Drones, Torture, and the Impatient State

Drone (don’t call them) assassinations must feel good. They must feel effective. You don’t need to worry about Gitmo, or moving prisoners into the US after Gitmo becomes unpopular. You just kill the bad guys with your superior technology. It’s very Democrat. Very Clinton. Very 1990s to just skip merrily from war to war, without getting bogged down by ground troops.

During the W. years, the US preferred to capture its potential terrorists and sometimes torture them. Now under Obama, assassination via flying robot the name of the game. But his coy war dabbling and his Mr. Fantastic powers of stretching the Authorizations for Use of Military Force from 2001 and 2003 are not acceptable, even if the body count is lower than it was under Bush.

Consider two recent journalistic revelations about the drone wars and about CIA torture. The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman reports that more than three (well, duh) detainees were tortured by the CIA, contrary to their claims. Like good government workers, these spooks did not waterboard other people, but water doused them instead. Yes, it is just as similar as it sounds. Detainees also were subjected to potential hypothermia due to the icy water, and because their clothing was sometimes taken.

Also last week, The Intercept put together an impressive collection of drone war information. This comes from their unnamed source who some months ago leaked slides and info about the assassination program, focused on 2011 to 2013. Like most leaks, this one heavily substantiates previous rumors and inferences about the secret targeted killings. The source works in intelligence and appears to have serious concerns about the “godlike power” and hubris of some of the folks who put together the so-called “baseball cards” of potential targets.

We knew or suspected a lot of this stuff, but the leak backs up previous reports. Named targets are rarely taken out, but if you died and your innocence remains unproven, you are a terrorist or militant by definition. Metadata from computers and phones, as well as cell Simcards, are often the go-to tool for tracking people, with all of the dubious trustworthiness that that entails. This data is also generally collected by allies, not by Americans. According to the Intercept, this method is used most frequently in Somalia and Yemen.

During some African campaigns back in 2012 and 2013, up to 90 percent of those killed in strikes were not the object of the assassinations. Thirty-five out of 200 people killed were the targets during an operation in Afghanistan. This doesn’t bother the drone war architects enough to change their ways, even when they admit in the leaked documents that there are faults in their method. The source sums up the potential for (and fact of) errors inherent to this by saying: “It’s stunning the number of instances when selectors are misattributed to certain people. And it isn’t until several months or years later that you all of a sudden realize that the entire time you thought you were going after this really hot target, you wind up realizing it was his mother’s phone the whole time.”

Fundamentally, these two excellent pieces of journalism remind readers that these programs are ineffective, dishonest, and deal in massive casualties. Innocent people have been tortured. And even when bad men were tortured, that means the US gets to be the kind of place where torture is tacitly allowed, and goes unpunished.

The Intercept source also explains why drones are now how war happens, even with the shockingly low success rate of the current program. He says “The military is easily capable of adapting to change, but they don’t like to stop anything they feel is making their lives easier, or is to their benefit… It’s a very slick, efficient way to conduct the war, without having to have the massive ground invasion mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan” In short, says the source, they’re addicted to this method because it feels easier.

A less morally queasy objection to the drone program — in fact, one any security hawk could offer is the fact that you’re not gaining any intel when you fire a Hellfire missile and hope you got your guy. And there you have the tiny crop of George Bush defenders who could happily say “yes! That’s why torture and Gitmo was better!”

Well, no. Gitmo and waterboarding are non-solutions to the problem of terrorism, which is a problem aggravated beyond measure by a century of the West toying with the Middle East.

Savvy journalists like Ackerman, Jeremy Scahill, and Glenn Greenwald show us the rot within these institutions which are ostensibly there to stop another 9/11, but are really just constantly stirring a pot as it boils over and scalds them. The truth is that torture rarely works, and though it debatably, occasionally produces actual, verifiable information, its advocates are entirely untrustworthy with that kind of power. After all, they’re liars. Their job is to be opaque. Their job, as a recent WikiLeaks look into former CIA director John Brennan’s email account helps reveal, is to get around legal restrictions through technicalities and loopholes. Their job is to deny that they’re waterboarding suspects while “water dousing” them.

Torture also makes America look bad, and it stokes resentments abroad. (And it is bad. Hawks so often profess to love America, yet they are not interested in holding it to higher standards.) Studies show that prisoners treated well are much more willing to reveal information than those who are brutalized, say, by someone shoving hummus into their anus. But it takes time to develop a relationship with a suspect, and it takes patience.

Holding people indefinitely in prison is not a solution, either. It’s an ellipsis. It’s a suspension of standards and rights that predate America. And when some former Gitmo residences support terrorism after spending more than a decade behind bars, it’s embarrassing for anyone to pretend to be shocked.

The only solution is to time travel and prevent American empire from emerging. To prevent the British from making up Mideast countries and drawing their own borders. We can’t do that. We can’t even sell the idea of bringing troops home with a utopian vision of peace and no more terrorists. They will still hate us if we pull out our troops and our drones. There will still be terrorists. Who in America has the attention span to accept that doing nothing is what we need to do, because it will make us safer in the future? Perhaps the far future?

Iraq was and remains a disaster. Afghanistan, too. And the vicious little wars that have splintered off of the AUMFs are not working by any definition. Yet, as the Intercept source notes, these people believe they can perfect the drone program, work out the kinks. And when they do, by God, there will be no reason to ever stop it.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.