US drones kill ex-Brits, and the UK learns a valuable lesson from the US drone precedent

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed that the UK government has revoked citizenship for 16 individuals, two of whom have then been killed by US drone strikes. Effectively, the UK is washing its hands of these ex-Brits and allowing the US to do its dirty work. As the Bureau reports, the move “allows those stripped of their citizenship to be killed or ‘rendered’ without any onus on the British government to intervene.”

Perhaps the UK is learning from the precedent set by the US, whose killing of its own citizens has provoked a degree of righteous indignation among its population. To be sure, this indignation is incredibly selective, as detailed in my post here: the care for extrajudicial killings of individuals without due process by the US government is extended only to (brown) people with American citizenship. A Hill survey indicated an 11% discrepancy (which again, was discussed here) between people who thought the US gov’t could kill foreign nationals it considered a threat, and people who thought the US gov’t could kill American citizens. That means that of the Americans who think their government has any right to kill people even beyond the borders of the US’s current armed conflicts – meaning in violation of international law – about a fifth of them are okay with dead brown people but not dead American brown people.

The killings of Anwar Al-Aulaqi, his son Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, and Samir Khan have made it onto mainstream news, and even into the confirmation hearing for CIA director nominee John Brennan (the senior Al-Aulaqi was quickly condemned and convicted without any evidence by Brennan and Sen. Dianne Feinstein). Brennan has been grilled over the issue of whether or not the US gov’t can arbitrarily kill US citizens without due process, but as far as I am aware only Rand Paul has ventured to ask why they can kill anyone without due process (albeit, with the caveat that they are on US soil at the time of their targeting). By revoking the citizenship of future drone targets (an act that is undoubtedly coordinated with the US), the UK government has effectively circumvented the entire discussion of “can the British government kill British citizens without trial,” leaving it up to a population who is already acclimated to the state-led murder and terrorizing of Muslims to challenge this program. Furthermore, by getting the US to do the actual killing, the British government can completely wash its hands of the whole mess as they are no longer responsible for the livelihoods for non-Britts. With a growing army of drones in the US military and CIA, maybe this is the new role the US can take on in the coming future: third party drone assassin that takes all the heat for killing people from other countries. 


Drone Surveillance and the American Sci-Fi Romance [Part 2 of 2]

See part one of this two part post here, in which I analyze and examine the recent phenomenon of public opposition to domestic drone surveillance.

While drone enthusiast and industry lobbyist Toscano has maintained that it is a pervasive and misguided fear of “revolutionary change” – as exemplified by drones – that is motivating this widespread opposition to its domestic use, Crump and Stanley offer the much more likely explanation that

there’s something uniquely ominous about a robotic “eye in the sky.” Many privacy invasions are abstract and invisible—data mining, for example, or the profiling of Internet users by online advertisers. Drones, on the other hand, are concrete and real, and the threat requires no explanation.

But as Charlottesville councilman Dave Norris suggests, the threat of drone surveillance is one that has a long-running Big Brother-esque narrative, a leitmotif of sci-fi/dystopian art that spans many decades and countless mediums. And arguably, it is the existence of this social narrative, resurfacing time and time again in our popular culture, that evokes such a strong emotional response to the domestic use of drones. Drones armed with facial recognition technology and the capacity to “see through walls,” seem a more appropriate fit for the Terminator series than they do our immediate reality.

Crump and Stanley also readily acknowledge that drones are merely the “the most visible example of a host of new surveillance technologies that have the potential to fundamentally alter the balance of power between individuals and the state,” implicitly recognizing that the fear of this new found threat is not exactly predicated on a reasonable response to privacy invasion by the state. The fact that whatever technology employed in this increasingly asymmetrical relationship between the state and its citizens is auxiliary to state policies means the focus of vigilant citizens should be on the state, first and foremost. The opening of this discourse about domestic drone surveillance – if properly nurtured by the channels of public debate – could pave the way for a broader discussion about the far more egregious activities of the NSA and NYPD-Wall Street duo.

Another state policy that urgently needs to be reviewed and challenged in the public forum is that of US drone strikes in locations beyond the borders of the US – an issue of even greater importance with regards to our supposed concern for human life and liberty. The “nightmare scenario” that the ACLU warns of is one that already exists in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as in Yemen and Somalia. The problem is that these victims of US drone surveillance and strikes, lacking any leverage over the US government, have no voice to speak for their unjustifiable suffering and humiliation. In the days following a Times report on how drone pilots suffer from stress disorders at the same rate as combat pilots do, Glenn Greenwald observed

Returning to the discussion of existing and enduring social narratives, it becomes obvious that what is needed is not simply a nurturing of this debate on US drone strikes, but an antidote to the standard narrative that seeks to justify all military actions on the legally-flimsy basis of the Global War on Terror. The world seen through this lens seems threatening and dangerous for reasons beyond our control, a fantasy that is a far cry from the truth. And the inculcation of this perspective has worked its magic, as thanks to the constant fear mongering and misinformation provided by the state and its obsequious media, Americans consider security from terrorists to be their paramount foreign policy concern.

Consider as a thought experiment, if instead of bringing bombs, bullets, and bases to underdeveloped foreign nations, Americans brought food and aid; and the intention and know-how to develop foreign economies without the desire to exploit their markets and eviscerate their domestic industries. Consider if instead of prioritizing a global war on terror, the US mounted a campaign of global aid and development that didn’t seek to sustain a patriarchal and dominating relationship between the donor and the beneficiary. Consider if we cast aside the sociopathic fetters of the imperial mindset and resolved instead to make the world a more equitable and just place. If developing and maintaining the world’s most powerful and extensive military hasn’t provided enough disincentives for potential terrorists, why must we persist in this delusion?

Drone Surveillance and the American Sci-Fi Romance [Part 1 of 2]

This is part one of a two-part post on domestic drone surveillance and its relevance to US drone strikes abroad.

Since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) first estimated that US airspace would be home to 30,000 drones by the end of the decade, American opposition to the use of drones for domestic surveillance has blossomed at an astonishing rate within the public sphere. To date, this ongoing debate has materialized into legislative activity in 21 states restricting the use of drones, generally by calling for the provision of a probable cause warrant prior to its deployment. Catherine Crump and Jay Stanley have gone so far as to suggest the emergence of a “genuine national movement against the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement,” noting that opposition to drones within US airspace is even a point of bipartisan consensus.

An article from the Times dated a week ago observes

Although surveillance technologies have become ubiquitous in American life. . . drones have evoked unusual discomfort in the public consciousness.

“To me, it’s Big Brother in the sky,” said Dave Norris, a city councilman in Charlottesville, Va., which this month became the first city in the country to restrict the use of drones. “I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial about it, but these drones are coming, and we need to put some safeguards in place so they are not abused.”

An obvious indication of how strong this public sentiment towards domestic drone use is comes from the drone industry itself – who, as of last May, commissioned one of its lobby groups to launch a counter-campaign to challenge this Big Brother narrative. This task fell upon the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), whose president Michael Toscano remarked at the time

We have so many more technologies that are eroding our ideas of privacy. If you have a cellphone and it’s on, somebody can follow you. If you send an email, somebody can read that email. The threat of unmanned vehicles is no different than that of helicopters…

Toscano’s point is clear, although somewhat disingenuous. While the privacy of American citizens continues to suffer an unprecedented onslaught of post-9/11 violations, adding drones to this growing matrix of state surveillance is not at all justifiable on the basis of ‘it’s already happening’.

To be sure, surveillance of American citizens is certainly not something new. Obama recently reauthorized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – which allows for the warrant-less wiretapping of phone calls and monitoring of emails by the NSA – for another five years. Even the most modest amendments to the act, allowing for some degree of transparency and accountability, were shot down in the Senate. And in this shocking expose of the NSA’s surveillance program “Stellar Wind,” 32-year veteran of the NSA turned-whistle-blower William Binney describes how the agency is building a map of all of an individual’s attributes by collecting every available piece of electronic data – including bank statements, travel and social media records. Binney opines that the $2B facility the NSA has been building in Bluffdale, Utah has the capacity to hold “100 years worth of the world’s electronic communications,” and this is surveillance that is far more invasive than what a drone could provide at this point. And while the ACLU rightly remarks that drones equipped with technology like the ARGUS pod – a camera with 900x the megapixels of your average smartphone camera – have the capacity to track the location of individuals, this is nothing that the state can’t do with existing technologies (and funding from Wall Street, as Pam Martens details in this report on the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative).

So why all this fuss about drones?

Lindsey Graham: We’ve killed 4,700 people with drones


Earlier this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stated in a speech that the US government has killed 4,700 people with drones:

“We’ve killed 4,700. Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.”

The count of 4,700 is strikingly close to the tally offered by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as noted by Micah Zenko. Zenko writes

It is notable that Graham’s estimate nearly matches the TBIJ’s highest estimated range for “total reported killed” in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia: 4,756. Either Graham is a big fan of TBIJ’s work, or perhaps he inadvertently revealed the U.S. government’s body count for nonbattlefield targeted killings.

Perhaps more alarming is Graham’s brazen disrespect for either the laws of war as provided by International Humanitarian Law or the Constitution of the United States. Speaking about Anwar Al-Aulaqi:

“He’s a guy that was born in the United States, he radicalized Major Hasan, the guy at Fort Hood,” Graham said. “He helped plan the underwear bomber attack that failed. He’s been actively involved in recruiting and prosecuting the war for Al-Qaeda He was found in Yemen and we blew him up with a drone. Good.

I didn’t want him to have a trial…We’re not fighting a crime, we’re fighting a war. I support the president’s ability to make a determination as to who an enemy combatant is. It’s never been done by judges before. I support the drone program.”

My question is, does Graham feel equally comfortable justifying the killing of Anwar Al-Aulaqi’s son, 16-year old Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi? Is it “good” that the US brutally murdered a 16-year old boy in cold blood? Forget the fact that these are American citizens for a moment – is it ever okay to kill people in this manner with no due process?

I’ve gone through the argument that the US can extend its “armed conflict with Al-Qaeda” beyond the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan here. In that same post, I discussed how the US  policy of pre-emptive attacks does not concord with what is defined as an “imminent threat” in the context of international law. In short, the US cannot arbitrarily expand the borders of its armed conflict with Al-Qaeda to wherever it sees fit, and it cannot arbitrarily include groups or individuals who do not take part in that common command structure that defines Al-Qaeda.

Situating the discussion within this framework – and not the one that Graham so blindly buys into simply because his government tells him it is right – it is clear that the targeted assassination of Anwar Al-Aulaqi – and that of his 16-year old son – violated his right to due process under the Fifth Amendment. The recent lawsuit (Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta) filed (again) by the ACLU and CCR adds the violation of

the prohibition on unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment, and, with respect to Anwar Al-Aulaqi, the ban on extrajudicial death warrants imposed by the Constitution’s Bill of Attainder Clause.

A US Senator feels the extrajudicial killing of individuals is legally and morally justifiable? Bad. Very Bad.

The Pentagon gets help from ESPN, and the Fallacy of Technological Prowess


This past December, I came across an interesting piece on the Russia Today website, detailing how the Pentagon had turned to ESPN for help in dealing with the overwhelming amounts of video footage collected by surveillance drones:

In 2011, unmanned aerial vehicles collected 327,384 hours of video from surveillance cam-equipped UAVs, and understandably that’s a lot to look at, even when you’re sitting on the most expensive and advanced arsenal of equipment in the world. Now USA Today reports that, in order to help simplify the ever-expanding trove of intelligence collected from drones, the Air Force has asked the ESPN sports network for assistance.

According to an article from the paper’s Jim Michaels, the Air Force has reached out to ESPN recently in hopes that the sports station’s video analysts will have some ideas about how to process hours upon hours of sensitive footage captured by drones.

Back in 2010, Nick Turse explained how developing technology in drone “pods” would allow thirty drone operators to track 30 separate video feeds at the same time. “In other words, via video feeds from a single Reaper drone, operators could theoretically track 30 different people heading in 30 directions from a single Afghan compound.” The generation of pods after that would deliver up to 65 simultaneous feeds from a single drone, which in Air Force documents is described as a more than 6000% “increase in effectiveness” over the Predator’s existing video system. According to Turse, the Air Force was already overwhelmed by the incoming amounts of drone video footage then, and Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula presciently cautioned against the risk of “drowning in data” with the implementation of this new technology.

Deptula was also interviewed for the USA Today report described on RT, and again cautioned against “[drowning] in the data”. He observed that the efficacy of drone strikes was largely predicated on intelligence gathered from these video feeds, remarking that “You can’t catch bad guys unless you know where they are and what they’re doing.” As the report states, drone video footage has gone from 4,806 hours in 2001 to well over a quarter-million hours of footage in just a decade. Evidently, the Air Force has not kept apace of this development and as such, has launched an “aggressive effort to seek out technology or techniques that will help them process video without adding more people to stare at monitors [emphasis own].”

But if humans aren’t the ones analyzing the footage and deciding (accurately or not) whether or not someone is a terrorist (who poses a “grave” threat to America), are we simply to trust the jobs of judge, jury, and executioner to a mere line of software? The US has already evinced a significantly-lacking capacity to analyze this data with all of the people they have on board, resulting in the wrongful deaths of hundreds of civilians. Now it seems that an already flawed process – with a perpetually yawning abyss between the number of persons analyzing the video footage and the hours of video footage collected – is going to be the potential testing grounds for new software designed to kill people.

The Historical Precedents for “drowning in data”

In analyzing the present and prospective state of drone warfare, it is well worth considering the historical precedents of this surveillance infrastructure to see what might be gleaned from past failures and successes. As Alfred W. McCoy noted in his essay Beyond Bayonets and Battleships: Space Warfare and the Future of U.S. Global Power

Over the span of a century, plunged into three Asian crucibles of counterinsurgency — in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Afghanistan — the U.S. military has repeatedly been pushed to the breaking point.  It has repeatedly responded by fusing the nation’s most advanced technologies into new information infrastructures of unprecedented power.

McCoy goes onto describe how the first two “information revolutions” – originating in the wars in the Philippines and Vietnam, respectively – would turn out to be abysmal failures. The first of these information revolutions culminated in the establishment of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, the nation’s first global espionage agency:

Among [the OSS’s] nine branches, Research & Analysis recruited a staff of nearly 2,000 academics who amassed 300,000 photographs, a million maps, and three million file cards, which they deployed in an information system via “indexing, cross-indexing, and counter-indexing” to answer countless tactical questions.

This deluge of information would ultimately prove unsustainable. McCoy quotes fellow historian Robert Winks who describes the OSS as “drowning under the flow of information” [Deptula’s repeated use of the “drowning” metaphor comes across with no mere irony in consideration of Winks’s judgment]. This pattern would be repeated (in computerized form) two decades later in Vietnam, with a noticeably unique psychological development

all this computerized data helped foster the illusion that American “pacification” programs in the countryside were winning over the inhabitants of Vietnam’s villages, and the delusion that the air war was successfully destroying North Vietnam’s supply effort.

Technological developments are unlikely to flower into perfect application in every initial trial. That is what makes the nature of scientific research both challenging and rewarding – that it is perpetually lacunary, but gives just enough to at least motivate further inquiry. So, to dismiss previous American attempts at establishing information infrastructures would be rather short-sighted. However, the alarming development I noted above in McCoy’s narrative is one that goes hand-in-hand with the idea of American Exceptionalism. This imperialist hubris, besides possessing the potential to work very much against our favour (as evidenced in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq) eviscerates any rational challenging of the fallibility of our information. If we are constantly deluded into thinking – whether as a result of media hyping/government declarations or a general cultural miasma – that what we know is true and unquestionably so, we are far more likely to err in judgment, and carry out those flawed judgments to potentially pernicious extremes.

As noted above, drone operators are no longer at risk of being overwhelmed with video footage, but have already reached that precipice and are (presumably) still learning to cope with this inundation of information.

Drones, and the Fallacy of Technological Prowess

The illusions of success McCoy describes abound in public discourse about both the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (though perhaps no longer), and events such as the American air war in Libya. Drones have proven to be no exception to this trend. As noted by Nick Turse:

Remotely piloted aircraft have regularly been touted, in the press and the military, as wonder weapons, the way, not so long ago, counterinsurgency tactics were being promoted as an elixir for military failure.  Like the airplane, the tank, and nuclear weapons before it, the drone has been touted as a game-changer, destined to alter the very essence of warfare.

Instead, like the others, it has increasingly proven to be a non-game-changer of a weapon with ordinary vulnerabilities.  Its technology is fallible and its efforts have often been counterproductive in these last years.  For example, the inability of pilots watching computer monitors on the other side of the planet todiscriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians has proven a continuing problem for the military’s drone operations, while the CIA’s judge-jury-executioner assassination program is widely considered to have run afoulof international law — and, in the case of Pakistan, to be alienating an entire population.  The drone increasingly looks less like a winning weapon than a machine for generating opposition and enemies.

Turse provides further evidence for his claim, opining that

the Predator and the Reaper are little more than expensiveerror-prone, overgrown model airplanes remotely “flown” by all-too-human pilots.  They tend to crash at an alarming rate due to weather, mechanical failures, and computer glitches, leaving shattered silver-screen techno-dreams of cheap, error-free, futuristic warfare in the dust.

Today’s armed drones are actually the weak sisters of the weapons world.  Even the Reaper is slow, clumsy, unarmored, generally unable to perceive threats around it, and — writes defense expert Winslow Wheeler — “fundamentally incapable of defending itself.”  While Reapers have been outfitted with missiles for theoretical air-to-air combat capabilities, those armaments would be functionally useless in a real-world dogfight.

Similarly, in a 2011 report, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board admitted that modern air defense systems “would quickly decimate the current Predator/Reaper fleet and be a serious threat against the high-flying Global Hawk.”  Unlike that MQ-1000 of 2030, today’s top drone would be a sitting duck if any reasonably armed enemy wanted to take it on.  In this sense, as in many others, it compares unfavorably to current manned combat aircraft.

None of this augurs well for the victims – past and future – of US drone strikes, US foreign policy and military objectives, or American citizens, who will undoubtedly be victims of an enduring campaign of misinformation, conducted by the government and its obsequious mainstream media lackeys, to sell drone strikes to the population. And as clunky as they are now, the proliferation of drones and their almost unrestrained usage by the US government sets a dangerous precedent for other nations to follow. Whatever the future of drones may hold, it is certain that the future of their creators will only be further imperilled as this technology develops.


Glenn Greenwald: The Premises and Purposes of American Exceptionalism

Published on Monday, February 18, 2013 at The Guardian UK

A US flag waves within the razor wire-lined compound of Camp Delta prison at Guantánamo Bay in 2006

A US flag waves within the razor wire-lined compound of Camp Delta prison at Guantánamo Bay in 2006. Photograph: Brennan Linsley/Pool/Reuters

Last week, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon, and the US – the country with the world’s largest stockpile of that weapon and the only one in history to use it –led the condemnation (US allies with large nuclear stockpiles, such as Britain andIsrael, vocally joined in). Responding to unnamed commentators who apparently noted this contradiction, National Review’s Charles Cooke voiced these two assertions:

cooke tweet

He followed that with this:

cooke tweet

Nobody can reasonably dispute that North Korea is governed by a monstrous regime and that it would be better if they lacked a nuclear weapons capability. That isn’t what interests me about this. What interests me here is that highlighted claim: that the US “is the greatest country in world history”, and therefore is entitled to do that which other countries are not.

This declaration always genuinely fascinates me. Note how it’s insufficient to claim the mere mantle of Greatest Country on the Planet. It’s way beyond that: the Greatest Country Ever to Exist in All of Human History (why not The Greatest Ever in All of the Solar Systems?). The very notion that this distinction could be objectively or even meaningfully measured is absurd. But the desire to believe it is so strong, the need to proclaim one’s own unprecedented superiority so compelling, that it’s hardly controversial to say it despite how nonsensical it is. The opposite is true: it has been vested with the status of orthodoxy.

What I’m always so curious about is the thought process behind this formulation. Depending on how you count, there are 179 countries on the planet. The probability that you will happen to be born into The Objectively Greatest One, to the extent there is such a thing, is less than 1%. As the US accounts for roughly 5% of the world’s population, the probability that you will be born into it is 1/20. Those are fairly long odds for the happenstance of being born into the Greatest Country on Earth.

But if you extend the claim to the Greatest Country that Has Ever Existed in All of Human History, then the probability is minute: that you will happen to be born not only into the greatest country on earth, but will be born at the precise historical time when the greatest of all the countries ever to exist is thriving. It’s similar to winning the lottery: something so mathematically improbable that while our intense desire to believe it may lead us on an emotional level wildly to overestimate its likelihood, our rational faculties should tell us that it is unlikely in the extreme and therefore to doubt seriously that it will happen.

Do people who wave the Greatest Country in All of Human History flag engage that thought process at all? I’m asking this genuinely. Given the sheer improbability that it is true, do they search for more likely explanations for why they believe this?

In particular, given that human beings’ perceptions are shaped by the assumptions of their culture and thus have a natural inclination to view their own culture as superior, isn’t it infinitely more likely that people view their society as objectively superior because they’re inculcated from birth in all sorts of overt and subtle ways to believe this rather than because it’s objectively true? It’s akin to those who believe in their own great luck that they just happened to be born into the single religion that is the One True One rather than suspecting that they believe this because they were taught to from birth.

At the very least, the tendency of the human brain to view the world from a self-centered perspective should render suspect any beliefs that affirm the objective superiority of oneself and one’s own group, tribe, nation, etc. The “truths” we’re taught to believe from birth – whether nationalistic, religious, or cultural – should be the ones treated with the greatest skepticism if we continue to embrace them in adulthood, precisely because the probability is so great that we’ve embraced them because we were trained to, or because our subjective influences led us to them, and not because we’ve rationally assessed them to be true (or, as in the case of the British Cooke, what we were taught to believe about western nations closely aligned to our own).

That doesn’t mean that what we’re taught to believe from childhood is wrong or should be presumed erroneous. We may get lucky and be trained from the start to believe what is actually true. That’s possible. But we should at least regard those precepts with great suspicion, to subject them to particularly rigorous scrutiny, especially when it comes to those that teach us to believe in our own objective superiority or that of the group to which we belong. So potent is the subjective prism, especially when it’s implanted in childhood, that I’m always astounded at some people’s certainty of their own objective superiority (“the greatest country in world history”).

It’s certainly true that Americans are justifiably proud of certain nationalistic attributes: class mobility, ethnic diversity, religious freedom, large immigrant populations, life-improving technological discoveries, a commitment to some basic liberties such as free speech and press, historical progress in correcting some of its worst crimes. But all of those virtues are found in equal if not, at this point,greater quantity in numerous other countries. Add to that mix America’s shameful attributes – its historic crimes of land theft, genocide, slavery and racism, its sprawling penal state, the company it keeps on certain human rights abuses, the aggressive attack on Iraq, the creation of a worldwide torture regime, its pervasive support for the world’s worst tyrannies – and it becomes not just untenable, but laughable, to lavish it with that title.

This is more than just an intellectual exercise. This belief in America’s unparalleled greatness has immense impact. It is not hyperbole to say that the sentiment expressed by Cooke is the overarching belief system of the US political and media class, the primary premise shaping political discourse. Politicians of all types routinely recite the same claim, and Cooke’s tweet was quickly re-tweeted by a variety of commentators and self-proclaimed foreign policy experts from across the spectrum.

Note that Cooke did not merely declare America’s superiority, but rather used it to affirm a principle: as a result of its objective superiority, the US has the right to do things that other nations do not. This self-affirming belief – I can do X because I’m Good and you are barred from X because you are Bad – is the universally invoked justification for all aggression. It’s the crux of hypocrisy. And most significantly of all, it is the violent enemy of law: the idea that everyone is bound by the same set of rules and restraints.

This eagerness to declare oneself exempt from the rules to which others are bound, on the grounds of one’s own objective superiority, is always the animating sentiment behind nationalistic criminality. Here’s what Orwell said about that in Notes on Nationalism:

“All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

Preserving this warped morality, this nationalistic prerogative, is, far and away, the primary objective of America’s foreign policy community, composed of its political offices, media outlets, and (especially) think tanks. What Cooke expressed here – that the US, due to its objective superiority, is not bound by the same rules as others – is the most cherished and aggressively guarded principle in that circle. Conversely, the notion that the US should be bound by the same rules as everyone else is the most scorned and marginalized.

Last week, the Princeton professor Cornel West denounced Presidents Nixon, Bush and Obama as “war criminals”, saying that “they have killed innocent people in the name of the struggle for freedom, but they’re suspending the law, very much like Wall Street criminals”. West specifically cited Obama’s covert drone wars and killing of innocent people, including children. What West was doing there was rather straightforward: applying the same legal and moral rules to US aggression that he has applied to other countries and which the US applies to non-friendly, disobedient regimes.

In other words, West did exactly that which is most scorned and taboo in DC policy circles. And thus he had to be attacked, belittled and dismissed as irrelevant. Andrew Exum, the Afghanistan War advocate and Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security, eagerly volunteered for the task:

exum tweet

Note that there’s no effort to engage Professor West’s arguments. It’s pure ad hominem (in the classic sense of the logical fallacy): “who is “Cornell [sic] West” to think that anything he says should be even listened to by “national security professionals”? It’s a declaration of exclusion: West is not a member in good standing of DC’s Foreign Policy Community, and therefore his views can and should be ignored as Unserious and inconsequential.

Leave aside the inane honorific of “national security professional” (is there a licensing agency for that?). Leave aside the noxious and pompous view that the views of non-national-security-professionals – whatever that means – should be ignored when it comes to militarism, US foreign policy and war crimes. And also leave aside the fact that the vast majority of so-called “national security professionals” have been disastrously wrong about virtually everything of significance over the last decade at least, including when most of them used their platforms and influence not only to persuade others to support the greatest crime of our generation – the aggressive attack on Iraq – but also to scorn war opponents as too Unserious to merit attention. As Samantha Power put it in 2007:

“It was Washington’s conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of US foreign policy. The rush to invade Iraq was a position advocated by not only the Bush Administration, but also by editorial pages, the foreign policy establishment of both parties, and majorities in both houses of Congress.”

Given that history, if one wants to employ ad hominems: one should be listened to more, not less, if one is denied the title of “national security professional”.

The key point is what constitutes West’s transgression. His real crime is that he tacitly assumed that the US should be subjected to the same rules and constraints as all other nations in the world, that he rejected the notion that America has the right to do what others nations may not. And this is the premise – that there are any legal or moral constraints on the US’s right to use force in the world – that is the prime taboo thought in the circles of DC Seriousness. That’s why West, the Princeton professor, got mocked as someone too silly to pay attention to: because he rejected that most cherished American license that is grounded in the self-loving exceptionalism so purely distilled by Cooke.

West made a moral and legal argument, and US “national security professionals” simply do not recognize morality or legality when it comes to US aggression. That’s why our foreign policy discourse so rarely includes any discussion of those considerations. A US president can be a “war criminal” only if legal and moral rules apply to his actions on equal terms as all other world leaders, and that is precisely the idea that is completely anathema to everything “national security professionals” believe (it also happens to be the central principle the Nuremberg Tribunal sought to affirm: “while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment”).

US foreign policy analysts are permitted to question the tactics of the US government and military (will bombing these places succeed in the goals?). They are permitted to argue that certain policies will not advance American interests (drones may be ineffective in stopping Terrorism). But what they are absolutely barred from doing – upon pain of being expelled from the circles of Seriousness – is to argue that there are any legal or moral rules that restrict US aggression, and especially to argue that the US is bound by the same set of rules which it seeks to impose on others (recall the intense attacks on Howard Dean, led by John Kerry, when Dean suggested in 2003 that the US should support a system of universally applied rules because “we won’t always have the strongest military”: the very idea that the US should think of itself as subject to the same rules as the rest of the world is pure heresy).

In 2009, Les Gelb – the former Pentagon and State Department official and Chairman Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations: the ultimate “national security professional” – wrote an extraordinary essay in the journal Democracy explaining why he and so many others in his circle supported the attack on Iraq. This is what he blamed it on:

unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.”

That someone like Les Gelb says that “national security professionals” have career incentives to support US wars “to retain political and professional credibility” is amazing, yet clearly true. When I interviewed Gelb in 2010 regarding that quote, he elaborated that DC foreign policy experts – “national security professionals” – know that they can retain relevance in and access to key government circles only if they affirm the unfettered right of the US to use force whenever and however it wants. They can question tactics, but never the supreme prerogative of the US, the unchallengeable truth of American exceptionalism.

In sum, think tank “scholars” don’t get invited to important meetings by “national security professionals” in DC if they point out that the US is committing war crimes and that the US president is a war criminal. They don’t get invited to those meetings if they argue that the US should be bound by the same rules and laws it imposes on others when it comes to the use of force. They don’t get invited if they ask US political officials to imagine how they would react if some other country were routinely bombing US soil with drones and cruise missiles and assassinating whatever Americans they wanted to in secret and without trial. As the reaction to Cornel West shows, making those arguments triggers nothing but ridicule and exclusion.

One gets invited to those meetings only if one blindly affirms the right of the US to do whatever it wants, and then devotes oneself to the pragmatic question of how that unfettered license can best be exploited to promote national interests. The culture of DC think tanks, “international relations” professionals, and foreign policy commenters breeds allegiance to these American prerogatives and US power centers – incentivizes reflexive defenses of US government actions – because, as Gelb says, that is the only way to advance one’s careerist goals as a “national security professional”. If you see a 20-something aspiring “foreign policy expert” or “international relations professional” in DC, what you’ll view, with some rare exceptions, is a mindlessly loyal defender of US force and prerogatives. It’s what that culture, by design, breeds and demands.

In that crowd, Cooke’s tweets aren’t the slightest bit controversial. They’re axioms, from which all valid conclusions flow.

This belief in the unfettered legal and moral right of the US to use force anywhere in the world for any reason it wants is sustained only by this belief in objective US superiority, this myth of American exceptionalism. And the results are exactly what one would expect from an approach grounded in a belief system so patently irrational.

Five Afghan Children Among Ten Civilians Killed in NATO/US Drone Attack

Published on Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at Common Dreams

Afghan officials say that five children are among the ten civilians killed by a US/NATO missile attack in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday.

An Afghan boy wounded in the air strike in Kunar province that left 10 civilians dead is treated in a hospital. (Photograph: Namatullah Karyab/AFP/Getty Images)

“Four women and five children were killed, and five children wounded. One man, who was the leader of the family, was also killed, according to reports from the site,” a man named Farid told The Guardian‘s local correspondent by telephone. Farid is the chief of staff to the governor of Kunar Province, where the missile strike took place.

As Reuters reports:

The strike, in the Shigal district of Kunar province, was confirmed by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), though a spokesman said it could not confirm civilian casualties.

“Foreign forces carried out the attack by themselves without informing us,” Kunar Governor Fazlullah Wahidi told Reuters.

The suspected drone attack, though not confirmed in all its details due to the remote nature of the village where it occurred, took place just hours after President Obama delivered his State of the Union address in Washington.

Though the president said troop “drawdowns” would continue and the “war in Afghanistan would come to an end in 2014,” Obama made clear that counter-terrorism efforts, like the drone targeting program behind strikes such as this that have claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent people in recent years, will be very much a part of the ongoing military and counter-terrorism campaign in the region.

As many experts contend, however, the continued use of missile attacks from remotely-controlled US drones that kill innocent civilians–and often children–are only exacerbating instability, fueling anger, and prolonging violent conflict in Afghanistan and wherever such methods are deployed.

In this particular case, as The Guardian reports: “The Nato-led coalition declined to confirm whether there had been an air strike in the area overnight, saying only that it was looking into allegations of civilian casualties.”

SOTU: Obama expands scope of potential drone victims

Micah Zenko writes at the Council on Foreign Relations blog:

Obama’s declaration that the United States would go after “terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans” muddied the scope of who can be legitimately targeted. The Obama administration is careful to offer a range of adjectives to describe who can be lawfully targeted. Previous definitions include:

  • John Brennan: “Individuals who are a threat to the United States” (September 16, 2011)
  • Department of Justice: “Senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” (November 8, 2011)
  • Eric Holder: “Specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces” (March 5, 2012)
  • Harold Koh: “High-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks” (March 25, 2012)
  • Obama: “Our goal has been to focus on al-Qaeda and to focus narrowly on those who would pose an imminent threat to the United States of America” (September 6, 2012)

Obama’s “gravest threat to Americans” characterization is by far the most expansive definition for who can be killed by a U.S. official thus far. (The Oxford Dictionary defines grave as “giving cause for alarm or concern and solemn or serious.”) This does away with previous clarifying terms such as “senior” or “operational” leaders of al-Qaeda, any notion of attacks that are “imminent,” and the necessity to protect the U.S. homeland. This new and sweeping definition of who is “targetable” is troubling since it is open to interpretation by the executive branch interpretation [emphasis own], and was purposefully and deliberately included in a State of the Union address.

Marcy Wheeler notes that John Brennan used the same qualifying term “grave” at his confirmation hearings:

BRENNAN: Right, exactly. But the actions that we take on the counterterrorism front, again, are to take actions against individuals where we believe that the intelligence base is so strong and the nature of the threat is so grave and serious, as well as imminent, that we have no recourse except to take this action that may involve a lethal strike.

If the US does predicate future drone strikes on the basis of individuals who present a “grave” threat to Americans, it will be interesting to see how they try and justify that in the context of international law. Their many perversions of international law certainly have not gone unnoticed – but as Zenko observes, this new development marks the most threatening expansion of what a valid target for the administration is.

Why couldn’t the administration make the case that individuals like Wheeler pose a “grave” threat to America – insofar as her work probably “gives cause for alarm or concern” amongst members of government who would like to keep this sort of critical thinking under wraps? And what if Pakistan responded to the “grave” threats of American drone strikes and military presence in the region by retaliating with military force? If the Chinese government perceives a grave threat in the form of military encroachment and encirclement by the US, are they allowed to arbitrarily target American military personnel?