Murder by drone

There is a new book The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program by Jeremy Scahill and the investigative team at The Intercept and it has been very favorably reviewed by Scott Shackleford who says it describes a program that is far worse than president Obama and its supporters let on because the brutal facts are strongly suppressed. In order to reduce the risk of American casualties, the risks to civilians has been increased because, of course, the lives of foreigners, especially dirt poor ones in some distant land, are worth so much less than our own precious lives.

With the help of confidential documents leaked to The Intercept, the book is able to offer some hard numbers. In a yearlong operation in northeastern Afghanistan, the United States killed more than 200 people; only 35 were intended targets. The source who leaked the documents explained: “Anyone caught within the vicinity is guilty by association,” but “there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate…so it’s a phenomenal gamble.”

Adm. Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence, sums it up: “It is the politically advantageous thing to do—low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

The trade-offs that reduce the risks faced by American troops also contribute directly to the likelihood that innocent civilians will be killed in these strikes. The government has become extremely reliant on SIGINT, or “signals intelligence”—what the rest of us refer to as surveillance. Hunting targets is increasingly done not with eyes on the ground but by tracking their communications. A human being may technically be the target, but it’s the person’s phone that’s actually being tracked and that will tell the drone pilots where to launch the attack. They have a very limited view of what is actually happening where they’re striking, making it even more likely that civilians or other unrelated people will be injured or killed. One analyst determined that drone strikes were 10 times more likely to kill civilians than raids by manned aircraft.

A new documentary National Bird also looks at the drone killing program from the point of view of the pilots who carry out the killings and the people at the receiving end of it. Murtaza Hussain reviews the film, beginning with a scene in which drone pilots decide to bomb a convoy of vehicles going down a remote road.

The drone crew, satisfied that they have a legitimate target in their sights, make the necessary preparations to use force.

As the cars trundle down the road, they open fire.

“And….oh…there it goes!” one of the pilots exclaims. The first car in the convoy, struck by a missile, disappears into in a giant cloud of dust. Moments later, a second car explodes. People run out of the remaining vehicle, waving at the aircraft above to stop firing. They brandish pieces of cloth at the sky to try and indicate they are non-combatants. A woman can be seen holding a child.

“I don’t know about this,” one of the operators says. “This is weird.”

A total of 23 people were killed in the strike against the convoy, all civilians. An investigation by the military later found that drone pilots “ignored or downplayed” evidence that the convoy was a civilian one.

The film interviews people involved in the program who are fearful of speaking because of the Obama administration’s brutal record of punishing anyone who reveals that its actions are not noble and heroic.

The subjects in the film are cautious in their descriptions of their activities, citing a pervasive fear that they will be charged under the Espionage Act for their whistleblowing. And during the making of the film, a drone operator named Daniel, a former NSA operative at Fort Meade, has his house raided by the FBI and is informed that he is under investigation for speaking out about the program.

The Obama administration has been notorious for using that law to prosecute individuals speaking out about the covert warfare programs. Indeed, more individuals have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act by Obama than under all previous administrations combined. This crackdown makes the acts of whistleblowing documented in “National Bird” even more courageous.

Shackleford says that 77% of self-described liberal Democrats supported the drone program in 2012. Of course, those who supported this program because they felt that Obama was a good man who would not do evil things now face the prospect of this same system being in the hands of Donald Trump, a man who thinks toughness is being willing to use torture and murder even the families of people suspected of planning or carrying out attacks, which would be a war crime. Liberal Democrats must not be allowed to escape their culpability in the horror that they have allowed to be perpetrated.

Here’s the trailer.

I would also strongly recommend that people read Marcus Ranum’s powerful post on military honor and how the nature of modern warfare where we now laud as bravery acts that are really massacres, whereas in former times unequal combat was seen as something dishonorable. What does it do to a nation’s moral fiber when it sees honor and bravery in the killing of defenseless people?


  1. jrkrideau says

    It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

    The policy has already done a lot of damage to national interest.Lot of people in a lot of countries already believe that the USA is guilty of many war crimes. The entire Iraq war was a war crime.

    And Americans ask “Why do they hate us?”

    And we have the Madeleine Albright saying that sanctions killing half a million Iraqi children was worth it to depose Saddam! How stupid can one be to say that. Did she not realize that many thousands of Iraqis speak English, so something like that could not even be pasted off as Iraqi propaganda.

    And Americans ask “Why do they hate us?”

    The drone approach seems to have killed lots of people, and, possibly, even a few jihadists but it seems singularly ineffective for actually doing what it was supposed to do.

    It is bad enough to be killing innocent people but doing it during a failed strategy is totally stupid.

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