds that little has been done to foster international norms, although “principles for proper use” were issued as part of the revised US drone export policy.
6. Develop strategy to advance U.S. security in a manner consistent with U.S. values? Grade: U. Stimson Center finds no evidence that the US government has conducted strategic analysis of the use of lethal drones.
7. Produce an Export Policy? Grade: C. Stimson Center affirms that the US government has developed a policy for the exportation of drones.
8. Accelerate FAA efforts to meet the requirements of the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Bill? Grade: C. Stimson Center finds that the US government has been slow to adopt rules regulating the use of civil drones in US airspace.
My Conclusion: The US drone program is no more transparent than it was five years ago, when Anwar al-Awlaki and his son were executed by the US government in Yemen. There is no accountability for the deaths caused by the drone warriors. Now that drones are being exported not only by the United States, but also Israel and China, it seems safe to say that the genie let out of the bottle by Barack Obama when he chose to normalize assassination through the use of this new technology will be very difficult, if not impossible, to control.
There are no international norms governing the use of lethal drones, beyond the protocols already enshrined in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions, all of which have been abandoned by the drone warriors, setting a danger precedent likely to be followed by future political leaders, as has already been done by British Prime Minister David Cameron, among others.
The use of lethal drones to kill potentially dangerous persons, including citizens, suspected of possibly conspiring to commit possible future crimes against the state remains and will remain President Obama’s lasting legacy.
To access PDF versions of the complete reports, click on these links: Stimson Center Report 2014; Stimson Center Report 2016: Grading Progress on U.S. Drone Policy
The Pentagon recently announced that all combat positions in the US military will henceforth be open to women. It took quite some time for “the fairer sex” to be granted this arguably dubious achievement. As offensive as some may find this suggestion, it appears that the admission of women into the ranks of military killers has come about in the Drone Age only because superior physical strength is no longer a requirement for active “combat” duty.
Women are now pushing buttons to erase from the face of earth men who they have been told harbor evil intentions to destroy the people of the United States. If one accepts the definition of drone operators and sensors as “soldiers”—even though they work in trailers located thousands of miles away from the so-called battlefields where they kill—then these female drone operators are already combatant troops and have been for quite some time.
The fact that the Pentagon made a public announcement to this effect, letting young women everywhere know that they, too, are welcome to enlist as professional killers—and earn handsome salaries and benefits packages for doing so—reflects the administration’s recognition that, in the future, lethal drones will be used more and more, and ground troops less and less, in conflict zones. Why? Because in the Drone Age, politicians can paint themselves as strong on defense without having to write condolence letters to families, and without having to pay hospital visits to maimed survivors of the US government’s various military misadventures abroad.
Now that lethal drones have made it possible for women to kill just as many “unlawful combatants” as do men in uniform, I dare to ask the politically incorrect question: Is serving as a remote-control killer something which young women should aspire to do? In even articulating this question, I will no doubt be met with the ire of feminists who believe that women should be free to do anything which men are free to do. And there is a certain logic to that argument.
If women are truly equal to men, then should they not be able to do everything which men do? Should not women, too, be allowed to commit horrific mistakes such as slaughtering their fellow human beings under order when the commander-in-chief declares that “We are at war”? Don’t women have every bit as much of a “right” as do men to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? As a matter of fact, PTSD is now found as frequently among drone operators as among ground troops from wars past. Shouldn’t women be entitled to their “fair” share of the ills of war?
I am not going to try to argue that women should be protected from themselves, but I will venture boldly to propose (once again) that perhaps young women and men alike should be protected from recruiters who lure them into a profession—that of paid assassin—which some of them are sure to regret later on down the line. Because of the testimony of a few brave drone operators and sensors, we know that the vocation of remote-control killing weighs heavily on the conscience of at least some of those involved in the drone program, who now wish that they had never followed orders to kill, given that their own lives were not on the line when they pushed buttons to annihilate targets on hit lists compiled by anonymous analysts.
That heavy drinking has been widespread among drone killing squadrons, having become necessary for them to be able to carry on with their jobs for as long as they do, is another clue that something is morally awry. If employees must drown their sorrows every night after work, then is this not an unequivocal sign that they know, deep down inside, that what they are doing is not right?
It requires no more physical strength to work as a push-button killer than it does to play a video game—or to send email or shop online. And yet, the drone program has had difficulty holding onto its recruits, many of whom opt not to reenlist once their initial contract has expired. One solution hit upon has been to offer operators more and more lucrative bonuses, also known as “bribes”.
Faced with the drone operator recruitment crisis, the question arises: why has the Pentagon not tapped into an obvious source of employable persons: senior citizens? Why not enlist retirees who are still of sound mind? They may be too frail to fight in hand-to-hand combat, but the average sixty-year-old—or even seventy-year-old—is certainly sturdy enough to push a few buttons and manipulate a joystick while sitting in an air conditioned trailer within driving distance of Las Vegas.
The most obvious reason for not recruiting—or even attempting to recruit—older persons as remote-control killers is that they cannot be hoodwinked into committing moral atrocities in the name of the state. Senior citizens and recent retirees remember from the twentieth century, before the Drone Age, lofty concepts such as the Geneva Conventions and the post-World War II reasons which drove the leaders of states to craft documents such as the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In contrast, young people fresh out of high school and looking for a job are highly vulnerable to the marketing campaigns of military recruiters, and they may know absolutely nothing about international law. Shouldn’t they be able to trust a commander-in-chief who holds a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Harvard University?
It isn’t often that I am reminded of Lyndie England, the ignominious young woman whose eternal claim to fame is to have participated in the inhumane treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The proof that she believed that there was nothing wrong with what she and her comrades were doing was captured for posterity on film: Lyndie England exultantly posed for photographs while holding a prisoner on a leash and standing next to a body pyramid of naked detainees. The general revulsion to the images disseminated swiftly around the globe served to intensify anti-American sentiment among those who had opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but it also caused even staunch military supporters to pause.
Now that the Drone Age is well underway, young women not unlike Lyndie England are being asked, not to torture, but to incinerate suspects, and some of them appear to be doing so, too, in good conscience, at least judging by a recent feature on “Sparkle”, a female drone sensor operator who works out of Creech Air Force Base. Here’s what Sparkle says about the “bejeweled” headset she wears while dispatching targets:
“I use it to emasculate the enemy in the afterlife. Many radical jihadists believe that being killed by a woman means they will not enter heaven.”
She then adds a bit of a feminist twist:
“Considering how they treat their women, I’m OK with rubbing salt in the wound.”
One can only wonder how many radical jihadists Sparkle has ever conversed with, given that she works in a trailer located in Nevada.
Comparing the case of Lyndie England to that of drone operators killing in lands where there are no soldiers on the ground (rightly or wrongly) to protect, one must ask: is it really worse to torture people than to strip them of their lives, and at the same time all of their rights? This is puzzling, to say the least, and yet that is precisely what is transpiring in the Drone Age.
Very few prisoners have been captured abroad under President Barack Obama, and anyone who is not being detained is obviously not being tortured. Instead, suspects are summarily executed, as though they were all guilty, and in spite of the documented fact that 86% of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba had no connections whatsoever to terrorist organizations.
The modes of intelligence used to round up suspects (HUMINT derived from bribed informants, and SIGINT from electronic sources such as cell phones) are the same as those used in hunting down targets and ending their lives. Nonetheless, the drone operators such as Sparkle who carry on do not appear to bat an eye at the fact that they have no access to the intelligence used to add names to the list of people whom they are ordered to dispatch. Here is how she describes how she must steel herself for her role in the drone program:
“When you hit a truck full of people, there are limbs and legs everywhere. I watched a guy crawl away from the wreckage after one shot with no lower body. He slowly died. You have to watch that. You don’t get to turn away. You can’t be that soft girly traditional feminine and do the job. Those are the people who are going to have the nightmares.”
I submit that Sparkle is morally equivalent to Lyndie England. Both of them were persuaded by agents of their government to believe that what they did and are doing is perfectly just. One hopes that, in the fullness of time, Sparkle and all of the drone sensors and operators like her—men and women alike—will be forced to find alternative employment, when US taxpayers finally wake up to the moral atrocity of what is being done in their name.
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 7: The Operators; Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion; and Chapter 9: Death and Politics
The Pentagon first announced back in 2011 that they would regard cyberattacks as bona fide acts of war, to which a military response would be appropriate. That sounded like a policy statement to me, which educated citizens of a constitutional republic might have thought should be issued by political leaders, not warriors. Everyone in the mainstream media pretty much yawned and went on with whatever they were doing, mostly parroting Pentagon announcements about “suspects reportedly slain” touted as “victories” in the eternal “war on terror”.
The Pentagon recently boasted that they had eliminated twenty-one-year old Junaid Hussain, a British national and “top” hacker for ISIS—a “high-value target”—so now they have put their missiles where their mouth is and demonstrated that they meant what they said: hackers, too, are “unlawful enemy combatants” and therefore legitimate targets for annihilation. Here’s hoping that Edward Snowden heeds the dictates of prudence and stays put, under the circumstances.
It all started with the attacks of September 11, 2001, which were responded to as though acts of war waged by a formal state, even though they were planned and carried out by a relatively small group of people, most of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia, not from Afghanistan or Iraq. Once Osama bin Laden and most of the perpetrators had been killed, the military set its sights on other people, who looked a lot like Bin Laden but possessed nothing like his power to orchestrate attacks on US soil.
Unfortunately, Barack Obama, despite having been elected on the promise of “hope and change”, has essentially signed-off on whatever the Pentagon and the CIA want. The US has been sliding down a very slippery slope since the events of September 11, 2001, waging preemptive wars, rendering suspects to torture-friendly countries and no-law zones, and redefining the meanings of previously well-understood terms such as defense, imminent, and last resort.
Obama, going well above and beyond the call of MIC duty, transformed his own authority to wage war into a blanket power of summary execution, and then proceeded to confer it on the self-styled czar of targeted killing, John Brennan, before appointing him director of the CIA in 2013. Under Brennan’s drone warfare watch, Anwar al-Awlaki had been successfully branded as “the Bin Laden of the internet”, and many Americans concluded that the extrajudicial execution of a US citizen, too, was therefore just. No matter that Al-Awlaki’s complaints about the US war on Islamists were not without substance. No matter that Al-Awlaki appears to have shared the US government’s conviction that death is the solution to political conflict and revenge killing fully justified.
As the probability of big inter-state wars à la World War I and World War II has become ever more remote, given the disproportionate size and wealth of the US military, and as 9/11 fades from memory, dwarfed by the carnage committed in retaliation to those crimes, it should start to seem obvious why unbridled military responses are being made to any- and everything. Financial supporters of dissident groups have been targeted, as have “propagandists”, and now hackers. In the olden days, such persons would be considered criminals, not warriors, for they bear no arms. In the Drone Age, they are being executed without trial. Presumption of innocence is so twentieth century.
Playing the Bin Laden card may work politically as a public relations strategy for the people paying for drone strikes. It is much less effective for the people of other lands who witness the extent of damage caused and are traumatized by the killing machines hovering above in the sky. But there’s no need for policymakers to regroup and, say, read the Stimson Center report. Why not? Because killing people is much easier than doing anything else. Simple, satisfying and, above all, excellent for politicians’ ratings.
Junaid Hussain was about six years old on September 11, 2001. He was about eight years old when the United States, with Britain’s blessing, waged a preemptive war on a sovereign nation at peace. Somehow during his adolescence, Junaid Hussain became an accomplished hacker and allied himself with ISIS, a group which did not even exist until after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Clearly this young man was intelligent and talented—that’s why he was labeled a “high-value” target. But why did he direct his considerable talent to the cause of ISIS?
The same question can be asked of Anwar al-Awlaki, who publicly decried the attacks of 9/11. A decade later, he was taken out by a drone, as was his son, Abdulrahman, just after his sixteenth birthday. No one claimed that Abdulrahman was a “high-value target”, so perhaps he was killed preemptively, to avoid his transformation over the next five years (when he would have been Junaid Hussain’s age) into a sympathizer with radical Islamist groups such as ISIS. Or maybe it was just a mistake. “Mistakes are made.” “This is war.” Well, sort of.
The reasoning of the people running the US drone program appears to be that, if killing innocent people in attempts to kill evil people ends by causing the ranks of terrorists and their sympathizers to swell, then so be it. They will be killed as well. There will always be plenty of Hellfire missiles to go around, so long as someone profits from their production. Many people have issued warnings about what has grown to be the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. I would suggest that we have now moved beyond oligarchy and plutocracy to something closer to necrocracy: rule by death.
Not satisfied with simply eliminating the architects of 9/11, the Pentagon continues to cast about for more and more people to kill. Why? Because that’s what they do: kill people. Hackers? Been there, done that. Who will be next? Antiwar protestors? Or perhaps they’ll come over to William Bradford’s way of seeing things and target legal scholars who step out of line.
For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 5: Strike First, Suppress Questions Later; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; Chapter 10: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do
Yet again, all of the usual suspects have collaborated with the US government by spamming across the media the “news” that the suspected “No. 2 ISIS leader” du jour has reportedly been taken out by Predator drone. Anyone with any semblance of a memory capacity must be wondering how many of these “No. 2” evil leaders there can possibly be! The latest No. 2, Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, was described by the White House as the Islamic State’s “Baghdad military emir and the emir of Ninawa Province.” Clearly, we should be very impressed that the target suspected to be Al-Hayali has now reportedly been eradicated from the face of the earth. Then again, maybe it was just somebody who looked like him.
The journalists dutifully parroting the “news” fed to them by the Pentagon are usually careful to qualify the announcements. The culprits are “suspected” and the fact of their demise is “reported”. No facts are ever really being exchanged in these announcements, which serve the purpose only of conveying the impression that the government is working hard to keep all of us safe. In reality, most readers of the headlines (usually too busy to digest the full article) now appear automatically to elide from their mind the words ‘suspected’ and ‘reportedly’ as they read, thereby arriving at the felicitous conclusion that, in fact, the “No 2 ISIS leader has been taken out!” Now No. 3 is the new No. 2, and he’s up next!
Some of the media outlets are helping even more, by changing ‘suspected’ to ‘likely’, or even dropping the qualifications altogether and appending, “says White House” to the end of the headline or embedding it more deeply within the article itself. Here’s an example of how the original, guarded announcement is subsequently picked up and redisseminated to “confirm” that in fact we are being kept safe:
“Chalk up another high-value militant killed by a U.S. drone strike,” exults Brendan McGarry at the opening (the first line) of an article for Defense Tech.org.
If it later emerges, as has happened in the past, that the “suspected militants” were really tribal elders meeting to resolve a dispute in a jirga, or a group of happy families congregating for a big wedding, or a Bedouin camp of utterly harmless people, or even a grandmother picking okra in a large field all alone, nearly none of the mainstream media outlets ever seem to want to bother sharing the emended news. What would be the point of depressing their devoted readers and listeners? And why risk the loss in ratings, when there is so much other, more upbeat news to report?!
Instead, the big newspapers persist in focusing on the most recent round of “suspected” militants “reportedly” slain. Small wonder that most Americans continue to scratch their heads and puzzle over the perennial question: “Why do they hate us?”
For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 9: Death and Politics