In this 27-minute interview on Sputnik Radio Edinburgh, author Laurie Calhoun, Professor David Stupples of the City University of London, and host John Harrison discuss current and future problems with the use of lethal drones:
For years now I have been pointing out that Obama’s lasting legacy would be his ill-advised decision back in 2009 to normalize assassination, which his administration successfully rebranded as “targeted killing”. This was supposed to be the latest and greatest form of “smart war”: the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), or lethal drones, to go after and eliminate evil terrorists without risking US soldiers’ lives.
It all sounds so slick and, well, Obama cool. The problem is that any sober consideration of Obama’s foreign policy over the course of his eight years as president reveals that the reality is altogether different. Judging by the murder and mayhem being perpetrated all across the Middle East, “smart war” was not so smart after all.
It’s not easy to tease out how much of the mess in the Middle East is specifically due to Obama’s accelerated use of lethal drones in “signature strikes” to kill thousands of military-age men in seven different lands. For he also implemented other, equally dubious initiatives. Planks of Obama’s bloody “smart power” approach included deposing Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and massively arming (from 2012 to 2013) a group of little-understood “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria.
Adding fuel to the fire, Obama oversaw the largest exportation of homicidal weapons to the Middle East ever undertaken by a single US president. Saudi Arabia wasted no time in using its US (and also UK) military provisions to lay Yemen to waste. Conjoined with Obama’s use of drones in that land, the result has been a horrific civil war in which many civilians have been killed and many civilian structures destroyed.
As if all of this were not bad enough, Obama also managed to drop more than 26K bombs in 2016, after having dropped more than 23K in 2015. Given all of this very warlike behavior in undeclared wars, no one can truly say precisely how much drones are to blame for the ongoing carnage throughout the Middle East. What is beyond dispute is that together these measures culminated in a huge expansion and spread of ISIS and other radical jihadist groups.
At the same time, given the tonnage of bombs dropped by Obama in seven different countries, the use of drones does seem to have led directly to a willingness of the president to use also manned combat aerial vehicles, notably in countries with which the United States was not at war when Obama assumed his office. While his predecessor, George W. Bush, can be properly credited with the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama managed to contribute heartily to the destruction of Libya, Yemen, and Syria, while attacking the people of Somalia as well.
Enter Donald J. Trump, who became the new US president on January 21, 2017. On that same day, two drone strikes in Yemen killed a slew of people, three of whom were said to be “suspected Al Qaeda leaders”. The US government has not confirmed that it launched the strikes. It is the policy of the CIA, put in charge by Obama of the drone program “outside areas of active hostilities” (in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, et al.), not to share the details of its covert operations. This would seem to imply that the drone strikes on January 21, 2017, were not the doings of the Pentagon, now under the direction of General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who was sworn in on the same day as the new president.
Trump’s choice for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has not yet been sworn in, as his confirmation process is still underway. In other words, the drone strikes carried out under the auspices of the CIA this past weekend were done so without a director in place. Obama therefore succeeded not only in normalizing assassination as “targeted killing” when the implements of homicide used are missiles, and they are launched under the direction of the CIA, but he also left the killing machine on autopilot. Note that the former CIA director, John Brennan, who first served as Obama’s drone killing czar, before being promoted to director, has spent his time in recent days bashing the new president, not serving as Trump’s interim adviser.
The incineration of military-age men using missiles launched from drones has become so frequent and commonplace that US citizens, including legislators, did not blink an eye at the fact that the killing machine set in motion by President Obama is now effectively on autopilot. It’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, acts of war were to be approved by the congress. Now even acephalic agencies such as the directorless CIA are permitted to use weapons of war to kill anyone whom they deem to be worthy of death. All of this came about because Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack “no boots on the ground” Obama wanted to be able to prosecute wars without appearing to prosecute wars. Fait accompli.
Note: above photo credit mikechurch.com
UPDATE: Full text now available here.
My essay, “The Drone [Assassination] Assault on Democracy,” appears with several other provocative pieces in issue #4, “State of Control”, of ROAR magazine:
This new publication is produced, edited and mailed from the Netherlands. Hoping one day to see the drone assassins standing trial for crimes against humanity at The Hague.
Very happy to be a contributor to ROAR magazine. My essay, “The Drone Assassination Assault on Democracy,” appears in issue #4, “State of Control”, of this exciting new publication.
Check it out, and subscribe if you can:
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.
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…
On July 6, 2016, the Report of the Iraq Inquiry, better known as the Chilcot Report, was finally published after more than six years of work by Chair of the Inquiry, Sir John Chilcot. The aim of the study, which began in 2009 and was initiated by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was to consider the UK’s policy on Iraq from 2001 to 2009 and to “identify lessons for the future” by answering two key questions:
- Whether it was right and necessary to invade Iraq in 2003, and
- Whether the UK could—and should—have been better prepared for what followed
The study ended up taking four years longer than the projected two years, and it cost more than £10 million to carry out. The conclusions have been widely affirmed as damning of Tony Blair, the prime minister who chose to ally the United Kingdom with the United States in its invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.
The report spans multiple volumes, but The Guardian has put together a nice summary of the most important points, a few of which I’ll paraphrase here:
–The war was not a last resort. The UK joined the war effort before peaceful options had been exhausted.
–PM Tony Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. There was no imminent threat. Furthermore, Britain’s intelligence agencies produced “flawed information”, skewed by a confirmation bias that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD (weapons of mass destruction). Essentially, British intelligence accepted the burden of proof put forth by the US government: that Iraq needed to demonstrate that it had no WMD. (NB: such negative proofs are logically impossible. Try proving the nonexistence of Santa Claus–or God, for that matter.)
–Blair assured US President George W. Bush that he would join the war effort without fail: “I will be with you, whatever.”
For the most part, the six year, £10 million+ study basically concluded what millions of antiwar protesters had no difficulty recognizing back in 2002.
Now that the UK government itself has concluded that Blair made serious errors while acting in the capacity of prime minister, many people have called for his criminal indictment. The most promising charge would have to be that he misled, and therefore coerced, the British people into participating in a war against their own national interest. In the wake of the report, Blair has stood by his decision to embroil the UK in the war in Iraq, claiming that he meant well. Once again we find that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” (See: just war theory for more on that…)
One topic which has not been addressed by any of the many commentators on the Chilcot Report—at least not to my knowledge—is whether it does not also mandate a reconsideration of the treatment of Britain’s allegedly treasonous enemies, young men who have turned against the UK government as a direct result of its complicity in the destruction of the country of Iraq, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and the harm to millions more, many of whom were forced to flee their homeland as a result of the postwar violence and insecurity.
I am interested specifically in the cases of three young British nationals, Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussein, all of whom were incinerated by lethal drone while living in Syria, to which they fled in order to join the ISIS effort. The reason why the stories of these young men, denounced by the UK government as “evil terrorists” and threats to national security, trouble me is because they were deliberately destroyed by their own government without ever having stood trial or even been indicted for their alleged crimes.
Two of the targets, Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan, were taken out on August 21, 2015, by missiles fired from drones by the RAF under the authorization of then-Prime Minister David Cameron. The third target, Junaid Hussein, was eliminated on August 25, 2015, by a US drone with the help of British intelligence. (Other persons were killed in a previous strike aiming for him.) All in all, August 2015 was a precedent-setting month for Britain, a nation in which capital punishment has been outlawed and which was not officially at war in Syria, where these British nationals were hunted down and killed.
Two of the three alleged enemies of the state were 21 years of age at the time of their death; the third was 26 years old. They all died in late 2015, which implies that two of the targets were 9 years old when the UK government joined the ill-advised war on Iraq; the third was 14 years old. This means that they were children or young adolescents at the time of the invasion of Iraq. Their entire worldview was obviously affected by the war on Iraq, for they later decided to team up with whoever was fighting those responsible.
In other words, if Britain had not joined forces with the United States, which would have made it very, very difficult for the war to proceed, as there would not have been a “coalition of the willing” but only a rogue aggressor state, then in all likelihood Iraq would not have been destroyed, and the group which came to be known as ISIS would not have grown and spread from Iraq to Syria.
These are all counterfactual conditionals, of course. My point is only that if ISIS never came to be in its present form, because the people of Iraq were not subjected to oppression and lawless aggression—night raids, summary executions, detentions and torture—then the British drone strike targets destroyed with the blessing of David Cameron could not and would not have joined forces with the group now known as ISIS.
I therefore find that, in addition to being responsible for all of the death and destruction in Iraq, Tony Blair bears responsibility not only for the deaths of Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussain, but also for Prime Minister David Cameron’s summary execution without trial of these men. In saying this, I do not mean to absolve Cameron for his mistake, for he himself identified his victims as enemies of the state and arguably violated both British and international law by assassinating them. Cameron should never have followed US President Obama’s misguided precedent in summarily executing without trial his fellow citizens.
However, Tony Blair is equally culpable, in my view, for having contributed to this return to a medieval, pre-Magna Carta framework of justice being perpetrated by unjust warriors as necessary only because of their own prior crimes and the existence of a sophisticated modern technology, the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), without which none of these deaths would have occurred (see: We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age).
It is tragic that so many young Muslim men are being annihilated for reacting violently to what they correctly identify to have been atrocious crimes committed in a misguided war (see: Chilcot Report). The state warriors and the factional terrorists sadly all embrace the same confused premise: that conflict can be resolved by obliterating anyone who disagrees. Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain are graphic illustrations of how young people are being molded into jihadists by their witness of state-perpetrated war crimes, and their heartfelt desire to stop them.
The US Air Force has been busy doling out US taxpayer cash, not only for the production of 30 more MQ-9 Reaper (read: death) drones by General Atomics, but also in the hopes of retaining drone operators willing to fly and fire missiles from them. The latest “incentive” being offered to RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) operators is $35,000 each year for the next five years. That’s about $100 a day, on top of their current salary. All that they have to do is not quit their job once their first contract term has expired. Sounds like a good deal, right?
Not so good to the drone and sensor operators who have abandoned the profession as a result of their profound regret (in some cases they suffer from PTSD) for having ever agreed to serve as government assassins in the first place. Brandon Bryant was offered more than $100K to continue on, and he declined. Rather than attempt to understand the moral basis for drone operator discontent, the USAF has decided that really what the operators preparing to bolt need is more money. Who could resist?
If $100 a day as a retainer fee seems like enough of a bonus to continue serving as an on-call government assassin, then perhaps some of these people will stay on. But it is extremely important for them to be fully aware of what they are agreeing to do for the next five years of their lives. President Barack Obama, the current commander in chief, will be leaving office soon. In all likelihood either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will assume the presidency and carry on the Obama tradition of dispatching terrorist suspects by drone. It’s much easier, politically, than conventional warfare (no flag-wrapped coffins, no condolence letters to write), and Obama has effectively normalized assassination by rebranding it as “targeted killing”.
In truth, “targeted killing” using Predator or Reaper drones differs from assassination in only two ways. First, missiles are being used to kill targets, rather than other implements of homicide (pistols, poisons, strangulation wires…). Second, unlike most black op assassinations carried out by hit squads in the twentieth century, drone strikes produce collateral damage alongside the obliterated target. Remarkably, many people have not recognized that those are the only two ways in which the stalking, hunting down and execution of human beings by governments has changed in the Drone Age.
“This is war,” allegedly, because “weapons of war” are used to effect the deaths, and unintended deaths of civilians are caused at the same time. Never mind that, in contrast to regular combat situations, the soldier who pushes the button to launch a missile is not in any direct danger of physical harm, least of all at the hands of his target, who is usually located thousands of miles away and has no idea that he is about to die. Drone operators and sensors might develop carpal tunnel syndrome, but their lives are never on the line when they follow orders to kill.
Given the reality of what they are doing, the drone and sensor operators who accept the latest bribe are in effect agreeing to execute anyone designated by either President Clinton or President Trump as worthy of death. The new US president won’t have to say why, because Barack Obama never did. The drone program has always been secretive and opaque, under cover of national security. The release of the “playbook” (Presidential Policy Guidance or PPG) did nothing to assuage the concerns of critics who have for years been demanding transparency.
All that we know with certainty now is that President Obama was wrong when he told a group of listeners during a GoogleTalk chat in January 2012 that “it’s not a bunch of folks in a room just making decisions.” That is, indeed, precisely what Barack Obama’s version of “due process” is. A massive, secretive, bureaucratic institution of killing, with no checks and balances and zero provision for revisiting death sentences handed down by anonymous officials (“folks in a room”) from behind closed doors, primarily on the basis of analysis (by “folks in a room”) of signals intelligence (SIGINT): metadata from cellphones and SIM cards, and drone video footage. Looks like a terrorist. Walks like a terrorist. Talks like a terrorist. Guilty as charged: send out the drones.
In some cases, bribed intelligence from informants on the ground (human intelligence or HUMINT) is used to supplement the electronic sources of “evidence” that the people being slaughtered truly deserve to die, along with anyone at their side at the time—the dreaded “associates”: taxi drivers, family members and friends, funeral or wedding attendees, first responders, the list goes on and on…
The problems with bribed intelligence from human sources are just as bad as the racial profiling inherent to SIGINT-based “signature strikes” or “crowd killing” of brown-skinned Muslims wearing turbans and carrying guns—or not. Hundreds of strikes have been carried out “outside areas of active hostilities” under Obama’s authorization. Today we know what happened when HUMINT was used to round up suspects for detention at Guantánamo Bay prison: most of the men incarcerated (86%) were innocent. “The worst of the worst” they were called at the time.
It is therefore very important for any drone operators and sensors considering the possibility of continuing on in their role as a professional assassin to recognize that they are agreeing to kill people who in many cases will be innocent of any wrongdoing—certainly any capital offense. Even worse, they are agreeing to serve as the henchman of a future president whom they may or may not believe to be either moral or good.
Many Americans have expressed concern that the Republican and Democratic parties have nominated candidates for the presidency who are wholly ill-suited for the task. In Trump’s case, we really have no idea what he will do. He’s the classic case of a “known unknown”. Some days he sounds like an isolationist ready and willing to put an end to US meddling in the Middle East; other days he sounds like Dr. Strangelove.
In Clinton’s case, we know precisely what she will do: send out the drones and expand and multiply the wars already raging in the Middle East. Amazingly, Hillary Clinton appears to believe that “third time’s a charm,” as she is calling for a repetition in Syria of the regime-change policy which failed so miserably in both Iraq and Libya.
On the drone front, Clinton surrogates have suggested that even nonviolent dissidents such as Wikileaks’ Julian Assange should be added to the US government’s hit list. Perhaps Clinton will try to outdo Obama (who executed US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki without trial), and Edward Snowden’s name will be added to the list as well. Not so far-fetched, given her evident antipathy toward technologically savvy whistleblowers…
Trump or Clinton? Who will the next US president be? Once having signed on the dotted line, drone operators and sensors will be expected to follow the orders of the commander in chief, whoever it may be. Maybe $100 a day as a retainer fee to serve as an on-call assassin isn’t such a good deal after all.