Jane Mayer, our correspondent from The Dark Side, has filed a valuable piece with the New Yorker on the increased use of predator drones in the War on Terra. Mayer’s piece makes four important points:
—Drones are a weapon of targeted assassination. Though traditionally disfavored or actually prohibited in this country, targeted assassination has become, with little or no public debate, the primary means by which the US wages the War on Terra.
—Drones are ineffective. Sixteen separate drone strikes targeting one individual killed more than 300 other people before the targeted man was himself killed.
—Drones create enemies. “Every one of these dead non-combatants represents an alienated family, a new revenge feud, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.”
—Drones corrupt and debase our people. From 8000 miles away, Americans observe on video screens “little people scurrying”; they then push a button, and end those people’s lives. People now smugly derided, among those who kill them, as “squirters.”
Mayer provides new information on the drone hunt for Baitullah Mehsud (which I previously diaried here). Mehsud was a Pakistani Taliban figure who, now that he is dead, the Pakistani government is conveniently and retroactively blaming for most of what has Gone Wrong in that country over the past several years, including the December 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
All horseshit, of course. As an anonymous Pakistani investigator told the New York Times, shortly after Mehsud’s death: “They used him as a brand to project their power across Pakistan. He didn’t have the power, the skills or the money. It was Al Qaeda that did. They used him as a prop.”
Mehsud’s death solved nothing: as I diaried here, his position has been taken by his brother, who recently held an open-air, seven-hour press conference, where he announced the commencement of a series of renewed, revenge attacks; these began the next day, with the bombing of a UN facility in Islamabad.
Mehsud was assassinated August 5 on the rooftop of his father-in-law’s house, while receiving a drip infusion for a kidney ailment. The drone strike also killed an additional 11 people, including Mehsud’s wife and father-in-law.
A Predator drone hovering some two miles from the home had provided CIA operatives back in the United States with crisp video images of Mehsud and company.
“It was a perfect picture,” gushed Pakistani Interior Minister A. Rehman Malik. “We used to see James Bond movies where he talked into his shoe or his watch. We thought it was a fairy tale. But this was fact!”
Mehsud, and eleven other people, were then killed from the United States.
The image remained just as stable when the CIA remotely launched two Hellfire missiles from the Predator. Authorities watched the fiery blast in real time. After the dust cloud dissipated, all that remained of Mehsud was a detached torso.
Mayer notes that this was the sixteenth drone attack targeting Mehsud. The previous fifteen failed.
It appears to have taken sixteen missile strikes, and fourteen months, before the CIA succeeded in killing him. During this hunt, between two hundred and seven and three hundred and twenty-one additional people were killed, depending on which news accounts you rely upon. It’s all but impossible to get a complete picture of whom the CIA killed during this campaign, which took place largely in Waziristan. Not only has the Pakistani government closed off the region to the outside press; it has also shut out international humanitarian organizations like the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.
I put this into perspective this way. I, like Mehsud, live in a mountainous region (though one not so remote and forbidding). I stand out on my deck, and I gaze out across these peaks, and I wonder what would be the reaction in this country if the FBI identified, in them there hills, a Bad Man. And then, over the next fifteen months, the FBI launched fifteen attacks that did not succeed in killing the Bad Man, but did succeed in killing more than 300 other people.
I think the reaction would be that there would be no more FBI.
This is the sort of hapless, ham-handed, blood-soaked, Wild-Bill-Donovan-meets-Inspector-Clouseau type of “counterterrorism” operation that is instantly mocked and derided by people in the US when it is engaged in by the Russians—”saving” hostages in a Moscow theater by gassing and killing them, “rescuing” children in a school by crisping them with flamethrowers and assaulting them with tanks.
In the War on Terra, the old Anglo-American legal dictum that it is “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” has been turned on its head. It is now, apparently, better that hundreds of innocents be made to suffer, than that one miscreant get away. In this we have become Otto von Bismarck, who once said “it is better that ten innocent men suffer than one guilty man escape.” We just don’t have guts enough to say it.
As Mayer makes clear, it is precisely because BushCo abandoned the American legal system, and widened the nation’s understanding of what is “war,” that the US is now in the business of extrajudicial killings—targeting people for assassination via remote-controlled drone.
“By classifying terrorism as an act of war,” she writes, “rather than a crime, the Bush Administration reasoned that it was no longer bound by legal constraints requiring the government to give suspected terrorists due process.” Further, George II signed, in the days following 9/11, a secret memorandum authorizing the CIA to kill members of Al Qaeda & Co. anywhere in the world—which, using pilotless drones, is exactly what it’s doing.
Though just prior to 9/11, BushCo officials were screaming that targeted assassinations were anathema, when it was the Israelis who were engaging in them. “The United States government is very clearly on record as against targeted assassinations,” intoned Martin Indyk, American Ambassador to Israel, in July 2001. “They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.”
Apparently US officials initially attempted to model their targeted-assassination program on the Israeli example, but eventually gave it up when they concluded the Israelis were too wimpy and nitpicky.
[Israeli] military lawyers have to be convinced that the target can’t reasonably be captured, and that he poses a threat to national security. Military specialists in Arab culture also have to be convinced that the hit will do more good than harm. “You have to be incredibly cautious,” Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah, says. From 1994 to 1997 he advised Israeli commanders on targeted killings in the Gaza Strip. “Not everyone is at the level appropriate for targeted killing,” he says. “You want a leader, the hub with many spokes.”
The US seems satisfied with the spokes. Or perhaps with the space between the spokes, or maybe someone who once touched or even glanced at the spokes. Mayer notes that to keep the Pakistani government happy, the Obama administration has recently presented President Asif Ali Zardari with more control over those targeted by drones. As a result, she writes, “only six of the forty-one CIA drone strikes conducted by the Obama Administration in Pakistan have targeted Al Qaeda members.” Some of those the Pakistanis have chosen to kill and dismember were “obscure in US counterterrorism circles,” and there is some concern that, just as so many War on Terra prisoners were dumped into the American gulag by people who had fingered them for money or revenge, so too may the drone program be used by Pakistani officials to settle scores.
And yes, folks, with the Obama Administration, this is not something that is getting better.
Mayer’s report makes clear that the drone casualty figures I have been using, which cover mostly that period pre-Obama, and which I obtained from the Pakistani News, are seriously out of date. Those read as follows:
Of the 60 cross-border predator strikes carried out by the Afghanistan-based American drones in Pakistan between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009, only 10 were able to hit their actual targets, killing 14 wanted al-Qaeda leaders, besides perishing 687 innocent Pakistani civilians. The success percentage of the US predator strikes thus comes to not more than six per cent.
But according to Mayer:
[T]he number of drone strikes has risen dramatically since Obama became President. During his first nine and a half months in office, he has authorized as many CIA aerial attacks in Pakistan as George W. Bush did in his final three years in office . . . [T]he Obama administration has sanctioned at least forty-one CIA missile strikes in Pakistan since taking office—a rate of approximately one bombing a week. So far this year, various estimates suggest, the CIA attacks have killed between three hundred and twenty six and five hundred and thirty-eight people. Critics say that many of the victims have been innocent bystanders, including children.
This follows the pattern of Democratic presidents since Vietnam. Loath to have the body bags of Americans dumped on their doorstep, they search for seemingly more fastidious ways to wage war. So Jimmy Carter responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by financing and arming Islamic zealots from around the world, and Bill Clinton intervened in Kosovo by bombing Yugoslavia. As he gingerly seeks to withdraw troops from George II’s war in Iraq, and fend off a maddened hornet swarm of General Jack D. Rippers buzzing for Vietnam-era levels of troops in Afghanistan, Obama chooses to send waves of unmanned drones into the latter—and into an undeclared, but very real, war in Pakistan.
I’m not the only one who finds this sort of thing sick-making. Mayer quotes former Army Ranger Andrew Exum, who says “there’s something about pilotless drones that doesn’t strike me as an honorable way of warfare.”
That it is not. Blowing Baitullah Mehsud off a rooftop in Pakistan, while he received medical treatment, killing him from an air-conditioned bunker some 8000 miles away, is, in my opinion, and as I’ve stated before, an act of cowardly back-shooting, akin to li’l Bobby Ford’s “targeted assassination” of Jesse James. Too, all it does, in Pakistan in 2009, as in Missouri in 1882, is make a martyr of the victim. And there is an axiom in war, as in all of human life, that what goes around comes around. The victims of unmanned drones, there in the poorest regions of Pakistan, of course do not have access to such sophisticated and fastidious technology. But then, such folks have proven they don’t need to. They are perfectly capable of transforming commercial airliners into drones of their own.
Congress could and should be exercising oversight over the drone program. But: it is to laugh. The Founders intended the legislative to be the “first among equals” of the three branches of our government, but over my lifetime Congress has willingly transformed itself into a sort of vestigial organ, like the appendix: it’s still there, but nobody’s really sure quite why, as it performs no real function.
Since Harry Truman inaugurated the National Security State, Congress has progressively ceded all of its war-making powers, granted it by the Constitution, to the executive. Ours is now an atavistic state, devolved to something more resembling a European monarchy of the 18th Century, than the America of that same era.
It is precisely because BushCo classified terrorism as a war problem, rather than a legal problem, that Congress is obligated to oversee the American effort against it. But such a notion is now so alien to not only Congress, but the American people, that it barely seems conceivable. This site is a perfect example. Here we ceaselessly “strike at the king”—the president—laying all praise and blame and calls for action at his feet, when we should be over at Congress Matters, lighting the torches and bringing out the pitchforks to get after those folks to wake up from the freaking Rip Van Winkle sleep and start doing something.
Scott Horton, over on Harper’s, puts this in a more genteel way:
In the sixties and seventies, Congressional heavyweights kept meticulous track of command-and-control systems relating to the use of the nation’s latest military hardware. Protocols were insisted upon and carefully scrutinized in congressional hearings. Legal principles of accountability—particularly the notion of civilian control over the use of weapons of mass destruction—were a matter of rigorous oversight. Over the last twenty years, this legacy—pursued with equal zeal by Democrats and Republicans—seems moribund. In a sense, the current attitudes bear witness to the growing irrelevance of Congress and the diminished role of legal accountability.
If Congress were to decide to take some interest in the drone program, it would discover a CIA program that is “‘flown’ by civilians, both intelligence officers and private contractors. According to a former counterterrorism official, the contractors are ‘seasoned professionals—often retired military and intelligence officials.'” According to Mayer, some of those private contractors are from our old friend Blackwater, now misnamed XE, which maintains and loads the Hellfire missiles on the drones.
It would find, as detailed in this earlier report, that this is how this sort of “war” is waged:
From their cockpit at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the pilot and co-pilot are flying a pilotless Predator on a bombing mission over Afghanistan, 8,000 miles away. A forward air controller in another unmanned drone spots the target and the Predator bomber takes off under local control from Kandahar in Afghanistan. Minutes later, control of the bomber is handed over to satellite control in the cockpit at Creech.
Two hours later, the crew sees on the cockpit screen two suburban vehicles stop in front of the targeted mud-baked house. Half a dozen bearded men hurry into the dwelling that intelligence had spotted as a Taliban command post. Seconds later, the bombardier in Nevada squeezed the trigger and a 500-pound bomb flattened the Taliban dwelling with a direct hit.
Watching the action on identical screens are CIA operators at Langley, Va., who can call in last-minute course corrections.
Their eight-hour mission over, pilot and co-pilot climb into their vehicles and drive home. Thirty minutes later, they are playing with their children.
When people appear on the drone screens, those in air-conditioned comfort back here in the States see “little figures scurrying,” as one such person told Mayer. After the explosion, when the smoke clears, there is “just rubble and charred stuff.” Some of the “charred stuff” is what were, moments before, people running for cover. People who are now known, in the parlance of those who kill them, as “squirters.”
I am not a “squirter.” Neither is anyone I know a “squirter.” I am not interested in reducing any human being, anywhere on this earth, or any living creature, for that matter, to a “squirter.” I am also not at all interested in having anything to do with any entity that employs people who think of people as “squirters.”
We disgrace ourselves, with this sort of “warfare.” And in disgrace we shall lose. As novelist John le Carre in The Honourable Schoolboy described, through the eyes of occasional spy Jerry Westerby, how we lost in Vietnam:
The windows overlooking the airfield were smoked and double glazed. On the runway aircraft landed and took off without making a sound. This is how they tried to win, Jerry thought: from inside sound-proof rooms, through smoked glass, using machines at arm’s length. This is how they lost.