Archive for the ‘Flying Killer Robots’ Category

What Obama could do to curb Trump’s power

December 5, 2016

President Obama said during the campaign that he’s worried about somebody like Donald Trump with access to the nuclear codes and all the other powers of the Presidency.  A writer named Pratap Chatterjee listed nine things Obama could do to reduce Trump’s power to do harm.

  1.   Name innocent drone victims.
  2.   Make public any reviews of military errors.
  3.   Make public the administration’s criteria for its “targeted killings.”
  4.   Disclose mass surveillance programs.
  5.   Make public all surveillance agreements with private companies.
  6.   Make public all secret laws created in recent years.
  7.   Punish anyone who has abused the drone or surveillance programs.
  8.   Punish those responsible for FBI domain management abuses.
  9.   Pardon Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and the other whistleblowers.

That wouldn’t eliminate a President Trump’s power to start wars without authorization from Congress, but it would be a start on reducing Presidential powers to their Constitutional limits.

LINKS

Obama’s Last Chance by Pratap Chatterjee for TomDispatch.

FBI and NSA Poised to Gain New Surveillance Powers Under Trump by Chris Strohm for Bloomberg News.

 

Obama’s legacy to Trump

November 30, 2016

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Malik Jalal tries to get off Obama’s Kill List

April 15, 2016

Malik Jalal has traveled from Pakistan’s Waziristan border region to Britain so as to plead with President Obama to stop trying to kill him.

Malik Jalal

Malik Jalal

Malik is an honorary title that means “village leader”.  He is a member of the North Waziristan Peace Committee, whose mission is to negotiate with the Pakistan Taliban to reduce violence in the region.  The committee’s work is sanctioned by the government of Pakistan.

He has survived four attacks by Hellfire missiles and now sleeps out in the woods with his six-year-old son.  He wrote in The Independent that he has information that the U.S. military wants to stop the work of the Peace Committee because they think peace would give the Taliban a secure sanctuary.

Jalal wrote that the first attack came in 2010, when his nephew took his vehicle to a service  station  to get an oil change and to have the tires checked.   A Hellfire missile hit Jalal’s vehicle and another vehicle parked just beside it.  The nephew was injured and four innocent bystanders were killed.

The next time he was driving to a peace conference, with another vehicle on the road behind, which happened to be the same shade of red as Jalal’s.  A Hellfire missile destroyed the trailing vehicle and all four occupants, all innocent bystanders, were killed.

Jalal became sure that he was the target after the next attack.  He accepted a dinner invitation by cell phone and, while he was on the way, a Hellfire missile struck, killing three innocent people, including a father of three and a mentally retarded man.

The fourth attack came early in 2011, when the Hellfire missile struck a meeting of community leaders, killing 40 people, none of whom, according to Jalal were engaged in acts of violence.

Since then he has taken to sleeping out of doors on a mountainside far from his house and always parking his vehicle a long distance from any destination.  Recently, he said, his six-year-old son has joined him on the mountainside.  The little boy said it was unrealistic to think that the U.S. military would refrain from killing Jalal’s family just because he wasn’t at home.

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Obama’s rules for drone strikes, and the reality

October 17, 2015

President Obama, in a 2012 interview with CNN, said these were his criteria for deciding to order someone killed with flying drones:

1. ‘ It has to be a target that is authorized by our laws.’

2.  ‘It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative.’

3.  ‘It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.’

4.  ‘We’ve got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties.’

5.  ‘That while there is a legal justification for us to try and stop [American citizens] from carrying out plots… they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.’

Source: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

This is not the reality.

In Afghanistan, U.S. forces have a policy of targeting unusually tall people, on the assumption that they probably are Arabs or other foreign fighters supporting the Taliban.

Investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill said that they targeted one man who turned out to be an Afghan man of normal height standing among a group of children.  The drone killed the man and all, or all but one, of the children.

Other targets are chosen through analysis of signals intelligence and meta-data or information from foreign intelligence services.  Any male of military age killed in a drone strike is assumed to be a terrorist.

When U.S. forces first invaded Afghanistan, I accepted that they were there to liberate the Afghan people from the tyranny of the Taliban.  But if any dead adult male is assumed to be an enemy unless proven otherwise, then the United States is waging war against the Afghan people as a whole.  This is not right, and it does not make Americans safer.

LINKS

Whistleblower: 90% of Drone Fatalities Are Civilians on Washington’s Blog.

THE DRONE PAPERS on The Intercept.  A complete report on the whistleblower’s leaked documents.

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The passing scene – October 16, 2015

October 16, 2015

THE DRONE PAPERS  an eight-part series by The Intercept about the U.S. military’s assassination program, based on a whistle-blower’s secret document.  (Hat tips to Bill Harvey, my expatriate friend Jack, etc.)

droneattackobamaEach week the President of the United States approves a list of death warrants, which are sometimes executed by trained assassins but more usually by flying killer robots.

The United States is at war, we are told, and the targets are our enemies.  But the war has no defined enemy, the battlefield is the whole world, and there is no expectation it will ever end.

Hardly anybody I know thinks this is strange or abnormal.

Snowden: NSA, GCHQ Using Your Phone to Spy on Others (and You) by Peter Van Buren for We Meant Well.

The Fog of Intelligence by Tom Englehardt for TomDispatch.

The size and power of intelligence agencies is huge and growing.  Actual intelligence, not so much.

Hillary Clinton’s Take on Banks Won’t Hold Up by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone (Hat tip to Jack, etc.)

Bernie Won All the Focus Groups and Online Polls, So Why Is the Media Saying Hillary Won the Debate? by Adam Johnson for Alternet.

The Final Leaked TPP Text Is All That We Feared by Jeremy Malcolm for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Reality Check: What We Know About TPP Makes It the Worst Trade Deal Ever by Ben Swann for Truth in Media.

Slave Trafficking, the TPP & the 2016 Presidential Contest by Gaius Publius for Down With Tyranny!

Sanders’ progressivism stops at the water’s edge

September 3, 2015

Bernie Sanders is, from my point of view, very good on economic issues, pretty good on civil rights and civil liberties issues and not good on war and foreign policy issues.

He is a better champion of the interests of the American voting public than any other Democratic candidate, or any Republican.   He is not much of a champion of harmless people overseas who get in the way of U.S. military operations.

Bernie-Sanders-coverHe recently said that he’d continue President Obama’s drone killing policy, but in a kinder, gentler manner in which fewer people were killed.  He also has called for a more active military role for Saudi Arabia.

What I take this to mean is that he would continue the Bush-Obama policy of global military intervention, but in a way that minimizes American casualties.

The issue with drone killings is not the technology.  Drones can be highly useful in conducting military operations, and are preferable to dropping napalm bombs.

Drone killings, and Special Operations assassinations, are a Constitutional issue.  It is whether a President of the United States has the authority to sign a death warrant for anybody anywhere in the world, based on his sole authority without any accountability.

The secondary issue is that, as applied to poor, primitive, brown-skinned people in remote areas, the policy is to kill people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time.   It is death by racial profiling.

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The passing scene – August 5, 2015

August 5, 2015

Here are links to interesting articles I’ve come across recently.  I may add links during the day.  The comment thread is open to general and off-topic comments.

Businesses Flee Catalonia, Foreign Investment Plunges as Confrontation With Spain Comes to a Boil by Don Quijones for Wolf Street.

The Mother of All Storms Builds Over Catalonia’s Independence by Don Quijones for Wolf Street.

A coalition of parties in Catalonia say they will declare independence from Spain if they win the provincial elections September 27.   Madrid will not recognize the results if the vote is “yes”, so the worst case possibility is a new Spanish civil war.

Want to Know How the Banks Got Greece to Surrender? Explaining Bank Power 101 by Ellen Brown for the World of Debt blog (via Alternet)

ECB’s economic hitmen on the unbalanced evolution of homo sapiens web site.

The Costs of Accountability by Jerry Z. Muller on The American Interest.

Governments justify turning over decision-making to central banks on the grounds that they are thereby substituting objective metrics, benchmarks and performance indicators for fallible human judgment.  But at best, these metrics are human judgement once-removed and, at worst, masks for covert human agendas.

Who is Jeremy Corbyn? An international reader’s guide to the British politician by James Walsh for The Guardian.

Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters aren’t mad – they’re fleeing a bankrupt New Labor by Owen Jones for The Guardian.

Jeremy Corbyn, the emerging new leader of the British Labor Party, seems a lot like Bernie Sanders.  He is an aging, formerly obscure member of Parliament who wants to return the party to its original principles.   His strong grass-roots support surprises and alarms the entrenched party leaders.

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Spencer Ackerman on Obama’s drone policy

April 28, 2015

The Obama administration considers the real alternatives to drone strikes to be the unpalatable options of grueling ground wars or passive acceptance of terrorism.

Then it congratulates itself for picking the wise, ethical and responsible choice of killing people without knowing who they are.

via The Guardian.

John Oliver: Drones aren’t all that funny

October 7, 2014

Hat tip to Mike Connelly.

The passing scene: Links & comments 6/19/14

June 19, 2014

How Inequality Shapes the American Family by Lynn Stuart Parramore for AlterNet.

We are always free to choose, no matter what our circumstances.   But we are not free to choose the options we have to choose from.

Lynn Stuart Parramore wrote that our choices as to when to get married, whom to marry and whether to stay married are limited by our life circumstances.  And those life circumstances are shaped by how much money we have.

There’s an old saying: Half the world doesn’t know how the other half lives.  And another old saying: Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes (at least in imagination).  These are things to keep in mind when judging the life choices of people in circumstances other than our own.

Making Schools Poor by Diane Ravitch for the New York Review of Books.

A judge in California ruled that teacher tenure is a violation of the state constitution.  His reasoning is that tenure protects ineffective teachers, that poor and minority children have a disproportionate number of ineffective teachers and that tenure is therefore a violation of their rights.

Ravitch wrote that the problem with this is that financially-strapped school districts will tend to lay off the more experienced teachers, whether effective or not, because they are the ones that are paid the most.

Not covered by the decision: Overcrowded classes, the elimination of arts programs, or the lack of resources for basic needs, including libraries, librarians, counselors, after-school programs, and nurses, all of which disproportionately affect poor and minority children.

Julian Assange Hopes New Information Filed in Swedish Court Will Remove Arrest Warrant by Kevin Gosztla for The Dissenter.

Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for the past two years rather than be extradited to Sweden to be questioned in a sexual misconduct case.

He is afraid of being re-extradited to the United States on espionage charges because of all the secret information he has published.  He offered to go to Sweden if he was assured he won’t be re-extradited, and also offered to be questioned where he is.  Sweden has refused both conditions.

Kevin Gosztla noted that Sweden has meanwile passed a law that you can be extradited unless there is an actual criminal charge against you.  Assange has not been charged with a crime, but the law isn’t retroactive to him.   Gosztla also noted that Swedish prosecutors have traveled to foreign countries to question suspects in other cases, including murder cases.

Assange’s lawyers are working on a new appeal to Sweden to set aside the arrest warrant, and also are appealing to the United Nations Human Rights Commission on the grounds that Sweden violates international human rights treaties..

The Pig Punisher: Building drones to fight devious crop-devouring hogs by Yasha Levine for PandoDaily.

The real enemy within.

Mark Mazzetti on The Way of the Knife

June 2, 2014

Lt. Col. John Paul Vann famously said during the Vietnam War that the best weapon in a war against insurgents was a knife, and the worst possible weapon was a bomb.   That is, in order to win, it is necessary to kill your enemies without killing indiscriminately and making new enemies.

Unfortunately for the United States, our armed forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan used the way of the bomb against enemies who used the way of the knife.

I recently finished reading THE WAY OF THE KNIFE: The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti (2013), which is a study of the American attempt to substitute targeted killing for indiscriminate killing and why it failed.

wayoftheknifeIt is based on interviews with members of the CIA and Special Operations forces as well as freelance operatives.  Mazzetti is fair to their point of view and to the risks they ran to do their duty as they saw it.  He gives a good picture of the war on terror as they experienced it.

His book is excellent for what it is, keeping in mind that it does not deal with the war as experienced by civilians on the ground nor does it explore the higher-level economic and geo-political aims of the war (controlling oil, containing Russia and China).

The Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon have become powers unto themselves, with their own policy agendas that are separate from that of the elected leadership .

This is not only a problem of implementation of military and foreign policy.  It is a Constitutional question which calls into question the possibility of limiting power by means of checks and balances.

Leon Panetta as a congressman was a strong critic of the CIA.  But when President Obama appointed him director of the CIA, he was warned of the danger of endangering CIA “morale,” which, according to Mazzetti, he took as a veiled warning.  Panetta quickly became a strong advocate for the CIA’s viewpoint within the administration.  And the Obama administration itself doubled down on the policies for which Barack Obama as candidate criticized the Bush administration.

Instead of checks and balances, the government has an internal conflict between the CIA and the Pentagon.  The CIA does not trust the Pentagon to react quickly and has developed its own para-military forces.   The Pentagon does not trust the CIA’s intelligence and has developed its own sources of intelligence.  In general, the CIA works with intelligence services of foreign governments, such as Pakistan, while the Pentagon regards them as quasi-enemies.

The CIA and Pentagon operate independently of each other, and often disrupt each others’ missions.  Then there are mercenaries, and independent operators which are only loosely controlled by the U.S. government.

American foreign policy is implemented and largely determined by the CIA and Pentagon.  The State Department and career diplomats have no say at all, as has been made clear at top-level meetings.

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A weekend to share Afghan love of kite-flying

March 11, 2014

 

Hat tip for this to Mike Connelly

Drones are not really the problem

December 13, 2013

Drone Nation
Source: Homeland-Security-Degree.org

Drones don’t kill people.   Governments kill people.   Drones are not necessarily a problem.  They have legitimate uses, including legitimate uses in war.   The problem with killer drones is that they are a technology that makes it easy to commit acts of war and pretend that they are something else.

And of course surveillance drones are different from killer drones.  They, too, have their legitimate uses.   The issue is not surveillance drones versus other kinds of surveillance technology.  The issue is how much surveillance we the people are willing to tolerate.

These are not technology questions.   These are Constitutional questions.

Hat tip to naked capitalism.

War and peace: Links & notes 11/29/13

November 29, 2013

‘Aleppo is nothing but hunger and Islam’ by Francesa Borri in The Guardian.

I’m glad that President Obama decided against overt U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict, but I admit I don’t know what to do to help the poor people of Syria.  It seems as if the only alternatives are continued rule by a ruthless and brutal hereditary dictator, and rule by local militias and warlords.

Islamist borri 12 novThe United States government, for all our high-tech flying killer drones and all our highly-trained special operations forces, does not have the capability to keep the peace in a country torn by civil war.  Arming one or more of the fighting factions makes things worse.  Bombarding the country makes things worse.  Helping victims is good to do, but it doesn’t solve the problem.  Maybe somebody who knows more about Syria than I do sees an answer.  I don’t see any.

Hollywood ‘Fight Club’ producer was Israeli spy with nuclear script by RT News.   Hat tip to O.

Arnon Milchan, producer of Hollywood movies such as Pretty Woman, Fight Club and LA Confidential, gave an interview about his earlier life as an Israeli secret agent in the 1970s who obtained materials and equipment for Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program.  This helps me understand the Israeli government’s fear of Iran’s nuclear program.  If Israel could develop nuclear weapons without the world’s knowledge, why couldn’t Iran?

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NSA is to spying as drones are to warfare

November 1, 2013

The National Security Agency is to espionage as flying killer drones are to warfare.

By separating the operator from the target, the NSA and drones create a perceived illusion of safety and impunity.  By creating the illusion of omniscience, they diminish the perceived need for knowledge and good judgment.  And by their technological prowess, they escape the physical limitations that limited the scope of espionage and warfare in earlier eras.

Espionage historically has involved deception and betrayal, war has involved killing and destruction.  But repugnant as they are, they are necessary in the world as it is today.

spy-vs-spy-without-bombs-775529Historically spying, like soldiering, has involved risk.  Governments execute or imprison spies.  That is why secret agents, starting with Nathan Hale, can be legitimately regarded as heroes.  Risk has limited the scope of spying.  The ability to electronically scoop up and store electronic data about people removes this limit.

One of the things that limit American intelligence is the widespread lack of proficiency in foreign languages and lack of knowledge of foreign cultures.  Few Americans can walk around on the streets of Karachi or Tehran and be taken for anything but what they are.  But if you can read the e-mail of foreign leaders and collect meta-data on foreign peoples, you might think deep understanding unnecessary.

The NSA gathers more data than is humanly possible to understand.  This must be delegated to computer algorithms.  They sift through data to find patterns of behavior, which are them used to put people on no-fly lists or drone target lists.  The end result is that people trust the conclusions of the computer algorithm more than they trust their own judgment.

In the past, there were economic and physical limits to the scope of spying.  It was not just that governments could budget only so much money for intelligence services.  It was that there were only a certain number of people who were willing and able to take on this kind of work.

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Unmanned: America’s drone war (the full film)

November 1, 2013

[Update 12/27/13]  The video below no longer works.  Click on Unmanned: America’s Drone War to view the full film.

The documentary, Unmanned: America’s drone war, was released this week.  You can download a copy from the Internet or view it here.  It was powerful and disturbing on an emotional level, and at the same time made a case that the drone strikes benefit nobody except avowed enemies of the United States, and certain corporations who get billion-dollar drone contracts.

The movie highlights two drone victims.  One is 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, who was selected by his village community to accompany tribal elders to a Grand Jirga, a meeting of village leaders, politicians, lawyers and journalists from all over Pakistan to discuss what to do about the drone strikes.  He was killed while driving a car with another teenage a couple of weeks after the meeting.

The other is 67-year-old Momina Bibi, a 67-year-old grandmother and midwife who was killed while working in her vegetable garden.  Her family testified about the drone strikes before Congress this week.

It has long been known that the killer drones often strike people who are not the intended targets.  But it is also important to note that intended targets are not necessarily terrorists or militants.  The film’s narrator said Tariq Aziz may have been fingered by an informant.

We Americans know little or nothing about the people of Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan.  So our government relies on informants, who by definition are morally doubtful individuals, because what person would spy on his own people for the benefit of a foreign government?

Many prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are there because they were identified as Taliban by bounty-hunters.   The American authorities evidently took the word of the bounty-hunters, without considering the possibility that they were random individuals, or personal enemies of the bounty-hunters, or people to whom the bounty-hunters owed money.

Why does the U.S. government continue a drone killing policy that has been shown to immoral, illegal and counterproductive?  I think it is because the alternative to continuing the policy is for the people responsible for the policy to face the reality of what they have done.  Confession and repentance are good for the soul, and until we Americans are able to do this, we are likely to continue on our bad path.

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Victim’s grandchild: ‘I no longer love blue skies’

October 31, 2013

The video above is from a documentary film called Unmanned about drone strikes on civilians in Pakistan.  The Rehman family, shown in that video, also is shown below when they came to Washington, D.C., this week to testify before Congress.

The family of a 67-year-old midwife from a remote village in North Waziristan told lawmakers on Tuesday about her death and the “CIA drone” they say was responsible. Their harrowing accounts marked the first time Congress had ever heard from civilian victims of an alleged US drone strike.

Rafiq ur Rehman, a Pakistani primary school teacher who appeared on Capitol Hill with his children, Zubair, 13, and Nabila, 9, described his mother, Momina Bibi, as the “string that held our family together”.  His two children, who were gathering okra with their grandmother the day she was killed, on 24 October 2012, were injured in the attack.

“Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day,” Rehman said, through a translator. “Some media outlets reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Others reported that the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All of them reported that three, four, five militants were killed.”

Instead, he said, only one person was killed that day: “Not a militant but my mother.”

via theguardian.com.

Nabilia, the 9-year-old girl, said she is afraid to go to school because of drones overhead.  Good for Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) for arranging for this testimony to be heard.  It’s too bad that only four other members of the House of Representatives heard it.

Killer drones are justified on the grounds that they are a more precise method of killing than the alternatives—dropping napalm or cluster bombs from airplanes, or invading with ground troops.  But the issue is not the method of killing.  The issue is the killing of civilian bystanders in nations with which the United States is not at war.  The significance of drone technology is that it makes killing so easy and so seemingly free of consequences.

It would be interesting to know whether this 67-year-old grandmother was killed because a drone went astray, or because of mistaken identity, or because some drone operator simply didn’t care.   No matter which is these possibilities is the correct one, they indicate something seriously wrong with the U.S. use of drones.

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When Malala met Obama…

October 27, 2013

1036

Click on Ted Rall’s Rallblog for more cartoons.

A pre-emptive counter-revolution in the USA?

October 8, 2013

tumblr_luwdnp4plT1qzlfumo1_1280

Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer that people do not revolt because they are poor and miserable.  If that there the case, the world would be in a constant state of revolt.  No, Hoffer wrote, people revolt when something to which they think they have a right is taken away from them, or when hopes are raised that things will get better.  Having a lot of highly educated young people without jobs is a spark that sets off the tinder.

If that is the case, the American people are ripe for revolt right now.   Although we are wealthier and more free than much of the world’s population, our economic security and political rights are being eroded.  The younger generation knows it is worse off than the generations that came before.  And the hope of change generated by Barack Obama has proved to be an illusion.

Historically the powers that be in the United States headed off revolt by responding to the discontented and bringing them into the system.   This happened with the labor movement in the 1930s and the civil rights protests of the 1960s.  But I think this time is different.

The electoral process is being altered to increase the power of money and to shut out minority groups, poor people, young people and others who might upset the status quo.  The legislative process is being altered so as to give veto power to the opponents of progressive reform.  The administration of government is becoming interlocked with corporations and shielded from public view.

Protest and dissent are being criminalized.  The U.S. government has the legal and institutional basis to impose a police state.  And the United States is being locked into NAFTA-like trade agreements which give corporations rights that override national law.

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The case against a U.S. attack on Syria

September 3, 2013

President Obama wants Congress to approve a limited attack on Syria, as punishment for using nerve gas against civilians.  He promised he does not plan a full-scale invasion of Syria.  Here’s why I think Congress should not grant approval.

Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad

1.  An attack on Syria will not benefit the people of Syria nor will it benefit the people of the United States.

2.  We don’t know for sure whether President Bashar al-Assad of Syria did order nerve gas attacks on Syria.

3.  Assuming that he is guilty, a limited attack on Syria will result in dead Syrians and possibly some damage to the government’s military power, but it will not hurt President Assad personally.  An attack would likely strengthen his standing with the Syrian people and with Arab people generally.

4.  The rationale for the attack is to maintain the credibility of American power.  But an ineffective attack, which this is almost certain to be, will undermine credibility, and create a demand for further and more extensive action.  As in Vietnam, the U.S. government would be in the position of a gambler doubling his bets rather than cutting his losses.

5.  There are other ways to bring war criminals to justice than by bombing.  Assuming there is proof of Assad’s guilt, the U.S. could bring charges against Assad to an international court.  This would provide a basis, and a duty, for the international community to act.

6.  There are other ways to help poison gas victims than by bombing.   Our government could provide kits for sair gas treatment to whoever wants them.  The side that would be helped the most would be the side not using gas.

7.  Syria, unlike Iraq and Libya, has powerful allies, including Russia.  There is a danger that Russia will enter a U.S.-Syrian conflict, just as China entered the Korean War.   There is a danger of a wider conflict involving the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Sunni Arab militants on the one hand, and Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Shiite Arab militants on the other hand.

8.  An attack on Syria, like the invasion of Iraq and the attack on Libya, provides one more incentive for the government of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and delivery system as a deterrent against attack.

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Killer missiles are not an instrument of justice

August 29, 2013

I read in my morning newspaper that President Barack Obama is certain that President Bashar al-Assad’s government must be punished for using deadly chemical weapons, including sarin gas, to kill hundreds of Syrian civilians.

But if the United States carries out a military strike on Syria, it’s not likely that it will harm President Assad personally.  It is almost certain to result in the deaths of more Syrian civilians.

I’m reminded of President Bill Clinton’s efforts to punish Saddam Hussein by means of an economic blockade and intermittent bombing of Iraq.  But Saddam did not suffer in the slightest from the low-level war against Iraq.  He still had his luxurious life amid his many palaces.  It was the ordinary people of Iraq who suffered.

Justice would require that President Assad be indicted for his crimes and tried before an international court, like Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Charles Taylor of Liberia.  But even if it were feasible to take him into custody, I don’t think the U.S. government would allow this to happen, any more than in the case of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.

In a fair trial, Assad, like Saddam or Osama, would be able to testify about their past relations with the U.S. government, and that would be too embarrassing for the U.S. government to tolerate—in particular, Assad’s role as a torture subcontractor for the CIA.

President Obama and the U.S. Congress could help relieve the Syrian situation in many ways.  They could help feed and shelter refugees made homeless by the Syrian civil war.  They could join with the government of Russia in trying to negotiate a cease-fire between the Syrian factions.  If the United Nations authorizes a peacekeeping force, the U.S. could provide troops and material aid for that force.

In the above video, Fareed Zakaria, columnist for Time and host of a weekly CNN program on foreign affairs, outlined the historical background of Syria and made the case against full-scale U.S. military intervention in Syria.

But firing missiles at Syria is not a “moderate” alternative to all-out war.  Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, back in the days of the Vietnam Conflict, thought that a carefully calibrated bombing North Vietnam was a means of sending a message about U.S. resolve.  It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.

Occasional missile strikes on Syria won’t harm Assad.  He may even welcome them, as a means of redirecting the people’s anger away from himself and toward the United States and its allies.  The supposed punishment will fall on ordinary people in Syria, especially if the missile hits a gas storage facility.

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The Obama revolution in military affairs

August 1, 2013

President Barack Obama’s commitment to warfare by means of flying killer drones and secret special forces may have accomplished what Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld failed to achieve in the Bush administration.

Rumsfeld sought to overcome the “Vietnam syndrome”—the reluctance of the American people, based on sad experience, to commit to long-term wars on the continent of Asia.   The replacement of the military draft by an all-volunteer army was supposed to accomplish this, but, unfortunately from the standpoint of the administration, even members of a volunteer army have families, friends and neighbors who don’t want to see them go into harm’s way for no understandable purpose.

droneattackobamaUnder President Obama and probably under his successors, the United States is unlikely to become involved in long-term struggles in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  Instead the prime tool of the U.S. military will be the flying killer drone.   Nobody ever held a funeral for a flying drone, or wondered whether the drone was sacrificed in vain.

What can’t be accomplished by drones will be done by the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite force tasked with carrying out the execution of President Obama’s kill lists.

What JSOC can’t accomplish will be done by U.S.-armed local insurgents, as in Libya and Syria.  While the latter have their own agendas, which aren’t necessarily the same as the U.S. government’s, this is offset by the fact that the bodies of dead insurgents won’t come home to the United States in flag-draped caskets.

Years ago I was a member of a prisoner adoption group for Amnesty International.  We conducted letter-writing campaigns on behalf of prisoners of conscience, which were highly embarrassing to dictators around the world.  One of the successes of my group was Jacobo Timmerman, a brave Argentine editor.

The response of the Agentine and other Latin American dictatorships was not to create death squads and arrange for their opponents to be “disappeared”, so there no longer were any prisoners to protest.  As Stalin once said, “No person, no problem.”

Obama’s flying killer robots accomplish the same goal.  Instead of grabbing someone and bringing them to Guantanamo Bay, his forces simply reduce the person to a bug splat with the killer drone.  There are no embarrassing prisoners conducting hunger strikes.  No person, no problem.

The problem with drone warfare is not the technology.  If you have to fight a war, the drones are good weapons to have.  They are not more lethal than the technologies they replace, certainly no worse than the bombing of “suspected Viet Cong strongholds” I was always reading about in the newspapers in the 1960s.

The problem with drone warfare is that it removes the constraints on waging war.  In fact, drone warfare isn’t really like waging war as most people think of it.  It is more like hunting prey, like Sarah Palin’s family shooting wolves from helicopters.

President Obama has recommitted the United States to a “war on terror” that will go on so long as there are people plotting to do harm to Americans.  But there will be people plotting to do harm to Americans so long as children, old people and other bystanders are killed by American killer drones.

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Coming clean on drone killings?

May 23, 2013

Attorney-General Eric Holder has revealed the names of four American citizens killed by flying killer drones.  They are the pro-terrorist Muslim cleric Anwar al-Alwaki; Samir Khan, who happened to be nearby when al-Alwaki was killed; Abdulrahman al-Alwaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old son who was killed a few days later; and Juda Kenan Mohammed, about which nothing else is known.

droneattackobamaAnwar al-Alwaki was killed on purpose, because of he reportedly worked with terrorist plotters.  Samir Khan, Abdulrahman al-Alwaki and Juda Kenan Mohammed were killed by accident—”collateral damage.”  I can’t really generalize from a few examples, but if only one out of four victims of Obama’s flying killer drones were actual targets, this does not speak well of the supposed precision of drone strikes.

I think more Americans would be concerned about this if the unintended victims had names such as John Smith, Patrick O’Riley or Karl Andersen.   We need to remember that what can be done to people with dark skins and Arabic names can be done to people with light skins and European names (not that the latter is worse than the former).

Holder’s memo says the Obama administration’s policy is only to assassinate American citizens if they are on foreign soil and if (1) they pose an “imminent threat of violent attack” against the United States, (2) capture is not feasible and (3) the attack is conducted in accordance with the law of war.   The law of war requires that (a) killing is required by military necessity, (b) civilians are not intentionally targeted, (c) collateral damage does not exceed the military value of the operation and (d) the type of weapons used do not inflict unnecessary harm.

He gives a bill of particulars against Anwar al-Alwaki which makes a strong case that al-Alwaki was an “enemy combatant” and deserved to be targeted under these criteria—although there are observers who dispute his facts, and al-Alwaki himself, laboring under the disadvantage of being dead, is not able to give his side of the story.

Read Holder’s letter as a lawyer would.  Note that his criteria refer only to the killing of American citizens abroad.  There is nothing in the letter to limit drone killings of foreigners abroad.  In particular, there is nothing to limit the “signature strikes” killings people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia based on suspicious patterns of behavior—what you might call “walking while Muslim.”

I was struck by the supercilious tone of the letter.   Holder appears to feel that the Obama administration really wasn’t obligated to reveal the names of the four dead Americans, and that it has gone above and beyond its duty of transparency to satisfy critics in the Senate.

Actually, this stance is politically shrewd.  Obama and Holder don’t absolutely refuse to disclose what the administration is doing, but they make it as difficult as possible to obtain the most minor bits of information.  With each disclosure, the temptation for Congress must be to declare victory for transparency and give up.

When I raise questions like this, friends point to earlier periods of American history, such as the Civil War, World War One and World War Two, when civil liberties were temporarily suspended with no permanent loss of liberty.  But all these conflicts came to an end in a short time, and the country was able to return to normal.   What is different about the “war on terror” is that, on the one hand, the existence of the country is not at risk, but, on the other hand, the war is planned to last for decades and perhaps indefinitely.

LINKS

Holder Letter on Counterterrorism Strikes Against U.S. Citizensa copy of Eric Holder’s letter to Patrick J. Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

U.S. Acknowledges Killing 4 Americans in Drone Strikes by Charlie Savage and Peter Baker in the New York Times.

The Audacity of Eric Holder’s Letter by Conor Friedersdorf.

Washington gets explicit: its ‘war on terror’ is permanent by Glenn Greenwald.

We’re living in a bad science fiction story

April 11, 2013
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I have been worrying about giving the President of the United States unlimited power to order killing by means of flying killer robots, but the world is moving on.  Now we have to worry about giving computer algorithms power to order killing by means of autonomous flying killer robots.

Research is going forward on how to program flying killer drones so they can respond automatically without waiting for the command of a human operator.  This is a bad idea for many reasons, but the basic reason was well stated by P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.  The problem, Singer said, is that Moore’s Law [that computer processing power doubles every few years] is still in effect, but so is Murphy’s Law [that whatever can go wrong, will].

There already are many examples of the danger of abdicating decisions to computers.  In 1988, U.S. Navy crewmen shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all the passengers, because the ship’s computer told them it was a war plane, and they believed the computer instead of their lying eyes.  During the Cold War, there were incidents in both the United States and the Soviet Union, in which the warning systems indicated the nation was under attack, but the commanders had the good judgment and moral courage to wait before ordering a retaliatory attack.

Autonomous drones would likely be programmed for what are called “signature strikes”—more accurately “pattern of behavior strikes”.   This is the use of drones to kill men who are behaving in a way an enemy soldier might act.   Over time it is reasonable to think that the actual enemy soldiers learn to avoid suspicious behavior, and an increasing number of “signature strikes” will fall on innocent civilians.

What happens if a malfunctioning autonomous drone wipes out a village like My Lai?   Who is responsible?  The operator who didn’t override the drone’s decision?  The software programmer?  The longer the link of responsibility, the less responsible the decision will be.

What happens if an enemy hacker reprograms the autonomous killer drone to suddenly turn on its operators?

Technology has its own momentum, and the path of least resistance is to adopt policies that fit the technology rather than finding a technology to implement the best policy.   This is a technology that enables killing without human agency and human responsibility.

Click on The Terminator Scenario: Are We Giving Machines Too Much Power? for a good article in Popular Science magazine.

Click on It’s Come to This: Debating Death by Autopilot for Conor Friedersdorf’s thoughts.

Science fiction writers have been speculating about the consequences of autonomous killing systems for a long time.

Click on the following for good stories with food for thought.

WATCHBIRD by Robert Sheckley (1953)

SECOND VARIETY by Philip K. Dick (1953)

JIPI AND THE PARANOID CHIP by Neal Stephenson (1997)

An American exception for drone strikes?

February 26, 2013

President Barack Obama and his nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, William Brennan, steadfastly refuse to say whether they believe the President has the right to kill Americans on American soil even if they have not been charged with any crime.   The closest they will come to answering the question is to say they have no intention of killing Americans in the United States at the present time.

Obama and Brennan definitely should answer the question.  But if you think the President should be able to order the killing of anyone, anywhere in the world, based on his personal judgment of national security, why should an exception be made for American citizens?  Are we Americans some sort of master race who are obligated to respect each others’ rights, but can do as we like to people of other nations?

Here is the answer given by Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Price for his nonviolent struggle against white rule in South Africa.

I am deeply, deeply disturbed at the suggestion … … that possible judicial review of President Obama’s decisions to approve the targeted killing of suspected terrorists might be limited to the killings of American citizens.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu

Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it.

I used to say of apartheid that it dehumanized its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims. Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standards and your humanity.

Desmond Tutu – NYTimes.com.

Now I don’t think it would be an advance if the United States government came to hold the life of American citizens as lightly as it holds the lives of people living in the killing zones of Pakistan, Yemen and other countries, which I think this is a distinct possibility.

Rather the point is that if you and I think we have a right not to have our lives snuffed out without knowing the reason, we ought to recognize that people of other nationalities, cultures and religions are just as human as we are, and have the same right.

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