Posts Tagged ‘Drone warfare’

Obama’s legacy to Trump

November 30, 2016


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.


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]

Current history quiz for Obama voters

March 2, 2013


Answers (with links) are below.


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 –

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.


Obama supporters vs. Obama policies

November 3, 2012

A citizen journalist named Luke Rudkowski interviewed supporters of President Obama in New York City about Obama’s policies as President with regard to kill lists, drone warfare, warrantless surveillance and warrantless detention, but with one twist—he presented these policies as Mitt Romney’s proposals rather than as things Obama has done.   The Obama supporters were outraged at Romney, and startled and confused when told the truth.

I wonder whether the same thing could have been done in reverse with Romney supporters.  I’m not sure.  I suspect, although I can’t prove, that a large fraction of Republican voters support authoritarian government on principle, rather than merely out of party loyalty.

Luke Rudkowski did not advocate a vote for Mitt Romney, nor do I.  He might well be worse than Obama, but Obama is bad enough.

Click on Luke Rudkowski | We Are Change for more of Rudkowski’s work.

A pragmatic case for voting for Obama

September 10, 2012

Click to enlarge.

Click on Ted Rall’s Rallblog for more cartoons.

Hat tip to AZspot.

Al Jazeera on tax havens, austerity, drone war

July 28, 2012

There is an expression, the “informal economy,” which refers economic activity that goes on outside the purview of government regulators and tax collectors.  As used by economists such as Hernando de Sota, it refers to street pedlars and people who do odd jobs, but panelists assembled by Al Jazeera English discuss another informal economy, which includes the world’s super-rich and involves trillions of dollars.  This report and panel discussion, which focuses on Europe, is a good reminder that the billionaire shadow economy is a worldwide and systemic problem, and consists of more than just a few bad apples in the United States.

This report and panel discussion by Al Jazeera English, dating from last May, is a reminder that other countries face the same difficult economic choices as does the United States—economic austerity, which is likely to prolong or deepen the recession; or deficit spending, which may put governments even deeper in debt without stimulating the economy.  The discussion is somewhat fragmentary.  Panelists thought the U.S. government is doing a better job of coping with the recession than the European governments, but it wasn’t clear to me exactly what they thought the United States was doing right.

This documentary by a team of Dutch filmmakers is a good report on the technological advantages and political and ethical problems in waging warfare by means of remotely-controlled unmanned aerial vehicles.

War, assassination and flying killer robots

July 20, 2012

As a weapon of war, there’s nothing wrong with drones, aka unmanned aerial vehicles, aka flying killer robots.  Saturation bombing of German cities during World War Two killed many more people indiscriminately.  Drones don’t burn and disfigure as napalm does.  In Laos, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited lately, people are still being killed by cluster bombs dropped 40 or so years ago during the Vietnam Conflict; this won’t happen with drones.  And it’s not as if storming enemy territory with troops, like the Marines entering Falluja in Iraq, will save lives on either side.

No, the problem is not a problem with the technology.  The technology, as a war technology, is a good technology.  The question of drone warfare is a Constitutional question.  It is the pretense that drone warfare is not really warfare, and is not subject to Constitutional checks and balances or any other kind of accountability.

The United States has attacked Pakistan and attacked Yemen, killing bystanders, including women and children—not on the scale of Dresden or Hiroshima, but to the loved ones of those who die, it is a scale that is large enough.  We as a country are not at war with the governments of those nations, but we’re increasing the number of people who consider themselves at war with us.   Any normal human being will be enraged if someone kills his grandfather or little baby sister.  There are cultures in which it is a sacred duty to take revenge on the killers of your grandfather or little baby sister.   Month-by-month President Obama is increasing the number of people with a sacred duty to take revenge on us Americans.

President Obama claims he has the authority to kill any person, any place in the world, who in his judgment is a terrorist.  He is said to have a “hit” list with 30 names at any given time.  The hits do not have to be by drone.  Ordinary assassination will do.  The names of the people on the list, and the criteria for putting them on the list, is a secret.  If the ruler of a country has the authority to do anything against anyone, based on his personal judgment, and to keep it a secret, what power does he lack to be a dictator?

I’m willing to accept that Anwar al-Alwaki, the American-born radical Yemeni cleric killed by U.S. drones, was a bad person.   I’m not so sure about his 16-year-old son, also targeted for killing.  But even I accept, for the sake of argument, that there was no other way to bring al-Alwaki to justice, I would rather that an evil person remain at large than live under a regime in which the chief of state claims the right to kill at will.  Suppose we learned that Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin or somebody else maintained a secret list of 30 enemies of the state, selected at his sole discretion and marked for death.  What would we think?  Wouldn’t we think a line had been crossed?  How is it different with the chief executive is named Barack Obama?

Another aspect is drone warfare is that it makes it easier to be killers, but it diminishes the role of warriors.  The U.S. Air Force already has more trained drone operators (essentially highly-skilled video game players) that it does actual pilots.  It is tempting to substitute technology for fighting men, but the time may come when the United States once again faces a real threat to its existence, as it did during World War Two, and we may find that gadgets alone will not save us.

Click on The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama for an article by Tom Junod for Esquire.

Click on Obama’s killings challenged again for follow-up by Glenn Greenwald.

Obama’s flying killer robots

April 23, 2012

American Extremists - Dumbstruck

The Central Intelligence Agency wants authority to kill people in Yemen who behave suspiciously, even when they don’t know who they are, the Washington Post reported.   This is an extremely bad idea.

The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.

Securing permission to use these “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.

One of President Obama’s legacies is the embrace of flying killer robots as a means of waging war.   Its appeal is obvious.  It gives the illusion of impunity.  Somebody can sit at a console in, say, Nevada and direct a drone to kill a group of men in Pakistan or Yemen or some other country with which we’re not officially at war, without the risk of American casualties.  The President is able to pretend that these are not acts of war, and the American people, including self-described liberal Democrats, go along with him.

I can remember when we Americans had the same attitude toward nuclear weapons.  During the 1960 Presidential campaign, there was serious discussion among supposedly rational people of using nuclear weapons to prevent the tiny Chinese offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu from being taken over by the Communist Chinese government.  Such talk was only possible because, it was assumed, the Chinese did not have the capacity to retaliate.  Of course everything changed when the Chinese Communists obtained their own nuclear weapons.

It is the same today with drone warfare.  This technology is not a monopoly of the United States.  I am sure that Iranian engineers are at this moment reverse-engineering the drone that fell on Iranian territory, and the Iranian government will have its own drones.  I am sure there are hackers who are working on ways to hack the drones’ guidance systems and turn them back on their launchers.  And I am sure that among the loved ones of people killed by drones, there are those that are capable of taking revenge on American soil.

I remember reading years ago about American troops offering to pay compensation for an Iraqi man killed as “collateral damage” in some offensive.  The teenage boy, who, as the oldest male, was the new head of the family, rejected the compensation.  I forget the amount; it was in the low five figures.  The boy said it wasn’t enough.  The Americans asked him what would be enough.  He replied, “Ten dead Americans.”


Flying killer robots over Pakistan

April 6, 2011

Double click to enlarge.

A war fought with remotely-controlled flying killer robots is nonetheless a war.  This kind of war creates a dangerous illusion of impunity.  Somebody in a trailer park in Nevada operates flying drones in Afghanistan or Pakistan that kill people in Afghanistan or Pakistan, including, inevitably, innocent civilians.  That person, unlike a warrior on a battlefield, may expect to never suffer any personal consequences.  But many of the would-be terrorist attacks have been in retaliation for killings by robot drones.  Sooner of later one such attack will succeed.

Remember that candidate Barack Obama stated during the 2008 presidential deabtes that he would use flying drones to attack Taliban and al Qaeda locations in Pakistan, to which candidate John McCain said attacks on the territory of a sovereign ally were a bad idea.

Obama’s campaign adviser on this issue was P.W. Singer, whose groundbreaking 2009 book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st century, made him a prophet of robot warfare, which he said is only in its infancy.  We should not be surprised that President Obama makes such extensive use of robot drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Libya.

Robot technology offers many advantages, such as for surveillance and transportation, but it is dangerous if we think we can substitute machines for warriors. We cause our enemies to think we are not only cruel but cowardly; they not only hate but despise us.