If it is actually true that those whom the gods seek to destroy they first make mad, it would seem that the insanity process has at its epicenter the White House. How else to explain the various bits and pieces of counterterrorism policy that have been revealed over the past two weeks?
A Sept. 15 New York Times feature article, “At White House, Weighing Limits of Terror Fight,” had an intriguing title, but the content revealed that the only weighing taking place is an internal dispute over whether the CIA drone program should be used to take out only “high-value” targets when attacks are staged in Yemen and Somalia or whether the Hellfire missiles can be used to kill large numbers of suspected al-Qaeda rank and file in what would amount to a bombing campaign. Nowhere in the article was there any suggestion that the drone operation might in itself be counterproductive, that it is killing far too many civilians, and that it has encouraged militancy in places like Pakistan. Apparently when the White House weighs limits, the possible choices are themselves limited.
As in the glory days of the Bush administration, the Obamas preach legality while violating every international norm. As the missiles rain down on Pakistan, the Times article dryly notes that the “legal authority to attack militants who are battling U.S. forces in adjoining Afghanistan is not disputed inside the administration” (my emphasis). The precise legal framework being discussed is apparently the work of Defense Department lawyers who are “trying to maintain maximum theoretical flexibility.” The article concedes that the maximum-flexibility doctrine could well lead to an unconstrained and unending global war, but it views that possibility as an unfortunate detail that has to be worked out by the Pentagon planners. Congress, for its part, appears to be prepared to provide its own imprimatur on the process by including in the impending defense bill a clause authorizing military action anywhere against al-Qaeda and “its associates” as a condition of what amounts to a permanent state of emergency. Even the bill’s supporters admit that “associates” can be interpreted to mean almost anyone who objects to Washington’s imperial agenda.
A day later, John Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, elaborated on the doctrine in a speech at Harvard Law School. He argued that “in accordance with international law we have the authority to take action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time.” Though he seemed to be making the case that the United States could use its drones to attack anyone anywhere without any consideration for local sovereignty, he qualified his comment by stating that the free-fire option would only be exercised against groups actively threatening the United States, specifically including al-Qaeda in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia.
Of course, the fallacy in Brennan’s thinking begins with the U.S. Constitution, which requires an act of Congress to declare war and engage in military action. And there are both practical and ethical considerations in that the acceptance of a policy that the United States can “legally” strike anywhere opens the door to subjective targeting, with the White House using its own analysis to determine who is an active threat. All indications are that such enemy lists can and do proliferate and are also subject to political considerations. Since the targeting process is secret, there are no protections or due process whatsoever for the people being killed on the ground, many of whom might well be completely innocent. There is also a much larger issue: the proliferation of drones and possible reciprocity. If the U.S. government establishes the precedent that it can kill anyone in any country, then other nations might follow suit and develop their own drone technology to do the same thing. The argument that the United States has global responsibilities and operates on a higher moral plane because of its “exceptionalism” is arrant nonsense, as anyone who witnessed last week’s disgraceful speech by President Barack Obama before the U.N. General Assembly can testify.
And the machines being used to do the killing are also being enhanced, moving the United States one step closer to an apparent goal of constant low-intensity warfare capability worldwide. The United States government is reportedly working to develop pilotless military drones that are fully automatic, identifying and destroying human targets on the ground without any intervention from an operator or pilot back in Nevada, and this is generating virtually no public outrage. The drones would reportedly seek their targets based on facial-recognition software or other biometrics. The Defense Department planners have dubbed the technological leap “lethal autonomy,” meaning that the life-or-death decision can be made instantaneously and independently by the machine without any slowing down of the process due to a human being having to make a decision whether to fire or not.
That a computer brain can become judge, jury, and executioner in the airspace over a foreign country with which the United States is not at war not only raises serious constitutional questions in terms of war powers, it also accepts that collateral damage consisting of killing completely innocent people who happen to be in the vicinity of a suspect is acceptable. As for the targets themselves, apparently being in the wrong place at the wrong time or being suspected of planning something that the United States considers to be illegal is enough to bring down death from the skies. Even a computer glitch in a biometric reading of someone’s face could amount to a death sentence.
All of the agonizing over the legality of extraterritorial government-ordered killing and the development of machines that can make the executions a routine part of American statecraft would be moot but for the fact that the program is already well-established and the rate of executions by Hellfire missile is increasing. The Obama administration has far outdone the Bushies in the number of attacks in Pakistan that it has ordered. It has also upped the frequency of attacks in Yemen, which is becoming increasingly unstable. On Sept. 20 there appeared a report that the United States is creating a “constellation” of secret drone bases in the Horn of Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula. One major base is in Ethiopia and another is in the Seychelles Islands, both intended to strike Somalia and to monitor East Africa. A long-established base in Djibouti covers Yemen, and there are reports that a secret facility is being constructed somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula itself, which is certain to inflame Muslim opinion.
WikiLeaks has revealed that the Seychelles base, which has been operating for two years, has covered its activities by claiming that the drones were unarmed and surveilling pirate movements in the Red Sea, none of which was true. Judging from the administration’s willingness to lie about drone deployments, one can only assume that the unmanned “weapon of the future” is being groomed to take over counterterrorist operations in many parts of the world.
Why use drones at all, since they have a decidedly mixed record, killing many more civilians than terrorists and turning local populations against the United States? The answer is probably in the numbers and in the perception of the domestic audience in the United States. Killing Pakistanis or Afghans or Yemenis or Somalis or Iraqis is hardly reported in the media and becomes over time little more than a statistic. Dead Americans on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq can instead become a problem for politicians. Drones enable the so-called war on terror to continue forever in a low-intensity fashion and be expanded without the casualties that can lead to lost elections for the desperate and ethically challenged men we Americans have unfortunately elected to the highest office over the past 20 years. Death by drone is a peculiarly American way of waging war: bloodless for the initiators, high-tech, and akin to a video game. And as the White House is clearly considering expanding operations to conduct large-scale bombing operations using drones, it is a safe bet that robot killing will before too long become the weapon of choice “to keep Americans safe.”