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The Tyranny of the Distance


The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program by Jeremy Scahill and the Staff of The Intercept (Simon & Schuster, 2016); 256 pages.

Last summer, the Obama administration finally made good on its promise to provide some transparency to its targeted killing program — well, sort of. On a Friday before the long July Fourth weekend, the executive branch released the number range of people killed by U.S. airstrikes between 2009 and 2015, most presumed to be by drones, far away from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. The estimated number: approximately 2,500 people.

Independent analysts and journalists reported similar numbers. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for instance, counted 2,753. But there was a subset of the total number of people killed reported by the government that was positively ludicrous when you understand a bit about the U.S. target-killing program: its toll on civilians. According to the Obama administration, U.S. airstrikes killed anywhere from 64 to 116 civilians between 2009 and 2015. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, begs to differ, tallying a range of 380 to 801 innocents killed.

That of course raises the question: How can there be such wide disparities when it comes to civilian deaths? This question is made all the more urgent since the August release of the once-secret Presidential Policy Guidance forced by an ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Otherwise known as the “Drone Playbook,” the 18-page document states “absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action will be taken only if there is near certainty that the action can be taken without injuring or killing non-combatants.”

For the corpse counters in the Obama administration, there’s a pretty simple way around that: Whoever died in a strike was an “enemy killed in action” until proven otherwise. If presumption of innocence is a dying notion in our courts at home, it’s long been dead in the hinterlands of the Middle East, where death can come from the air-conditioned safety of a U.S. drone control room as pilots extrajudicially deliver death like a divinity’s lightning bolt from thousands of miles away.

Much of what we know about the U.S. targeted-killing program comes from the work of human- rights organizations such as the ACLU (where I work), and investigative journalists. In the latter camp, some of the best reporting on the U.S. targeted-killing program has come from the online publication The Intercept. In The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program, Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars and Blackwater, and the staff of The Intercept plunge the reader into the sordid business of the targeted-killing program and the dehumanizing culture it spawns.

Like the revelations that the National Security Agency had taken upon itself the mission of destroying privacy worldwide, an inside look at Uncle Sam’s killing program started again because of the actions of one person of conscience inside the national security state.

Another whistle from the dark

Edward Snowden isn’t the only person inside the government willing to risk it all. Much as the former CIA employee and intelligence contractor hand-picked journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to give his cache of documents to, another U.S. whistleblower approached Jeremy Scahill to pass on what became known as “The Drone Papers.” The documents provide extensive documentation of how the U.S. targeted-killing program operates in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan and of the global infrastructure that makes it possible, such as the government’s watch-listing system.

Like Snowden, the source disclosed the documents to force a public conversation about the U.S. assassination complex, which the source believes is immoral. “This outrageous explosion of watch-listing,” the source told Scahill, “of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield, was, from the very first instance, wrong.”

From the outset of the book — a collection of The Intercept’s reporting — Scahill makes something crystal clear: “Drones are a tool, not a policy. The policy is assassination,” which is illegal under U.S. law pursuant to executive orders issued by Republican presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. These assassinations of people, their identities often unknown, are carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) with the approval of the president’s national-security staff, and sometimes the president himself.

Since Barack Obama assumed office, the use of killer flying robots has become a staple of U.S. foreign policy. While the George W. Bush administration conducted an estimated 58 drone strikes during its time in office, the Obama administration has presided over 473 strikes and counting. Hovering over Obama’s legacy will always be the shadow of the drone.

It is no surprise that the frequency of drone strikes affects the people who carry out the lethal attacks, according to Scahill’s source. As the surveillance leading up to the kill intensifies, members of the special-operations community increasingly refer to targets by the number given to them by the government, not the target’s name. That makes it easier, says the source, for the service member to dehumanize “the people before you’ve even encountered the moral question, ‘Is this a legitimate kill or not?’”

Does it help?

But beyond the ethical question of whether the U.S. government should claim such awesome power for itself, there’s a more practical question: Does targeted killing make the people of the United States safer? According to The Intercept documents as well as experts on the subject, they do not for two primary reasons. First, they harm the intelligence-gathering process, and second, they create more enemies than they kill.

One of the most important documents provided to Scahill by the source was a 2013 study conducted by the Pentagon’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Task Force. During kill-or-capture missions in the Horn of Africa between 2011 and 2012, it showed that the U.S. government captured its targets only 25 percent of the time, entirely, it seems, through proxies. The rest of time they terminated their targets, despite the ISR’s lament that killing them destroyed the government’s ability to search and question them for intelligence.

Another telling anecdote reported by The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher is the killing of Bilal el-Berjawi, a British citizen associated with the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab. After the British stripped him of his citizenship in 2010, the United States droned him in Somalia a little more than 16 months later. A JSOC unit did it even though U.S. and British intelligence had him under surveillance for years, monitoring him as he went back and forth between the United Kingdom and East Africa. If the United States really prizes capture over killing, then why wasn’t el-Berjawi taken into custody and exploited for intelligence purposes?

The overreliance on lethal robotic missions also serves only to ignite more hatred of the United States and help militant and terrorist groups recruit more people to their cause. As four former Air Force service members who took part in the drone campaign wrote to Obama in November 2015, the administration’s reliance on drones is counterproductive and immoral. “We came to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay,” they wrote. “This administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.”

The assassin’s lexicon

At the end of each chapter of The Assassination Complex is a red page that decodes “the language of covert warfare.” It would make George Orwell proud.

Drones are referred to as “birds,” and when drone operators pull the trigger, the chances are they’ll kill the “enemy” because the reporting system is rigged. Sometimes drone pilots actually take out their target, which is known as a “jackpot.” But often they kill other people guilty by association or by mistake. Those deaths are labeled as EKIA, or “enemy killed in action,” even though the government may have no idea whom it killed.

Those kills make up a disproportionate amount of the targeted- killing program’s death toll. For instance, consider Operation Haymaker. Between 2011 and 2013, the U.S. military and intelligence community implemented a plan to destroy al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Hindu Kush Valley of northeastern Afghanistan bordering Pakistan. The Haymaker strikes netted 35 jackpots. The rest, more than 200 people, were EKIAs. The operation did little to degrade al-Qaeda in the region. All, however, were “continuing, imminent” threats to U.S. security, according to the nonsensical parlance of the national-security state.

The deadly metaphors don’t end there, though. Often victims of drone strikes are known as “touchdowns.” A human being becomes a touchdown when the U.S. government traces a phone to its target, locks on its location, and then destroys the phone and the person carrying it. Or in the assassin’s lexicon, they “find, fix, and finish” their targets. There is, naturally, a flaw to killing people this way. How can anyone be sure the phone is actually being carried by the intended target and not his wife or brother or daughter?

According to Scahill’s source, certainty is rare and thus innocent people die more often than the government admits. “It’s stunning the number of instances when selectors [such as a phone number] are misattributed to certain people,” said the whistleblower. (As former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden has said, “We kill people based on metadata.”) “And it isn’t until several months or years later that you all of a sudden realize that the entire time you thought you were going after this really hot target, you wind up realizing it was his mother’s phone the whole time.”

But maybe the most shocking and telling distortion of language is “the tyranny of the distance.” When the U.S. government sends a bird up in the air to prey on targets in Yemen or Somalia, CIA or military officials fret about how far the drone has to travel from its “footprint,” or the U.S. base in the small African country of Djibouti. The distance makes it much harder for drone operators to find their target and conduct enough unbroken aerial surveillance — known as a “persistent stare” — without “blinking,” or losing surveillance of the target, because of fuel limits. The ability of the U.S. government to maintain surveillance of a target until the trigger is pulled maximizes the probability that it is killing the right person or people on the basis of U.S. intelligence sources.

Now think of how the people on the ground, who fear or who may have experienced a drone strike, might define the tyranny of the distance. They might describe it as the complete inability to protect themselves and their families from being obliterated far from any battlefield without any way to defend themselves or strike back at their adversaries, who are controlling the death machine in relative comfort from thousands of miles away. Militaries have been able to deal death from long distance for ages, but drones allow the U.S. to do so in absolute physical safety. There is no other way to put it: This is a dishonorable way to kill people.

The Constitution defiled

When Obama was just a senator from Illinois, Glenn Greenwald reminds us in the book’s afterword, he had a particular knack for standing up for the Constitution against the Bush administration’s contempt for the rule of law. He defended the rights of accused terrorists at Guantanamo to have their cases reviewed by a federal court. He decried the NSA’s dragnet surveillance of Americans’ communications.

Once inside the White House, however, Obama made a mockery of his former protests, arguing that accused terrorists could suffer the ultimate penalty — death — without due process of law. The hypocrisy was so blatant it caused Hayden to complain after the 2011 killing of cleric and suspected terrorist Anwar al Awlaki, “We needed a court order to eavesdrop on him but we didn’t need a court order to kill him. Isn’t that something?” But don’t think Hayden is all that critical of Obama, observing correctly, “There’s been a powerful continuity between the 43rd and 44th president.”

Because of Obama, the power to run a global assassination operation has now been institutionalized as a bureaucratic process for another president entirely outside of judicial and congressional constraints, as the August release of the Drone Playbook shows. The former constitutional professor did so, even though he promised that he would faithfully abide by the Constitution when it came to fighting the war on terrorism and rein in Bush-era excesses. He broke that promise, and now we, and the rest of the world, will have to live with the consequences of an empire led by Donald Trump.

When historians try to understand the rise of America’s drone campaign and the destruction it has wrought — both morally and strategically — the work of The Intercept and its whistleblower will be invaluable.

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    Matthew Harwood is a writer living in northern New Jersey. His work has appeared at The American Conservative, the Guardian, Reason, TomDispatch, among others. He is senior writer/editor at the American Civil Liberties Union.