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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Tenet refuses to relent:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t kill your way out of this.”

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BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed. Drone Warfare: From Soldiering to Assassination?

In this 17-minute discussion, BBC Radio 4 host Laurie Taylor interviews Laurie Calhoun and David Galbreath about issues raised in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age. Topics covered include the dawning of the Drone Age on November 3, 2002; its relation to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; the international principles of justice being ignored and subverted as a result of this easy-to-use and seemingly low-risk technology; the effects on civilians; whether drone strikes are more about counterterrorism or foreign policy by other means; and the psychological effect of drone strikes on drone operators themselves.

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Note: discussion of drone warfare between Laurie Calhoun, host Laurie Taylor, and interlocutor David Galbreath begins at 11:30 in this recording of the live program produced on November 2, 2016…

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British Drone Strike Targets in the Light of the Chilcot Report

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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:

  1. Whether it was right and necessary to invade Iraq in 2003, and
  2. 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.

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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.

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Junaid Hussain

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.

 

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Ruhul Amin

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.

 

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Reyaad Khan

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.

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Remembering the Magna Carta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

Caveat Emptor, Canada: What Lethal Drones Will Bring

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            ReaperFiring

 

 

Microdrones and What to Expect Next from the “Smart Warriors”

 

SoldierKitDrone

The US Army recently announced that they are accepting contract bids for the production of microdrones to be carried along by deployed soldiers in their kits. Needless to say, the idea was painted as undeniably good: to help protect “our troops”. Characterized in such a way, the idea could not possibly be met with resistance by any legislator. Companies will be contracted, and funds lavished upon the developers and builders of the new microdrones, having been made to seem as essential to a brave soldier as a Kevlar vest or an armored Humvee—and a bargain to boot! The fact that microdrones will be just as good—if not better—for asymmetrical, factional fighters is best left unsaid, at least from the perspective of all of the many parties likely to profit from the initiative, including the experts who assess the costs and benefits of the plan.

Microdrones, which weigh only 150 grams or so, are already being produced, and DARPA solicited bids earlier for its Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program. The idea pitched at that time was to produce a drone which could enter buildings—such as homes—and snoop around to see what’s going on. On a not unrelated note, a recently released report revealed that “a handful of” US military drones have spent some time hovering in homeland skies, “in support of civilian authorities”. The military drones operating above US soil have been used for surveillance purposes only—so far. Connecting a few dots, and extrapolating from the slippery slope which the US government continues to slide down, I predict that in the not-too-distant future, microdrones will be used in the homeland to snoop on US citizen suspects, after which larger drones will be used to kill them. Does that sound too far-fetched?

Who would have guessed, ten years ago, that the US government would dispatch citizens without indictment, much less trial? Yet in the fall of 2011, they did just that, hunting down and killing Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Who would have guessed, one year ago, that the British government would do the same? Yet in August 2015, they did just that, hunting down and killing two British nationals, despite the fact that capital punishment is prohibited by both the EU Charter and British Law.

The Drone Age has been underway for fifteen years, and still there has been no strategic analysis of the efficacy of the targeted killing program abroad. Thousands of suspects have been eliminated using Hellfire missiles fired from Predator drones, yet the quagmire in the Middle East has only grown worse. Unfortunately, the very analysts who might be enlisted to assess the US drone program, employees of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), are too busy finding people to hunt down and kill, and locating “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” to arm. No one seems to want to bother with figuring out whether all of this state-inflicted homicide is making Westerners less, rather than more, secure.

Given the ever-augmenting chaos and carnage throughout the Middle East, we have sound grounds for concluding that, in fact, the US government’s many lethal efforts are self-sabotaging, undermining US security by sowing anti-American sentiment, which is likely to manifest itself in further blowback terrorist attacks, just as occurred in Paris and San Bernardino in 2015. Remarkably, US administrators continue to parrot vague pronouncements to the effect that the drone program has saved lives. No substantiation of such claims is ever provided. Instead, we must content ourselves with the praise by “experts” with both psychological and financial reasons (often board members of the many companies which profit from targeted killing) of the drone warriors. For “reasons of national security”, the details are always withheld, and we are expected to trust the people who assure us that all is well. The same “experts” brush aside (or ignore) all of the annoying questions raised by critics, the ranks of which are now on the rise—and not without good reason.

Unfortunately, federal tax-paying Americans are not primarily renowned for their critical thinking skills. The dead terrorist [suspect] tallies reported in newspaper headlines each week continue to be regarded by much of the populace and political elites as evidence that Westerners are being kept safe by all of the counterterrorism initiatives. When massacres such as those in San Bernardino or Paris are carried out by angry extremists, this is taken by nearly everyone as evidence that the drone warriors need to do even more. By all means, find more suspects to hunt down and kill!

A more circumspect consideration of the reigning insecurity all across the Middle East, by persons not primarily concerned with retaining their current position in the government, would lead one to the opposite conclusion: that the firing-squad approach to quelling radical Islamist groups such as ISIS has failed. But rather than face up to their mistakes, the self-styled “smart warriors” continue on unimpeded. Why? Because they can.

There you have it, the reason why I have arrived at my depressing prognostication. The myopia of the persons penning US policy all but ensures that, with the inexorable expansion of executive power, nihilistic lethal centrism will prevail, leading eventually to the same treatment of suspects at home as abroad. Can anyone reasonably deny that Anwar Al-Awlaki would have been more dangerous to the people of the United States in Manhattan than he was in Yemen? Or that Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin would have been more dangerous to the people of Britain in London than they were in Syria?

DroneInsect