What’s worse than the Department of PreCrime? The US Drone Program

MinorityReport

I have seen Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report mentioned in the writings of a few different people, so when the opportunity presented itself to me recently, I decided to find out why it is still being talked about 14 years after its release. Not being much for science fiction, it’s not surprising that I did not see the film back when it first came out. Added to that, some fairly dramatic events took place in 2002. Most obviously, a concerted propaganda campaign was launched by the US government in the run-up to its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Remarkably, some people, in a post-9/11 cognitive fog, were persuaded to believe that Saddam Hussein not only possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but was poised to transfer them to Osama bin Laden and his buddies in Al Qaeda.

Around that same time, on November 3, 2002, the Drone Age effectively began with the CIA’s extrajudicial execution of six men driving down a road in Yemen using a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator drone. The act went virtually unquestioned and was praised by nearly everyone who heard about it, having been told that the US government was working hard to keep all of us safe.

Since 2002, the line between science fiction and reality has become thinner and thinner with the rapid proliferation and refinement of automated systems in an inexorable quest to produce more and more lethal weapons ever faster—and to export them all over the world. The fact that lethality has not worked to stop terrorism is matter-of-factly accepted by most lawmakers as evidence that we need to kill even more. Meanwhile, the morass of moral questions raised by the remote-control assassination of persons suspected of possibly conspiring to carry out future terrorist attacks continues to be ignored. Now homicide is being committed in apparently good conscience all over the Middle East and in Africa, too, by many different parties, under bogus pretexts of national defense, and in spite of the fact that the world has grown more, not less, dangerous since the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began.

The story of Minority Report is set in 2054 and involves a police officer who works in the PreCrime Department, the mission of which is to determine who is going to commit a murder in the near future, so that they can be arrested and incarcerated before they do. The primary philosophical question raised by the film is free will versus determinism. Do human beings choose to do what they do? Can they alter their choices, by sheer act of will, so as to follow a different trajectory than what might have seemed to be the path dictated by fate?

In Minority Report, the persons who are being arrested and locked up on suspicion for future crimes are said to be known to be future murderers. If the police did not intervene, then the suspects would indeed commit murder–or so the program executors claim. People believe the administrators—touted as heroes—because the pilot PreCrime program has proven to be a resounding success. In six years, murder in the Washington, DC, area has come to a lurching halt.

Precog

The details of how the murders will be carried out—if nothing is done to stop the would-be perpetrators—are derived from mental images conjured by PreCogs, which are akin to humanoid psychics of sorts, with the notable distinction that they are said to be infallible. If the three PreCogs identify a person as a future murderer, then he is. The PreCogs do not make mistakes. They have never been wrong!  is the PreCrime company line. Given the undeniable success of the pilot program, a new campaign is underway to expand the initiative so that murder can be eradicated from all cities everywhere.

Whatever may be one’s feelings on the question of free will versus determinism, which philosophers have been arguing about for millennia, there are a number of complicating epistemological factors to the story—as there always are in reality. Once Police Chief John Anderton (the Tom Cruise character) appears to be framed for a future murder, he begins to investigate the “scientific” basis of the program and discovers that the simple success story fed to the public is a pleasing fiction used to garner support for the PreCrime initiative.

Anderton, who is a true believer and enthusiastic program advocate up until his own liberty is jeopardized, discovers that the program administrators have carefully hidden a key feature of the process by which the PreCog unanimity is achieved: whenever one of the three PreCogs (the most “gifted” of the three, Agatha), disagrees with the interpretation of the images shared by the other two PreCogs, her “Minority Report” is destroyed. The PreCogs appear to agree on the final verdict of the future criminal’s guilt because the dissenting opinion has been erased!

PrecogAgatha

Given how the apparent “unanimity” is in fact achieved, there is a very real chance that some of the people who have been arrested and incarcerated for future murders were not really going to commit the murder after all. It seemed as though they were going to, but a closer look, a different perspective on the visual data, would reveal that in fact they would never have committed the murder, had they been permitted to carry on with their lives uninterrupted by the police. As a result, some of the people locked up are in fact innocent. The program administrators who know the truth may be of a utilitarian bent, believing that the sacrifice of a few souls is perfectly acceptable in the quest to defend everybody else. Or perhaps they are simply amoral agents who seek success in society as their highest goal and will do any- and everything to protect their own reputation.

I do not want to go into too much more detail about Minority Report, because the film is long and labyrinthine, with many characters and subplots, and I am not prepared to recommend that anyone watch it for any reason other than the philosophical questions which it raises. What I would like to do instead is to consider how the US Drone Program, which exists in reality, differs from the Department of PreCrime, a science fiction creation based on a short story by Philip K. Dick.

  1. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the PreCrime Program, the persons thought by analysts to be planning to commit possible future terrorist acts are not arrested and incarcerated but incinerated.
  2. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the Department of PreCrime, the evidence is not subject to review by anyone but the people who decide whom to kill.
  3. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the Department of PreCrime, the persons targeted for elimination do not usually have known identities. In many cases, they have no names associated with them.
  4. In the Drone Program, as opposed to PreCrime Program, targets are identified by behaviors said to match a “disposition matrix” of known terrorist behaviors. It is not that they have been witnessed perpetrating a crime, but that they “walk the terrorist walk”. They turn out nearly always to be brown-skinned Muslims.
  5. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the PreCrime Program, hearsay and circumstantial evidence are used exhaustively as the basis for ending not only suspects’ lives, but also the lives of people associated with them, including family and community members.
  6. In the Drone Program, the evidence used to “convict” the suspects is both generated and assessed by the same analysts. In the PreCrime Program, the PreCogs provide an independent source of evidence, which, while fallible, is not subject to mercenary corruption. In stark contrast, HUMINT or human intelligence is derived from paid informants, and the analysts who compile kill lists are rewarded financially for finding people to kill. “Successful strikes” are confirmed on the ground by the very locals who provided the HUMINT leading up to the strikes.
  7. In the Drone Program, when missiles are fired from drones, all of the inhabitants of the area under fire are simultaneously terrorized because they do not know who or why individuals have been singled out for death. In the PreCrime Program, when suspects are apprehended, it is a standard police operation. The persons sought are not being executed on the spot, which means that persons who happen to be located nearby are not inadvertently threatened with death at the same time.
  8. The PreCrime Program has eliminated the problem of murder at the price of the wrongful incarceration of some of the suspects. The Drone Program, in stark contrast, has only caused the problem of terrorism to expand over ever vaster expanses of land. ISIS, once a minor force in Iraq, has spread to Syria and Libya. Drones were fired on Yemen for many years, culminating in civil war, and now the US government has sent combat soldiers to that land as well, proof positive that lethal drones made the problem worse rather than better.
  9. In May 2013, President Barack Obama announced that missiles were fired on targets only when there was “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed. In early 2016, the Pentagon announced that the magnitude of acceptable “collateral damage” had been increased for strikes aiming at ISIS members. Innocent people are being knowingly sacrificed in the process of targeting persons believed to be guilty but who in some cases are militants with no international aspirations whatsoever.
  10. In the PreCrime Program, the persons apprehended falsely, being alive, retain the possibility of exoneration once the truth about the fallibility of the PreCogs is revealed. No such possibility exists for the victims of the US Drone Program.

Technology has come to dictate policy like never before in history thanks to the effusive enthusiasm of leaders such as President Barack Obama, the first self-styled “Drone Warrior”. Unfortunately, the blind worship of technology has led to the mass homicide of thousands of human beings who would not have been killed in centuries past. But rather than being “smart war”, the Drone Program has proven to be quite dumb. It has failed to stabilize any of the countries in which it has been deployed: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Syria all lie in shambles. “No Boots” Obama has now forsaken even his promise not to send combat troops into many of these places. But rather than draw the logical conclusion, that the Drone Program is an abject failure, the killing machine has cranked into high gear, slaughtering dozens of persons at a time, using both manned and unmanned bombers.

There is no available moral defense of the Drone Program, for it violates human rights across the board. It furthermore represents a flagrant assault on the foundations of Western democratic societies, including due process and transparency. The Drone warriors have instituted a program which rolls formerly republican governments back to pre-Magna Carta times, transforming the president into a monarch with the authority to decree “off with their heads!” with impunity. It is not only “suspicious-looking characters” (some of whom are innocent) who are being harmed. Just as surely terrorized by the Drone Program are entirely innocent children, some of whom vow to seek revenge on the craven remote-control killers, as did Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, among many other, mostly nameless, young Muslim people.

The only possible practical defense of the ongoing slaughter of lists of human beings generated by paid analysts would have to be utilitarian in nature: that despite the occasional “blunder”, lethal drones have made the world a safer place. But anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills must recognize that it has not, given the quagmire throughout the Middle East, and the attacks on Paris and San Bernardino in 2015, and Brussels in 2016.

The Drone Program is both morally outrageous and criminally inept, leading as it does to the reckless endangerment of those who pay for it, along with the obviously innocent people destroyed, traumatized, and /or maimed. Many young people are being corrupted along the way, persuaded either to become professional assassins or to seek revenge by linking up with radical Islamist extremist groups.

 

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Israel’s Compact Kamikaze Drones: Strategic Ineptitude or Simple Insanity?

 

 

HeroDrone

Israel has developed and is selling the new Hero-30 drone, which weighs in at a mere 7lbs and can be used to kill a target with less collateral damage than the more prevalent Predator and Reaper drones. The larger drones deliver Hellfire missiles to destroy entire groups of people in “crowd killing” and “signature strikes”—or a specific named target along with whoever happens to be around. The Hero-30’s manufacturer, uVision, has boasted that their creation is in great demand. I wonder why?

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used to talk with vim and verve about making the military leaner and meaner. Earlier strategists had come up with the bizarre idea of “suitcase nukes”, which always struck me as odd and self-sabotaging to the citizens of the nation supposedly being protected. Who in his right mind would propose the development of weaponry ideal for use by enemies against the very people who paid for its research, development and production?

Nuclear weapons small enough to carry around in a suitcase could easily be passed from one individual to another—that’s the whole point. But the twentieth-century history of Africa amply illustrates that the persons involved in the weapons trade are on the whole a fairly disreputable lot—perfectly willing to arm both sides of a conflict and watch the corpses pile up. The transfer of a suitcase nuke to a questionable customer, far from being preposterous, would be only one unscrupulous businessman away—provided only that he was confident that his customer would be deploying the weapon far, far away…

Small-scale nukes could be used by small groups of committed warriors against nuclear powers in acts of retaliation logically akin to the attacks of September 11, 2001, insofar as the tools of the hegemon would be deployed against the hegemon itself. Such innovative attacks, too, would be claimed to be intended to make the citizens funding the homicides of their government—and therefore complicit as “associates”—finally come to understand what others had suffered in wars painted as “just” and “necessary” by politicians.

In the Drone Age, similarly suitcase-sized UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles or drones) are now being produced and sold by the government of Israel to undisclosed clients as it sees fit. It is puzzling, to say the least, how any strategist could regard such weapons as useful to a government without recognizing that they might be even more so to their declared enemies, in Israel’s case, the Palestinians regarded as terrorists.

If we have learned anything from the history of the weapons industry, it is that the latest and greatest means to death developed by advanced states do not stay only in the hands of those who develop them. Every implement of homicide developed by a First World power ends up ultimately in the hands of the leaders of Third World client states, but also in the hands of the militants who are their enemies.

Saddam Hussein would never have been able to use chemical weapons against the Kurds without the development and provision to him of such means by the governments of nations considerably more technologically and industrially advanced than Iraq. Similarly, small factions are devoid of the capacity to produce sophisticated weapons and would not use them unless they were provided with pre-fabricated versions small enough to be transferred from one person to the next.

What could be better for a terrorist than the possibility of launching attacks without risking his personal demise? Fanatical jihadists are of course ready and willing to die for what they take to be a cause transcending their self. But if one act of “jihad” is good, then would not two be even better? Why not carry out multiple acts of retaliatory revenge before departing from the terrestrial world to unite finally with God? If one mass bombing is conceived by its perpetrator as a heroic act, then would it not be even better commit many attacks before making the final sacrifice?

Drones make it all possible: to kill multiple times without risking death. Small drones are the perfect weapon for factions and individual operators, both politically affiliated and those who dispatch persons at the behest of their boss, the person who pays them to kill. True, that description fits drone operators just as surely as it does hitmen.

As the Drone Age marches on (or should I say “spirals downward”), it seems reasonable to predict that more and more hitmen will be technicians who send out the poison or the bomb, or whatever specific means to death is deemed best under the circumstances, with next to no risk of detection. Should the death look like a heart attack? No problem: small drones are up to the task and can surely be rigged to deliver the needed means.

What could be worse than a weaponized small drone falling into the hands of “technicians” who work in organized crime? How about a small drone whose payload happens to be a small nuke—or the chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein?

HeroDrone
HeroDrone
HeroDrone

 

 

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; Chapter 7: The Operators; and Chapter 10: Death and Taxes

An automated assassin is an automated assassin by any other name

RAF-Reaper-UAV-drone

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently got in on the drone killing game by dispatching two of his countrymen and labeling the homicides acts of “national defense”. Would the homicides have been accepted without protest if the Prime Minister had enlisted a contract killer to sneak into the homes of British nationals and use strangulation wires to eliminate them while they were lying in bed asleep? Or would that not obviously constitute extrajudicial execution, doubly illegal under British law and the EU Charter, both of which prohibit capital punishment?

Now that Cameron has succeeded in strapping on his Hellfire missile holster with little response from the British public, he has decided to acquire even more lethal drones, doubling the country’s current arsenal. He will switch out the Reaper drones now in the RAF armory to make room for a new model. To ensure that no one puts up a fuss, he’s decided to call them “Protector” rather than Predator or Reaper drones, whose name unequivocally expresses their intended purpose: to kill human beings.

These machines are used not only to fire on targets, but also to hunt them down, making it impossible for them to escape alive. The targets are not permitted to surrender, as soldiers on the ground would be required to allow enemy soldiers to do. “No immediate threat” means “no killing” for a human combat soldier, who is subject to court martial and criminal charges when he opts to slay a person posing no clear and present danger to any person present.

In the Drone Age, the warriors “take no prisoners”, following the lead of US President Barack Obama, whose signature policy is “kill don’t capture”. The suspected targets (militants, insurgents, terrorists or just plain allegedly “evil” people) are incapable of laying down their arms before their killer, the drone lurking over their head, in most cases because they are not bearing any arms at all when they are obliterated. They are typically not threatening other human beings with death and so could not be legally terminated by another human being on the ground. The question therefore must be addressed: how can it be right to kill people using lethal drones, if it would be wrong for a human contract killer to do the same to unarmed persons walking down the street?

The practice of remote-control killing became a standard operating procedure because it was normalized by the US government after years of covert actions, which, carried out under cover of State Secrets Privilege, were never the subject of debate. The time has arrived for the populace of countries whose leaders wield or condone the use of lethal drones (as the German government does by permitting drone killing to be orchestrated from Ramstein Air Force base) to wake up to the reality of what is being done with their money under a pretext of national defense.

Calling summary execution without trial “protection” merely masks the reality, making it more politically palatable, just as calling the unintended victims “collateral damage” hides from the people paying for the deaths the horror of what has been done in their name.

WeKillBecauseWeCanLaurieCalhoun

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; Chapter 10: Death and Politics; Chapter 11: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

Drone Swarms Now Ready to Deploy: How will they be used by the US Military?

SwarmDrones

The first swarm of fifty drones managed by a single operator was successfully tested this past week. “Gee, that’s neat.” Techies seem pretty excited about the news. Others might wonder: “Why would anyone want to launch and manage fifty drones simultaneously?”

Swarms have been developed for the US Navy and are touted as important for providing 360 degree situational awareness in the theater of combat. Of course, today’s “no boots battlefields” have no US soldiers on them at all. In fact, one of the main reasons for the development of robotic and semi-robotic means of warfare is to spare human soldiers the risk of death.

The most likely immediate application of these new swarms will therefore be to have them sweep in and provide a better look at the buildings and groups about to be taken out by missiles launched from larger drones. Perhaps they will offer badly needed assistance in avoiding the slaughter of women, children, and hostages. Unfortunately, greater “situational awareness” will do nothing to circumvent the problem of distinguishing innocent suspects from empirically indistinguishable evil terrorists.

The current approach, simply defining all military-age males as fair game for slaughter, ignores the possibility of nonthreatening men such as journalists, doctors, farmers, storekeepers, teachers, and many others, in so-called hostile areas. The assumption appears to be that all of those men are leading dual lives. Deep down inside, they must all terrorists. Why else would they be located in hostile territories?

The journalists who courageously penetrate these areas to investigate the depredation caused by drone strikes are all propagandists and “Al Qaeda media fronts”. The farmers and shopkeepers are “associates” who feed the terrorists. The doctors are “associates” who treat the terrorists. The teachers are “associates” who recruit children to take up the jihad cause, often to avenge the deaths of their fathers “splashed” by Hellfire missiles.

Previous generations of drones were not initially weaponized, but later they came to be. Given the lethal centrism of the US government, the next logical step for swarms will be to weaponize them for combat deployment. Now that the killing of human beings is sought as an end in itself, and a “take no prisoners” stance has been wholeheartedly embraced by political elites, it’s hard to believe that swarms will not be armed and deployed to kill. The only real question is: How?

The size of Zephyr drones is quite small relative to the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones, to which Hellfire missiles are conveniently affixed. Will tiny micro-missiles be developed? Or will swarms be weaponized to disperse chemicals or perhaps cluster bombs? The sky is the limit, given the development of so many creative means of homicide by the ever-innovative weapons industry. Configurationally, drone swarms bear some similarity to cluster bombs, which fire deadly chain-reaction munitions over large areas, killing or maiming numerous people with a single launch. Perhaps the swarms will be weaponized with chemical agents of some sort.

Whatever the ammunition to be fired from swarms of drones, it seems safe to say that somewhere in the dark entrails of DARP someone with a hefty grant is working on it right now. About the lethal future of drone swarms, there can be little doubt.

WeKillBecauseWeCanLaurieCalhoun

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; and Chapter 11: Death and Taxes