The Epic Human Journey: Part 4, Autumn

Enter the Drones

There will be blowback.
AP PHOTO / PETE SOUZA

When armed, killer drones were first put on the table in the back rooms of the CIA, George Tenet, then director of central intelligence, was “appalled.” He said that no CIA personnel had the authority to use drones to assassinate people, even terrorists. This was “new ground,” he warned, asking, “are America's leaders comfortable with the CIA doing this, going outside of normal military command and control?” 

But at a meeting of the Cabinet-Level Participants Committee on September 4th, 2001, Cofer Black (head of the counter-terrorism unit) and others kept pushing for weaponized drones. Condoleezza Rice put forward a new National Security Presidential Directive with a substantial covert action program. Tenet alone continued to express concern. “If the Cabinet wanted to empower the CIA to field a lethal drone,” he said, “they should do so with their eyes wide open, fully aware of the potential fallout if there were a controversial or mistaken strike.” Lo and behold, Rice’s draft was approved with little contention and put forward to the President to sign. She told Bush that before implementing the new program, it would take about three years to work out technical issues with the weaponry and to address the evident legal issues surrounding covert activities and the use of lethal force. But seven days later, the World Trade Center towers collapsed and, as Jeremy Scahill writes in Dirty Wars, “so too did the system of oversight and review of lethal covert ops that had been carefully constructed over the course of the previous decade.”

The Clinton Administration, haunted by the Iran-Contra scandal, placed strict oversight mechanisms around the approval process for lethal covert actions—which, under Clinton, were rarely approved. In the early days of George W. Bush, his administration intended to keep many of Clinton’s checks and balances in place. Military drone use was limited to surveillance. September 11th (conveniently) changed everything.

Enter the drones. 

In 2001, under Bush, the military had 167 drones. Today, under Obama, it has over 7,000. Under Obama, unmanned drones have been approved and legitimized for “targeted killing” in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. But the guy making the life-or-death decision to press a button and kill is sitting inside a control room in the Nevada desert. His screen shows tiny, pixellated figures. He struggles to tell the difference between a child and a dog, and so he’s likely to hit off-target (cue leaked footage provided by Manning)… at least once in a while.  

Between 3,000 to 5,000 people have died this way in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, with hundreds more dead in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Other than a handful of confirmed “targets,” we don’t know much about who is being killed. Estimates of civilian deaths range from single digits per year to over a thousand, while some ex-military officers estimate that over 90% of those killed by drone strikes are innocents. In either case, extra-judicial killing is illegal. Despite this, Obama continues to declare that, unlike bombs or chemical weapons, drones are—collateral damage aside—precise, target-driven, controlled and swift. Any adult-male killed by a drone strike is, by his official definition, a militant, a terrorist, an enemy of the state. Each drone kill is a shiny new plate in the armour of post-9/11 America. Assassinations are now renamed, “high value targeting.” Everyone’s swallowing it. We are entering a dangerous new era of moral depravity.

America, Obama is not only your president, he’s the Chief Commander of a covert, high-tech, high-stakes killing machine – one that’s equipped with sniper drones, unaccountable assassination squads who carry out unreported night raids, and a Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) unit that produces ever-expanding kill-lists. As a constitutional law expert by trade, Obama is the perfect person to carry out secret manipulations of the law (called out by Senator Ron Wyden), which then facilitate the US military’s transgression of the Patriot Act and international law, not to mention morals… 

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This universal and timeless ethical law is the glue of every civilization. Should this glue melt, the civilization will come to perish on its own sword. If the Obama administration paused to consider this tried and true moral maxim, they would realize that their drone campaign will inevitably unleash never-ending bloodshed, whether in defence or retaliation. Clinton’s counter-terrorism team refrained from pushing for such a program out of fear, knowing it would create US hit lists. 

Yemeni writer, Farea al-Muslimi, recently said, “what radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now intense anger and growing hatred of America.” Every drone kill is, in truth, a chink in the armour…

At the voracious rate that these drone strikes are going, in just a few years from now, the nightmare scenario of the Clinton era could come true. Drones attack the Pentagon and the White House. They try to take out Obama’s motorcade on Penn Ave. Then a group of insurgents in the Middle East come forward saying, “if you can do it, so can we.” 

There will be blood blowback.

Is this the future we want to sow?

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