Barack Obama drones on into the Heart of Darkness

June 10, 2012 | By | 2 Replies More

A recent article in the New York Times confirms Barack Obama’s personal involvement in the use of drones to assassinate persons in Pakistan and elsewhere:

Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.

I realize that Barack Obama’s unrelenting series of drone assassinations is an intensely inconvenient topic for many of the people who voted for him. I understand this reluctance to consider this topic because I too voted for Barack Obama.  Back in 2008, I heard Obama repeatedly promise that he would quickly end American involvement in Afghanistan. This was a big issue for me, given that America has been (and continues) blowing $2 Billion per week on that “mission.” It’s actually worse than that, because we’re not only wasting money; rather, we are hurting and killing many innocent people.  Equally important, our sterile drone war is stirring up intense hatred toward the United States.

Since 2004, between 2,464 and 3,145 people are reported to have been killed by US drone attacks in Pakistan, of whom up to 828 were civilians (535 under Obama) and 175 children. Some Pakistani estimates put the civilian death toll much higher – plausibly, given the tendency to claim as “militants” victims later demonstrated to be nothing of the sort.

By the way, why are we still in Afghanistan at all?  My own suspicion is that too many of us confuse mere movement to be progress.  As long as we are firing weapons, especially sophisticated weapons, it looks like we are accomplishing something important, even though what is really happening is that we are reveling in the glow of our display of technology.

As moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt observes, though, morality binds and blinds.  It is extremely difficult for many of us to see any faults with our own tribe. Many of those who rallied together to vote for Barack Obama are incapable of seeing that he has decided to make political expediency a virtue, even where his decisions are killing innocent human beings and doing substantial damage to the long-term purported goal of the United States: peace.  Morality doesn’t blind us to everything around us, of course.  It doesn’t blind us to the faults of other tribes.   If George W. Bush were doing what Obama is now doing, the progressive community would be vocally outraged.  There would be no end to the criticism.  Today, however, the political left is silent, while the political right is applauding Obama’s drone war.  For example, Glenn Greenwald mentions

[a] former Bush speechwriter who wrote an entire falsehood-filled book advocating torture: The Washington Post‘s Marc Thiessen. He celebrated what he accurately called “the Obama-Bush doctrine” and wrote: “the two men’s counterterrorism policies are virtually indistinguishable — except in the liberal reaction to them”

At The National Review, Charles Krauthammer is not impressed with the silence of the political left:

This is not to argue against drone attacks. In principle, they are fully justified. No quarter need be given to terrorists who wear civilian clothes, hide among civilians, and target civilians indiscriminately. But it is to question the moral amnesia of those whose delicate sensibilities were offended by the Bush methods that kept America safe for a decade — and who now embrace Obama’s campaign of assassination by remote control.

What kind of widespread criticism would we be hearing if George W. Bush running the drone wars?  Ubiquitous criticisms of the type you’ll find in this article by Bill Quigley:

The US has used drones to kill thousands of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.   But the government routinely refuses to provide any official information on local reports of civilian deaths or the identities of most of those killed.

In Pakistan alone, the New America Foundation reports US forces have launched 297 drone strikes killing at least 1800 people, three to four hundred of whom were not even combatants.   Other investigative journalists report four to eight hundred civilians killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan.  Very few of these drone strikes kill high level leaders of terror groups.  A recent article in FOREIGN AFFAIRS estimated “only one out of every seven drone attacks in Pakistan kills a militant leader.

Quigley has a lot more to say about Obama’s drone onslaught, claiming they are, in fact, illegal, for five reasons:

  • Assassination by the US government has been illegal since 1976
  • United Nations report directly questions the legality of US drone killings
  • International law experts condemn US drone killings
  • Military law of war does not authorize widespread drone killing of civilians
  • Retired high-ranking military and CIA veterans challenge the legality and efficacy of drone killings

In an Op-Ed this week, the editors of The Nation also note the illegality of the program:

The image of President Obama poring over baseball-card profiles of terror suspects in Jo Becker and Scott Shane’s now famousNew York Times “kill list” exposé probably pleased the administration officials whose cooperation made the story possible, wrapping the president in glinting “warrior in chief” election year packaging. For those concerned about the constitutional protection of civil liberties and the rule of law, however, that image, and the extraordinary practices it represents, was profoundly disturbing. The drone policy the president has developed not only infringes on the sovereignty of other nations, but the assassinations violate laws put in place in the 1970s after scandals enveloped an earlier era of CIA criminality. The new details about Obama’s assassination program also remind us how the 2001 Congressional Authorization of the Use of Military Force established a disastrous policy of “borderless and open-ended war that threatens to indefinitely extend US military engagement around the world,” in the words of the only member of the House to vote against it, Barbara Lee.

Ralph Nader asks why we aren’t hearing an outcry by America’s lawyers, whose duty it is to be the first responders when a politician shreds the Constitution.

The drones have killed civilians, families with small children, and even allied soldiers in this undeclared war based on secret “facts” and local grudges (getting even). These attacks are justified by secret legal memos claiming that the president, without any Congressional authorization, can without any limitations other than his say-so, target far and wide assassinations of any “suspected terrorist,” including American citizens.

The bombings by Mr. Obama, as secret prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner, trample proper constitutional authority, separation of powers, and checks and balances and constitute repeated impeachable offenses. That is, if a pathetic Congress ever decided to uphold its constitutional responsibility, including and beyond Article I, section 8’s war-declaring powers. …

We know very little about the people Obama, our new Decider, is killing (I am writing in the first-person plural, because in theory you and I are running the government of the United States).  Kevin Gosztola of FDL explains:

Senior officials in both Pakistan and the US have a policy of not talking to media about strikes. Journalists and news media organizations, however, regularly contact officials. So, in Pakistan (and other countries like Yemen), “senior officials” give people the bare minimum amount of information necessary to report a story. That essentially means the press and public gets a kind of police blotter report. It is what those engaged in the “war on terrorism” claim happened. The report (not surprisingly) covers up any deficiency in the decision-making that went in to choosing to launch the attack in the first place. It does not typically report when an attack didn’t transpire as planned.

Despite all this evidence to the contrary,

the dead are reported “militants” or “suspected militants” and they are still reported as such, even though in the aftermath of a major New York Times feature story the world now knows that “all military-age males in a strike zone” are considered “combatants” unless “there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” This means who the US is killing exactly is contested and hard to verify.

A couple weeks ago, I was contacted by a person (who wishes to remain unnamed at this time) who, in the recent past, operated some of America’s drones.  He wanted to set the record straight for me by offering some background information.  He told me that the drone operators are, in many cases, pilots who have been reassigned from operating aircraft to fly the drones, which they do from consoles many thousands of miles away.  He advised that the strategic and moral issues for those who operate drones are much the same as the  issues faced pilots who fly traditional aircraft, in that they both fire weapons from a distance.  He indicated that drone weapons are not fired until specialized analysts review the information provided by the operators and then provide the go-ahead.   I then asked him what kind of information he gets from the ground, after the weapon explodes.  He indicated that there is not much, if any, feedback from the ground.

The ACLU has this to say about America’s “targeted killings”:

The American Civil Liberties Union states in its website, “A program of targeted killing far from any battlefield, without charge or trial, violates the constitutional guarantee of due process. It also violates international law, under which lethal force may be used outside armed conflict zones only as a last resort to prevent imminent threats, when non-lethal means are not available. Targeting people who are suspected of terrorism for execution, far from any war zone, turns the whole world into a battlefield.”

Image by ARG, with permission

The situation is far worse than an errant attempt to target terrorists.  The United States is targeting others who are likely to be innocent, as Glenn Greenwald explains:

I ask this sincerely: what kind of country targets rescuers, funeral attendees, and people gathered to mourn? If a Hollywood film featured a villainous King ordering lethal attacks on rescuers, funerals and mourners — those medically attending to or grieving his initial victims — any decent audience member would, by design, seethe with contempt for such an inhumane tyrant. But this is the standard policy and practice under President Obama and it continues through today. Recall the outrage that was sparked when WikiLeaks released its Collateral Murder video showing a U.S. Apache helicopter during the Bush era firing on unarmed rescuers, who had arrived to retrieve the initial victims who had been shot and were laying wounded on the ground. That tactic continues under President Obama, although it is now expanded to include the targeting of grieving rituals.

This would present a conundrum to those people with functioning consciences, except for a quick and dirty “solution”:  Just make sure that we define all of those killed by U.S. weapons as “insurgents.” Glenn Greenwald discussed this topic with Amy Goodman:

Well we, of course don’t imply that the President of the United States believes that he has the power to order people to killed — assassinated — in total secrecy, without any due process, without transparency or oversight of any kind. I really do believe it’s literally the most radical power that a government and a President can seize, and yet the Obama administration has seized this power and exercised it aggressively with very little controversy. What the New York Times article does is it adds some important, though very disturbing details. Probably the most disturbing of which is that one of the reasons why the Obama administration runs around claiming that the casualties of civilians are so low from their drone attacks, which everyone knows is false, is because they have redefined what a militant is. A militant in the eyes of the Obama administration formally means any male of fighting age, presumably 18 to 40, who is in a strike zone of a missile. So, if the U.S. shoots a missile or detonates a bomb by drone or aircraft and kills eight or a dozen or two dozen people without even knowing whom they have killed or anything about them, they will immediately label any male of a certain age a militant by virtue of their proximity to that scene.

It’s bad enough that the United States spews out this propaganda.  The situation is made much worse by the fact that the U.S. media, serving as the official stenographer for the U.S. military, laps it all up, repeating that drone strikes, almost by definition, kill “insurgents.”  The media’s overall failure to be self-critical, to basically do their jobs, has stifled national debate.  This is another of Glenn Greenwald’s many thoughtful observations:

How is it possible to have any informed democratic debate over a policy about which the U.S. media relentlessly propagandizes this way? If drone strikes kill nobody other than “militants,” then very few people will even think about opposing them (and that’s independent of the fact that the word “militant” is a wildly ambiguous term — militant about what? — though it is clearly designed (when combined with “Pakistan”) to evoke images of those who attacked the World Trade Center). Debate-suppression is not just the effect but the intent of this propaganda: like all propaganda, it is designed to deceive the citizenry in order to compel acquiescence to government conduct.

Recently, based on investigative journalism conducted by the New York Times, we learned how the President is picking his targets. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now discussed this topic on a recent show.  Here is the introduction to the topic on the Democracy Now website:

The New York Times revealed this week that President Obama personally oversees a “secret kill list” containing the names and photos of individuals targeted for assassination in the U.S. drone war. According to the Times, Obama signs off on every targeted killing in Yemen and Somalia and the more complex or risky strikes in Pakistan. Individuals on the list include U.S. citizens, as well as teenage girls as young as 17 years old. “The president of the United States believes that he has the power to order people killed, assassinated, in total secrecy, without any due process, without transparency or oversight of any kind,” says Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for Salon.com. “I really do believe it’s literally the most radical power that a government and a president can seize, and yet the Obama administration has seized this power and exercised it aggressively with very little controversy.”

On this same show, Greenwald commented:

Well, we’ve, of course, known for a long time that the president of the United States believes that he has the power to order people killed, assassinated, in total secrecy, without any due process, without transparency or oversight of any kind. I really do believe it’s literally the most radical power that a government and a president can seize, and yet the Obama administration has seized this power and exercised it aggressively with very little controversy.

What the New York Times article does is it adds some important, though very disturbing, details, probably the most disturbing of which is that one of the reasons why the Obama administration runs around claiming that the casualties of civilians are so low from their drone attacks, which everybody knows is false, is because they’ve redefined what a militant is. And a militant, in the eyes of the Obama administration, formally means any male of fighting age, presumably 18 to 40, who is in a strike zone of a missile . . . .

And it’s amazing that American media outlets continue to use the word “militant” to describe people who are killed by American drones without knowing their identity, even though we now know that the Obama administration uses that word in an incredibly deceitful and propagandistic way. And the fact that Obama himself is sitting at the top of this pyramid, making decisions about life and death, issuing death sentences without a shred of oversight or transparency, really ought to be provoking widespread outrage. And yet, with the exception of a few circles and factions, it really isn’t. . . .

[O]ne of the things that the New York Times article did was shed light on President Obama’s character. You know, we can talk a lot about his policies, and that usually is what’s most important, and we’ve known that he’s has been embracing these radical theories of executive power that even George Bush’s former former CIA and NSA chief, General Michael Hayden, has lavishly praised and other Bush officials are over the moon about in terms of President Obama endorsing them. So we know his policies have been extremist and radical. But here you have one of the most controversial things, as I said earlier, that a president can do: ordering an American citizen assassinated by the CIA in total secrecy with no due process, never been charged with any crime, even though they could have charged him if they really had evidence, as they claim, that he was guilty of plotting terrorist attacks, and instead of charging him, they simply secretly ordered his assassination.

And it turns out that there was no struggling in terms of the difficult constitutional and ethical and legal issues this obviously presents. According to the president’s own aides, they’re boasting to the New York Times that he’s declared that this was a, quote, “easy” decision, not anything that he struggled with, something that he made quite easily.

The drone war is pure expedience for Barack Obama, for these reasons stated by Ralph Nader:

Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence, calls the strike campaign “dangerously seductive.” He said that Obama’s obsession with targeted killings is “the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no US 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.” Blair, a retired admiral, has often noted that intense focus on strikes sidelines any long-term strategy against al-Qaeda which spreads wider with each drone that vaporizes civilians.

– Former CIA director Michael Hayden decries the secrecy: “This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president and that’s not sustainable,” he told the Times. “Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. [Department of Justice] safe.”

The done war is expedient, even though there is good reason to think that the drone war is stirring up hatred of the United Stated and endangering the United States.  What happens when the public gets information on how the President is conducting his drone wars?  It all depends on who is doing the leaking.  When those outside of the Administration are doing the leaking, the Obama Administration is outraged, and it has been conducting an all-out war on those who feel it is important for the public to be informed, including investigative journalists.   On the other hand, it appears that some of the leaking about the drone program has been emanating from the White House itself, in an effort to bolster its image in the “War on Terror,” as reported by the U.K. Guardian. This hypocrisy was not lost on Senator John McCain:

“The fact that this administration would aggressively pursue leaks perpetrated by a 22-year old army private in the Wikileaks matter and former CIA employees in other leaks cases, but apparently sanction leaks made by senior administration officials for political purposes, is simply unacceptable,” he said this week.

Glenn Greenwald also notices the hypocrisy:

[T]wo glaring contradictions that drive the Obama administration’s manipulative game-playing with its secrecy powers: (1) at the very same time that they wage an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, they themselves continuously leak national security secrets exclusively designed to glorify Obama purely for political gain; and (2) at the very same time they insist to federal courts that these programs are too secret even to confirm or deny their existence (thereby shielding them from judicial review or basic disclosure), they run around publicly boasting about their actions.

As long as Americans think that the drones are magnetically attracted such that they only hit the “bad guys,” and as long as the American news media trusts the military accounts and fails to investigate what types of people are actually being killed by American drones, all is well for President Obama, as reported by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

A Washington Post poll this February found that 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy. (It’s hard to think of anything that 83 percent of Americans agree on these days.) In addition, a whopping 77 percent of liberal Democrats support the use of drones — and 65 percent are fine with missile strikes against U.S. citizens, as was the case with the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar Awlaki, killed last September by a drone.

I often wonder what the members of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee are thinking when they read about Barack Obama’s strategy and tactics regarding foreign policy.  I suspect they placed their vote based only on hope and they are now feeling betrayed.  That’s how all of those who voted for Barack Obama should feel.

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Category: Good and Evil, Politics, War, Warmongering

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    “President Obama is still vastly more popular internationally than his predecessor, George W. Bush, but after three and a half years of his presidency world opinion of US policy has fallen sharply, according to the 2012 Pew Global Attitudes survey released on Wednesday.  In particular, Obama’s drone program in foreign nations — including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia — has fueled mistrust and anger among Muslim nations and even among countries more closely allied with the US.”

    http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/06/13-3

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I keep thinking of my conversation with the man who flies drones. There’s no on-the-ground check to see whether the target was really a military target. It’s as if the drone analysts are self-grading their exams.

    “How did we do on today’s drone strike?”

    “Great! We hit the target.”

    End of conversation. No feedback of what the target really was. If the weapon killed a group of innocent people, it almost never makes the American news media. Thus, this “successful” system goes on and on, never being meaningfully evaluated. And then once or twice a year, the military announces that we’ve “killed the number 2 ranking Al Queda leader.”

    All of this is in addition to these wars/assassinations being grotesquely unconstitutional.

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