I have long been disturbed by the New York Times’ coverage of the drone campaigns. I was particularly appalled by the ghastly President-as-Godfather feature published on May 29, 2012. Many conservative pundits have complained that the so-called “liberal” newspaper serves as a mouthpiece for the current administration, which is shameful in and of itself. But how and why did the New York Times become an organ of state-funded propaganda? Whatever happened to fact-based, interest-free, objective journalism?
“Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will”
That was the title of the 2012 feature extolling the virtues of “Terror Tuesdays”, with Obama and his fellow “kill committee” members deciding the fate of human beings located on the other side of the planet. I found the title especially egregious in view of the fact that many readers only scan headlines, automatically digesting them as “news”.
To depict as honorable Obama’s handwringing over whether to order strikes against suspects (better known in nongovernmental organized crime as “hits”) in violation the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even the US Constitution, struck me as a very sorry reflection of the state of the mainstream media in the United States.
In yesterday’s Sunday edition, the New York Times published yet another pro-lethal drone piece, this time an op-ed by former CIA director and seasoned killer Michael Hayden. Bear in mind that, while serving as the head of the CIA, Hayden authorized 48 drone strikes resulting in 532 deaths, at least 144 known to be civilians. Those abysmal stats, like all mass media reports of what transpires in the drone campaigns, ignore altogether the nonlethal harm to the survivors, both the psychological trauma and physical maiming. The title of the op-ed?
“To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare”
Many Americans may be inclined to sympathize with US administrators who have killed so many people, including obviously innocent civilians, while attempting to keep the homeland safe. Officials such as Michael Hayden certainly have psychological and emotional reasons to convince themselves that what they have done is right – if only in order to be able to sleep at night. But before automatically applying interpretive charity to cheerleader-for-assassination Hayden, it is essential for any reader of his propaganda piece to know that he now profits from the drone killing campaigns as a principal or board member of a few different drone program-affiliated companies.
Hayden boldly asserts that we should all support drone killing because it keeps us safe, but he offers absolutely no evidence to substantiate that claim. He briefly alludes to, but then chooses to forget, some of the criticisms aired by book authors, human rights organizations, the United Nations special rapporteurs on extrajudicial execution, former drone operators, and the government’s own commissioned Stimson Center report. Don’t drone strikes create more terrorists than they destroy? What will the world be like when China, Russia, and every other country on the planet begin dispatching their avowed enemies through the use of lethal drones wherever and whenever they please?
Hayden waves aside all of the many very real concerns about the inefficacy of drone warfare in quelling terrorism, insisting instead (and without documentation of any kind) that the strikes are “proportional” and “discriminate”. He chooses those words carefully, talking as warriors always do, the “just war” talk about their own missions of mass killing. But assassination, the hunting down and killing of specific human beings, did not suddenly become warfare because of the development of unmanned aerial systems. Why should the implement of homicide matter, when the intent is clearly the same? Hayden writes:
“Targeted killing using drones has become part of the American way of war. To do it legally and effectively requires detailed and accurate intelligence. It also requires some excruciatingly difficult decisions.”
Hayden here simply assumes what the title of the op-ed suggests that the author will set out to prove. In logic, the fallacy is known as “begging the question”, assuming as a premise the conclusion at which one wishes to arrive.
Since he brought up the topic of legality, it’s worth pointing out what Hayden omits, that the experts on extrajudicial execution at the United Nations have repeatedly expressed concern that the US drone campaigns violate international law. But this is not a mere case of “he said, she said.” There are laws, they are written in words, and words have meanings. To redefine “imminent threat” as no longer requiring “immediacy”, as was done in the US Department of Justice White Paper, is to indulge in Orwellian newspeak, no more and no less.
Like many other advocates of drone warfare, Hayden assumes that collateral damage is exhausted by body count. He naturally expresses the requisite regret at the civilians killed but proceeds to conclude his pro-drone manifesto by reiterating, rather than defending, his personal opinion, that drone warfare is effective:
“Civilians have died, but in my firm opinion, the death toll from terrorist attacks would have been much higher than if we had not taken action.”
Again, no evidence, just personal opinion, from a man who profits financially from the drone program. At the opening of his manifesto, Hayden offers personal “insight” into the kill chain, using a fictional dialogue constructed so as to assuage NYT readers’ fears:
“We’ve got good Humint. We‘ve been tracking with streaming video. Sigint’s checking in now and confirming it’s them. They’re there.”
Those techno acronyms, HUMINT and SIGINT, may impress the untutored masses, but what do they mean in vernacular? Bribed hearsay and circumstantial evidence. These forms of intelligence are being used exhaustively and exclusively as the basis for strikes which end human beings’ lives. Oh well, what’s wrong with a little bribery and circumstantial evidence among friends? Especially when the targets in question are suspected of terrorism!
Every educated person alive should know by now that, throughout history, desperate and/or amoral, mercenary people offered generous bribes to surrender “bad guys” have been ready and willing to rat on their personal enemies or even hand over randomly selected and entirely innocent people. In the Drone Age, it suffices for those “suspects” to be located in a “hostile” territory, that is, somewhere which can plausibly be interpreted as a terrorist safe haven.
Recall that 86% of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison were found, years after having been locked away without indictment, to be entirely innocent. They were turned over to US officials by mercenary bounty hunters, aka bribed informants. Under Obama’s bloody “kill don’t capture” watch, innocent men just like Shaker Aamer, who was finally released after years of deprivation and torture, are instead summarily executed. All of the military-age men killed under Obama’s authority have been defined as guilty until proven innocent, as though we had not already learned from Guantánamo Bay prison how preposterous and deeply unjust such an assumption can be. Is this mere stupidity? Or is it time to admit that the killing machine is intrinsically evil?
In reply to complaints that unnamed men of military age are indiscriminately targeted, Hayden incomprehensibly replies:
“They were not. Intelligence for signature strikes always had multiple threads and deep history. The data was near encyclopedic.”
What does that even mean? If the people being killed are of unknown identity, then how in the world can knowledge of them be “encyclopedic”?
Pretending to acknowledge, while never truly answering, such criticisms is all part of the marketing blurb not only for Hayden’s forthcoming book, but also for the tools and analysis used in drone killing. We are supposed to conclude on the basis of this “reasoned” defense, that more and more drones and missiles should be produced, and more and more operators trained to fire them. Which means that more and more analysis will be needed to locate suitable targets.
Enter The Cherthoff Group, of which Hayden is a principal. According to Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations, Hayden also serves on the board of directors at Alion Science and Technology, Motorola Solutions, and Mike Baker International, all of which appear to enjoy Pentagon contracts relating to drone warfare. Zenko rightly points out the deception involved in penning an op-ed using the credential of having served as the director of the CIA, without also acknowledging the financial interests the author has in promoting drone killing.
What Hayden has written is sophistry, pure and simple. Even worse, it is to promote a policy which has never been publicly debated by the people paying for the practice. Any serious consideration of the situation in the Middle East by persons who do not stand to profit from drone killing can only conclude that the range of covert operations instigated under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have failed miserably, not only morally but also politically.
Americans and other Westerners are not being kept safe by policies which lead to the endless sporing of terrorist groups over ever-greater expanses of land. Who cares if the CIA eliminated most of what they claim to have been the “high value” targets of the Al Qaeda brand of extremist jihadism? Now we have ISIS.
Laurie Calhoun, a philosopher and cultural critic, is the author of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (Zed Books, September 2015; paperback forthcoming in 2016) and War and Delusion: A Critical Examination (Palgrave Macmillan 2013; paperback forthcoming in 2016). Visit her website.