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Drone Panic III: Rolling Stone Edition

April 16, 2012
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They say a poor carpenter blames his tools, but apparently great reporting fixates on them. Nowhere has this more been the case than in the “drone campaign,” the latest phase of ongoing efforts by the CIA and the Defense Department to neutralize – that is, kill, capture, or otherwise incapacitate – members of al Qaeda and their affiliated movements (AQAM). Of course, I’m not going to deny that there are a myriad of legal issues surrounding the use of targeted killings abroad, particularly targeted killings against American citizens. But these are legal issues that have virtually nothing to do with the method of killing employed, and indeed, huge numbers of U.S. programs to track down and kill AQAM, insurgents operating in U.S. warzones, or other enemies of the United States are conducted by manned aircraft (witness the use of cruise missiles in Yemen or AC-130 gunships in Somalia) or by the previous favorite bugbear of national security reporters, JSOC (has Hastings moved on so quickly?). Questions like when it’s appropriate to kill a U.S. citizen, what protocol should be for lethally targeting individuals outside of declared war zones, and so on are legitimate legal questions. Unfortunately, far too much reportage gets hung up on evil, scary, marauding robots, as if that was at all relevant to the vast majority of legal issues being discussed (they’re not).

Gaze upon this latest offering from Michael Hastings. In an article nominally about “killer drones,” Hastings decides to also tackle issues of ISR drones, law enforcement drones, and the legality of targeted killings. However, whatever new or useful information there is is wrapped up in hyperbolic statements that undermine the context necessary to understand it.

Take this:

But the implications of drones go far beyond a single combat unit or civilian agency. On a broader scale, the remote-control nature of unmanned missions enables politicians to wage war while claiming we’re not at war – as the United States is currently doing in Pakistan. .

Where to begin here – firstly, in an article that acknowledges and appears to be cognizant of the nature and duties of an organization called the Central Intelligence Agency, Hastings has the gall to claim that drones created the capability for this organization to wage secret wars while maintaining public denials. Actually, this capability was created by something called “deception,” a tactic which covert arms of the military and U.S. intelligence establishment have been employing years – possibly even decades, according to my sources – before the deployment of drones. Secret CIA run air force? Try the one the U.S. sent up during the Congo Crisis, where the U.S. used B-26 bombers and ex-Belgian aircraft operated by Cuban exiles with British mechanics in support of Rhodesian and South African mercenaries in a conflict that the U.S. was nominally not involved in. It should suffice to say that the CIA has been able to “wage war while claiming we’re not at war” in Laos and other countries adjacent to Vietnam, or in Central America, as well as numerous other examples. Drones are merely a quantitative improvement because they allow for more frequent sorties than manned aircraft or naval vessels ordinarily permit. Indeed, many theaters of modern drone campaigns, such as Yemen and Somalia, had many missions conducted by naval vessels, aircraft, or their USAF counterparts before drone strikes increased in tempo.

I’m going to bust this quote out of the previous paragraph:

What’s more, the Pentagon and the CIA can now launch military strikes or order assassinations without putting a single boot on the ground – and without worrying about a public backlash over U.S. soldiers coming home in body bags.

There’s at least two things wrong with this sentence. Firstly, in terms of standoff fire missions, no, drones did not create these capabilities. The U.S. has had the ability to launch strikes on terrorists without putting uniformed personnel in harms way for years. In 1998, the U.S. launched cruise missiles or, wait, sorry – “kamikaze drones” – against al Qaeda targets from naval vessels operating in open waters. Furthermore, the notion that the U.S. was conducting the drone campaign in Pakistan with “no boots on the ground” is even more silly considering that until 2011 the U.S. was flying drones out of a Pakistani airbase.

More importantly, though, the notion that the CIA is conducting drone campaigns with no boots on the ground is just plain ludicrous. The CIA absolutely has people on the ground in Pakistan and it absolutely puts people on the ground in Yemen, Somalia, and other targeted killing theaters.

Jeremy Scahill has excellently documented this in his reporting on those countries. Take the background to the first U.S. drone strike in Yemen:

As construction began on Lemonier, the United States beefed up the presence of military “trainers” inside Yemen. Among the forces inserted alongside the trainers were members of a clandestine military intelligence unit within the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) known as The Activity. While officially in Yemen as trainers, they quickly set out to establish operational capacity to track Al Qaeda suspects in the country, hoping to find and fix their location so that US forces could finish them off. A year after Saleh’s meeting with Bush at the White House, the US “trainers” would set up their first “wet” operation. It wouldn’t be their last.

* * *

In 2002 US intelligence operatives discovered that the man they had fingered as one of the masterminds of the Cole attack, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was in the country. US officials had dubbed him “the godfather of terror in Yemen.” On November 3 the JSOC signals intelligence team in Yemen located Harithi in a compound in Marib province after he used a mobile phone number that US intelligence had traced to him months earlier. “Our special-ops had the compound under surveillance,” recalled Gen. Michael DeLong, at the time deputy commander of US Central Command (Centcom). They were “preparing to storm in when Ali exited with five of his associates. They got into SUVs and took off.”

The “drone campaign” in fact involves large numbers of U.S. military and intelligence personnel operating covertly on the ground. In Somalia, Scahill notes the U.S. has established CIA infrastructure inside of the country, and it is also clear that JSOC and CIA operatives have been on the ground to assist in the targeted killing and capture campaign there. As Joshua Foust noted in a piece taking a holistic look at U.S. covert capabilities:

In Yemen, there are estimates that the number of U.S. troops on the ground (working under JSOC) is in the 300 to 500 range. Some of them train Yemeni counter-terrorism forces and some of them go after terrorists. The CIA, for its part, built up a 3,000-man militia to target militants in northwest Pakistan.

However, for whatever reason Hastings fixates on drones, insisting that “the immediacy and secrecy of drones make it easier than ever for leaders to unleash America’s military might – and harder than ever to evaluate the consequences of such clandestine attacks.” As I’ve explained before, if we want to blame a piece of technology for dragging the U.S. into war, it’d have to be the ship, but what should really be the takeaway is that the “secrecy” and “immediacy” drones provide is a mere refinement of prior U.S. covert capabilities, and that drone programs cannot even function effectively independently of these other covert capabilities, which absolutely require CIA and JSOC boots on the ground to gather targeting data, confirm kills, and provide a host of other support capabilities.

Hastings then launches into an overview of not just the targeted killing drone program, but all drones, as he’s established at this point he wants to write about all U.S. drone programs by starting out with the ill-fated RQ-170 which crashed in Iran. Along the way, there are various casual errors or exaggerations, such as this one:

The military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is “bug splat,” since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.

That may be so, but “bug splat” has been a part of targeteering lingo at least since 2003, as this article on collateral damage avoidance protocols demonstrates, and in fact many aerial crewmembers in manned aircraft view their targets through similar viewscreens. Let’s not pretend that “video game war” is some kind of new phenomena, even if drones present a particularly extreme case.

After detailing the internal battles over drone strikes and the legal issues surrounding them, we get to this:

In the end, it appears, the administration has little reason to worry about any backlash from its decision to kill an American citizen – one who had not even been charged with a crime. A recent poll shows that most Democrats overwhelmingly support the drone program, and Congress passed a law in February that calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to “accelerate the integration of unmanned aerial systems” in the skies over America. Drones, which are already used to fight wildfires out West and keep an eye on the Mexican border, may soon be used to spy on U.S. citizens at home: Police in Miami and Houston have reportedly tested them for domestic use, and their counterparts in New York are also eager to deploy them. Given the NYPD’s record of civil rights abuses, it’s not hard to envision drones buzzing high above Zuccotti Park to provide surveillance on Occupy Wall Street, or being used to surreptitiously monitor the activities of Muslim-American students.

What on earth does domestic use of drones have to do with the targeted killing programs? Virtually nothing. Yes, they both use drones. Why does that matter? Imagine an article which exhaustively details the use of AC-130 gunships in Afghanistan and Somalia, and then starts talking about MAFFS. Or one which talks about the use of helicopter gunships and air cavalry in Vietnam and then starts fretting about the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s UH-1 fleet. Is the implication here that since the government uses drones to kill people overseas, I need to be soiling my pants in fear of what municipal police departments are going to do with drones?

The specific examples Hastings brings up are even more bizarre. It’s unclear why using a drone to conduct surveillance of a public park would be a civil rights abuse, or what kind of abuse drones will enable that police helicopters (frequently present over OWS) and the flesh-and-blood undercover officers and informants don’t already provide. In fact, so far drones have proven to be a much bigger threat to the liberties of right-wing “sovereigntists” living in North Dakota, and the manner in which they were used was largely consistent with prior uses of National Guard, military, or federal aviation assets in other cases involving potential sieges.

Ultimately, such commentary only serves to distort the debate and obscure important issues at stake. Additionally, the fixation on drones clouds our contemplation of the alternatives:

For Nasser al-Awlaki, who lost his teenage grandson to a predator drone, such denials are almost as shocking as the administration’s deliberate decision to wage a remote-control war that would inevitably result in the deaths of innocent civilians. “I could not believe America could do this – especially President Obama, who I liked very much,” he says. “When he was elected, I thought he would solve all the problems of the world.”

We can debate to what extent Obama should be held liable for his failure to “solve all the problems of the world” elsewhere, but what should be clear is that the Obama administration’s targeted killing campaign is actually far less bloody than the approaches it took to counterterrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other theaters of the War on Terror. After all, the alternative, but often simultaneous approach of launching U.S. invasions and wholesale counterinsurgency campaigns had its many drawbacks, and when forces were unavailable for that endeavor, the U.S. sponsors foreign imitations, like the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia or its likely assistance with the repeat performance by AMISOM, Kenya, and Ethiopia today.

Should we be capturing AQAM suspects? Perhaps, but that would likely mean a return to some form of rendition, detention, and capture programs, which would use a plethora of CIA, JSOC, and likely private proxies to snatch up suspects. Capturing, say, Anwar al-Awlaki, would mean more U.S. covert presence in Yemen, and could easily have resulted in his death, as many attempted apprehensions do in warzones and in peacetime. Or should the U.S. be working with local governments to capture AQAM suspects? The brutality of our foreign partners’ security services often make CIA and JSOC operatives look like saints. In any case, it should be clear the real legal, moral, and political problems here have far more to do with U.S. counter-terrorism policy generally, not drones in particular.

The most pressing legal issues at stake have to do with targeted killings and covert counter-terrorism operations generally, not drones in particular. Framing the issue as one of “killer robots” vs. civil liberties serves only to confuse the debate and needlessly incite panic about the deployment of similar technology in completely different contexts elsewhere, as well as to egregiously distort the history of U.S. covert operations and even the war on terror. Doubtless other commentators, such as Robert Caruso, can do a better job of dissecting the legal and institutional processes that Hastings discusses than I ever could, but in the mean time, obsessing over evil machines isn’t doing anyone any good. Be afraid of targeted killing campaigns, not the robots which carry them out – and recognize that covert warfare wasn’t something invented in a lab by Lockheed Martin or General Atomic and begun by President Obama.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2012 11:55 pm

    You make very good points. If I may make one comment about the “video game war” thing, its true that people have been firing cruise missiles from carriers and dropping bombs from 3000ft for a long time, but I think what people find evocative here is that all of those activities still involved “going away” to war as well as perhaps some (albeit nominal) degree of personal risk. Many of these drones are piloted from places in the U.S. such as Nevada, operators are presumably killing people in between picking up steaks for the weekend BBQ and hitting up the golf links on the weekend – they are never at a remove from society after they’re done for the day they could be like any other office worker on the commute home.

    If the next step was drones that could be operated from ones home, that’d still be fine from a utilitarian standpoint (limit friendly casualties, maybe save costs) but many people would find something feels wrong about taking lives of people on the other side of the world while eating Cheetos and yelling at the kids.

    Doesn’t really matter from the operators standpoint, they make total sense practically, but if you oppose the war anyway drones are a good rallying point, because to a lot of people something just feels inherently more f*d up about them.

  2. April 17, 2012 12:48 am

    Agreed, I read that before as well as that drone operators actually suffer elevated rates of PTSD. My argument was just about why people seem to find the concept of drone warfare more emotionally evocative (in a negative way) than other iterations, reality of course tends to be a bit more nuanced.

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