The long arm of Uncle Sam, his fingers tipped with death, has reached around the world to Pakistan again, this time killing two innocent hostages, the American Warren Weinstein and the Italian Giovanni Lo Porto. President Obama took the novel step of declassifying and revealing the fatal mistake, and of course he took full responsibility for the deaths, which has always struck me as a relatively meaningless gesture. In the announcement he continually referred to the victims as “Warren” and “Giovanni,” suggesting, I suppose, that he was close to these men or that the deaths were a personal loss. Who knows?
The subsequent press conference with the aptly named Presidential Press Secretary, John Earnest, was the usual exercise in evasiveness, repetition and empty statements. The secrecy is once again mind boggling. He stated that he could not reveal any details about where and how the raid was carried out, which has me puzzled. The terrorists can hardly fail to know where the strike took place, and one would think the how is pretty clear: they observed the target for days, determined there was a terrorist “signature” and hit the building with a missile. Why the actual day cannot be revealed also strikes me as mysterious. But then, I am not a “national security professional,” as Earnest continually called the spooks, who were dedicated patriots just doing their job, which for me conjures images of black uniforms and caps with skull and crossbones on them. Somehow “targeted strike” does not sound as sinister as “assassination” or “murder.”
No one asked why if this strike and the resulting casualties can be revealed – at least revealed three months after the fact – why such details of other strikes cannot be made public. A reporter did ask why, if it is our policy not to negotiate for hostages, did the government trade captives for captured soldier Robert Bergdahl, who was in fact a deserter. The question was dodged, and the ever helpful Press Secretary explained once again why we do not deal with terrorists. I am not impressed by the major reason – this would only encourage them to take more hostages – inasmuch as they are going to seize any westerner they can get their hands on anyway. Israel negotiates with terrorists; who would gainsay them in this business?
Earnest also reminded us that the he (along with most politicians) does not deal in “hypotheticals,” which has become the standard reply to questions regarding policy. But a comprehensive policy is based on the consideration of “what if’s,” and we are essentially being told that we are not to know the full implications of a government policy, especially when it concerns national security and blowing up people half way around the world. It might be argued that we do not want our enemies to know what our reaction will be if x happens, but this leaves the citizenry in the dark regarding exactly what our policies are in very critical areas of war and peace.
Also killed in January were two al-Qaeda operatives, Ahmed Farouq in this strike and Adam Gadahny in another, both of them US citizens, raising again the uncomfortable issue of what business the government has assassinating Americans. Well, Obama has informed us that Attorney General Eric Holder, his man of course, has assured him that it is Constitutionally permissible to zap these jerks, the contrary position of many legal scholars notwithstanding. Yes, they are entitled to a trial, but if they cannot be captured wadda ya gonna do? And trying them in absentia will not work because time is always of the essence. Do you want efficiency or justice with these “imminent threats” to Americans? National security, always defined by the government, often requires sacrifice, frequently, as in this case, of Constitutional rights. Besides, the President has assured us Congress has oversight of these operations, which recent history regarding the NSA suggests is a not even close to true, and in any case, does the involvement of Congress make anyone feel comfortable?
Imminent threat? Most people would agree that imminent meant someone was pointing a gun at you or walking towards a shopping mall with an assault rifle and suicide vest or massing troops on your borders. But as with the Red Queen, for the government words mean exactly what it wants them to mean. Thus, a guy in Waziristan who might be plotting an attack against the US is an imminent threat, regardless of how difficult it will be for him and his comrades to pull it off. An American citizen in Somalia recruiting new fighters for al-Qaeda is an imminent threat requiring action, just as the possibility that Iran might acquire a nuclear weapon, regardless of whether they would ever be stupid enough to try to use it, is an imminent threat, justifying a first strike. Traditional understandings of international law among civilized nations is disappearing, at least for the US and Israel.
The deaths of the hostages was the result of a “signature” strike, that is, there was no intelligence that a valuable target was at that locale but rather the patterns of movement in and out of and around the locale suggested a group of terrorists. Now, this is a good one. So, if a group of men in one of these wild areas regularly gathered to play cards and some brought coolers with whatever it is Muslims drink, they would sooner or later be blown up. What it boils down to is that any male of military age is considered a terrorist.
Incidentally, so far as named targets are concerned, what precious little evidence that can be gleaned about the drone program indicates that it takes many strikes to get the designated terrorist. That means far more chance and perhaps the certainty that innocents will also be killed, and while it is extremely difficult to come up with any sort of precise estimates given the veil of secrecy, it is very clear Bomber Obama is vastly underestimating the number of civilian casualties. Ayman Zawahiri is still alive after two attempts; 76 children and 29 adults are not. Killing Qari Hussain, whom I suspect very few people have ever heard of, cost the lives of 128 people. The human rights group Reprieve estimates that as of last November attempts to assassinate 41 men resulted in the deaths of 1147 individuals, while strikes on some two dozen named terrorists in Pakistan ended up killing 874 people. The Council on Foreign Relations has concluded that 500 strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3674 unfortunates.
On a related note of governmental duplicity, America agreed that no operations involving armed drones would take place on Germany territory, inasmuch as that would violate German law and the Status of Forces agreement. Now, German counterintelligence (together with the American patriot Edward Snowdon) has produced classified American documents demonstrating that the giant American air base at Ramstein (the largest foreign American military base) is in fact the hub for all attack drone activity in the world. Once more the US government has blatantly lied to and abused the hospitality of a close ally. The Merkel government has suspected this but despite the complete lack of American response to the NSA spying revelations has refused to take any action for fear of further injuring relations with the bully across the Atlantic. One hopes that domestic political pressure will now force her hand and lead to charges of war crimes against American military and intelligence personnel.
But the President has assured us that the drone program is critical to the security of the country and safety of the American people, and Presidents never lie, right? Meanwhile, we are further tarnishing our image around the globe, and every civilian casualty mean more recruits for the terrorist organizations. And Obama ticks names off kill lists supplied by the CIA, reminiscent of Stalin going through lists of those to be shot by the NKVD.
OK, that’s stretching it beyond the breaking point, but the fact is we seem less and less to be the good guys.