Lt. Col. Matt Martin, in his book Predator compares operating a drone to “playing the computer game Civilization.” As Michael Hastings writes in his brilliant Rolling Stone piece, Martin and other pilots who never leave the ground are still able to inflict enormous damage.
Martin uses terms such as ‘electrified’ and ‘adrenalized’ in recounting how it felt to use a Predator drone to target a technical college in Iraq, saying “we had shot (it) full of holes, destroying portions of it and killing only God knew how many people.”
America is now in the business of killing by remote control. When George Bush was President, he authorized just over fifty drone strikes in eight years. Barack Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, has signed off on 268 of them.
As you may be aware, the Obama regime claims the legal authority to kill anyone it wishes to kill, anywhere and at any time. It does so under a resolution which Congress passed one week after 9-11, authorizing the use of ‘all necessary force’ to prevent future acts of terrorism. This is the same resolution cited by the Bush crime family in ‘justifying’ torture and kidnapping.
Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, after refusing to explain the basis for policies of targeting people for death and refusing to release the secret Justice Department memo outlining its rationale, finally offered an explanation at a recent speech at Northwestern University. A U.S. citizen may be killed, he said, if the person poses an imminent threat and can’t be captured.
Killing, he said, may be the “only realistic” alternative. Funny, that’s what George Zimmerman said about Trayvon Martin.
Polls show that a large majority of Democrats support the drone program. In February, Congress passed legislation accelerating deployment of drones over the United States. The NDAA bill passed a few months ago redefines the power of the President and, by extension, the army and secret police, to arrest citizens without warrant, lock them up without counsel or trial, and imprison them indefinitely without any legal recourse at all.
Members of the U.S. Senate have specifically argued that in the fake ‘war on terror’ the United States itself is a “part of the battlefield,” a designation which will make it legal to assassinate American citizens in their own communities.
Police departments in Miami and Houston are already using drones for surveillance. Drones are employed on the border with Mexico. New York City is next.
Civil libertarians, or merely Americans with a sentimental hankering for constitutional rights, are a joke to the government. As Hastings recounts, a former lawyer for the CIA told a human rights seminar at Columbia University last summer, “the CIA is laughing at you guys. You’re worried about international law and the CIA is laughing.” An unnamed White House source was even more arrogant. “If Anwar al-Awlaki is your poster boy for why we shouldn’t do drone strikes, good fucking luck.”
Good fucking luck. Thanks, Mr. President. I’ll keep it in mind.
More and more these days, when I think of Obama it evokes what I used to think about religious zealots and televangelists: he’d better hope there’s no God, otherwise he’s in trouble.
Interesting that the administration would make al-Awlaki their poster boy for remote control murder. He’s such a bad guy, after all. And we’ve come to that as a country, targeting people under conditions which must remain secret for reasons of national security, killing people without trial, without juries, without counsel or defense, hell, even without charges.
It’s a war, you see, and a modern one, at that, which means that even historically-accepted rules of combat are no longer in force. International law? Forget it. War crimes? Nah, it’s an emergency.
Let’s consider al-Awlaki, since the Obama regime would raise him as the example of why they get to commit murder.
On September 30, 2011, al-Awlaki was the first U.S. citizen to be killed by a targeted drone attack. al-Awlaki had been on America’s hit list for some time. Born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, he’d lived in Colorado and Virginia as an adult, and become an imam at an Islamic center in the latter. After 9-11, al-Awlaki became a prominent critic of the west, criticizing America in terms which bordered on calling for violence. The FBI began hassling him and he left the country in 2002 and settled in Yemen.
Al-Awlaki made propaganda videos for Al Qaeda which ran all over the internet. He also associated with at least two Al Qaeda operatives and was believed connected with Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army officer who apparently killed thirteen and wounded thirty-two at Fort Hood in 2009.
The CIA tracked al-Awlaki and finally hit him with a missile. He was dead; so, too, were three bystanders, one of whom, Samir Khan, was also an American citizen.
Al-Awlaki’s father got the news he’d been expecting. Also an American, Nasser Al-Awlaki was acutely aware of the enemies his son had made in the U.S. government. But then he got another phone call, this time from his grandson, 16-year-old Abdulrahman, who had left his home weeks before to try to find his father.
“We told him to come back and he promised he would,” Nasser said later. He never made it. Two weeks later, Nasser got another phone call. The boy, not in any way related to Al Qaeda or any enemy of America, real or imagined, had been killed by another drone attack, along with a cousin and seven others.
“My wife weeps every day and every night and every morning for her grandson,” says Nasser. “He was a nice, gentle boy who liked to swim... This is a boy who did nothing against America or against anything else. A boy. He was a citizen of the United States, and there are no reasons to kill him except that he is Anwar’s son.”
Son of someone America thinks is an enemy? Good fucking luck.
The first drones in America’s arsenal were not armed. They were reconnaissance aircraft, with a single domed ‘eye’ instead of a cockpit, built first by Lockheed-Martin 18 years ago and christened DarkStar. They were able to hover at 50,000 feet and provide unlimited detailed photographs. They could fly undetected by radar. The drone taken down over Iranian airspace on November 29, 2011, was one of these, the RQ-170 Sentinel.
The Sentinel, according to the U.S. government, had been a military plane lost over Afghanistan. Both of those things were lies. It was a CIA plane, and it had been flying surveillance over Iran.
The drone over Iran was, of course, an act of war, however the United States engages in acts of war every day now. International law means nothing to us, nor the Geneva Convention, nor the World Court, whose jurisdiction we don’t recognize even as we insist that leaders of other countries be tried in it.
Obama insisted that the Iranians give the drone back.
I can see why he’d feel that way. America only has 20,000 of them.
U.S. drones are now used in parallel military operations with parallel decision-making apparatus. The Pentagon runs one branch, with a kill list subject to some presidential supervision. There are also rules which have been devised to determine who gets blown up. The military actually uses the services of three Judge Advocate General lawyers who are on-call to sign off on drone killings as legitimate under the Geneva Convention, a doubtful proposition regardless of the situation given the clear certainty that civilians will also be vaporized. According to Hastings, more than 3,000 people have been killed so far with at least 800 acknowledged innocents. He does not say whether al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son is considered one of these.
The other branch is run by the CIA, which no longer pretends to operate according to its legal charter as an intelligence-gathering agency. The CIA drones are for killing, and the rules are not made public. There are CIA lawyers around here, too, but the process of target selection is classified secret. That means that a U.S. citizen may be selected for death by a secret process.
Hastings quotes John Rizzo, who served as chief counsel at the CIA for six years, saying that the process required that he or one of the other ten staff lawyers at the Langley, VA, control center consent to the “murder” of selected people. When the agency wants to hit someone with a missile, Rizzo says, it asks a lawyer to “sign off” on it by initialing a 5-page memo. The phrase used is “approval for targeting for lethal operation.”
According to the Hastings article, “Drone assaults on high-value targets – known as "personality strikes" – usually require approval from a lawyer like Rizzo, the CIA chief and sometimes the president himself. But the CIA's more common use of drones – known as "signature strikes" – involves attacks on groups of alleged militants who are behaving in ways that seem suspicious. Such strikes are reportedly the brainchild of the CIA veteran who has run the agency's drone program for the past six years, a chain-smoking convert to Islam...”
As the division of command breaks it down, the Pentagon gets to kill people with drones in places such as Afghanistan, where there is an acknowledged war going on. The CIA gets to knock them off everywhere else. Thus attacks by remote control on targets in Yemen, such as al-Awlaki’s son, or Pakistan, where batches of civilians are routinely slaughtered, belong to the CIA.
With the CIA, the rules and procedures are a little looser. “When it comes to signature strikes, say insiders, the decision to launch a drone assault is essentially an odds game: If the agency thinks it's likely that the group of individuals are insurgents, it will take the shot. "The CIA is doing a lot more targeting on a percentage basis," says the former official with knowledge of the agency's drone program.”
How, how cool is that? Killing based on guesswork. Like Vegas craps games with someone else’s money.
Each drone costs around $13 million, but if the government wipes out, say, thirty people in one shot, maybe a funeral procession –– the Guardian has documented internal memos referring to their intentional targeting –– then that’s pretty cost-effective. True, it costs a little more than bribing a congressman, but it’s a lot more permanent.
Obama, by all accounts, is attracted to the cheap kill aspects of drones. Again, from Hastings:
“From the moment Obama took office, according to Washington insiders, the new commander in chief evinced a "love" of drones. "The drone program is something the executive branch is paying a lot of attention to," says Ken Gude, vice president of the Center for American Progress. "These weapons systems have become central to Obama."
One reason for Mr. Nobel Peace Prize’s love for Predator drones is that it enables killing people without the more evident manifestations of war. This has been especially useful in places such as Pakistan, since the people there don’t want U.S. troops on their soil and have made that abundantly clear to their government. Nonetheless, the U.S. Ambassador nearly lost his cookies when drones knocked off dozens of ordinary Pakistanis recently when the “percentage basis” calculations proved to be mistaken.
The CIA’s attacks stopped for a brief period in January, 2011, when Pakistan seized a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, who killed two Pakistanis in broad daylight. After the U.S. finagled his release, the attacks began again. In March, 2011, a CIA strike killed 42 civilians as the U.S. claimed that the dead were 21 ‘terrorists’. It was not recorded how many of the ‘terrorists’ were under the age of 10.
Believe it or not, nobody tells the CIA what to do. In the wake of several diplomatic and human disasters such as the March murders, there was a move inside the White House to place the CIA’s drone operations under Pentagon supervision, an idea which, according to Hastings, “set off alarms” at the agency. Obama backed down, of course, but did manage to insert the ambassador into the targeting process.
This meant that a diplomat would be in the position of signing off on extralegal death warrants in a foreign country. Clive Stafford Smith, executive director of a human rights group trying to get judicial review of the use of drones, described the situation as “incredible. Can you imagine what the reaction would be if the Pakistani ambassador in Washington was overseeing a campaign of targeted killing in America?"
Meanwhile, just how death lists are compiled and by whom is a matter unavailable to the public. Some sources told Hastings that there is a “secret panel” inside the National Security Council which orders the murders. There apparently are no records kept and no paperwork which might be snagged by a court or a whistle blower. One of the officials involved in it by order of the President is counter terrorism adviser John Brennan, well known as the leading advocate for torturing the prisoners at Guantanamo.
Others insist that the CIA is not under the aegis of the Security Council and has “broad authority to curate its own kill lists, with limited oversight.” But, one former CIA official said, “The NSC decides when the President needs to be involved –– and what fingerprints to leave.”
As a former teacher of constitutional law, Barack Obama had sharply criticized Bush policies during the campaign, but as President he made a sharp right turn, assigning to some legal allies the task of developing a memorandum which would protect him for the killings he was authorizing. In the summer of 2010, two Justice Department lawyers, David Barron and Marty Lederman, wrote a secret memo which claimed that the President could kill people who met certain criteria, which criteria no one would have to disclose.
In March, 2010, Harold Koh, former dean of Yale Law School and a strong critic of the Bush regime’s policies on torture and extraordinary rendition, but a close friend of several Justice Department lawyers, defended targeted killing as “comply(ing) with all applicable laws, including the laws of war.” The irony is not lost on some. Rizzo, the CIA lawyer who approved of Bush’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ wrote in an article for the right-wing Hoover Institution: "Stalking and killing a big-name terrorist evidently is less legally risky, and is viewed in many quarters as far less morally objectionable, than capturing and aggressively interrogating one."
If you are beginning to get the idea that the Obama administration is using doubletalk and the crazy logic of secrecy to get away with crimes on a major scale, you are not alone.
Nasser al-Awlaki is 72 years old and a former Fulbright scholar. In learning of the murder of his teenaged grandson, he said, “I could not believe America could do this –– especially President Obama, who I liked very much.”
Ten months before his son Anwar was killed, Nasser al-Awlaki tried to prevent it. He took the President to court.
In the case of Anwar al-Awlaki v. Barack Obama, U.S. district judge John Bates ruled, in November, 2010, that the government did not have to disclose whether his son was on a death list, or even whether such a list existed. Obama’s lawyer argued that he did not have to disclose any of that, nor any memorandum which might or might not provide legal cover for targeted assassination.
In a decision for the ages, Judge Bates dismissed the case, ruling that Nasser al-Awlaki had no legal standing to file the action on behalf of his son until his son was actually killed.
I don’t know what “fingerprints” Barack Obama thinks he’s leaving, but I could tell him. He’s leaving big, bloody fingerprints everywhere in his delight with the power to kill.
Meanwhile, the U.S. media are having a great time directing our attention to a series of ridiculous “issues” in the presidential campaign. No one is talking about death lists, assassinations, secret memoranda. Obama is engaged in acts of war in at least eight countries I can name and probably three times that many I’m not aware of. Mitt Romney would not be any improvement, having the cold-blooded personality necessary for the task.
The feature article by Hastings in Rolling Stone is vitally important. It is more detailed than this column. As usual, I don’t know what can be done, but I do know that ignorance won’t help any. Get informed and pass it on, at least as long as it’s legal to do so.
Maybe only God knows how many people are on America’s death lists, how many people America’s President has ordered killed, how many have been blown to bits by the CIA with their little toys. But we’d better find out.