Sitzkrieg on the Potomac

by , March 21, 2013

In 1939 Germany blitzkrieged into Poland and France and Britain declared war. The Germans divided the conquered country with their ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the two belligerents mopped up Polish resistance, a process that subsequently included the slaughter of twenty-two thousand Polish officers and intelligentsia by the Russians at Katyn Forest. France missed the opportunity to hit the Germans in the west while they were busy in the east and what was described as a phony war or "sitzkrieg" ensued with both sides staring at each other across the Maginot Line.

Washington’s current political gridlock is not unlike 1940 on the western front, with two sides watching each other, both committed to fight to reap the benefits of controlling the federal government but apparently heedless regarding the likely consequences of the conflict they have initiated. Both Democrats and Republicans, presenting different faces of the war party, seem unconcerned about the gradual destruction of our nation’s liberties, wrapped up as they are in obtaining temporary advantage in a struggle that has everything to do with obtaining more power and little to do with the wellbeing of the United States.

Note, for example, the great drone debate. "Our Constitution is precious and…no American should be killed by a drone without first being charged with a crime." That was Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky’s own description of the objective of his thirteen hour filibuster on March 6th as it appeared in a March 10th op-ed he authored for the Washington Post. While I applaud Senator Paul for what he did and said, I have to come away with an empty feeling because of what was not attempted and because of the way the argument was framed to make it politically acceptable.

Senator John McCain, who possibly sees drones as a wonderful new law enforcement tool as well as a magic weapon to zap terrorists, blasted Rand Paul as a "wacko bird" for taking a position that was "simply false," but he completely missed the point on the genuine threat to civil liberties in the United States. The real issue is the increasing use of drones for domestic policing rather than whether or not they will be used to kill people. Trust me, if the police and Department of Homeland Security are allowed to use drones and arm them they will sooner or later be used to kill, so the solution is to keep them out in the first place. Once a shiny new tool is placed in the hands of the cops it will be used, you can bank on it. And the placebo placed in the Rand Paul declaration "without first being charged with a crime" is nothing more than words on paper. Does he mean shoplifting? Jaywalking? Reckless driving? If he actually means that someone is about to kill someone and the killing can be prevented by a drone firing its own weapon then why didn’t he lay out the conditions he had in mind and say that?

An armed police officer can make a split second decision not to use lethal force in a life threatening situation based on his training and instincts but a drone cannot render that fine a judgment. The Obama Administration, leading Democrats, and nearly all Republicans have nevertheless justified the lethal use of drones as a response to an "imminent threat." Imminent threat is itself nothing more than the a variation of the ticking bomb argument that has been used to legitimize torture, that someone somewhere knows about an explosive device that is about to go off that will kill many civilians and he will only give up the information if he receives "enhanced interrogation." The mendacity of the argument can easily be discerned in the two cases that we know of where American citizens were killed by drones overseas. Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen was undoubtedly an al-Qaeda supporter and, by act of Congress, the United States is at war with that group. He may have been involved in plotting attacks directed against the United States though no one has ever actually made a legal case charging him with any crime. The information that was used to condemn him remains secret. He and another American citizen Samir Khan were traveling in Yemen in September 2011 when they were killed, together with three others. Two weeks later al-Awlaki’s sixteen year old son Abdulrahman was killed in similar circumstances, together with nine others who happened to be in the area. No one has ever claimed that the boy was a terrorist, but he died anyway. His American family’s attempts to obtain some kind of redress in U.S. courts was blocked by the government citing the state secrets privilege.

My point is that the concept of imminent threat is very much elastic, particularly when the U.S. government is doing the killing, and it cannot be challenged through the legal system. Should anyone doubt that a police force having a game changing weapon at its disposal will use it and make up the justification for doing so afterwards? And that the courts will go along with the argument?

And killing by drone is very much bipartisan, witness how only one Democratic Senator, Ron Wyden of Oregon, supported Rand Paul in his filibuster. The Dems, including many who describe themselves as progressives, will rally to support "their" president even if he is a war criminal and engaging in gross violations of civil liberties, just as the Republicans circled the wagons around George W. Bush. Attorney General Eric Holder clearly believes that drones can be used to kill people inside the United States. Rand Paul asked him whether the president, on his say-so alone, can use drones to execute an American citizen on U.S. soil and Holder eventually responded "It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States." After Paul’s further inquiry, he answered a second time more succinctly "Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer to that question is no." Again, the fly in the ointment is the "engaged in combat" bit. Holder, as the nation’s top lawyer, clearly has something very specific in mind but he does not say what it is. What does "combat" mean in the context of an ongoing law enforcement operation or in the case of a suspected terrorist who just might be planning to do something? What does it actually mean to Eric Holder? Or to President Barack Obama?

Drones are basically unregulated and operate outside any legal framework. Theoretically, anyone can buy one and use it. A number of concerned cities and states have consequently considered banning drones in general due to privacy concerns. Some legislatures want to forbid the operation of law enforcement drones without a warrant but they have run up against the Federal Aviation Administration’s view that unmanned vehicles can fly perfectly legally anywhere and do anything as long as they do not pose a safety hazard. And if even well-meaning congressmen like Rand Paul have to shape their questions on killer drones so as not to rock the status quo too much there is little hope that the rest of us will ever be able to keep flying robots out of our backyards. Remember Winston Smith in the George Orwell novel 1984? He was doing exercises in front of his television screen when a voice coming out of the TV told him he was not putting enough effort into it. He wondered, "Can they really be watching everyone all the time?" The answer is "yes they can," but even in 1984 the television set couldn’t incinerate you with a hellfire missile.

Read more by Philip Giraldi