Posts Tagged ‘Death Warrants’

Flawed algorithms mark people for death

February 18, 2016

The National Security Administration’s Skynet system marks people for death based on algorithms and metadata—the same technology that Amazon uses to guess what books you’ll probably like.

I find that chilling.  I find the precedent it sets even more chilling.

Now an expert has come along who says the Skynet program is inherently flawed and has likely resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

TravelPatternsDocuments leaked to The Intercept indicate that the Skynet program collects data on people in Pakistan by monitoring their phone calls.  Supposedly terrorists can be identified within a certain margin of error by characteristics that, on average, differentiate them from non-terrorists.

Patrick Ball, director of research for the Human Rights Data Analysis Group and a frequent expert witness before human rights tribunals, told Ars Technica that the problem with this is that the terrorist sample is based on a very small number—seven individuals—and the innocent sample is based on a random sample of 100,000 people.

Since there is usually no independent way of verifying that the victim really was a terrorist, that means that there is no “learning” process, as would be the case with a commercial algorithm, such as Amazon’s, which is based on commercial responses.

One of the variables in setting the algorithms is that the fewer false negative (real terrorists who are not detected by the system), the more false positives there will be (innocent people who are marked as terrorists).

Bell said that if the algorithm is set at 50 percent false negatives, that means thousands of innocent people will be killed for every real terrorist who dies.

[Added later]  Martin Robbins wrote in The Guardian that Skynet is used to identify likely Al Qaeda couriers, who are not killed but tracked so as to reveal the locations of Al Qaeda camps and safe houses.   It is a fact that computer algorithms are used to target people for killing, but Skynet isn’t as clear an example as I originally thought.

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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.

Shifting the issue from killing to secrecy

March 8, 2013

It is unfortunate, and at the same time a typical instance of the Obama administration’s political adroitness, is that the issue has been shifted from the President issuing death warrants based on his individual judgement, to the President’s refusal to reveal the memos on which he claims lawful authority to issue death warrants.

I predict that at some point he will reveal the legal memos, and then half the opposition to death warrants will melt away.

Obama-and-DronesThe memos ought to be made public.  But the public doesn’t need to suspend judgment until the memos are released.  I for one know all I need to know to come to a conclusion about the President’s authority.

The military has authority to use lethal force on battlefields in war.  The police have authority to use lethal force to protect human life or as a last resort to bring suspects into custody.  What no American President has the right to do is to order assassinations for “reasons of state,” as the old absolute monarchs and modern totalitarian dictators did.   Nor does he have the right to order killings based on “patterns of behavior” of people in countries with which the United States is not at war.

And, no, I don’t consider the whole world a battlefield, nor everybody who is anti-American as an “enemy combatant.”

Click on Obama must release legal memos on his administration’s drone killing program for an example of how the emphasis has been subtly shifted—but a good article, nevertheless.

Click on Objections to the White House Drone Killing Memo for a discussion of the real issue.  (Note: It isn’t drones.)

Click on Why It Matters Than Rand Paul Got His Answer for more by Conor Friedersdorf.  [Added later]

Eric Holder answers Rand Paul (sort of)

March 7, 2013

blog_holder_reply_to_rand_paul_0Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky conducted a nearly 13-hour filibuster, asking whether President Obama claims the authority to kill Americans on American soil.  Attorney-General Eric Holder sent him the above letter.

The letter is Obama-like in its deftness, and in the way it makes Paul’s question seem ridiculous.  Barack Obama, as a politician, has a knack of allowing his opponents enough rope to hang themselves rhetorically, and then jerking the noose tight.  Of course it was not a ridiculous question.   What was ridiculous is that it took a nearly 13-hour filibuster to get this much of an answer.

What Holder does not say is what powers President Obama does claim, and the legal and Constitutional basis for that claim.  Does he have the right to kill Americans not engaged in combat on foreign soil?  Does he have the right to kill foreigners not engaged in combat?  Does “combat” mean actual fighting, or is there a more subtle definition of “combat”?

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones had this to say.

Points for drollery, I suppose. You have to appreciate the opening line: “It has come to my attention…..”

But this is still a weird reply.  Or maybe just deliberately opaque, like the previous replies.  If the president can’t use a drone to kill an American not engaged in combat, then he can’t use any other weapons to do this either.  Right?  There’s nothing special in the law about drones, after all.  So why not say so?

In addition, of course, the definition of “engaged in combat” is obviously key here.  Without much more detail on that, this probably doesn’t really tell us anything new.

But maybe I’m over-analyzing this, or being too harsh.  Rand Paul says he’s “quite happy” with this letter, so perhaps “combat” is precisely defined elsewhere.  My cynicism level is fairly high based on the administration’s game playing over the meaning of “imminent” in their white paper about drone strikes overseas, but maybe it’s now a little too high.

via Kevin Drum | Mother Jones.

Click on Why It Matters Than Rand Paul Got His Answer for comment by Conor Friedersdorf [Added 3/8/13]

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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Missing the point on drone killings

February 25, 2013
G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

He had … … the trick of dismissing the important part of a question as if it could wait, and appearing to get to business on the unimportant part of it.  Thus, he would say, “Whatever we may think of the rights and wrongs of the vivisection of pauper children, we shall all agree that it should only be done, in any event, by fully qualified practitioners.”

==G.K. Chesterton, The Flying Inn

I heard a version of this kind of argument the other day when I was talking about drone killings to an Obamaphile friend of mine.  My friend, whom I regard as both an intelligent person and a decent human being, argued that for President Obama to order the killing of people by precision flying drones is better than the alternative.  The people in the target areas are better off, he said, than if the United States was dropping napalm and cluster bombs or invading with troops.

Considered as a technology, flying killer drones are of course no worse than other weapons technologies, except they allow the illusion that killing is easy, safe and without consequences.  The question is whether in a supposedly free country, the President should have the power to draw up death warrants and order killings at his sole discretion, like Yuri Andropov in the days of the old Soviet Union.

V.I. Lenin once wrote:  The scientific definition of dictatorship means nothing less but this: power without limit, resting directly on force, restrained by no laws, absolutely unrestricted by rules.   If a head of state has the authority to sign death warrants as his sole discretion, what does he lack to fit Lenin’s definition?  If this is accepted, not only President Obama, but every President for the foreseeable future, will lack nothing to exercise the power of a dictator.

The emerging American police state

October 30, 2012

If you had asked me 15 years ago what head of state would create a secret paramilitary force whose purpose was to execute an expanding list of death warrants into the indefinite future, I would not have said “the United States.”  I might have guessed Russia or China or North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  I would have said that such a force is a defining characteristic of a totalitarian government.

But in fact, as the Washington Post revealed recently, this is the policy of the United States, as carried out by a supposedly liberal Democrat who holds the Nobel Peace Prize.

The U.S. government has a policy of open-ended undeclared war, implemented by flying killer robot drones.  We have government surveillance in which every message and transaction carried over an electronic network is available to the state.   Our police are being increasingly militarized, as if they are preparing to put down an uprising.

I don’t think George W. Bush or Barack Obama are comparable to Hitler, but between the two of them, they have established an institutional and legal structure in which a Hitler, if he came to power, would lack no power to make his dictatorship total.  If you have the power of life and death without accountability, if you have the power to act in secret and prosecute those who reveal your secret, what power do you lack to be a dictator.  No, I don’t think George W. Bush or Barack Obama are comparable to Hitler, but having lived through their administrations, I find it easier to understand how the German people could come to accept Hitler’s rule as normal.

There are two things I find hard to understand.  Right-wing Republicans think that President Obama is secretly plotting against American constitutional liberties.  Yet these same Republicans are perfectly content to give this same President unlimited, unaccountable life-and-death powers exercised in secret.  They opposed the President’s health care plan because they imagine it would create death panels, yet they support the creation of real death panels.

Liberal Democrats are afraid of what Mitt Romney would do if elected President.  Yet they are content to give the President unlimited, unaccountable, life-and-death powers exercised in secret, as if there never will be a time when these powers are handed over to a right-wing Republican.

Click on Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. plans to keep adding to kill lists for the Washington Post report on the Obama administration’s “disposition matrix”.

Click on Obama moves to make the War on Terror permanent for Glenn Greenwald’s analysis.

Click on US legislation targets anyone in the world it deems a threat – that could be you for the larger picture.